On Youth and War
Everyone has their cinematic blind spots, and Jean-Luc Godard is one of mine. In fact a quick glance through his filmography indicates this is indeed my very first Godard film. And by all accounts it’s a bit of a weird one.
Banned for many years upon its release, Le Petit Soldat was intended to be Godard’s second feature and the film to follow up his breakout New Wave smash hit Breathless. Instead it languished for years after its banning and, once finally released, didn’t quite have the timeliness Godard had likely hoped for in terms of its subject matter, that being the French-Algerian War. I will admit that, myself not having a strong grasp on the political intricacies of the Algerian conflict in France some fifty years later, it was also challenging for me to get my head wrapped around Le Petit Soldat.
The film stars strapping young Elia Kazan devotee and method actor Michel Sobor as the titular “little soldier” Bruno Forestier. Bruno lives in Geneva, has defected from being a soldier, but is wrapped up in the shadow war playing out between France and Algeria. While it’s not spelled out in history exactly why the film was banned, it seems likely that the terroristic tactics of both sides of this shadow war portrayed the conflict as so unjust that France simply couldn’t stomach releasing it. But although Godard apparently actually tortured Sobor onscreen to get some of the results he was looking for (a practice that probably seemed cool then and feels reprehensible today), the violence and torture that does appear on screen feels practically quaint by today’s standards.
Bruno is a challenging character to follow. He’s a cynical young man who constantly philosophizes. Yes, it’s a search for love and meaning in a politically charged environment, but Bruno’s (and Godard’s) constant quotations of philosophers and poets gives off an air of pretension that is probably not entirely unintentional, but nevertheless doesn’t help Bruno be any more likeable. He’s absolutely besotted by a young woman who enters into his life and who, herself, has questionable political loyalties: Anna Karina’s Veronica Dreyer. Karina was famously somewhat of a muse for Godard and they went on to marry and make several films together. You can almost feel the director falling in love with her with his camera in Le Petit Soldat. Bruno and Godard are falling for her simultaneously.
The affair is a doomed one as the double crossing French agents force Bruno into carrying out an assassination and use Veronica as leverage. War is hell, after all. What’s odd is that the film’s climax has little to do with the simmering romance or the shadow war, but rather an extremely extended apartment sequence (taking place after the extremely extended torture sequence which was ultimately more bearable than what came next) in which Bruno just monologues to Veronica about his various thoughts on life and philosophy. It’s a rambling and cocky, and occasionally misogynist, rant that tells us a lot about Bruno (and perhaps the youth of France at the time?) but feels interminable. It’s also telling how little Veronica has to say throughout this sequence, forced to listen to the rantings of a young man trying to find his way and impress the girl he’s infatuated with at the same time. Like French audiences who received the film years after the fact, perhaps I just lacked the context needed to connect with Bruno’s philosophizing, but it was ultimately a tough watch for me.
There’s inherent value in soaking in the work of a great master like Jean-Luc Godard, however, and watching via the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release was the perfect environment for such an exercise. While I clearly had my struggles with the film, Criterion “took me to school” with the bonus features available on the disc, and through the liner essay’s insight and eloquence. Much of the historical context around the film I’ve provided above came to me after finishing the film and scratching my head a little bit before gaining some context and nuance through Criterion’s supplemental materials.
Le Petit Soldat probably was not the ideal way to experience a Godard film for the very first time. But there was much value in watching and learning about the film. It was also my first Anna Karina film, and Bruno and Godard’s enchantment by her is quite infectious… so perhaps it’s a better first Karina film to experience than a first Godard film to experience. Fans of Godard or French New Wave will undoubtedly find a lot to love in Le Petit Soldat, and Criterion Collection devotees will also appreciate the release. I doubt I’d ever revisit Le Petit Soldat myself, but I do hope this won’t be my last Godard film, so that’s saying something.
And I’m Out.
Le Petit Soldat is now available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray.