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.