“Le Petit Soldat” opens Friday at the Nuart with a new 35-millimeter print and retranslated subtitles.
Set in 1958 and shot in 1960, “Le Petit Soldat” begins the way “Breathless” begins: with a man in a car. But there’s an immediate difference. “Breathless” is relentlessly present-tense, moment-to-moment: car to cop to gun to girl. “Le Petit Soldat,” Godard’s fourth feature, doesn’t barrel ahead. It looks back. Even as we see the man in the car (Michel Subor), we hear his voice intone:
“For me the time for action has passed. I’ve gotten older. The time for reflection begins.”
It’s that moment in Godard’s journey where he’s pondering not only cinema’s long story, but his own. Subor plays a character named Bruno Forestier, a deserter from the French army during the Algerian War – but when Subor/Forestier says, “Photography is truth. And cinema is truth 24 frames a second,” it’s clear who’s speaking. It’s Forestier, and it’s Subor, but it’s of course Godard. The older, reflective Subor (and the character he portrays) are, at the time of filming, 25 and 26, respectively. Godard was 30.
Godard’s first three features were set in Paris: “Breathless”’ Rue Campagne Première, “Une Femme est Une Femme”’s Porte St. Denis, “Vivre sa Vie”’s Boulevard de Grenelle. “Le Petit Soldat” leaves Paris entirely: we’re in Geneva, and for a while in Zürich. We remember that Godard is, by heritage, Swiss; that he spent his formative years in Nyon, just east of Geneva— And that he’s for the first time filming on something like native soil.
The Swiss cityscapes bring something out in him. Less a sense of nostalgia than a sense of retrospection. Things have happened. And now, in this placid and neutral land , the consequences are coming home. Did I say that this was a film about terrorism?
Indeed: this meditative, backward-looking Swiss film is tough and fully present. It’s haunting. It’s beautiful, it’s annoying. Did I say this was a film by Jean-Luc Godard?
It’s the time of the war in Algeria. Subor plays a right-wing terrorist, or, perhaps, a former right-wing terrorist, or perhaps a double agent. Anna Karina plays Veronica Dreyer, his left-wing counterpart. There are conversations. Perhaps: conversions. And of course, violence. There is a scene of torture and waterboarding in “Le Petit Soldat” far more matter-of-fact – and for that reason more harrowing – than the one in “ZD30.” The grainy, black-and-white, verité sense of a man unable to breathe. In real time. Twenty-four frames a second.
Godard loves filming words; more, he loves filming letters. The first letters in this film are BANK OF GENEVA, and then, in a newspaper kiosk advert: MORE TERRORIST ATTACKS. Godard loves two guys and a gal in a car (see, for instance, “Band of Outsiders”) and that’s here, too. And of course the long twilight and night glides across the cityscape, neon signage blaring, shot so that their meaning is lost and their lettrist beauty comes to the fore.
Cigarettes lit, cigarettes stubbed – and sunglasses and convertibles and trains and newspapers and books and magazines and big round traffic lights, shot so tightly they become abstracted. Godard himself making Hitchcock-like appearances in the background. The random, irrelevant chatter of two strangers on a train is given more screen time than the moment of Subor’s falling in love with Karina, a moment that is tossed off, quickly abandoned. Their subsequent meeting is less conversation than interrogation, while Subor photographs Karina, and Karina (has she ever seemed more unknowable, more sublime?) plays with her hair in the mirror. It’s repetitive, irritating, goes on and on. And we don’t want it to end.
In “Le Petit Soldat,” background is foregrounded and vice versa. The liquid tracking shots of the City at night, which Godard used to use as condiment, are here served up as the plat du jour. There’s a plot here, to be sure, but that’s not what engages – the espionage/terror narrative is explained, if at all, largely in voice-over. More interesting to show men in white shirts getting in and out of cars. Where other filmmakers would give us moments of true feeling, Godard serves up epigrams; references; philosophy; gliding images; haunting discordant piano music; clumsy, stuttering violence; and, of course, quotations.
It’s an anti-spy movie, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” as adapted by Hollis Frampton. One word gets repeated again and again: peur. Fear. As Forestier – deserter, reporter, photographer, assassin – runs away, runs toward, runs away. Pursued by the French, by the Algerians, by his own shadow. And always carrying his pistol – which, as he describes it, is “black, mysterious, incorruptible.”
“Le Petit Soldat” is a love story, of sorts. It’s an espionage story, of sorts. The plot is complex until, at the end, it becomes simple. Boy, girl, and a couple of guns. What’s compelling about “Le Petit Soldat” lies elsewhere. In the alternation between staccato violence and languid declamation. In the numinous glow of neon at night, and the way, in daytime, sunlight turns the indoors white. And above all: Karina’s face, as she blinks and smiles and shakes her head and combs her hair and answers questions and doesn’t answer questions and turns away and then, for no reason at all, or perhaps every reason, turns back to us: stealing Subor’s heart, and Godard’s, and now our own.
“Le Petit Soldat” asks, what are the possibilities for love in a time of terror? This reflective, backward-looking film could not have been more prescient about our shared future. Photographed in a year where John Kennedy became President, the U2 was shot down, Sputnik was sent up, sixty-nine people were killed in the massacre at Sharpeville, Eichmann was captured, and Elvis discharged from the army, “Le Petit Soldat” is more contemporary than anything I’ve seen in 2013.
Some relevant quotes:
- Sometimes I find I get to thinking of the past…” —Leonard Cohen.
- “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” —Harry Lime in “The Third Man.”
- “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word: Emotion.” —Sam Fuller in “Pierrot le Fou.”
- “Fear is a man’s best friend.” —John Cale.