Back in the Bush years, when there were still contentious debates about torture and water boarding, I went to an anti-war demonstration in Washington near the Capitol. A crowd had gathered around a group of people in orange jump suits. They had a long wooden plank, a towel, and a big plastic container of water. One man lay back on the board. His companions stuffed a rag in his mouth. Two more held him down, and they poured the jug of water over his face until he came up, frantically gasping for breath. After I took a few photos, I moved on, thinking I had seen nothing more than performance art. Later, at home, after I browsed the Internet, I realized that I had indeed seen performance art.
But I had also witnessed a genuine water boarding.
Jean-Luc Godard, in his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, does something very similar. Banned in France for most of the early 1960s, and effectively banned in the United States and the rest of Europe — The French government threatened Godard, a Swiss citizen, with the loss of his visa if he released the film internationally — Le Petit Soldat contains an extended torture sequence that includes a real water boarding. Michel Subor, who plays the hero Bruno Forestier, also, it seems, allowed himself to be handcuffed to a sink and burned with a thick book of matches. You can see him wince when the flames touch the palm of his hand. Whether or not the electric shock is real is anybody’s guess.
Le Petit Soldat is a flawed movie, but there’s no question that it was a courageous decision for the young Godard to risk his commercial viability in order to include a piece of anti-torture performance art in his second film. Set in 1958, Le Petit Soldat relocates the Algerian War to Switzerland. Bruno Forestier, a 26-year-old French photojournalist and deserter from the French army, arrives in Geneva to photograph Veronica Dreyer, Anna Karina in her first role. Forestier works for the French Information Agency. Dreyer is a fashion model, and a Danish citizen of Russian descent. She’s a sullen, high-maintenance beautiful woman. She doesn’t give up information easily. In a long interview — we’re never explicitly told if Forestier has been assigned to interview Veronica Dreyer or just photograph her — Forestier takes hundreds of photos while he coaxes her out of her shell. Eventually they sleep together.
Little known to Veronica, Forrestier is a member of an underground right wing political group that’s been heavily involved in a terrorist war that’s been raging in Geneva over the previous few months. He’s been assigned to, or, to be more accurate he’s being coerced into killing a pro-Algerian radio host. Forestier has a past as a right wing assassin, but his heart’s not really in it anymore. After a few halfhearted attempts to shoot the radio host, he gives up, convincing his fellow French terrorists that’s he’s unreliable, perhaps even a turncoat. They start to harass him. They steal his car, crash it into another car, and report the accident to the Swiss police. They follow him. They threaten to get him kicked out of Geneva and sent back to Paris, where he’s likely to face charges for deserting from the army.
Forestier’s comrades on the French right are, in fact, such a hostile group of “friends” that, two thirds of the way through the film when he’s kidnapped by a group of Algerians, held in a motel room, and tortured over the extended, famous sequence, it takes awhile to figure out they’re not his fellow French nationalists. This is probably intentional on Godard’s part. Yes, the Algerians quote Lenin and have a beatnik looking young woman as their secretary. The French nationalists blow their horns three short beeps plus two long, code for Algeria will stay French, but there are no clear boundaries in neutral Geneva.
After Forestier escapes from the Algerians, we learn the most startling secret of all. Veronica is involved, in some way, with the NLF and the radio host he has been assigned to kill. We never learn exactly what Veronica does for the Algerians, but, when Forestier’s comrades find out, it’s her death sentence. They think she can give them information about the Algerians they think Forrestier is withholding. Like her lover Bruno, Veronica becomes a torture victim. Unlike Bruno, she fails to escape. She dies off screen in the last minute of the film.
The first two times I saw Le Petit Soldat, I found it fairly tedious. Veronica is so obviously not a terrorist, or even a political ideologue, that it’s almost impossible to believe that the French would actually believe she knew anything. It seemed an unnecessary detail to give the film an unhappy ending, as contrived in it’s own way as a Hollywood film with a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. But when you understand the internal logic of Le Petit Soldat it makes a lot more sense. Jean-Luc Goddard met Anna Karina shortly after his first film Breathless rewrote film history. Goddard was no longer just a Swiss film student who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema. He was a rock star. Suddenly, women like Anna Karina were his for the taking.
If we should ask ourselves how much of the torture in Le Petit Soldat is real, we should also ask ourselves how much of the love affair between Veronica and Forestier is a thinly fictionalized roman a clef about Godard’s own relationship with Anna Karina. Veronica is initially shy and standoffish. It’s Karina’s first film. She’s nervous about acting. Veronica is nervous about the interview. Forrestier the photojournalist, in effect, becomes a stand in for Jean-Luc Goddard the filmmaker.
Godard sets up a parallel narrative between sex and torture. Bruno Forestier is a lover, not a fighter. The Algerians kidnap him, subject him to water boarding and electric shock, but he tells them nothing.
On the other hand, Forestier, the obscure little French photojournalist, gets Veronica to open up simply by talking. It’s a tedious melange of philosophy, aesthetics, theories about painting, and music.But it works. Forrestier is that rarest of all men, a pretentious grad student who talks a Vogue cover girl into bed. Surely, Goddard is implying, love is better than torture. Culture is better than terrorism.
Indeed, when Forestier talks about why he’s proud to be French, it has very little to do with political or military power. The French have great poets and philosophers. That’s why he’s proud to be French, not because they run Algeria. Forestier’s attempts to shoot the pro-Algerian radio host explore the idea of culture vs. terrorism in even more detail. Every time he gets close, every time he gets a clear shot, someone moves in front of him. If these scenes are hilarious, it’s not because Godard finds murder funny. On the contrary, Forestier is a street photographer, not an assassin, the gun a camera, not a 45 automatic. His clumsy attempts at assassinating the radio host become a cinematic metaphor for a man with a Leica, or a Nikon, trying to capture the “decisive moment.”
Does Le Petit Soldat succeed on its own terms? Is it a good film? Probably not.
But I don’t think Godard cared. Fresh off the success of Breathless, he sidestepped the idea of the “sophomore slump” by making an explicitly political film. Success came in the form of de Gaulle’s heavy handed censorship. Godard, who was politically suspect on the French left, had positioned himself as a leftist radical with genuine credibility. That’s pretty meaningless in the United States of 2014, but in France in the 1960s, it meant something, as Jean-Pierre Melville would later find out when his great Army of Shadows was attacked as propaganda for Charles de Gaulle. Le Petit Soldat as an inferior film to Army of Shadows, but, as performance art, as a provocation, it probably worked better than what I saw at the Capitol back in 2007.