Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) was the second film written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, pioneer of the French New Wave of filmmaking, and after the unexpected success of his first film, Breathless- a banal, poorly acted, and dull attempt at (or satire of?) film noir, this second film was greeted with a swift banning in France- for its portrayal of the similar way Right- and Left-Wing terror groups behave, and the fact that it had an implicitly anti-war message at a time when the French were trying to hold on to their colonial power in Africa during the Algerian War. Because it took so long to be screened around the world it has generally has been critically either wholly ignored or bitterly dissed. Yet- surprise, surprise- it's a significantly better film in all aspects than the much more lauded Breathless. That said, it's merely a solid film, not even particularly good, but it does display that Godard was not merely out to ape his earlier success the way that many young artists do.
The tale is not particularly complex, as it involves espionage and torture- things that would soon become glamorized in the filmic world of James Bond just a few years hence, but it has a far more naturalistic feel than Breathless does- which was filled with artistic preening and posing, simply because there is no self-conscious effort to 'be natural' in this film. The tale follows Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor- who looks remarkably like a young Harvey Keitel), a young Frenchman who deserted the army, and is living in exile in Geneva, Switzerland. He is narrating the tale from an indeterminate point in the future, so we know he will likely survive the film's ordeal- it's the how and why of the film that will thus be its determining factor in success or failure. Ostensibly he's a reporter, yet he has nebulous ties to some Right-Wing terror groups. Because he deserted the army he is blackmailed by them to do criminal 'jobs' for them. They distrust him, suspect him of being a sellout, and order him to kill a man to prove his loyalty. He refuses- as he seems to have a conversion just seconds before doing the deed, and falls out with his comrades. Yet, he is also feared and disdained by Left-Wing terrorists from Algeria, who treat him with equal disgust. The sign of a movie with impact is how relevant it can feel to audiences at any give time, and, in this regard, Le Petit Soldat also surpasses Breathless in every way, for the relevance to today's situations in the Middle East is not that much different.
Bruno is apolitical, and is attracted to a pretty young Russian girl named Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina- soon to be Mrs. Godard), whom he meets on the streets. His main concern about her seems to be whether her eyes are Velazquez or Renoir gray. Much happens- although most of it is murkily sketched, as Bruno is eventually captured and tortured by the Left-Wingers, in rather tame scenes, but does not give them the information they want. He defeats them by thinking faster than the pain they can inflict-which includes drowning, burning, smothering, and electrocution. He escapes. But, later, Veronica- who is a Left-Wing sympathizer, is captured- this time by the Right-Wingers, and Bruno is forced by them to kill the man they want dead. Of course, the Right-Wingers kill Veronica, and the film ends as we see Bruno running from the crime scene where he shoots his victim. His narration fills in the inevitable.
The black and white film is oddly shot, and very poorly composed, at times, by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, as there are too many hand-held camera close-ups that demonstrate nothing but melodrama, even as Godard attempts to conjure up cinema verité with his quick edits. Fortunately, he improved dramatically in that regard from his first film. On the plus side, the writing in this film, even when Bruno waxes poetic while ogling Veronica as he shoots her, or political when he declaims he is against nationalism, but pro-France, is never as puerile and simplistic as in Breathless. When Bruno references such figures as Jean Cocteau or Paul Klee you sense he actually knows something of them. The same is true of his love of Classical music or his waxing on about the difference in sunlight between northern and southern France.
Yet, there is the similar sense, as in his earlier film, that Godard simply has no particular reason for making this film, save for trying to make a spy thriller seem more pedestrian and realistic- although the two things are not always the same things. In short, the film simply lacks heart, or a human impulse. That the film is only 84 minutes in length is a good thing, for it would get quite tedious were it much longer. The scoring is very poor, and the sound work is often very poorly synched. At times, the use of music unnaturally imposed over scenes where natural sounds should be heard does heighten the nightmarish, almost Kafkan, plight of Bruno, but more often than not it only distracts, and makes the film seem amateurish.
Like many directors who fixated on actresses who became their lovers (Federico Fellini with Giulieta Masina, or Michelangelo Antonioni with Monica Vitti), Godard shows Karina only as a goddess, an object of desire, as the camera lingers over her beautiful young brunette form, always lit in the most flattering way. She would reappear in later Godard films like Une femme est une femme (A Woman Is A Woman- 1961), Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (It's My Life To Live- 1962), Bande ŕ part (Band Of Outsiders- 1964), and Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville- 1965). This whole film, however, is far more concerned with its human protagonists than the scenery of Geneva, which is antithetical to the classic spy thriller genre, where a jet-set view of the world is de rigueur.
The DVD of the film from Wellspring is in incredible shape- one of the sharpest DVD transfers for an older film you will see. It looks stunning, fabulous, almost wholly scratch and impediment free, and the English subtitles are thankfully in crisp gold, and stand out crisply against the black ad white background. Most foreign DVDs unwisely choose white lettering. There is only one feature, though, a mini DVD commentary track that mixes up scenes from the film in a montage, as film critic and historian David Sterritt reads a surprisingly engaging fifteen minute long piece. He speaks of the film, its banning, Godard, the actors, and other facets of its making and meaning in a highly engaged way, especially how one of the film's quotes, by Bruno, 'Film is truth at 24 frames per second,' became a sort of albatross about Godard's neck.
Overall, this film has a similar feel to John Cassavetes's work in America at the same time. While Godard's films have often been compared to what came before them- the pulp detective novels of the 1940s and 1950s, I see them as having more in line with what has come later- the graphic novels of the last twenty or so years, for often his deliberately ill-composed frames are like comic book characters who convey kinetic energy by reaching out of the frames. Similarly, all of his characters tend to speak in highly stylized ways. We also get many ellipses in the action, with jump cuts. The most effective one is when Bruno escapes from his Left-Wing torturers and crashes through a window. In true comic book fashion, he explains it all simply to Monica as if it were just another thing to do between smoking a cigarette and picking up a pound of ham at the corner delicatessen.
Moments like that, and the other pluses of the film, are enough to recommend this film as the work of someone with boldness and talent, who does fail as often as he succeeds, but which augured a brighter future. Only time would reveal which side of Godard would win- the banal noirist obsessive or the inventive and insistent innovator. Le Petit Soldat answers few questions within its frames, and that most important one, too, remains unanswered without its frames.