Blu-ray Review: Le Petit Soldat | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, September 24th, 2020  

Le Petit Soldat

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Feb 13, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Director Jean-Luc Godard made his second film, Le Petit Soldat, before his cinema-shifting debut Breathless even hit theaters. But nearly three years passed before it was released due to its unflinching portrayal of torture in the French war with Algeria.

Godard the provocateur received ire not just from the French sensors who flinched at his criticisms of France’s then-ongoing war, but also from revolutionaries on the side of the Algerians. The ambiguous film pissed everyone off.

Its central character Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) deserts the French army and arrives in Geneva to work for French intelligence against pro-FLN (National Liberation Front of Algeria) agents. Forestier is a frustrating, arrogant character with many opinions but few convictions.

He is proud to be French but doesn’t consider himself as a nationalist, even as he operates against the Algerian resistance. He says he defends ideas, not borders, but the only idea he’s steadfastly dedicated to is the idea of himself: He says he loves Germany because he loves Beethoven, he loves Spain because it has a city like Barcelona. Tellingly, he says he loves America because he loves American cars. He also gives voice to one of Godard’s most famous lines: "Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times per second.”

Forestier is a child of the Coca-Cola generation before Godard coined the idea. The ambiguity of Forestier’s motivations, his love of western capitalist signifiers, his racist remarks toward “lazy” Arabs and disdain for Camus should have been enough to satisfy the Marxists and reveal Godard’s complicated intentions. As the filmmaker says in an archival interview included with this new Criterion Blu-ray edition, when critics call for realism, they demand nothing but soot and grime and manual workers, as if bankers or capitalists do not also exist.

Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) points the camera on the inertia of post-war western Europe and watches young idealists, short on ideals, participating in a futile struggle with the dead hope of finding meaning in the struggle itself. The characters’ ends feel disconnected from the means. Le Petit Soldat’s ideas and dialogue rank alongside Godard’s other early films. But its editing and pacing lack the immediacy that make his best films still so thrilling. Even with an espionage plot and short running length, the film feels less brisk and at times less coherent than more freewheeling work like Masculine Feminine.

The plot gears begin to turn when Forestier is assigned to kill an FLN agent to prove that he himself is not a double-agent. He refuses, saying, in a film full of incredibly French moments, that he simply does not feel like it. He is soaked in detached European cool: See also the way he tosses a wad of cash onto the counter at the train station, leans against the window and looks away to smoke a cigarette as the clerk straightens out the bills. Or when he bets a friend $50 he won’t fall in love with Véronica Dreyer, played by French New Wave icon Anna Karina. Or when he is hired to photograph her and she puts on a record; he insists it’s too late in the day for Bach, and too early for Beethoven, before failing to convince her to take photos in the shower.

His refusal to kill the FLN agent lands him in trouble. Stuck between both sides, it results in the infamous torture scenes. On screen, Godard shows the FLN as the torturers and a French operative as the victim. Later offscreen the French carry out a more heinous torture and murder. Both sides used torture in the war, and Godard’s choice to show the audience the FLN torture but not the French likely instigated the leftist critics who rightly criticized the French colonial war.

The futile French effort and the effective but brutal guerilla tactics used by the Algerians has been, and is, an endless lesson that the Unites States refuses to learn from, or refused to hear before and during the Vietnam and Iraq wars. And the film’s blunt depiction of torture remains relevant through the era of Zero Dark Thirty, enhanced interrogation, Abu Ghraib, and today, with the continued existence of Guantanamo Bay.


Follow Ed McMenamin on twitter at @EdMcMenamin


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