Le Petit Soldat, Jean-Luc Godard's follow-up to Breathless, was finished in 1960 but kept out of cinemas for three years. With its frank discussion of the Algerian War, it should come as little surprise that censors and distributors buried the thing, and by the time it came out it was already a relic in the director's prolific '60s canon. Less freewheeling than Breathless, Le Petit Soldat seeks to mix that film's hipster romance with an actual plot. Ergo, it lacks much of the charm of Godard's debut, but it also shows the director moving into more adventurous territory and tackling daring subjects even as he avoids the radicalism of some of his other works.
That's not to say that Godard's sense of whimsy has left him, however; the first act of the movie plays out like a deliciously tongue-in-cheek parody of the spy genre. Bruno Forestrier (Michel Subor), a Frenchman living in exile in Geneva to avoid the draft, finds himself working for French right-wing terrorist group OAS as an agent. How this craven, arrogant, clueless dope got a job like this only adds to the humor. To prove his loyalty, his superiors charge him with assassinating Palivoda, a radio host who espouses pro-Algerian sentiments on-air. If Bruno fails, he'll either have to go back to France and face enlistment, or stay and be killed by OAS.
Bruno's attempts to take down Palivoda are hysterical without ever skirting the line of over-the-top lunacy. Bruno's internal monologues -- which include at least one reference to Breathless in the form of a critique of the "cowardice" of female drivers -- establish him as a well-read, well-traveled man whose confidence and smugness suggest that the task will take him no time at all. Then he pulls his car up next to his target's, and he simply can't do it. Those earlier monologues set up the terrific irony of Bruno's self-perception (you'd be forgiven for comparing him to Breathless' deluded protagonist), but they also reveal how far Bruno is mentally from the ideology of his bosses. His thorough artistic understanding suggests a left-wing stance, but in reality he doesn't care enough to have an ideology.
As he ruminates over his assignment, Bruno finds himself further distracted by Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina), who also works for a terrorist group, though she aids the left-wing FLN, a sort of National Liberation Front for Algeria. Her introduction turns the film into a surprisingly touching love story, though one that still comes with the dark irony of the first act. Le Petit Soldat is the first of many Godard films to feature Karina, who became his muse through the '60s and whom he married a year after shooting this film. It's not hard to see what attracted the director: Karina is certainly gorgeous, but her ability to move between detached artistic reflection and irresistible charm encapsulates Godard's dichotomy better than anything the director did in either this or his debut. Raoul Cotard's cinematography is noticeably rougher here than his work on Breathless, though in honesty I can't tell if that can be more attributed to the DVD quality than the film stock (let's just say that Fox Lorber is no Criterion). Regardless, Karina still shines through the grain, and her bubbly intellectualism is a treat.
And even if the film lacks the visual polish of Breathless though it certainly ports over the lack of cohesion -- and it definitely doesn't use all of that film's dizzying techniques, which is fine by me anyway -- it contains three scenes that I would take over the whole of Godard's debut. Two of them are directly related: just as the story ground to a halt in Breathless for a wonderful diversion of art and politics in Breathless, so too does the action of Le Petit Soldat suddenly break and confine itself to a small room. The scene in which Bruno photographs Veronica, prodding her with artistic and political questions to provoke a response, is a miniature ballet. The way Veronica twirls jovially about the apartment, cheerfully tossing out responses to Bruno's queries and only rarely betraying a look of annoyance when Bruno asks a particularly asinine question, is beautiful, matched only by a far simpler scene that comes a bit later. The two play a child's game where they draw three shapes -- a triangle, square and circle -- and then expand them into drawings. Bruno forms the shapes into letters, then ends up writing "I love you" for Veronica. It's such a simple thing, so precisely drawn by Bruno as though it were an official document, and that little moment interests me so much more than all of Godard's political and aesthetic radicalism.
The third moment of note bears no resemblance at all to the previous two, and it's frankly one of the more shocking depictions of torture I've ever seen on-screen. Forget all the elaborate, graphic, celebratory depictions in today's "torture porn," the matter-of-fact, passionless presentation of Bruno's torture at the hands of Algerian revolutionaries contains all the horror that a scene like this should contain. To get information, they burn his hands, electrocute him, dunk his head in a tub; they even waterboard him, after a fashion (he is not strapped down, but they do wrap a cloth around his head and pour water onto it until it seals the fabric). The way that cloth puffs out and then shrinks around Subor's features, particularly his open, gasping mouth, makes him a visage of Death. This scene is made all the more horrific by its aural sparsity: the diegetic sound is generally confined to the noise of pouring water, the clinking of handcuffs as Bruno tries to move his arms away from the flame. Godard fills the gap with another one of Bruno's monologues, where he calmly describes the techniques used against him and even professes a certain respect for his captors. He doesn't even know why he refuses to divulge information, since he couldn't care less about his employers, which further emphasizes the waste of it all.
Le Petit Soldat continues Godard's conundrum of using his work to laud and tribute the Hollywood cinema he loves so dearly even as he tries to undermine its industrialized aesthetics and structure. He has an exact formalist eye, so precise that he knows just where to tug a thread and pull the whole thing out of place. Where a "normal" director might have panned between two characters having a conversation slowly, to capture the mise-en-scène, Godard whips the camera so quickly between his speakers at such a speed that all blurs for a second before suddenly refocusing on the one talking. Amusingly, Bruno finds himself trapped in a conversation on a train, where the other man speaks so fast that no one even bothered to translate his speech into English subtitles. The effect is of course lost on the French or those who can speak and understand it so fluently that they can keep up with the guy, but American and other foreign audiences have an extra insight into Bruno's own befuddlement with the character.
As with Breathless, though, Le Petit Soldat can never fully reconcile that whimsical, celebratory cinephile with the artiste revolutionary. Both end with a sort of anticlimax that is surely the point but also leaves us scratching our heads. Nevertheless, even if it's a step down aesthetically, Le Petit Soldat shows the director growing in fascinating ways, hooking up with a promising muse and delivering some of the most memorable scenes you're likely to find in any movie. It also establishes one hell of a credo for film lovers: "Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second."