This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Le Petit soldat (The Little Soldier), made in 1960, was Jean-Luc Godard’s first film after his debut feature Breathless. It’s not a characteristic effort. The picture is earnestly downbeat, straightforward, and the few moments of playfulness might strike some as lapses. If one had to glibly sum it up in a sentence, one might describe it as a Godard film for people who don’t like Godard films. One could easily see his most vehement detractors giving it a good review.
The picture is set in Geneva during May 1958, just before the Algerian War led to the fall of the Fourth Republic in France. The protagonist, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), is a 26-year-old deserter from the French army. He lives in Switzerland as a conscientious objector. But he’s hardly free of the French government. The country’s intelligence service has tracked him down and is using his fugitive status to blackmail him into working as a secret agent. He does their dirty work for them, and he gets treated like dirt in return. He reaches his tipping point when they order him to kill an Algerian sympathizer. After he receives the assassination order, he resolves to flee to Brazil with Véronica (Anna Karina), his new girlfriend, to escape the government’s clutches.
The storyline may sound like Godard is venturing into Graham Greene territory, but Bruno lacks the moral grounding of Greene’s heroes. He’s entirely apolitical, and right and wrong for him are the same as likes and dislikes. He’s fond of the Lenin quote that “the future aesthetics are ethics.” His own values turn the quote inside out: to him, ethics are aesthetics. He likes Germany because he likes Beethoven, he likes the U. S. because he likes American cars, and while he doesn’t like Arabs, it's because they live in the desert--he dislikes T. E. Lawrence for the same reason. He doesn’t have any real moral objection to committing murder. His problem is that it doesn’t suit his self-image: he’d “feel like a loser” if he went through with it. He rationalizes his attitude with the belief that there is something more important than ideals--he doesn’t believe God has them--although he can’t articulate just what.
In many ways, Godard’s portrayal of Bruno is the flipside of his treatment of the Michel and Patricia characters in Breathless. They’re all moral idiots, but in Breathless, Godard (and the audience) was so entranced with the characters’ childlike, carefree charm that concerns over their more objectionable behavior largely fell by the wayside. Bruno is shown with a much colder and darker eye. There’s very little that’s likeable about him: he’s stolid, humorless, and abrupt with people. Likeability is left to his girlfriend Véronica; Anna Karina might be the most enchanting and fluidly expressive film actress since Louise Brooks. Godard doesn’t romanticize the Algerian sympathizers--their modus operandi includes torture, which the film graphically depicts--but it’s rather fitting when it turns out Véronica is on the Algerians’ side. She explains that it’s because the Algerians are fighting for an ideal, and the French have lost theirs; she’s at least somewhat morally centered. (She calls Bruno’s windy self-rationalizations pathetic.) It’s possible to see Bruno’s attitudes as a synecdoche for the French government’s: their ethics are primarily aesthetic as well. One example is their coercing patsies like Bruno to commit assassinations for them; they want it done, but they don’t want to get their hands dirty. By framing this portrayal of narcissistic moral apathy in a politically charged context, Godard effectively turns it into a study of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil. One notes the French government was not appreciative; they banned the film until after Algeria gained its independence in 1962.
But as much as Godard’s usual detractors might appreciate the film’s straightforward narrative and reasonably unambiguous moral tone, it’s still recognizably a Godard film. Characters quote books and other authors at length. There are self-referential jokes as well, such as the bit where Bruno refers to a conversation he had with Raoul Coutard, the film’s cinematographer. Many of Godard’s formal proclivities are also present. These include his fondness for a comic-strip boldness in the shot compositions, and his use of documentary-style mise-en-scène to satirize the hyperbolic violence in Hollywood films. (The most conspicuous instance is the car chase scene, where the staging makes it abundantly clear just how stupid and dangerous it is to try to shoot the driver in one car while operating another. The gag of having the oncoming traffic continually blocking the shooter's aim is the capstone.) Godard’s partisans and detractors can both appreciate his ability to come up with effects that seem more typical of a director like Michelangelo Antonioni. One example is the heightening of the soundtrack in the train-ride sequence to dramatize the Bruno’s feelings of alienation. Another is the panning across ugly, bleakly impersonal buildings as a metaphor for societal indifference to the evils of torture. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking at this film and not concluding that Godard is a master.
It isn’t all that surprising that Godard completely retreated from the moral questions of violence and political commitment in his next film, the postmodern musical-comedy tribute A Woman Is a Woman. Nor is it surprising that he increasingly embraced a radical political stance in his films as the 1960s went on. Le Petit soldat raises uncomfortable questions about having a moral viewpoint in a political context, namely what good is it when both sides are repugnant? The film may not seem like a characteristic Godard film, but in a roundabout way, it does appear to be a key one in his development.
Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard: