Le petit soldat: The Awful Truth
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.”

At first glance, however, Le petit soldat does bear a superficial resemblance to Breathless, the box-office phenomenon and critical smash that made Godard’s career. Like its more illustrious predecessor, it unfolds largely in convertibles and rented rooms, as a hunted young man schemes to get away with the beautiful foreign woman of his dreams. But despite these narrative similarities and a shared existential backdrop of indecision and death, the two films could not be more different tonally: Breathless is jaunty and sexy, bouncing along to a zippy jazz score, while Le petit soldat is severe and angular, driven by the affectless voice-over of its protagonist, Bruno Forestier, and an occasional burst of plangent solo piano. It is one of Godard’s duskiest films, full of night sequences lit exclusively by remote neon signs or the illuminated windows of car dealerships. Whereas Breathless is a film of impulsive actions and deliberate posing, focused on a spur-of-the-moment killer who models himself on Humphrey Bogart, Le petit soldat is the record of a man who resists action in an effort to uncover his authentic self. As Bruno puts it in the film’s opening voice-over, “The time for action has passed. I’m older now. The time for reflection has started.” Le petit soldat nominally adheres to the form of a spy film, with chases, failed assassinations, and a love affair across lines of allegiance, but it is above all an inward-looking film, shaped by Bruno’s first-person voice-over, which is so pervasive that the experience of watching the film can feel like spending an hour and a half inside the head of the twenty-six-year-old protagonist, a photojournalist and would-be assassin for a French paramilitary group, to whom actor Michel Subor lends a heedless gruffness that makes Jean-Paul Belmondo’s seductive performance in Breathless look like pandering to the audience.

As was his wont, Godard turned technical limitations to his advantage, in this case to accentuate the sensation that the film reaches us through Bruno’s perception. Sound equipment for low-budget location shoots still left much to be desired at the time, so the film was entirely postsynchronized. While most of his contemporaries aimed for realism by surrounding dubbed dialogue with ambient sound, Godard eschewed standard practice to let the lines stand alone, allowing conversations in a convertible zooming through Geneva to proceed without the nuisance of wind or engine noise. This unhampered dialogue magically floating over the image creates an intimacy with the characters—we hear it as clearly as our own thoughts. But by shattering the conventions of realism, Godard also heightens the critical distance inaugurated by the voice-over. We don’t know where or when Bruno is looking back from, but we sense that his story is as much remembered as it is experienced. This iconoclastic use of sound and the feeling it gives of being simultaneously inside and outside the image set the template for much of Godard’s future work, while Bruno’s implacable voice-over commentary on the images points the way to the essay films the director would begin making in the late sixties. 

Le petit soldat begins with Bruno crossing the border between France and Switzerland, which serves to locate the film not only geographically but also psychically, in the state of transition—not to say confusion—the protagonist inhabits. As his voice-over tells us when he arrives in Geneva, the film’s primary location, it is May 13, 1958, a turning point in the Algerian War, when right-wing military forces, fearful that France was relinquishing its grasp on Algeria, overthrew the colonial administration in Algiers to demand the return of General Charles de Gaulle to head the French state. While the insurrection did lead to de Gaulle’s return to power, it failed to reverse the course of history: de Gaulle would soon preside over France’s withdrawal from its former colony. But as intermittent radio reports we hear in Le petit soldat suggest, the days following the May 13 putsch were among the most fraught and politically complex of the conflict—and Godard was hardly an obvious filmmaker to shed light on them. While his intellectual quest would eventually bring him to political radicalism and the Dziga Vertov Group, a Marxist collective he cofounded in 1968 and whose projects included Jusqu’à la victoire, an aborted documentary on the Palestine Liberation Organization commissioned by the Arab League, his decision to tackle a political subject in 1960 seemed out of character, both for him as an individual and for someone from his milieu of maniacal cinephiles.

“Godard’s impetus for making Le petit soldat was a contrarian desire to issue a kind of corrective to his set’s apolitical image.”

Unlike directors of the so-called Left Bank New Wave such as Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, who were overtly politicized on the left, Godard’s Right Bank group, associated with Cahiers du cinéma, was only as political as the politique des auteurs, the auteur theory, whose fundamental defense of Hollywood filmmakers was found suspect by a French intellectual left that still looked to Soviet communism as a viable alternative to American-style capitalism. But, as Godard told Cahiers in 1962, his impetus for making Le petit soldat was a contrarian desire to issue a kind of corrective to his set’s apolitical image: “The New Wave is criticized for showing people only in bed; I’m going to show some who are in politics and don’t have time to go to bed.” Hiding behind this somewhat facile quip is the fact that the film is not so much a political statement as a self-portrait of the artist as an uneasy young romantic starting to see life beyond the movies and confusedly wondering where—if anywhere—his allegiances lie. 

Le petit soldat undoubtedly had more personal resonance for Godard than Breathless did, beginning with its setting in Switzerland. Though born in Paris, Godard had spent his childhood and adolescence on the Swiss shores of Lake Geneva, the placid body of water to which he would return in middle age and that would come to be as closely associated with his later films as Paris cafés are with his sixties work. The film has further biographical significance in that it was Godard’s first collaboration with Karina, the young Danish model he’d sought out for the lead role of Veronica Dreyer after she turned down a supporting part in Breathless. By the time production wrapped in Geneva, Godard and Karina were a couple, and they married soon after. Their tumultuous relationship would result in one of the most fruitful creative collaborations in film history, yielding an iconic run of seven features: after Le petit soldat, they made A Woman Is a Woman, Vivre sa vie, Band of Outsiders (1964), Alphaville (1965), Pierrot le fou (1965), and Made in U.S.A (1966). In this film, Godard’s initial approach to Karina is stealthy. She is first seen in the distance of a wide shot, as if she were just another passerby picked out of the action in a street scene. Once inside Bruno’s car, she is filmed from behind or blocked by Bruno’s profile, glimpsed only for an instant reflected in her compact. It isn’t until Bruno parks the car and turns to say goodbye that Godard gives Veronica a close-up, as if we had to wait for Bruno to really see her—i.e., to fall in love with her—in order to be permitted to see her too. 

Veronica is not Karina’s greatest part, just as Le petit soldat is not a high point in Godard’s depiction of women—in both cases because Bruno does nearly all the talking, some of which is fairly unenlightened. But it must be noted that, on one of the rare occasions when Veronica is able to get a word in edgewise, her statement on the Algerian War lands her squarely on the right side of history: “I could see the French are wrong. The others have an ideal, but not the French. Against the Germans, the French had an ideal. Not against the Algerians. They’ll lose.” This was one of the lines the censors found most objectionable, and it raises the very questions Bruno never resolves for himself: Can one live without an ideal? Is it possible to avoid taking sides? The evidence proposed by the film, which seems aware of the irony of tackling such questions in Switzerland, is that neutrality is an illusion: willing or unwilling, everyone is pulled into the conflict, and nobody comes out with clean hands. 

When it was eventually released, Le petit soldat elicited outrage over the apparent moral equivalence it draws between shadowy procolonial French agents and the Algerian “rebels” of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which seemed to many on the left as intolerable as the anti-French defeatism expressed by Veronica had to the censors. Key to Godard’s project and the controversy that dogged it was the extended scene in which Bruno is tortured by the FLN, a sequence distressing not only because it shows Subor actually being subjected to electric shocks and waterboarding but because of its muted, business-as-usual quality—while Bruno is tortured, people laugh and chat, the music picks up a little, and a woman in the next room reads Lenin and Mao. Most shocking, perhaps, is the fact that while the film makes it clear that both sides in the Algerian conflict use torture, as it was known that they did, only members of the FLN are actually shown perpetrating it, an artistic decision that was, to put it lightly, surprising to many. The documented use of torture by French forces in Algeria had been a galvanizing factor in turning public opinion in France in favor of independence, thanks notably to French journalist Henri Alleg’s terribly lucid account of his repeated interrogations by French soldiers in the 1958 book La question, an instant best seller that continued to circulate widely even after it was banned by the French government (and that Godard quotes in Le petit soldat). In a postwar France whose moral references were shaped largely by the trauma of the German occupation, many found it unbearable that French fighters who had in some cases themselves survived brutal Nazi interrogations were now turning these same methods against Algerians and their own countrymen. Whether Godard was reveling in being provocative or concerned that joining the chorus of French intellectuals decrying their country’s actions meant taking the easy route, his unpopular choice to emphasize torture by the FLN served his film’s fundamentally murky tone.

In the barrage of assertions spouted by Bruno in Le petit soldat, one of Godard’s most quoted epigrams stands out: “Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” Yet as is often the case with much-repeated lines, the quotation has entered the collective consciousness only in partial form. Bruno’s full statement as he begins his photo session with Veronica is “Photography is truth. Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” This nuance is crucial, because it draws attention to the fact that, in Godard’s mind, the truth delivered by cinema is not monolithic. Godard refers to the most basic principle of filmic illusion—the impression of fluid motion created by the projection of twenty-four still images per second—to underline the idea that truth is a constantly shifting notion. As Le petit soldat makes clear, Bruno’s epigram suggests not that cinema simply repeats a single truth but that it hunts truth down, frame after frame, as it evolves and occasionally escapes our grasp. This is rarely clearer than in Bruno’s final monologue, seven minutes of rapid-fire declarations that, for all their bluster, add up to little more than a penetrating record of a young man’s vacillation, a painful search for truth as he struggles with political engagement, freedom, and self-definition. The monologue culminates with Bruno telling Veronica that he yearns for the era of the Spanish Civil War, when there were worthy causes for young men like him to embrace. From our contemporary perspective, few causes’ worthiness seems as clear-cut as that of Algerian independence, but Godard, already a master of paradox, had the temerity to portray a man so overwhelmed by his ideas of the past that he is blind to the present. The result is an adventure film in which the protagonist yearns for heroism more than he embodies it. It isn’t pretty, but it feels like the truth.