Le Petit Soldat’s perception as a sophomore slump derives less from its presumed shortcomings and more from two highly mitigating factors: the mighty shadow cast by Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal debut, Breathless, and the fact that it didn’t even see the light of day until five years after its making. The French government banned its exhibition due to its contentious subject matter, which depicted scenes of torture and painted an unsavory picture of the French armed forces in their conflict with the Algerian National Liberation Front.
Yet in many ways, Le Petit Soldat is equal to Breathless in its inventiveness and exuberance. A sort of political thriller (in the same nominal, oblique way Breathless is a gangster film), Godard’s second film tells the story of a young Frenchman, Bruno (Michel Subor), a photojournalist living in Geneva so that he may avoid enlistment. After refusing to assassinate a French FLN sympathizer, the French intelligence group with which he’s affiliated suspects Bruno of being a double agent, complicating his infatuation with his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina), who has political ties of her own.
Despite their contrasting subjects, Breathless and Le Petit Soldat share many thematic and stylistic similarities, attributed to their Sartrean influence and Godard’s infatuation with cinema as the great conduit of human emotion. Flying in the face of Le Petit Soldat’s grave subject matter are distinctly Hollywood-esque notions of passion, intrigue, morality, and even mortality. Also hovering over every second of the action is a sense of betrayal, both political and romantic. In the film, Godard depicts love and betrayal as two sides of the same coin, as he did in Breathless and would continue to do throughout his career.
Working again with cinematographer Raoul Coutard, Godard achieves a naturalistic, improvisational style, filming in bustling city streets and sidewalks. Less instinctual, however, is the editing, as Godard sought to capture a weightier, more mature tone. Compared to Breathless, Le Petit Soldat’s images suggest a stronger sense of place, as characters seem inextricably linked to their environment. Overall, the film lacks the artifice of Hollywood cinema, which Godard admired but was looking to move past after catching flack from the French left wing.
In the early days of the nouvelle vague, as Godard and his compatriots at Cahiers du Cinéma garnered international acclaim for their brand of idiosyncratic filmmaking, members of the left accused them of making films about private and therefore apolitical matters, a reasonable albeit needling denigration that nevertheless proved the impetus behind Le Petit Soldat’s production. Keen to counter this criticism with his second film, Godard, with a sort of brash impudence, set his sights on the most controversial political subjects of the day: Algeria’s fight for independence, France’s reluctance to grant them such, and both side’s use of torture to extract information from the opposition—all of this in spite of the fact that he had no real intention of tackling these subjects head on.
The film emerged in the midst of a political sea change for Godard, who considered the left wing’s rigorous, politicized aesthetic demands constraining, yet conversely found much to dislike in the right wing’s proto-fascist treatment of the Algerian conflict. Though he abstained from political overtones in Breathless, things had reached a point where a nonpolitical stance was chancy, prompting Godard to wade into the conversation in the way he knew best: through cinema. And in virtually every sense, Le Petit Soldat is Godard’s attempt to make an inherently contentious film despite his uncertain political stance in relation to the subject. For him, political engagement was a deeply personal practice, an innately existential concept with no real relation to external circumstances. As such, the film can be read as Godard’s own personal reconciliation with the Algerian War, the process with which he used to reach a political conclusion (spoiler alert): He landed on the left—and that rare occurrence in cinema when action is infused with thought, and when the very nature of thought comes to life on screen.