Sergeant Galoup standing next to Commander Bruno Forestier in full dress uniform
Perhaps only a struggle as divisive and bloody as the Algerian war could have led Godard into an uncharacteristic identification with a right-wing hero.
The young Bruno (Michel Subor) is a French agent whom Godard describes as “searching for truth... searching for what is most important: that is to say, not to be defeated, not to be bitter, to continue being active, to feel free.”
Seeing Subor’s aged, craggy face in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail is like encountering an old friend.
Bruno falls in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), and there is a long scene in which he seduces her by photographing her and lecturing her about books and classical music, a wonderfully Godardian seduction.
He holds a light meter up to her face: like Godard, Bruno seems to be more comfortable placing lenses between the world and himself.
At first Godard resists placing Bruno and Veronica in the same frame, blocking them in a series of shot-reverse-shots ...
... which reinforce their obvious division into masculine and feminine, while also foreshadowing the fact that they are actually working on different sides of the Algerian war.
The Little Soldier contains Godard’s most famous maxim: “Photography is truth and cinema is truth at 24 frames per second.”
Covering his eyes is a typical gesture of Bruno’s. He does not always want to see what is front of him. In many ways The Little Soldier is about looking, or rather what people choose to view versus what they don’t, which speaks both to political affiliations as well as “love-is-blind” romanticism.
Laszlo, one of the Algerian terrorists, is played by Hungarian actor Laszlo Szabo.
Betrayed by Veronica, who is a double agent, Bruno is captured by the Algerians. The Algerians clown around before getting down to their business of torturing Bruno ...
... while their female comrade looks up from her reading of Mao.
Lit matches are held under Bruno’s cuffed hands ...
... which he endures stoically, refusing to talk.
A revisionist sequel
Strip-mining profitable seams for their last-ditch stores of gold nuggets, the movie sequel, that Hollywood Frankenstein, is synonymous with commercial exploitation. Among art films there are hardly any sequels. Each successive wave of young filmmakers seems under its own Poundian obligation at least to Make It New, if not utterly to tear down the vaunted icons of the previous generation. By their nature, commercial sequels typically conform to an aesthetic status quo, if they can even be said to have an aesthetic. Leftovers, retreads, proofs of formula and “sure-thing” bankability, sequels throw nothing into question and, whatever improbable shapes they do take, are rarely new departures.
For all of these overly familiar reasons, a term like “revisionist sequel” or “art-film sequel” sounds like a barely conceivable oxymoron. We would find it questionable if we heard about a sequel, for instance, that reunites the ennui-sufferers of L’Avventura for yet another vacation where someone else goes missing, or examines the adult married life of the young couple from Blue Velvet, or sets Travis Bickle down on some Kansas farm. Indeed, the more complete and satisfying a cinematic statement, the less we can conceive of a different director coming along and adding his or her own vision to it. And yet, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (Good Work, 1999) is a kind of sequel, nearly forty years later, to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier, 1960), in that Denis borrows the hero of Godard’s film, Bruno Forestier. These two French films from disparate decades enter into a conversation with each other through the common link of this recurring character, who is even played by the same actor, Michel Subor.
One of the least cited films in Godard’s early canon, The Little Soldier takes place during the French-Algerian war, but far from the war’s official battleground, in the thick of its peripheral action in Geneva, where Bruno works as a young French secret agent against an Algerian terrorist network. Although Bruno is a pro-France conservative, he experiences qualms of conscience when asked to shoot Palivoda, a prominent radio figure and rebel leader. “If I killed him,” Bruno says in voiceover, “I’d feel like a loser . . . No one can force a soldier to kill.” Bruno’s sinister and jingoistic commander, Jacques (Henri-Jacques Huet), begins to suspect him of disloyalty.
In the middle of this intrigue, Bruno meets and falls in love with a beautiful young Russian-Danish woman, Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina), to whom he is instantly attracted because she looks “as if she came straight out of a play by Jean Giradoux.” A passionate photographer and art lover, Bruno seduces her by taking pictures of her and lecturing her about classical music, a wonderfully Godardian seduction.
Under pressure from the French, Bruno makes several attempts to shoot Palivoda but fails. Veronica also turns out to be an agent, on the side of the Algerians; she betrays Bruno to Laszlo (Laszlo Szabo) and the other terrorists, who take Bruno to a hotel room and torture him for hours, smothering his face in soaking-wet towels and applying live electrodes to him. He does not break down and divulge any information, and finally escapes by jumping out a window. Still in love with Veronica in spite of her betrayal, he makes plans to go away with her, but again the French agents try to force him to kill Palivoda. This time he carries out the assassination, but meanwhile the French capture Veronica and torture her to death. In the final shot, Bruno rushes up an escalator onto a busy street, his voiceover the ultimate in pragmatic logic:
What does the disillusioned Bruno do with “so much time” on his hands? Entirely plausibly, Claire Denis imagines that he marches into the French Foreign Legion. In Beau Travail, Forestier, now an older man, commands a division of Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti.
In this desert outpost, Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) trains the new recruits. Galoup, the film's main character, is an uptight, conflicted time-bomb of a man. He loves military discipline more than anything else in the world but feels alienated from both Forestier and the soldiers in his squad. He is a misplaced link in the chain of command. In a narrative move based on Melville’s Billy Budd, Galoup forms an almost instantaneous hatred for the young and well-liked Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin) and sets out to destroy him. Repressed homosexuality seems to fuel Galoup’s obsession with Gilles, although Galoup also forms a romantic relationship with a beautiful Djibouti native woman, Rahel (Marta Tafesse Kassa).
Forestier witnesses the mounting tensions between Galoup and Gilles, but, whether out of apathy or passivity or the same indecisiveness that he displayed in The Little Soldier, he does not intervene strongly enough on Gilles’ behalf. In a calculated effort to destroy Gilles, Galoup drives the young soldier to attack him, then strands the youth in the middle of the desert as a punishment, expecting Gilles to perish. Gilles’ absence arouses suspicion among his comrades, and Galoup finally confesses to Forestier, who prepares to court-martial Galoup out of the Legion. Meanwhile, African natives rescue Gilles, severely dehydrated and barely alive.
Denis’ film ends ambiguously. In fact, it seems to have multiple endings, each open to multiple interpretations. We see Galoup climb an escalator to the street, a shot directly in homage to the last shot in The Little Soldier. A group of Legionnaires taunts the discharged Galoup — or are they saluting him? — by singing the Legionnaires’ anthem to him while he is in a café. The last time we see Rahel, she is sitting on a bus next to the ailing Gilles, to whom she gives a drink of water; we see that now their fates are entwined, and perhaps Rahel is one more “thing” which Galoup has lost. Finally, Galoup lays down on his bed with his service revolver; the film implies at this moment that he will shoot himself rather than face dishonorable discharge. But then, in a strange sequence that almost feels suspended outside the diegetic space, we find Galoup dressed in civilian clothes, dancing alone and with spastic abandon at a discotheque.
Not just any civilian clothes. Denis has deliberately given him a certain look: tight black satiny shirt, tight black chinos, and a cigarette like a rising pinkie finger, all of which is suggestive, in a very broad and perhaps one-dimensional way, of the urban homosexual. Has Galoup found himself at last? He has never been inside the disco before, although other characters in the film have been shown dancing there (Rahel, Gilles). It’s reminiscent of the treatment of the character of Lt. Seblon (Franco Nero) in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982). Seblon is also a military commander with repressed homosexual desires for his men, one in particular, “the sailor Querelle.” Seblon never permits himself to enter the brothel where the other men go, but only to stand outside looking in through its Art Deco windows, until the very last scene, after he and Querelle (Brad Davis) have bonded in their love.
Bruno Forestier is a secondary character, although to some degree the moral center of Denis' film. Encountering Subor’s craggy, aged face in Beau Travail is almost like seeing an old friend, to anyone who recalls the actor’s intense performance in The Little Soldier, where he delivered Godard’s most famous maxim:
Denis is faithful to Godard’s conception of Forestier as a man who has suffered for his ideals. “A rumor dogged him after the Algerian war,” we are told about Forestier in Beau Travail, a line that succinctly jogs the viewer’s memory of the older film. Nonetheless, though he is still trying to avoid the pain of having ideals in a flawed, corrupted world, Forestier remains covertly idealistic beneath his aloof and somewhat crusty surface. He reaches out more sincerely to the men in his company than Galoup does. Only Forestier has the keen sense of human justice, as well as the hard-nosed discipline, to condemn Galoup for his attempted murder of Gilles.
In both films it is the young characters who suffer most at the hands of an older generation, which is manipulative, power-driven and un-idealistic. The romanticism which in Godard spills out into long frenzied monologues where the young Bruno pours out his heart and soul about poetry, music, politics and love — always returning to love as the glue that binds all the other things together — is more muted and distant in Denis’ film, where the older characters try to locate their own lost romanticism in the younger characters whether it is truly there or not.
At one point a young Russian legionnaire seems to strike a chord in Forestier when he confides in his officer: “It’s hard to go on fighting for ideals that keep changing.” Bruno cocks his head and asks with a certain interest, “What ideal?” Bruno seems skeptical, but at the same time we sense that he’d like to know what ideal the young soldier believes in, as if it truly might make a difference.
Impassive and subdued, the young Gilles serves as a scapegoat for Sergeant Galoup’s own sense of being empty inside, of having sacrificed his entire life for questionable military motives. But Gilles himself, although idealistic in some ways, is also a cipher who cannot be read as upholding an inherently romantic set of values. Unlike the expulsive young heroes of early Godardian cinema, Gilles tends to keep everything inside.
In a sense, only Forestier remains young at heart. Denis repeats the playful close-up from Godard’s film in which he opens and closes his hands over his face in a bathroom mirror, a game of self-“peekaboo” that signifies, in both films, Bruno’s innate contradictions, his childishness, his unwillingness to look too deeply into himself at times, his need to hide from messy realities. However, in Godard’s free-form, heady world of youth expressing itself, this peekaboo could be seen as one more poetic gesture; its persistence in Beau Travail marks the older Bruno as an anomalous dreamer. Indeed, Bruno appears in Beau Travail partly as a stranded representative of the dogmatic, committed 60s — as in the significant scene where an African cab driver asks him, “Do you know how much a colored girl is?” Taken aback by this insinuation, wary and embarrassed at being seen as that kind of colonial, Bruno replies, “If it weren’t for fornication and blood, we wouldn’t be here,” a line that seems tailor-made as a summation of early Godardian cinema, and a defense of the radical 60s in general.
It is nearly impossible not to imagine that Denis is employing Bruno/Subor as a deliberate evocation of the nouvelle vague (without whose groundbreaking work, one could safely say, she or any other modern filmmakers “wouldn’t be here.”) But it’s a wistful, complicated evocation: much of Beau Travail takes place while Bruno is off to the side, watching. He seems an “absent” commander functionally cut off from the activities of the younger men who follow him. As Galoup’s machinations and Gilles’ difficulties deepen and develop, the film begins to look like an intergenerational conflict not only of men but of cinemas themselves, with an unmistakable question emerging at the center: Is cinema itself still headed in the right direction?
In one sequence Gilles follows Galoup through an obstacle course of jumping in and out of pits, a race in which Gilles is perennially behind, striving to catch up. If Gilles represents future cinema by default, he seems to be off to a bleak start, described in one scene as an orphan “found in a stairwell.” Denis incorporates many images of disuse and chaos — an abandoned French tank rusting out amid sand dunes; Galoup leading his men across a bleak whitened expanse like a zigzag line of ants. Such images suggest an entropic falling-off, a loss of possibilities, as does the elegiac tone of her film in general. Her critique is partly centered around the ubiquity of crass commercialism. Even in Djibouti, posters for Coca-Cola and Marlboro invade and deracinate the landscape, suggestive of the influence of a western culture and, by implication, a western cinema, which, in their willful isolation from Third World viewpoints, have grown stagnant and reactionary.
In this Denis picks up where the Godard of Made in USA (1966), Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), Tout Va Bien (1972) and other films seemed to “leave off.” But in spite of constructing this link with the famously left-wing Godard, she does not exempt The Little Soldier from the reach of her critique. There are obvious reasons for this, and indeed The Little Soldier makes an obvious target. It is from Godard’s pre-radical phase; its politics are more romantic-existential than dialectical-rigorous. In a statement made around the film’s release, Godard described Bruno as
Expressing regret that no contemporary film had been made from the Algerians’ viewpoint,  the director went on to say:
In other words, Godard’s viewpoint is a shifting one, up for grabs, pragmatic rather than committed, and attempting to occupy a centrist or at best an independent position. In an interview with Yvonne Baby, Godard explained The Little Soldier in these terms:
The later, radicalized Godard would have doubtlessly rejected this search for inner, relative truth as a political cop-out. Perhaps only the highly vitriolic and divisive issue of Algeria could have made him attempt such an uncharacteristic identification with a right-wing character like Forestier. Algeria occupies a place in modern French history similar to Vietnam for the United States. It was a long, bloody, costly imperialist war that finally ended with the smaller power driving back the bigger one in frustrated defeat. It also bears resemblance, for obvious reasons, to the current war in Iraq. Indeed, many of the topical issues that went directly into Godard’s film — nationalism, imperialism, terrorism, torture — are very familiar to us in our post-9/11 world, where they often appear as no less complicated and difficult to parse.
It is not a question of condoning or supporting terrorist violence. Godard’s reticence or disapproval toward this are more than understandable. It is not even so much a question of whether Godard should have taken sides, or delivered a slanted condemnation of French foreign policy. Instead, the question raised by The Little Soldier is one of aesthetic representation, the ongoing and important question of how any white European (or U.S.) artist should approach the lives and voices of Africans and Arabs.
To be sure, Godard is already fairly balanced politically. He depicts the French agents as nearly as cold-blooded as the terrorists. It is the French, after all, who kill Veronica, though this takes place off-camera while the torture of Bruno is shown in excruciating detail. (One brief scene shows French agents forcing Veronica into a car, but this is all done in long-shot and is composed as a kind of homage to Hollywood film noir and gangster movies. In the 60s such a stylistic trope was Godard’s shorthand for distancing himself emotionally from a given subject.) And yet, in The Little Soldier, the Algerians, unsavory and slightly ridiculous, are much closer to prop-box, B-movie villains. There is only one, nearly incongruous scene in which Godard allows the rebels to speak for themselves; Laszlo, making an illegal radio broadcast, announces to the camera:
This is bland, unconvincing rhetoric and, again, made even more hollow by Laszlo’s direct link to torture. (As a further undermining of credibility, the Algerian Laszlo is played by the actor Szabo, who was actually not an Arab at all but a Hungarian.)