10 August 2009

LA PETIT SOLDAT / THE LITTLE SOLDIER (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960, France) - When Godard Met Karina

This was Anna Karina's first film with Godard.

Godard’s second feature was made in 1960 and instantly banned by the French government for its controversial political content – hard to believe that this was the first French film to examine the protracted colonial war in Algeria. ‘La Petit Soldat’ was eventually released in 1963 but the prolific rate at which Godard was making films meant it became somewhat lost in the sheer euphoria of the nouvelle vague. Godard shot the film with his regular cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, in Switzerland. Coutard’s contribution to the formation of a new wave aesthetic of hand held camera work, location shooting and the use of natural lighting is simply impossible to ignore. The absence of any kind of formal training in the art of cinematography meant that Coutard was free to break from tradition. His experience as a photo journalist also seemed to provide Coutard with an additional impeteus; collaborating closely with Godard and Truffaut permitted him to create new ways of observing and capturing reality.

It was Godard’s graphic depiction of torture which seemed to get him into trouble with the French Gaullist government. Though the on screen depiction of torture may appear tame today, torture continues to be a prescient issue in western culture and has more or less infiltrated much of the media that is produced today. It is striking to see how rapidly Godard was becoming politicised and using cinema as an increasingly personal means of expression – not to say that 'A Bout de Souffle' was apolitical, but ‘La Petit Soldat’ hinted at the radicalism that would come to define much of his career in the sixties. It is true to say that the politics seem naïve and perhaps a little moderate compared to the overt radicalism of his later films – Godard was still celebrating the romanticism of cinema and that is why the film understandably has a very poetic tone.

I had problems trying to figure out what exactly motivated Godard to make this film other than as a reactionary political response to the war in Algeria until I watched the brief introduction by Colin McCabe on the DVD. Having published a biography on Godard, McCabe’s conversant interpretation pointed me into the direction of the much documented relationship between Godard and his cinematic muse, Anna Karina. Godard had initially pursued Karina for his first feature but her refusal to commit to a nude scene in the film did not prevent him from persisting in a commitment for his next feature. McCabe points out that Godard had to get permission from Karina’s parents so that she could act in the film. They married after the film was finished. McCabe says that this is a film purely about Godard falling in love with Karina and it’s quite interesting to view the film in this wider context – this is certainly true in the sequences in which Karina’s character is wandering around the sparse interiors of an apartment, freely confessing her personal likes and dislikes; its as if she is being introduced to the world and simultaneously being interviewed by Godard himself. Her gaze in these sequences certainly seemed to be aimed at Godard rather than the spectator. I guess, in this respect, ‘La Petit Soldat’ is a very personal film for Godard as it signalled the beginning of a very significant collaboration.

'One seminal aspect of Le Petit Soldat is that it marks the first collaboration between Godard and Karina, whom he would marry shortly after the film completed its principal shoot. Karina, who would rapidly become the New Wave's most iconographic actress, is lovingly photographed throughout by Raoul Coutard, Godard's favoured cinematographer. Echoing the lengthy hotel bedroom sequence between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in À bout de souffle, Godard stages the couple's courtship in a high-rise apartment as a series of cerebral-yet-playful dialogues, shot throughout with a freewheeling hand-held camera. Obviously lit by Coutard with far more attention than any of the other actors, Karina is posed repeatedly in close-ups, frequently grooming herself; and, in one climactic scene, she even dances flamboyantly to a blaring Mozart record. In this, Karina's first role for Godard, we do not yet encounter the depth of female subjectivity in Vivre sa vie – but it is, nonetheless, abundantly clear that this role was designed as Karina's star-making screen appearance...'

1 comment:

  1. This one is a pleasant surprise from Godard, too autobiographical - straddling Switzerland and France, Karina, Photography etc.