Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (a.k.a. The Little Soldier) last played L.A. in April 2007, in a single screening at the Billy Wilder Theatre at the Hammer Museum. I was glad to get the chance to see it, but the only print available was one of those faded 16mm antiques with barely legible subtitles. And yet, even then a certain crackling immediacy in the film came through.
The good news is that a restored version of Le Petit Soldat opens Friday in a new 35mm print at the Nuart Theatre. This release comes with newly translated subtitles, to better catch all of the wordplay and nuances at work in the script. (Though I fear that non-French speakers like myself will never be able to fully keep up with JLG’s numerous verbal riffs and overlapping texts.)
Godard shot Le Petit Soldat in spring 1960, at the height of Algeria’s war of independence. (The war, or revolution, lasted from 1954 to 1962.) The movie follows Bruno (Michel Subor), a French deserter living in Geneva, who gets recruited by French intelligence to assassinate an Algerian revolutionary.
Bruno also gets involved with Véronica (Anna Karina), who has her own ambiguous ties to the Algerians; the couple find themselves caught in a murky, sinister intrigue between the right-wing French and the Algerian guerrillas.
Godard’s disgust with the political situation comes across forcefully even 50 years later: the Algerian war was marked by terrorism and counter-terrorism, and both sides used torture. One aspect of the movie that makes it seem unexpectedly timely today is the depiction of waterboarding (and there’s no craven hedging here: waterboarding is torture, period). The movie is edgy and doesn’t exactly flatter anyone’s political position, which is why the French authorities banned it for three years. Godard’s second feature thus didn’t get released until January 1963, four months after his fourth, Vivre sa vie, opened in France.
As nasty as the movie’s scenario is, what’s notable is what else comes across in the film. There is the electrifying filmmaking, of course, but this is very much Anna Karina’s big debut. As the movie goes on, Godard sidelines the political thriller storyline for long stretches in favor of letting the camera simply gaze at Karina — mugging, vamping, holding the screen whatever she does. It’s no wonder Godard placed her at the center of his next movie, A Woman Is a Woman (and married her the following year).
Rialto Pictures has been rereleasing the classic Godard movies in gorgeous new prints for over a decade now, and each one that has played the Nuart has been a highlight of that year: A Woman Is a Woman, Masculine Feminine, Vivre sa vie, etc. Le Petit Soldat might not be top-tier Godard from the ’60s (no shame in that, given the competition), but the rerelease is nevertheless a must-see. Raoul Coutard’s B&W cinematography on the big screen, Anna’s debut — what’s not to get excited about?
To read Roger Ebert’s interesting review of Le Petit Soldat from 1969 (dig the period flavor), click here.