Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963) would have been his second feature film release following his career-defining À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), but scenes of explicit torture and an empathic portrayal of desertion in the war between French armed forces and the Algerian National Liberation Front saw it banned by the French government, stuttering its release with a three-year deferral, making it Godard’s fourth feature film. Initially underappreciated and still often overlooked in the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), the same contention that inspired the film’s creation would also envelop its release leading up to production in the spring of 1960 when Godard faced the likelihood of several years of military service. There was a budget deficit, a reduction of military funds and investments, la gangrène, and the collective testimonies of Algerian victims of torture which had been trashed by French police in a raid within days of publication.1

Embedded in this climate, set in 1958, Godard introduces the character of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a young deserter probing at tensions between individual and national identity as he dodges associations with the French intelligence and navigates his place amidst political unrest. Godard activates Bruno as his double, expressing diaristic dialogue and internalized voiceover narration that ruminates in personal reflection over exposition. Godard is invested in another kind of interrogation as he considers the most political expression of individuality as one deeply rooted in a self-reflective inquiry: an interrogation of one’s own conscience. This is Le petit soldat’s notable cinematic manoeuvre — in the fracturing of sequences, the flattening of characters and the reduction of plotting into servicers of exploration of the irresolute self à la politique des auteurs.  

Drawing from an existing, contemporary landscape rather than an imaginary one, Godard invites a broader scope of referential dialogue, channelling a documentary impulse through Bruno whereby the character’s preoccupations, obsessions and passions are Godard’s own, as critic Richard Brody describes as, “those that belonged to the real world, verified by the reality from which they derived.”2 Godard allows himself access to what critic and theoretician Bill Nichols terms the world, rather than a world.3 He invites conversation, engaging in the present, as he reflects on identity. 

Le petit soldat

Bruno and Véronica Dreyer (Anna Karina) are beautiful, young, transitory. Always in motion. Bruno’s physical travelogue takes flight at rapid pace with gestural whip pans chasing him through the shot and its mise-en-scène, for momentary affectation — punctuation for a single line of dialogue — or for incidental narrative calibration through voiceover, to keep Bruno in flux. He moves. Bruno narrates, “Then there were clashes with the CRS, who used tear-gas grenades. Paratroopers joined in around 8:00 p. m. That’s the latest information from Algiers…” Filmmaker and scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon’s summation of their motion reminds us that the passage from presence to absence (in aesthetic framing) and between life and death (in narrative plotting) reflects a brevity as quick and reckless as that of Michel’s death in Breathless

The ‘reactivation’ of the people and things (Godard) photographs within a glyphic framework of hyper real jump-cuts, editorial elisions, sweeping tracking shots which call attention to their structural audaciousness, and characters whose entire existence lies in a series of gestures, motions, appearances, and escapes, all to disguise the essentially phantom nature of their ephemeral existence.4

Our first sight of Véronica is from Bruno’s vantage, though fleeting, as she comes and goes in a glance, suggestive of the impression Anna Karina first made on Godard, and her subsequent casting for her “look” as if she were possessed by the momentary, as an evocation of modern youth.5 They are alone, and “rootless” as Robin Wood describes, “…in an extreme sense, cut off from the sanctions of a developing tradition. This is the central tragic predicament of modern life.”6 Bruno is singular. An idealist. He posits one-liners “I win or lose, but I fight alone,” and “I asked myself if I was happy to be free or free to be happy.” He belongs to no one. He diverts. He lingers. His actions are his own – his refusals of the torturing Algerian National Liberation Front, his ducking of right-wing anti-terrorist commandos, his desertion from the army by way of Geneva. 

Bruno is opaque, open, transient. He narrates: “The dark-blue sky reminded me of that Klee painting. Where do you come from? Where are you going?” His narration in stylistic form is referential to the Neo-noir but functions as an alienating ingredient rather than commenting on screen action. The non-diegetic surfaces in a Brechtian address, reflective as Bruno imagines what it is “to come to recognise the sound of your own voice, the shape of your own face.”  

Bruno imagines an escape scenario: leaving the country with Véronica. This appears as romanticised as it is short-lived, as he continues to evade even himself. In a bungled assassination assignment, Bruno appropriates the iconography of fascist portraiture on the magazine front cover of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L ‘Express with the text “Vingt Ans Apres” (“twenty years after”). Bruno hides behind this image from a passenger window — a continued play on the elusive self, as Bruno is faceless here — while also acknowledging a relationship to the past and the inescapability of shared, collective traumas — how we live with them in the present despite it being twenty years after the events. 

Le petit soldat

Godard references the past, inferring that we hide behind the present as if it were a mask: does the past ever leave us? Do we regret our actions, or, for Bruno — do our actions match our ideals? “I’m becoming a coward,” Bruno states to his mirror image, “It’s odd. When I look at my face it doesn’t seem to correspond with my inward idea of it. Which do you think is more important, the interior or the exterior?” The question seems inward, at first, as Bruno faces himself, until the camera pans to reveal Véronica is in the room, listening from afar. The question is left unanswered. This is what Bruno achieves, an ability to question himself.7 This is what Godard also achieves, working through the voices of his characters as a sum of their parts. As quoted in Colin MacCabe’s Godard: images, sounds, politics he reflects how “[S]ometimes I put my philosophy in three different characters whereas most directors have their own character…that was the difficulty that people had in understanding Le petit soldat: that my own opinion was not expressed by any one of the characters…I say I’m for the picture.”8

Godard’s formulations function distinctly through his characters’ narration, dialogue, and actions in semblance with the essay form, something critic and author David Sterritt elaborates on as an auteurial approach that “demonstrates the inseparability of our mental lives from our perceptions of the social world we inhabit.9 This has Bazinian origins and trademark Godard implications in the flux of the philosophical, the political, the art historical — in music, literature, cinema and beyond; being-in-the-world pulls from all modes and his fluctuations articulate a reading of text, taking on stream-of-conscious intertextuality, referentially drawing from a broad range of disciplines the way in which the essay form is so capable of finessing as it travels through genres and experiences. Godard’s methods of production, especially in scripting Le petit soldat are also exemplary of Astruc’s caméra-stylo: throughout five weeks of shooting, Godard sketched out each day’s scenes in the mornings, drafting general swaths and markers drawn from his central idea vis-à-vis the Griersonian treatment, with intensions of finalising and fleshing out the script details through the immediacy of cinematography during shooting. The resulting narrative script and filmed footage can then be considered as not only an extension of Godard’s thought, but thought process. 

In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard likens the film to “a secret diary, a notebook, or the monologue of someone trying to justify himself” in an investigation of the self through thinking, writing, and filming.10 Or, as Michel Subor more directly asserted, “He shoots as if writing a book.”11 Shot on location, his mise-en-scène features passers-by, the streets, and the metropolitan expanse in a documentary fashion, heavily influenced by Rossellini’s Italian Neorealism.12 Moments are captured through cinematographer Raoul Coutard’s lens as if they happened, as a witness to the action, predominantly handheld in view. The most notable version of this is a scene featuring the infamous assassination attempt, which occurred without extras or public notice, and nearly turned Bruno’s fictional escape into one of Michel Subor’s actual, criminal capture. These production efforts parallel Godard’s writing techniques and are an extension of immediacy. 

Jean-Luc Godard & Michel Subor

Godard also presses the ethical polemics of systemic violence as torture practiced on both sides, claiming “the most terrible thing about torture is that people who practice it don’t find it arguable at all. They end up by justifying it.”13 Bruno’s torturer tells him, “Sometimes you must have strength to clear a path…with a dagger –” and we see the domestication of violence not only in the performances of László Szabó (as Laszlo) and Paul Beauvais (as Paul) in Bruno’s torture scene, who complete their motions without remorse or emotion, but also in the absurdly disruptive narrative fragmentations which serve to pacify the scene into one of banality. At one moment, something Wheeler Dixon points out, a young woman even enters the space delivering a weekly bundle of clean shirts, normalising the action.14 Bruno’s interrogators are accentuated off-camera with authoritative, voice-of-God dominance, burying their visible identities and heightening their control, out of sight. Bruno is handcuffed to a shower railing, his hands burned by fire, his captive breath suffocated by waterboarding, and he refuses to speak. 

An earlier scene in Véronica’s apartment functions similarly, where Bruno photographs her, questioning Véronica in an interrogative style, his use of the camera highlighting his position of power — the camera, hard, black and corruptible — like a weapon. When Bruno photographs her, in a way, she is already dead; the metaphorical extermination of his love interest’s idyllic and transitory image is laid to rest at the moment of truth by an instrument of image-making (an allusion to the truth-making instrument). 

Through the accessibility of the immediate, everything seems available, in flux. Through the self  there is fracture, uncertainty, doubt. David Sterritt describes Godard’s interest in weaving ideas “chosen less for their clarity or transparency” as, in Le petit soldat, “[more] devoted to existential problem posing than it is to philosophical problem solving.”15 The closest Godard comes to revealing Bruno’s intentions (in an off-camera interview, at least), is when he explains, “My prisoner is someone who is asked to do something and he doesn’t want to. Simply doesn’t want; and he digs his heels in, on principle. This is liberty as I see it.”16 Liberty is a freedom exemplified in the flight of Bruno, and he, as Godard told a journalist for Le Mond in 1960, “is easy for me to identify with…Basically, I show a man who analyses himself, who discovers himself to be different from the idea that he had of himself. Personally, when I look in the mirror, I often have the same feeling.”17 Bruno’s flight even peaks in his escape from his torturers as he evades them in a narrative sense — fleeing through a hotel window to the ground below, believing his act to be one of suicidal escape. He survives though, so the escape is more an expression of Godard’s sense of liberty, perhaps, in reference to French novelist André Malraux. In choosing suicide he is in control of not just his actions, but also his fate. Bruno’s suicidal motions are clued in from earlier scenes with a copy of Malraux’s La Condition Humaine (Man’s Fate, 1933) at his bedside table, as well as Bruno’s declarative idealistic views (“Life is what counts for women, but death for men”). Inquiry-as-catalyst for investigation is rooted deeply in Godard’s existential milieu, and not just through the veil of philosophical anchors like Malraux or Jean-Paul Sartre. 

If everything is available – then to doubt, to question, is not only a consideration – it is essential to locating the self. If everything is cinema to Godard, just as everything is documentary — then documentary has never ceased to be marked by multiple uncertainties, whether in its relationship to reality, its criteria of value, or even in the parameters of its self-constitution. Documentary too is to question, which is, in essence, the driving force of Godard’s Le petit soldat.


  1. Maurice Agulhon, The French Republic, 1879-1992, (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1995), p. 543.
  2. Richard Brody, Everything is cinema: the working life of Jean-Luc Godard, (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2008), p.2.
  3. Bill Nichols, Representing reality: issues and concepts in documentary. (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010), p.109.
  4. Wheeler W. Dixon, The films of Jean-Luc Godard. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), p.24.
  5. Godard initially “noticed” Karina in a 1959 Palmolive soap advertisement. Gillian Sagansky, “Anna Karina on Her Torrid Love Affair with Jean-Luc Godard.” W Magazine, (May 4, 2016).
  6. Toby Mussman, Jean-Luc Godard: a critical anthology. (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), p.184.
  7. For Charles Barr, Bruno’s loss is an achievement for his identity: “In losing everything Bruno gains only the ability to question his attitudes and his actions.” Charles Barr, The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, (New York: Praeger, 1970), p.25.
  8. Colin MacCabe, Mike Eaton, Laura Mulvey, Jean-Luc Godard. Godard: images, sounds, politics, (London: BFI, 1980), p.102.
  9. David Sterritt, The films of Jean-Luc Godard: seeing the invisible. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.56.
  10. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Narboni, Tom Milne, Richard Roud, Godard on Godard critical writings, (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1986), p. 179.
  11. Michel Subor, Le petit soldat, (Jean Luc Godard, 1963, The Criterion Collection).
  12. Sterritt, p. 8 and p.54.
  13. Godard, p. 177.
  14. Dixon, p. 11.
  15. Sterritt, p. 16.
  16. Godard, Narboni, Milne, Roud, p. 177.
  17. Brody, p. 92.

About The Author

Michael James Beck is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His research and practice currently investigates spaces between identity, memory, and film/media.

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