BY RICHARD BRODY
The New Yorker, March 7th 2013
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.
After his capture, Bruno is brought, barely conscious, to an apartment, where his captors partially undress him, handcuff him, and question him. When he refuses to answer, they show him photos of other French agents who refused to talk and were tortured to death, and they warn him of the ordeal he’s about to face. Over a pan shot across the façade of a bland modern building, Bruno explains that his captors asked him to work with them but that, when they refused him a cash advance, he turned them down. Bruno is dragged to the bathroom, handcuffed to the fixtures, and held at gunpoint as his head is sprayed with water. Cut to a pan shot of the building: Bruno, in voice-over, says, “Torture is monotonous and sad. It’s hard to talk about it. I’ll do so as best I can.” A piece of classical piano music comes on the soundtrack; one of his captors views himself in a mirror and combs his hair; a woman who works with them puts paper in her typewriter; one of the torturers enters the bathroom, bringing a transistor radio. Bruno asks, “Why are you doing this?” The torturer responds, “Sometimes one must have the strength to cut one’s path with a dagger”; he lights a whole book of matches for a cigarette, and burns the palms of Bruno’s hands with the matches. A pan shot, linking the torturer, the matches, the handcuffed arm, and Bruno’s face makes clear that the actor actually endured, for a brief moment, the torture—and he briefly, quickly, quietly gasps. Meanwhile, the torturer intermittently turns up the volume on the radio—but no sound comes out of the radio and no screams come out of Bruno, who continues to speak in voice-over about attempting to forget the pain by thinking as much as possible, as quickly as possible—including about Veronika—as he’s seen in close-up, looking into the camera with a gaze of defiant serenity.
The image cuts to the torturers spraying him with cold water; they tell him that he had fainted. What has happened is astonishing: where the rest of the movie appears as a visually exact representation of the events that go into the story, the shot of Bruno looking into the camera just before he fainted with pain seems to have matched the inner quiet of the soundtrack. The extreme experience of torture has deformed the image, brought about a bend in representation, broken the very system of cinematic realism.
More torture is depicted: Bruno’s head is dunked into a bathtub of water, repeatedly—and it’s clear that this is being done to Subor; Bruno is waterboarded, his head covered with a shirt that’s doused with water—and it’s actually being done to Subor, in several agonizing takes that seem very long but run about twenty seconds. (This all follows a sardonic shot of a laundress bringing the torturer a pile of shirts, and Bruno, in voice-over, recalling that pile of shirts sitting beside the tub and giving a clinical description of how water makes the fabric impenetrable to air). A hand-cranked electric generator is brought in, wires are connected to Bruno’s toes, and he is subjected to electrical shock (as the torturer cites Lenin about revolution offering “no easy tasks and no easy methods”). This was in fact done to Subor, who told me that it gave him “a peculiar feeling.” A journalist who interviewed the actor at the time wrote that she saw marks on his wrists and ankles.
There is much more to this brief scene: the torturers’ doctrinal readings from Mao and Lenin; a reading from the banned book “La Question,” Henri Alleg's account of being tortured by the French army; a plot twist (Bruno had previously seen the man who brings the generator with Veronika); a joke (one of Bruno’s co-conspirators, whose photo is shown, is the film’s producer, Georges de Beauregard). The overall point is that “Le Petit Soldat” is the story of a person who has memories, ambitions, favorite writers, favorite music, a love life. Godard respects the agency of its agents by taking into account their motives and filling them in, in great detail, as if to put the moral burden of personal choice, moment by moment, on his characters. Godard films torture as an experience that morally requires a plain and frank representation even as it renders such representation impossible. And, at the most basic level, he presents the experience of the victim—not the self-justifications or afterthoughts of the practitioner—as the incommensurable moral core of torture.
The scene in question is, in a narrative sense, simple—it depicts events that took place in an apartment in Geneva over a short span of time—and its images and sounds are, in themselves, simple, but it’s put together as an amazingly deft and complex interweave of a wide range of elements that turns a mere anecdote into an experience that’s as much aesthetic as personal, as concrete as hallucinatory, as intimate as historical. There’s more breadth and depth—more of a sense of history at large, of the intrinsic and profound horror of the practice and the experience of torture, and of the moral issues involved in political action—in that thirteen-minute sequence than in the whole of “Zero Dark Thirty.”