The Little Soldier (Le Petit Soldat, 1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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By Roderick Heath

After his debut with the vivid gangster film Breathless (À Bout de Souffle, 1959), Jean-Luc Godard, the once and future champion of avant-garde cinema, got himself in trouble. Again. Wanting to make a film about the still-raging French-Algerian war, he decided to make a work centering on the nest of espionage in his native city of Geneva, and where he figured he could make a film even more cheaply than his Parisian debut. He advertised in the newspaper for a “lead actress and girlfriend”—the man’s cheek knew no bounds. One girl who answered was a 17-year-old Dane named Anna Karina, soon to be Godard’s wife and muse.

The Little Soldier, his second film, was not seen as his second. It was banned by the French authorities for three years, by which time he had come along in his directorial development. If The Little Soldier was something of a lost and rudely treated film, it bears attention as a thematic precursor to his genuinely anarchic Week-End (1967). The Little Soldier tells of the impossible position of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a young Frenchman who deserted from the army to hole up in neutral Switzerland, making his living as a photographer. Judging by his various conversations and confessions throughout the movie, his background is left wing, but he has fallen into the hands of the right-wing OSA, the reactionary paramilitary group who later attempt to assassinate DeGaulle for making peace with the Algerians. The reason for Bruno’s involvement remains shadowy—possibly lingering patriotism and guilt. His chief, Jacques (Henri-Jacques Huet), orders him to assassinate Palivoda, whose radio program “A Neutral Speaks” appears to be funded by pro-Algerian Marxists. Meanwhile, he is introduced by Paul (Paul Beauvais), a fellow OAS operative to Veronica Dreyer (Karina), an acquaintance. The friend bets Bruno 50 francs he will fall in love with her. Bruno pays the 50 francs at the end of their first meeting.

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Bruno, like Belmondo in Breathless, is a man in love with his own image (“I am a secret agent after all,” he states mysteriously to Veronica), except that his ardour is toned with a dark personal irony that’s not too inappropriate considering the backyard spy games he’s gotten himself into. He and Jacques are responsible for a previous assassination, and the lingering bitter taste, plus a personal aversion to feeling “defeated,” causes him to refuse Jacques’ assignment to kill Palivoda. Jacques promises to pressure Bruno by getting him into trouble with the Swiss authorities, which might then mean his deportation to France and imprisonment there. Bruno’s attitude is, essentially, bring it on. He’s much too smitten with Veronica to care.

Hired by Veronica to take some photos, Bruno comes to her apartment, and they flirt shamelessly. As often with Godard, he presents explicitly long takes that are of a pretty girl being asked questions and offering her teasing answers, encouraging the viewer to drink up coquettish beauty exactly like a smitten, probing boyfriend. This is Godard at his most becalmed, wanting us to be sensitive to the slightest flash of her eye and curl of hair. It’s his sense of cinema boiled down to the fixated image. The sequence—Veronica cavorting playfully before Bruno’s camera, with still shots of Karina’s beaming features interspersed—became something of a handbook for how to shoot romantic lyricism in the 1960s.

Like all of Godard’s films, there is lying at its core an infuriating conflict—the conflict between intellectual discourse and cinematic sensuality. For example, Bruno luxuriates in verbal artefact when he engages in a long, fumbling, pseudointellectual rave about his inability to commit to any side because of his lingering, sometimes banal, attachment to various national products (“I like America because I like American cars”). Yet, Godard also turns to the visual image, the powerful conduit of feeling, like those long lingering close-ups of Karina. It’s more than a mere conflict between commitment and aesthetic—they intermingle in rich ways, as Godard’s sense of cinema is inextricable with his sense of politics. But how? Why? How, for instance, can he be a filmmaker so adoring of Hollywood’s mastery over the strength of cinema, whilst being so theoretically opposed to such industrialised art?

Godard’s answer was to fragment the cinematic space, to appreciate the shot over the tale, because the shot is individual and dialectic—a communication device that lays out detail in opposition to narrative, which pulls the viewer to a preordained moral and intellectual conclusion. His lightning-in-a-bottle sense of cinema, full of flash edits, artfully haphazard cityscapes, and disorientating pans, revivifies the senses as much as he assaults them (with Raoul Coutard’s customarily extraordinary photography) with a vision that owes far more to the crisp energy of action photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Capa than to Hollywood. His attempts to overcome the limitations of traditional cinema in constructing the kind of art he desires were always determined but fumbling, much like Bruno’s speechifying, prefigured with a poet’s sense that everything is connected (as T.S. Eliot formulised the poet’s sensibility) and to place all things on an equal footing: intellectual explication, aesthetic experiment, sensual pleasure, and even other art forms all try to claim centre-stage in the film, but Godard holds them all at bay, forcing them into a dialectic. Hence, Bruno’s narration is as subdivided as Godard’s herky-jerky visuals, a reading list of young intellectual talking points and obsessions, swinging from fatalistic contemplations of his immediate fate as an agent to meditations on poets and cinema. Godard’s aesthetic battle between discourse and narrative, dialectic and dogma, would be the keynote of his career, a conflict he would take to various levels of climax—the traffic jam sequence in Week-End and its scene of the revolutionary garbagemen represent polar opposite solutions, pure cinema and pure didacticism.

No one would ever mistake Godard for a feminist. His films are filled with duplicitous and untrustworthy femmes, many of whom end up branded as such and degraded, if not dead. Veronica, proves to be in cahoots with the enemy, a choice she’s made because they have ideals, not mere reactionary emotions. Yet, in a way, she embodies the core of Godard’s sympathy for those with ideals rather than prejudices, confirming the ambiguity of his attitude towards Bruno. Bruno’s conflicted situation, his higher level of self-awareness, and the more mysterious nature of Veronica means the film has a darker, more urgent sensibility than Breathless. Godard embraces melodramatic narrative sufficiently to make for a film that works rather more as a thriller than anything else he made.

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Nonetheless, his emphases are entirely different to any like film prior to its making, with the long romantic scenes where nothing overtly romantic happens: the move from edgy flirtation to Veronica lolling in Bruno’s bed is skipped over. In the film’s centrepiece sequence, Bruno, on the outs with the OAS who label him coward and traitor after his attempts to kill Palivoda end farcically, is captured by their enemies and is subjected to burns, suffocation, and electrocution in their attempts to pry Jacques’ phone number out of him. Bruno has no loyalty to Jacques or his tinpot agents, but keeps his mouth shut, once again, to avoid defeat, his personal need. His escape, rather than a nail biter, is amusingly simple—he leaps through a window, taking the chance that their room is on the first floor. The camera cuts away to a shot of a high building, seeming to communicate the worst, but then his voiceover informs us that, indeed, the room was on the first floor.

That’s the closest Godard ever comes to Truffaut’s style of genre mockery (e.g., Shoot the Piano Player). But Godard uses the offhand nature of this narrative device as a double-edged blade—the finale’s tragic revelations are once again imparted only in voiceover, with ironic distance, as we watch Bruno, pressured at last into killing Palivoda to save Veronica, shoot the man in the back and make his escape, only to learn he disappears into anonymity and that Veronica dies from OAS torture anyway. In his attempts to avoid defeat without taking a stand, Bruno defeats himself utterly. Nonetheless, as he states, “One thing I learnt is not to be bitter. I am just glad to have so much time ahead of me.” It seems a bleak statement—a long future without Veronica—but it also contains an affirmation. Bruno has escaped into the future, and what he decides to do there will be entirely his own choice.

Godard’s attention to the new nature of warfare seems now positively prescient. The Algerian insurrection invented much of the current landscape of violence—terrorist bombings of civilian targets and methods of torture that are today chillingly familiar, and so does his understanding of the schisms in the conscientious mind such times can create. If Godard’s take on the event is naively student-Marxist, it doesn’t lessen his electric sense of where the modern world was heading, atomising into cells of belief and allegiance. The lovers’ trysts, torture sessions, and terrorist cells hiding out in blandly boxlike modern apartments portrays a world becoming quickly devoid of true reference, and Bruno’s urgent attempts to synthesise his beliefs, his artistic and human fancies, is the behaviour of someone trying to knit himself a reference before he concludes in a long rave that silence might be the only worthwhile sound. Forty-eight years on, the energy welling out of this film is still startling and unsettling. l

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    26th/05/2008 to 10:35 am

    Rod, a fine review of a Godard I haven’t seen. not that I’ve seen a lot of them, mind you … the man has made lots of films. I’m just now getting to know him … seems he’s a lot like coffee: you have to learn to appreciate him. Your descriptions of the tensions within his work are right on the money.

  • Rod spoke:
    27th/05/2008 to 4:59 am

    Hey Rick.
    Back when I was a developing film fan, I never shook the impression that Godard is pretty much for cineastes what Joyce is for literature – he’s sitting on that road, and you’ve gotta go through him sooner or later. You don’t have to worship, but you do have to deal with the questions he asked of cinema. I haven’t seen a whole hell of a lot of his work either – especially his recent stuff since he became a boring, grumpy crank; once he loved cinema, now he only seems to work in it out of habit – but I have been surprised how much I do like about what I’ve seen. Except for Masculine-Feminine – for some reason I can never get more than half an hour into that one.

  • Ed Howard spoke:
    31st/05/2008 to 1:00 pm

    Great review of a very interesting early Godard. The chronology disruption may have obscured it at the time, but this second film was clearly an attempt to stretch out and do something very different after his feature debut. It is fairly unique in his early filmography in that it doesn’t make very many overt references to genre, which makes it seem more straightforward than his early genre deconstruction efforts. But in its own way, it’s just as radical as the films surrounding it in the early 60s, especially in the way its examination of political action and politically motivated violence points forward to concerns that Godard would only start delving into more after 1965. The film has also, despite its relative obscurity, become something of a touchstone far out of proportion to its reputation — both for Godard, who references it in films like Pierrot le fou, and for other filmmakers as well. Michael Subor fascinatingly reprises his role as a much older Bruno Forestier in Claire Denis’ masterpiece Beau travail, which provides something of a glimpse into what Forestier’s long life without Veronica has led him to.
    I do have to disagree that more recent Godard films evince a disinterest in filmmaking, or that he has become either bored or boring. To me, his sharp wit, visual imagination, and philosophical curiosity remain as acute as ever. One thing he has apparently lost interest in is narrative, which means that even when his newer films ostensibly tell a story, they wind up seeming more like abstracted essays. For this reason, an appreciation for modern Godard tends to go hand in hand with an appreciation for non-narrative or abstract cinema in general. But a film like Notre Musique or, less recently, Prenom: Carmen is every bit as much a masterpiece of cinema as Godard’s best 60s works.

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