The recently released US film about the capture and killing Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, was rightly condemned, including by me, as a fanciful examination of the “war on terror” with a dodgy moral centre.
Richard Brody, writing in the… New Yorker, responds:
In 1960, France was embroiled in the Algerian war, in which some of its soldiers tortured prisoners (mainly Muslims) suspected of involvement in the pro-independence militancy, while agents waged a dirty war against Algeria’s advocates in Europe. Against this backdrop, Jean-Luc Godard made his second feature film, “Le Petit Soldat” (“The Little Soldier”), whose story centers on a planned extrajudicial assassination and depicts the practice of torture, at length and in detail.
Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” the film’s protagonist is a secret agent on the hunt for terrorists and their sympathizers. Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” many incidents in the film were based on real-life events (though there’s no title card stating as much). Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” the movie proved controversial—not least with the French government, which banned the movie outright both in France and internationally (the latter accomplished by threatening to bar Godard, a Swiss citizen, from France and the film’s producer, Georges de Beauregard, from the movie industry altogether if it were shown outside the country). “Le Petit Soldat” (which arrives this Friday at Film Forum, in a crisp new print, for a weeklong run—I’ll be introducing the screening on Tuesday, March 12th, at 8:30… P.M.), however, stands apart from “Zero Dark Thirty” in other significant ways. Godard’s harsh and direct, yet complex and intimate approach to the subject contrasts with Bigelow’s relatively careless, aesthetically mediocre, and entertainingly grandiose and unsophisticated way with it, and the crucial differences that result are ultimately not just aesthetic but moral.
The place to start with is the point of view; the thing to start with is the sound. The protagonist is Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a twenty-six-year-old French man who arrives in Geneva and makes contact with his handlers, who order him to assassinate a radio commentator whose political broadcasts are in support of Algerian independence. But in the meantime he has met and fallen in love with Veronika Dreyer (Anna Karina), a young Danish woman of Russian descent and an aspiring actress, and doesn’t want to carry out the mission. His handlers pressure him into it; in the course of their conflict, activists with the Algerian independence movement recognize him, kidnap him, and, in order to get him to reveal his handlers’ phone number, torture him. I won’t go into detail on the dénouement but will stick with the torture scene itself.
Where the images appear to be faithful representations, the soundtrack is wildly, but subtly, distorted. The movie is almost entirely dubbed, as Godard’s first feature, “Breathless,” had been. (Godard even started work on “Le Petit Soldat” before “Breathless” had been released—he feared that if the first film did poorly he might not get to make a second film at all.) But, unlike the soundtrack of “Breathless”—for which Godard collected a vast number of location sounds and put them together in an elaborate sound edit, resulting in a mix so dense and so precisely matched to the image that many critics mistook it for sync sound—that of “Le Petit Soldat” is obviously dubbed. For instance, many scenes feature no ambient sound at all, which is especially noticeable when they take place in a convertible that’s moving in traffic: there’s no sound of motors or wind, a car door closes soundlessly as characters speak clearly to each other, the snap of a cigarette-lighter cover is the only sound that’s heard. It’s as if the image is the realm of the objective reality that Bruno experienced but the soundtrack as a whole blends with his interior monologue to convey the realm of subjectivity, of experience from within.