A scandal in 1960, banned by French authorities for its depiction of government-sanctioned torture and references to that country’s clandestine guerre sans nom in Algeria, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat might have been the Zero Dark Thirty of its day—if only more people had actually seen it. Yet despite following Breathless and featuring the first appearance of JLG’s muse (and future wife) Anna Karina, Godard’s second full-length feature has remained one of his least screened and debated—a status sure to change with this Rialto Pictures reissue, in a new 35mm print with fresh English subtitles by the redoubtable Lenny Borger.
Trading the Paris streets he immortalized in his debut for those of Geneva, Godard follows the fortunes of Bruno Forestier (the brooding Michel Subor), a French army deserter working as a news-agency photographer and, on the side, as an operative for an “anti-terrorist” (read anti-Algerian) network using neutral Switzerland as its base. When Bruno balks at his latest assignment—to assassinate a talk-radio host sympathetic to the Algerian cause—he finds himself squeezed (and waterboarded and electroshocked) by heavies on both political sides, as he plots his escape to sunny Brazil. It’s a classic espionage plot shot through with a typically heady mix of art and literary references: Klee and Velázquez, Bach and Haydn, Bernanos and Musil. The ravishing Karina, playing a model who finds herself both Bruno’s subject and the object of his desire, is described as being like a character from a play by Jean Giradoux, the Madwoman of Chaillot author also name-checked by Truffaut in The 400 Blows. In the film’s centerpiece, Bruno photographs Karina’s Veronica in her apartment as they discuss love, death, and war—a dazzling sequence, at once interrogation and seduction, during which Subor utters that eternal Godard maxim, “Cinema is truth 24 times per second.”
Along the way, Le Petit Soldat serves, like so many of Godard’s ’60s films, as a primer on how to dangle a cigarette, wear a topcoat, and sleekly slide in and out of a convertible. The entire movie is narrated by Bruno from some unknown point in the future looking back. Where exactly? Perhaps the Djibouti of Claire Denis’ rapturous Billy Budd-in-Africa, Beau Travail, where an older, wearier Subor surfaces as a veteran legionnaire bearing a mysterious past and Forestier’s name. A Netflix double-feature awaits!