Le petit soldat (Godard, 1963)

Forty years later, Godard’s insignts about torture are still relevant.

I watched Le Petit Soldad several weeks ago, but it has been hard to sit down and write an entry for Jean-Luc Godard. Part of that difficulty has been finding time amidst other responsibilities and deadlines. I’m not sure if that is all of it though.

I’m pretty sure I saw Breathless years ago, but I don’t remember it; I do remember not connecting with Alphaville at all. The start of Le petit Soldat lulled me into a complaisant expectation that I would not really have much to write or think about, but the last hour or so of the film was emotionally and intellectually gripping.

The main character in Le petit Soldat is tortured. At one point, in voice-over, he calls torture “sad” and “boring” and it is a small wonder that Godard is able to convey an experience of it that is more sad than thrilling, more banal than pregnant with significance. I recently re-watched Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, and I’ve been thinking about films that tell you what to think about their subject matter in comparison to films that invite you to think about complex or controversial ideas without mandating a specific position. The torture in Le petit soldad, like the commitment to “honor” in The Duellists is presented in a conflicted way that complicates easy positions and glib answers.

Throughout much of Andrew Sarris’s introduction to the chapter on Godard in his anthology Interviews With Film Directors and The NY Film Bulletin‘s interview, Godard is described as one who makes films to investigate and meditate, to discover what he thinks rather than bend you to his position. As an NT (in Myers-Briggs temperament), I suppose I’ve been somewhat suspicious of claims such as this one about art. The interested thing about Le petit soldat, was that it was one of few films where I could really see a connection between that claim and the messy, open-endedness of its subject. Too often, when an artist talks about “process” or “discovery,” I hear those words as cover for sloppy thinking or suspect the artist is too comfortable in drifting in ambiguity to risk confrontation or disagreement by making a statement. At other times, I might suspect that a confused or confusing message might be the product of a calculated neutrality (such as in Scott Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose) in which the artist is putting things in the film for proponents of each side rather than finding things in the subject that are in conflict with each other.

Godard says of the film:

What concerned me was the problem of war and its moral repercussions. Therefore

I showed a guy who poses himself a great many problems. He doesn’t know how to

resolve them, but posing them, even with confusion, is already an attempt. It is

more valuable perhaps to pose questions than to refuse to question or to believe

oneself capable of resolving everything.

I’m already suspicious of people who think themselves in possession of the right answers and refuse to question, but I suppose I am not yet suspicious of those who think themselves capable of resolving everything or arriving at the right answer. I’m probably one of them. I’ve always felt that there is a sort of futility that scares me in the assertion that one must try to resolve questions or problems yet believe that no final resolution or certainty is possible.

Although the subject matter of Le petit Soldat is political, Godard’s interests always seem so much more personal than sociological, that the setting comes across as more symbolic than intrinsically significant:

My prisoner is someone who is asked to do something he doesn’t want to do:

simply doesn’t want to do it, and he resists on principle. This is liberty as I

see it: from a practical point of view. To be free is to be able to do what

pleases you when it pleases you.

This quote suggests to me that freedom, rather than war or brainwashing or torture, is the deeper subject of the film, and that war is of interest or significance not because it is a unique or special circumstance rather than merely a dramatic circumstnace that brings latent problems or struggles of human existence to the forefront of consciousness.

As I think of it, this attitude towards war is somewhat atypical in film–at least American, commercial film. We tend to like films that say war (or anything, rather) are “special” circumstances that invite us to suspend, alter, or otherwise disregard the normal rules that govern morality. I’ve always been somewhat unhopeful that treaties or agreements could govern or curb moral failures during time of war since war itself seems to be an abandonment of attempts to resolve conflict through any means other than coercion. The work that most closely resembles the attitude towards war that I see in Le petit soldat might be C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, especially in those parts in which Screwtape counsels Wormwood to not become too intoxicated by the war. It is not that the physical sufferings is not horrible (or good from Screwtape’s point of view) only that it is circumstantial. The change in circumstances doesn’t alter the material moral and ethical questions facing people, though it does, perhaps (but only perhaps) make people more or less conscious of them. We may be more conscious of them because the circumstances are dramatic, but they may be less because humans can fool themselves that the element of choice is less present where the weight of circumstances pushes them as heavily as it does in extreme circumstances.

The other big surprise I encountered in Godard’s interview was how refreshingly plain spoken he was. I loved how he was willing to talk about the little cliques surrounding criticism (“If you like one director you have to detest the other”) and how much criticism, like film making, can be infiltrated and influenced by extraneous factors including peer pressure, market forces, social and intellectual reputations, or the weight of habit. When Godard says “the fact of being on time when the rest of the world is behind gives the impression of being ahead” (226), I couldn’t help but think of the contemporary film reviewer who feels his (or her) opinion is worth more simply because he (or she) has seen an advance screening. I really appreciated (and perhaps for the first time understood) the articulation of the Cahiers philosophy that one should only write about what one likes or thinks is good and not feel the need to tear down the mediocre or over-hyped. I realized when Godard spoke of this, that this attitude can be as much about disciplining oneself to not fall into a rut as it is about having influence or cultivating and maintaing access with the media-marketing machine of studios:

“The snob aspect of the game of discovery should be left to L’Express.

What is important is to know how to discern who has genius and who doesn’t and

to try, if you can, to define that genius or explain it. There aren’t many who

try” (227).

We should and can be grateful, though, for those who do.

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