Lost in the Movies: Le Petit Soldat

Le Petit Soldat

Le Petit Soldat sits uncomfortably in Jean-Luc Godard's oeuvre. Supposedly, anyway. Godard is supposed to be many things, few of which actually relate to why I love the director and consider him among my favorite filmmakers. (I think he and Spielberg may be my co-#1's. They hate each other; or at least Godard hates Spielberg, but the American is just as misunderstood in his own way as the Frenchman. Peter Greenaway once said that they both make home movies. I'm not sure Spielberg still does, yet there's hardly a better way to describe E.T. and Close Encounters. But that's another post - on another director who, like Godard, I have remarkably not yet discussed on this blog). Back to Godard: Le Petit Soldat is supposed to sit uncomfortably because it's "political" and serious-minded, dealing with the Algerian war and such (it was banned as a result, another reason it can't really find its place in the Godard canon: by the time it was released, it was already a relic of Godard's ever-shifting aesthetic past). But it's also romantic, playful, and remarkably uncertain - not usually a trait one associates with Godard, although perhaps one should.

In some ways, my affection for the film may have been born from a misinterpretation. I viewed its early scenes as a spy thriller mock-up (half winking, half earnest in the way child filmmakers are with their water guns and ketchup-for-blood remakes of Hollywood crime movies). Watching them a second time, in light of the harsher sequences which conclude the film, they didn't necessarily appear as light-hearted as they once did, which is a pity. I hope I'm wrong, and that a third viewing re-affirms the lightness and playfulness of Godard's touch (this most recent viewing also followed a reading of the recent Godard bio Everything is Cinema, which offers a fascinatingly thorough account of Godard's actual behavior on set but is a bit dry when discussing the motivations or effects of his work; perhaps it colored my perceptions).

I like the idea that Godard mixes the playful hey-we're-making-a-movie! joie de vivre of his own early films with the realistic and spare torture scenes which follow. As cars circle Swiss roads and our protagonist trades cryptic spy talk with a couple senior agents, it could be as much a documentary of filmmaking as a film itself. This implied tension becomes overt with the revelation of the movie's trump card - Anna Karina in her first screen appearance. The first clip I ever saw of Le Petit Soldat was of a man rushing across the street and asking the pretty girl to shake her head so that her hair would fly around her face as she did so. She does, and for all the self-referential playfulness of Breathless, this is the first moment where Godard completely lets down his guard - he's wooing this pretty girl, camera in hand (or Raoul Coutard's hand, but you get the idea), the movie barely a pretense to get a date.

Then the story stops so that the main character can take photos of Karina in her apartment, grilling her with intrusive questions (it was really Godard, standing behind the camera, cajoling and harassing her - at one point the actress slips out of character and stares offscreen at him, annoyed), barely keeping up as she grins and dances to classical music, discussing art and politics with a lofty yet eager passion, eventually - whimsically, heartbreakingly - playing a game in which the two of them take three basic shapes and draw around them. Karina sketches silly, childish figures out of the triangle, square, and circle whereas the hero, the little soldier, the filmmaker's alter ego, turns the shapes into letters. We see only his hands in motion, but we can almost imagine his face, brow slightly furrowed, a cool disdain masking the lump in his throat as he transforms the triangle into an "A," the square into an "M" and the circle into an "E", a few more flourishes completing the message: "Je vous aime." The slightly distanced, almost respectful and conservative formalism ("vous") of the love letter, coupled with the playfulness of the exercise, and the whimsy and romance of the gesture (not to mention the transfiguration of visual content into literary, and vice versa) is Godard in a nutshell.

This is the best sequence in the movie, but another excellent - and quite different - sequence comes later, when the Frenchman is tortured by Algerians. It almost goes without saying, but might as well be said - these scenes are chillingly relevant today. The hero is burned lightly with matches, electrocuted, even waterboarded. All the while, Godard shoots impassively, closing in occasionally for a moment of pain. What makes the scene most effective is its eerie relationship to what passed earlier. Those spy scenes in the back of the car seemed glorified playacting, but now, when we might most expect the movie to hold back and pretend, we get realism (and this was realism, because the actor endured much of what we see the character enduring!). The scenes are hard to read, not just because Godard's mise en scene, previously - and usually - so subjective, is suddenly removed, but also because Godard's own interpretation of the film's political conflict was ambiguous.

Given his later rendezvous with Maoism and the aesthetic radicalism of his work from its earliest incarnation, the director is usually classified as a Leftist. But in 1960, he still seemed to identify more with the cultural right - a trait he shared in common with fellow Cahiers critics turned New Wave directors, with the exception of Jacques Rivette. (It's often forgotten that the beloved and scandalous auteur theory of Francois Truffaut was actually somewhat incidental to a moralistic screed excoriating left-wing screenwriter's anti-Catholic impiety.) But Le Petit Soldat finds Godard (who youthfully, in writing, celebrated the aesthetic appeal of ideological certainty, regardless of its political origin) at a crossroads. He seems aware of and somewhat sympathetic to the origins of the Algerian struggle and, on a different note, impressed by the cool professionalism of the Arab torturers. On the other hand, he's too much an individualist, too much a romantic in love with Bertolucci's life "before the revolution," to subsume himself in any movement - or even to sympathize with one too overtly.

Later, as the New Left was born and political extremism became fashionable and somehow compatible with the counterculture, avant-garde, and even individualism, Godard found a home in mega-Communist doctrine on his own exacting terms. But his Maoism always struck me as somewhat disingenuous, more about the devotion to ideology (and the aesthetic fruits thereof) than the ideology itself - an implication borne out by his playful, semi-sardonic portrait of a student cadre in La Chinoise. Because he hasn't yet found a way to have his cake and eat it too, Le Petit Soldat remains one of his most honest and troubled looks at political engagement.

Anyway, that perhaps makes it sound too high-minded and misses the sense of fun. I just finished an exchange with Erich Kuersten in the midst of Out 1 's excellent David Lynch Week (check it out). The gist of it being that Godard is too often discussed in cold terms, missing the sense of fun, the free-spirited poetry, the romance. I don't want to do the same, so rather than the image of a young man being dunked in water in a shabby bathroom, I leave you with a pretty girl, dancing on the bed, photographed by another character only to have the camera swerve and remind us that she's really being photographed by someone else entirely, someone who's falling in love (Godard moved in with Karina after the shoot finished). Be they about aliens or Algerians, the best movies are so very often home movies at heart, and however others see it, that will never sit uncomfortably with me.


Ed Howard said...

A really great writeup. This isn't one of my favorite Godards, but I like what you have to say about the oft-overlooked playfulness of his films, even one as reputedly "serious" as this one. People tend to think of Godard as this really forbidding, philosophical figure, but I always find his films just so much fun, even the densest and darkest of them from the late 60s and 70s.

Joel Bocko said...

Exactly. And I'm really glad I was able to find that image of Karina on the Internet - it sums up exactly that playful, romantic spirit we respond to.

Fox said...

You mention La Chinoise, and it makes me think of the 1966-1972 period of Godard that I like so much. Through these films he worked himself through the ideologies he was interested in/curious about. Again, I think this goes back to the "home movies" theory you mentioned. And I agree with you that that is a positive.

I think Godard peaked, in that particular era, with La Chinoise and Weekend. Both obviously show Godard's strong anti-captitalist feelings, but they're also very aware of the idiocy in leftist extremism. The Maoists in La Chinoise are especially brilliantly mocked and spoofed. The genius of Godard is that he makes all of this visuallty arresting... the stacks of the Little Red Books as set design enhancement, for example.

It kind of annoyed me that Godard took a shot at Spielberg/Schindler's List in In Praise of Love, but then I realized that I wasn't annoyed b/c it was just Godard presenting his ideas. As confident as he is with his opinions, I never get the notion that he is so proud to admit he was wrong, or to admit that he's changed his mind.

Excellent write-up. Makes me want to see Le Petit Soldad again. I realized while reading this that I couldn't visualize a lot of your descriptions. Means I need a refresher! :)

T.S. said...

Great post. My life in cinema has been sorely lacking on the lesser (re: not widely discussed) Godards, so I have never seen Le Petit Soldat. But this is great, and after subjecting myself to scores of Oscar bait, I'm going to need a fun and playful cinematic pick-me-up.

Very interested in what you have to say about Spielberg as well, and I'll be anxiously awaiting any thoughts on him to show up on The Dancing Image. He's high on my list as well, and I'll be definitely curious to discover which of his work you passionately love and which, if any, you dismiss as aberration.

Joel Bocko said...


You're definitely right on La Chinoise - something Pauline Kael picked up on in her wonderful review of the movie (she is, I think, the best writer on Godard, precisely because she gets the passionately playful/playfully passionate aspect of his work that so many of her contemporaries and successors missed or at least were not able to reflect in their analyses.)


I've been entertained by pretty much every Spielberg film I've seen, including even the aimless Terminal, though there are still a few I've missed (Color Purple, Always, 1941 come to mind, and I don't think I've seen Sugarland Express in its entirety.). I think his peak may have been from 1975 to 1982 though I would still humor Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan as masterpieces, flawed perhaps but among the greatest fusions of art and entertainment in cinema history.

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