Le petit soldat occupies an odd place in the trajectory of Jean-Luc Godard’s career. Technically Godard’s second feature, the film went into production shortly after his landmark debut, Breathless, hit theaters in March 1960 but proved upon completion to be so uncomfortably forthright about the “dirty war” between France and Algeria that the French authorities banned it—on the grounds that it presented a sympathetic portrait of a deserter, depicted torture, and, most important, featured a scene in which it is said that the French will lose the war due to lack of idealism. By the time Le petit soldat was finally released, in 1963, Algeria had been granted its independence, the initial burst of enthusiasm for the French New Wave had waned, and Godard’s more immediately seductive third and fourth features, A Woman Is a Woman and Vivre sa vie, were in circulation. This once burningly topical film had become a dispatch from the past, leaving many viewers cold. And those who did respond strongly to the film, notably critics on the left, were generally outraged by what they perceived as its political equivocations or downright procolonial positions. Caught between indifference and indignation, Le petit soldat fared modestly at the box office and has remained one of the lesser-known films of Godard’s stunning creative streak of the early sixties. Yet this unnervingly honest movie deserves to be celebrated not only as Godard’s first foray into the political territory that would prove to be so essential to his later work but for the unvarnished, confrontational nature that distinguishes it as an astonishing left turn by a young artist who had found the way to success and boldly chosen to look elsewhere.
“Whereas Breathless is a film of impulsive actions and deliberate posing, Le petit soldat is the record of a man who resists action in an effort to uncover his authentic self.”
“Godard’s impetus for making Le petit soldat was a contrarian desire to issue a kind of corrective to his set’s apolitical image.”
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