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During the Algerian war for independence from France, a young Frenchman living in Geneva who belongs to a right-wing terrorist group and a young woman who belongs to a left-wing terrorist group meet and fall in love. Complications ensue when the man is suspected by the members of his terrorist group of being a double agent. Written by
This film isn't even in release on video in the U.S. and it's not in Maltin's book. Yet it is among Godard's best films. Banned on it's initial release in France because of it's treatment of the Algerian war, this film has yet to receive the attention it deserves.
First of all, it is essential viewing for any fans of Godard if for no other reason because it's is his second feature film. Unlike BREATHLESS, which is partly noted as being such a seminal film due to its fearless departure in style and disregard for any convention of the "well-made" film, LE PETIT SOLDAT shows Godard working with a more straightforward verite approach. BREATHLESS' essence is irony and iconoclasm in terms of character, narrative, editing, filmmaking philosophy etc. With LE PETIT SOLDAT, however, Godard uses the gangster genre rather sincerely in order to relate a political morality tale. The film has several of Godard's characteristic visual trademarks: handheld verite immediacy, many varieties of city location shots (in this case Geneva) and many shots of Anna Karina's beautiful face. Also, it has the distinctive poetic Godard voice-overs, which in this film represent the lead character's (Bruno) interior thoughts. In short, stylistically, it is typical of Godard's greatest poetic gifts as a filmmaker, with the added advantage of a relatively conventional narrative.
In terms of the plot, I only want to say the film is about a right wing spy, when ordered to assassinate an operative assisting the Algerians, becomes involved with a beautiful woman also assisting them. I'll let you see the rest.
As I said above, Godard treats the gangster genre with respect and uses it sincerely at least in terms of narrative style. Visually, it's all Godard -- roving shots from cars, moody nighttime shots of city lights and letters, handheld close-ups, verite action, characters photographing other characters, etc. In terms of content, while we don't get the "political" Godard in BREATHLESS, in LE PETIT SOLDAT the political Godard emerges, and with great urgency and energy. This film was banned in France, so it must have seemed extraordinarily effective, politically, upon its release. But since this was only Godard's second film, there was probably not too much controversy (though I'm not sure) surrounding its censorship.
In a way, this film is Godard's "Hamlet." At issue for much of the film is whether for Bruno (the protagonist)has "to be or not to be." Should one act or not? But also, Bruno must not only decide if he should act, but for whom -- the right or the left, or simply for himself. Bruno is conscientious, but he is also a French patriot. His choice, and its process, is a compelling one. Outside this political/moral crisis is early Godard's treatment of love, acting, beauty, the image, authority and loss. There is also a torture scene in this film that is shocking, not because it is gruesome, but because of Godard's natural immediacy and presence as a director. It feels so real.
It has some weaknesses associated with Godard, mainly a somewhat simplistic and schematic approach to politics and a tendency for characters (mainly Bruno) to voice their ideas and impressions in a way that is extraneous to the rest of the film. But this is Godard, and in his hands these qualities (at least in this film) feel like strengths rather than weaknesses. There is a monologue by Bruno which is like a five minute rant. Some may find it overbearing and undramatic. I loved it.
This is among the most romantic of Godard's films. Bruno is all intensity and rebellion. In his temperament he is similar to Eddie Constantine's character in ALPHAVILLE. Enough is enough.
I've only seen about six or seven Godard films (all from the 1960's), and because I like his more directly political ones the most, this one is my favorite along with WEEKEND, though I really liked MY LIFE TO LIVE as well. I heartily recommend it, if you can find it.
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