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Watching the Unwatchable: Films Confront Torture

Thursday, January 21, 2010
8:45 p.m. Le petit soldat
Jean-Luc Godard (France, 1960)

(a.k.a. The Little Soldier). Leave it to Godard to create a spy/terrorist “hero” who’d rather moon over a woman’s eyes (“were they Velazquez-gray, or Renoir-gray?”) than fight. Disillusioned and in love with himself above all, young Bruno is a French spy (or counterspy, or something) in neutral Geneva during the French-Algerian War, blithely taking hit orders from his gun-toting superiors (who quote Jean Cocteau) and doing his best not to follow them. Meeting the gray-eyed Veronica turns his mind further away from politics (she is Anna Karina, after all, in her first Godard role), but her involvement in an Algerian revolutionary group quickly has him running not just from the torturers on the “other side,” but from his own supposed allies. While it deflates the thriller genre with all manner of narrative diversions, Le petit soldat was banned for three years in France for deflating another type of fiction: the myth of French antiterrorist heroism in general, and in particular the idea that antiterrorist groups were “above” using torture.

—Jason Sanders

• Written by Godard. Photographed by Raoul Coutard. With Michel Subor, Anna Karina, Henri-Jacques Huet, Laszlo Szabo. (88 mins, In French with English subtitles, B&W, 35mm, From French Ministry of Foreign Affairs)