le petit soldat

Jean Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat is fast-paced, formally arresting, sometimes thrilling, and often very funny. It’s also an extremely forgettable movie. Even today, when jump cuts and shaky cameras are as uncontroversial as they were shocking when the film was made in 1960, Godard’s commitment to style drowns out the paper-thin characterization he gives his two lead characters, played by Michel Subor and Anna Karina. Their scenes together, which eat up a good chunk of the movie, offer plenty in the way of offbeat conversational rhythms, but almost no sense of why an audience should be interested in them.  Like the movie itself, they have plenty of style, but not much substance.

I don’t mean this entirely as a criticism. Intentionally, I think, Godard gives his film a silly, bare-bones plot to clear the way for his wild experiments with form. The “little soldier” of the title is Bruno, a young, laconic Frenchman who flees to Geneva to escape the draft that will send him into the midst of the Algerian War. He joins a secret organization that specializes in assassinating members of the Algerian National Liberation Front, but finds himself falling in love with Veronica, who turns out to be an ALN member herself; there’s little narrative beyond that. What Godard lacks in story, though, he more than makes up for with style. Bruno’s narration, accompanied by brooding piano music, gives the film a superficially noirish tone, but in fact, his voiceovers rarely miss a chance for self-referentiality, or even self-mockery (imagine Sam Spade describing the femme fatale as being “right out of a Gariboux play”). There’s also a surprisingly funny montage of Bruno’s unsuccessful assassination attempts that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pink Panther movie. Like several other notable French New Wave films, then, Le Petit Soldat takes the crime genre apart with surgical precision.

Eventually, though, Godard’s own lack of interest in Bruno’s character prevents his film from being successful. It’s amazing how little we feel we know Bruno by the ending, since his voice is with us almost constantly; for all his amusing quirks, he has no actual personality. At one point, he tells Veronica that he hates Albert Camus – ironically, since Meursault from The Stranger is his most obvious progenitor. But Bruno is merely bland where Mersault is fascinatingly blank because Godard refuses to get inside his protagonist’s head.  In a long scene with Veronica, Bruno informs her that J.S. Bach is the best music for eight in the morning, and Haydn is best for the afternoon (“Beethoven is for midnight”). There’s no iceberg lurking below all this minutiae, no sense of hidden weakness or longing.

Toward the end of the story, Bruno is apprehended and tortured. These scenes were the reason why  Le Petit Soldat was banned in France for three years, and they remain, perhaps, the film’s most interesting feature for post-Zero Dark Thirty audiences. It’s almost touching when the voiceover informs us, as if we had lived the last decade without turning on the news, that a prisoner cannot breathe through a water-soaked cloth. But it’s stranger still to learn that the French banned Godard’s film for being too political – on the contrary, by trading plot for style and social commentary for genre parody, Godard de-politicizes even the brutality of torture.

After less than ninety minutes, the movie comes to a sudden end. As I watched the parting shot of Bruno running around a corner, I realized that I didn’t particularly care if the camera followed him or not. Which is why Le Petit Soldat, with its dry genre parodies, and its unwillingness to try anything more, ends up occupying a different genre than the one it apes: the interesting failure.

Le Petit Soldat screens at Film Forum through March 14th.