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Le Petit soldat [1963)

“La photographie, c’est la vérité, et le cinéma, c’est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde.”  It is one of the most famous quotes in the history of cinema and likewise among the most often quoted in relation to Godard, yet it is a line in a film…this film…and it is delivered by the character Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor).  And so, there is some distance from the auteur…perhaps very little , but yet it exists.  This is just one of the odd disconnects about this brilliant film.

The synopsis on Wikipedia presents another right off the bat.  Bruno is a deserter from the French military, yet he is working for French intelligence in Geneva.  On the surface this seems irreconcilable, yet a bit of thought opens up several possibilities.  First, the “French intelligence” under consideration might be an organization not wholly sanctioned by the French government.  We hear of these dark organizations often.  Rogue branches.  Rogue networks.  Informal connections.  Perhaps even an entire parallel government (or, at the very least, intelligence apparatus).  Second, we must take the film’s context to ascertain the indisputable fact that Bruno Forestier isn’t entirely a free agent.  In other words, his record is being used against him to greater or lesser extent to blackmail him into performing dirty deeds (assassinations) for this intel branch (asset by coercion).  Again, this certainly isn’t without precedent in real world situations.

But perhaps the greatest dissonance, though nuanced, is presented in something Jean-Luc Godard himself wrote in 1960.  As this film was banned in France for three years, this written explanation would predate the film’s release by the same number of years.  It can be found in the Simon and Schuster Modern Film Scripts version of the action (1967, English translation by Nicholas Garnham).  In this short piece, Godard explains his take on the film.  The focus is on realism.  Cinematographer Raoul Coutard, who had been a war photographer in Indochina, was integral in conveying Godard’s vision by way of a handheld camera (as opposed to the large Mitchell camera which he used on his next film Une Femme est une femme).  The auteur likewise makes reference to “whip-pans, over- and under-exposed shots, one or two blurred ones,” etc. in dissecting his own mise-en-scène.  The beginning of this introduction apparently comes from issue no.109 of Cahiers du cinema.  More importantly, what follows in this introduction delineates his focus on stubborn freedom.  It is in this concept which Godard manages to declare that Le Petit soldat “is not politically orientated in a particular direction.”

This was not something I had previously noted in prior viewings, but I can see how Godard might claim such.  Indeed, Bruno Forestier is a very conflicted character.  In some ways he is the noble version of Michel Poiccard from Breathless.  Both have a strange, tenuous grasp on ethics.  Nihilism abounds in both, yet Forestier’s brand almost comes off as a noir Buddhism.  It is little wonder that Godard would later dedicate one of Histoire(s) du cinema‘s chapters to Clint Eastwood.

Bruno Forestier is far from perfect, but in that condition he is still charming and likable…even heroic to a certain extent.  There is no doubt that Rossellini’s Roma città aperta loomed large as an influence for the torture sequences of our film.  It might even be said that this Godard film is more poignant now (with respect to torture) than it has ever been.  Bruno is subjected to a method not unlike waterboarding.

But there are other pithy quotes such as, “…killing a man from a distance, I think it’s dishonest.”  This almost begs to be compared to the drone strikes which have become sadly ubiquitous in our upside-down world.

Yet, amidst all of this painful reality, Godard manages to outdo himself in artistic name-dropping.  Paul Klee is referenced multiple times (Swiss artist, movie set in Geneva).  We sympathize with Bruno Forestier partly because he is artistic (a photographer).  “And Veronica, are her eyes Velasquez grey or Renoir grey?”  So muses Bruno about Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina).  This was, in fact, her first film for Godard.  Dreyer is no doubt an homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer (Danish actress, Danish legend/director).  The artistic references are almost comical at times…such as when Jean Cocteau’s novel Thomas l’imposteur is improbably brought into play.

One final thought.  Maurice Le Roux’s music plays a vital role in setting this film apart from anything Godard had done in his first four films.  The dense, clustered piano textures play like Henry Cowell improvising on Brahms. After the tides of Manaunaun, that Irish god of motion, wash Veronica’s fate ashore Lake Geneva, we get the biggest shock of all: Bruno behaving like Meursault from L’Étranger.  The final disconnect comes from recalling that Bruno told Veronica he detests Camus.

-PD

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