LE PETIT SOLDAT (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

French censors held back the release of Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat for three years—until after the Algerian War. It’s the love story of two young terrorists. Unbeknownst to her boyfriend, Véronique belongs to the National Liberation Front, which is dedicated to the cause of Algierian independence from colonialist France; Bruno, to the right-wing, nationalist O.A.S. (the Organisation de l’armée secrète), which seeks to prevent this. Wanted in France, Bruno lives in Geneva, where post-World War II international conventions have defined and outlawed torture.
     Much of the film plays out in cars. Bruno’s voiceover guides us. His opening remark that he is too old to participate, that it is time to think, reflects how old he feels because of what he describes deludedly as his “anti-terrorist” activities. Indeed, Bruno’s prissy conservatism marks him as old before his time. He tells a compatriot, “I only screw girls I’m in love with.” Surely this shows, according to Jean-Luc, a lack of imagination and humanity. Godard would counsel Bruno, “Fall in love more easily, more often.”
     Godard’s liberated black-and-white camera, particularly in its urban street photography, ironically homes in on an atmosphere of spies spying on spies. Captured by Arabs in Zurich, where he is on the lam, Bruno is subjected to a form of torture called waterboarding. In this long, painful passage, Bruno’s face is repeatedly submerged in a filled tub, the water entering his lungs and beginning to strangle him from the inside. (“A little dunking,” the current U.S. vice-president has dismissively called the procedure, which his administration practices.) Godard notes that the French routinely torture Algerians.
     Through Bruno, Godard remarks famously, “Cinema is truth 24 [frames] per second.” Poignantly, through Bruno, Godard falls in love with and imagines losing forever Véronique: Anna Karina.

One thought on “LE PETIT SOLDAT (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

  1. This is a great and all too often ignored early Godard film, a little more stylistically straightforward than some of his other films from this period, but still very interesting. The torture sequence is harrowing and still surprisingly topical today.

    It’s also interesting to think about this film in relation to Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, in which Michel Subor reprises his role as Bruno Forestier, projecting his character forward into the future as an older man. Subor’s role in L’intrus, though named differently, can also be seen as a continuation of this type of character.

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