Jean-Luc Godard’s second film, and one which is largely forgotten as so due to the fact that it was banned and not actually released for four years, Le Petit Soldat marks a surprising departure for the filmmaker from the style and tone of his debut feature, A Bout de Soufflé (1960). In the words of Richard Brody, “Having made Breathless, which exemplified existential engagement minus the politics, Godard would now make a film on the subject of political engagement itself”. The story of a photographer come double agent who sees himself caught between the French government and the FLN (National Liberation Front of Algeria), Le Petit Soldat is considered to be Godard’s first foray into overtly political filmmaking. It was also his first collaboration with Anna Karina, whose future collaborations would come to be seen as the most popular work from his run in the 1960’s.
The film is structured in a very interesting and unusual manner, which is perhaps best described as literal (in the bookish sense). The voice-over narration occasionally overlaps with the onscreen dialogue, so for example, our narrator, the character of Bruno describes the moment in which “She lit a cigarette and asked why” followed by the “she” of the comment, Veronica, literally asking why. In a later scene, our protagonist describes the manner in which he was kidnapped, claiming not to have been able to count how many steps on a staircase he encountered when he was dragged into a building (suggesting that he didn’t know which floor of the building he was being held hostage on), which adds further dramatic tension later on in the film, when he eventually makes a leap of faith out of one of the rooms windows. The audience, like the protagonist, don’t know from how high he has leapt, aligning both audience and protagonists sense of unknowing. It works terrifically well, and its wonderful moments like this that helps to smooth over the number of other issues that the film has.
Le Petit Soldat is a difficult view. No better is this exemplified in a very aggressive jarring cut to hotel sign makes a complimentary introduction to the harsh torture that follows, in a sequence that is genuinely unnerving. The films closing minutes see an extraordinary ten-minute rant to camera, that is as impressive technically and performance wise as it is hard going. The subject matter of the film is what gives it its most difficult edge. The broad subject of “terrorism” is still obviously very relevant, fifty years on from the time of the production of Godard’s film, which lends Le Petit Soldat an eerie context. Its worth noting that Le Petit Soldat is a film made at a time when the CNC (National Center of Cinematography) wouldn’t allow films to be made about contemporary politics, least not ones concerned with such a controversial subject as Algeria and the connective torture in place. Hence the banning of the film until Algeria was made an independent state in 1962.
Le Petit Soldat feels like a more professionally constructed piece of cinema than A Bout de Soufflé, yet was written in the same fashion with dialogue produced the morning of the shoot. It is a striking thesis on memory, with the selective nature of the sound design reminding of a notebook, as though our protagonist is reading aloud from his own personal Moleskine as the viewer adds his or her own imagery to the piece. Obviously this has major ties to the manner in which one consumes literature too, which is an area of Godard’s inspiration that is explored heavily throughout the film. Literary references litter the work. If A Bout de Soufflé was Godard’s love letter to the cinema then this is his homage to the literary world. Rochelle, Aragon, Cocteau and Forestier are all mentioned, alongside many key figures covering the wide range of writing that reflects his wide interest in the cinema. Of course there are also plenty of film references, with Godard himself citing Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) as major influences. One of the most obvious film references comes in the name of Karina’s characters surname; Dreyer. Her Russian heritage, while factually correct for the actress, may also be seen as a reference to the work of Dziga Vertov, whose work would define the following decade for Godard. One also can’t help but be reminded of Melville’s ode to the written word and warfare, with his Le Silence De La Mer. Ultimately the film is Godard’s first great homage to the detective stories, and the first in the evolutionary chain that would see the likes of Alphaville (1965) and Made In USA (1966) enter his oeuvre.
Adam Batty is the Editor of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, and can be found on Twitter.