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Review: Godard's 'Le Petit Soldat,' From Geneva, with Angst (TRAILER)

Thompson on Hollywood By Howard Rodman | Thompson on Hollywood April 25, 2013 at 4:11PM

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.”
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Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard

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.


This article is related to: Jean-Luc Godard, Reviews


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