Le Petit Soldat, Jean-Luc Godard

We Must Not Mean What We Say: On Godard’s ‘Le Petit Soldat’

While philosopher Stanley Cavell endeavors to show that we must mean what we say, Godard’s Bruno Forestier of Le Petit Soldat suggests that we simply cannot and must not mean what we say.

Le Petit Soldat
Jean-Luc Godard
21 January 2020

“For me the time for action has passed. I’m older now. The time for reflection begins.” These are the words we hear at the opening of Jean-Luc Godard’s second film, Le Petit Soldat—produced as his breakout success Breathless (1960) hit theaters but, owing to its controversial take on the Algerian War, not actually released until 1963, after his third (A Woman Is a Woman, Une femme est une femme, 1961) and fourth (Vivre sa Vie, 1962) films had already appeared. By the time Le Petit Soldat‘s actual release, Algeria had won its independence, the French no longer thought of the war as anything but a reminder of failure, and the film had missed its seeming bid for topicality.

And yet, the relative indifference Le Petit Soldat initially met and the sense that it arrived too late to make an impact obscured the ultimate significance of the film. That significance is hinted at in those opening words and in the manner in which they are delivered. This film was never really about action; it is about reflection. Reflection isn’t about doing, it’s about narrating something to oneself.

When we act, we are in flux, a constant state of transformation. Our actions change the world around us, and we are altered through those actions. Reflection works otherwise. It’s a means of stabilizing the transformational, of establishing some form of permanence, no matter how precarious. Action involves us in an ever-changing realm of Becoming; reflection attempts to reify the self in the realm of Being, to give the self a firm identity that threatens to dissipate in the act.

And yet, we can’t help but question the validity of this statement almost from the moment we hear it uttered by the protagonist Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) as he crosses the border into Geneva. Bruno is a photojournalist in exile, in part to avoid going to war. But avoiding being in action hardly means avoiding the war—particularly as he crosses the border on 13 May 1958, the day that right-wing forces overthrew those in charge of overseeing the colony in order to force the return of Charles de Gaulle as head of state. Moreover, Bruno is pushed again and again into action—at times through his own choice, and at times against his will. In the opening of the film, when he is not driving his convertible speedily through the streets of Geneva, he’s running full tilt with only the obscurest of goals revealed. This may be the “time for reflection”, but Bruno seems entirely unsuited for it.

However, we have yet to specify the manner in which we hear these words. Bruno doesn’t say them to anyone, they constitute the first utterance from Bruno’s voice-over, a voice-over that pervades the entirety of the film. There are several things to consider here. First, we don’t know what position in time this voice-over occupies. Are these his thoughts now, in-the-moment, as the scenes unfold before us? Or are they coming from some time in the future, when Bruno is older and looking back (reflecting) upon events of his past as depicted in the narrative?

The mechanics of the film play on the possible ambiguity. On the one hand, the actual dialogue was obviously recorded separately from the filming of most of the scenes. We notice this not through flaws in synchronization so much as through the fact that background noise is almost entirely eliminated. This gives certain scenes—especially Bruno’s car ride with a friend and the woman that Bruno will soon fall in love with, Veronica (Anna Karina)—an eerie quality, as though the voices we hear in the dialogue are the disembodied remainders of people long gone. The voices seems to haunt bodies that no longer exist, or at least are no longer present in that manner—bodies that have died or aged. So perhaps the time for reflection of which Bruno speaks is his temporality as a speaker looking back to the time of action.

On the other hand, the voice-over often substitutes for or anticipates dialogue and interactions with other characters. Bruno informs us that he asks a fellow passenger on a train for a light for his cigarette, but we don’t hear him ask. We just see the stranger turn toward him and exhale a puff of smoke, literally blowing off the request. Bruno asks again (or rather tells us that he does) and receives the same non-response. The lack of dialogue and the pointless repetition here draw our attention to the interaction, marking a forgettable happenstance for memory.

Later, Bruno, during a scene in which he takes pictures of Veronica in her apartment, tells us “She lit a cigarette and asked why.” We then see her light the cigarette and indeed intones “why?” after tossing the match carelessly away. The voice-over is entirely superfluous and that superfluity makes us aware of the artificial nature of the contrivance, the slippery relationship between the voice-over and the position of authority from which it pretends to speak.

This leads to a second observation regarding the voice-over: not only is it ambiguous temporally, it’s also ambiguous with respect to function. A purely, or nearly so, narrational voice-over sets the scene and glosses some of the interior emotional life of the protagonist-narrator but otherwise stays out of the way of the plot. This is the prototypical voice-over of the thriller and the film noir and its generic weight is what Godard seems to seek in his use of it in Le Petit Soldat. In this sense, Godard builds on the noir indebtedness of his earlier success, Breathless.

But Bruno Forrestier is no Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the protagonist of Breathless. Michel’s mannerisms (the rubbing of the thumbnail against the lips, the sly preening) ape the lineaments of the noir model, Bruno slips their traces altogether. In a noir film, the voice-over is directed. We get a glimpse into the machinations of consciousness but it’s an engaged consciousness, bent on making sense of a mysterious situation. Consciousness operates in a noir film in the manner of a searchlight; it attempts to illuminate the obscurities of the plot, to clarify for the protagonist that he is caught in the snares of his own deception.

There are no mysteries really in Le petit soldat; Bruno isn’t really capable of glimpsing mystery, for him all things are cynically decided. The world is besotted by its own corruption and the war can be neither good nor bad. Hence, the voice-over represents a rather different view of consciousness from that proffered by the typical noir film. This notion of consciousness is not so much reflective (despite Bruno’s opening declaration) as it is ruminative. To reflect and to ruminate both involve continued thought. But the word “ruminate” from the Latin “ruminari” meaning “to chew over” in the manner of a cow, which is, after all, a ruminant. This is Bruno’s manner of thinking.

He meanders from thought to thought. Bits of poetry and random quotations bump up against conflicting observations. In the manner of a poor narrator, he tells us what we see. At other times, he offers banal, cryptic proclamations like “remorse is the cause of freedom” apropos of very little. At one moment during the photo shoot he declares Veronica is not as pretty as she had been the day before, in the next moment he finds her ravishing, deciding the gray of her eyes is more reminiscent of Velazquez than Renoir. He veers from a state of dispassion to one of ravishment with no motivating factor to explain the change.

Indeed, there is no motivating factor. Thinking for Bruno is not a matter of cause and effect—there is no sense of any necessary connection between one thought and the next. Rather, contiguity alone persists. One thought slides into the next through a series of arbitrary conjunctions—whether they be contradiction, similarity, part/whole relationships, or something entirely indiscernible. For all of his frenetic pseudo-activity, Bruno is not a swift thinker nor, despite his attempts to philosophize, is he particularly profound.

It’s this lack of profundity that leads to the third observation regarding his voice-over and his extended monologue at the end of the film. As temporally and functionally ambiguous as it might be, Bruno’s internal monologue is clearly meant to reflect how he self-consciously constructs his world. This is why Le petit soldat seems to induce a kind of mental claustrophobia—you find yourself stuck in the mind of a person whom you don’t particularly like and don’t find particularly interesting, who offers few compelling insights into either his condition or ours more generally and, more to the point, seems unwilling or simply unable to say what he means.

Saying what we mean is not simply a matter of telling the truth. When I say “I did such-and-such voluntarily,” I say something rather specific about my action—regardless of whether I’m being truthful or not. There are only so many actions about which I can, in modern English, properly say that I performed them voluntarily. It’s not the case that there are only two types of actions: voluntary and involuntary ones. The grand majority of our actions are neither; they are indifferent with respect to voluntarism.

Notice that this is not an appeal to the dictionary definition of the term voluntary (“done of one’s free will”) and it certainly isn’t an appeal to the more abstruse philosophical concerns with the meaning of that contested component of human volition, free will. Rather, it’s an appeal to how one generally speaks in English; that is, it’s an appeal to what is sometimes called “ordinary language philosophy” and indeed the example of the word “voluntary” comes from the writings of three celebrated thinkers in that area of thought: J.L. Austin, Gilbert Ryle, and Stanley Cavell.

As Cavell articulates the point in his essay “Must We Mean What We Say” (1958), to say that something was done “voluntarily” is to suggest that something might have been understood to be fishy about it. This is a wider category than Ryle’s notion that to do something “voluntarily” is to be in a position to be responsible for the consequences (“did you break that window voluntarily?”). Cavell, citing Austin, points out that we can also give gifts voluntarily but we would hardly feel it necessary to take responsibility for a gift.

But one doesn’t generally claim to have picked up one’s keys from a nightstand voluntarily or involuntarily. Picking up one’s keys is typically indifferent to voluntarism. The importance of this for Cavell is that our ordinary use of language reveals something important about our relationship to the world that is categorical but not analytical. That is, what our use of words tells us is not dependent on their precise definition (or rather, not limited to that definition) and yet our usage tells us something of what we must mean (hence, categorical) rather than simply what we ought to mean when we use a particular phrase.

Cavell suggests that our engagement with our native language is so rich (and therefore entails a kind of necessary connection between what we say and what we mean) because we learn language as we construct our notion of the world—that is, my world as an English speaker—which is not mine alone and yet not simply an averaged down notion of world available to all speakers of any language whatsoever. Thus, language and world are mutually constitutive—language is not simply applied to an external world; it is part of the way in which the world shows up to us.

Throughout the film, Bruno is very concerned with the notion of truth. Not surprisingly, the words “vérité” and “vrai” in Bruno’s French have a wide and suggestive array of applications, as is the case with “truth” and “true” in English. We say something is “true” in one sense when we mean that a statement about the world corresponds in fact with the state of the world. So, I can ask “Is it true that you wrote a novel?” and you reply “It is true” if indeed you have. Hence, it seems that this use of “true” is essentially equivalent to “correct”. (You could just as well have answered “That is correct.”) And yet “true” is not identical with “correct”. It might strike one as odd to reply to the question “Are my keys on the nightstand?” with “That’s true” whereas “That’s correct” seems utterly reasonable. Why?

Perhaps this has to do with another use of “true” (“vrai”)—one can be a true friend, which means that one is steadfast and loyal (the English “true” has an etymological connection with “steadfast”). True love comports not simply to reality as it is but to an ideal manifested in reality. Someone is a true or false friend because they manage or fail to live up to the ideal of friendship. We wouldn’t call someone a “correct friend”. Notice what this suggests concerning our use of “true” in relation to a correct statement. We are saying that something is not merely correct but also that it presents itself to us in a manner that reveals something about the world.

Truth is not merely propositional; it’s not a mere logical connection—which, strictly speaking, can only be a connection among statements; it’s revelatory. To say something is true is to recognize that it reveals a place within the quotidian world that is welcoming of our presence in it as knowers, as knowing creatures who can act upon the world with some assurance of efficacy. This is the rich equivocation of the word “truth”: it navigates the murky realm between the ideal and the real, the merely correct and the evaluative, the confirmative and the revelatory. In this case, equivocation is not a fallacy—it’s built into the feel and texture of the word and its relationship to the world.

This quibbling over the precise feel of the word “truth” bears upon our understanding of the most famous and celebrated line in the film, uttered by Bruno as he photographs Veronica: “Photography is truth; Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” As a slogan it succeeds wonderfully (and is certainly one of the most memorable moments in Le Petit Soldat): it’s witty, pithy, seemingly profound. Its precise meaning is a little harder to determine, in part because it involves that strange equivocation we find in the word “truth”.

Both the photograph and the film capture and perpetuate a perception. Now the word “perception” can imply two related things: the mental object perceived or the mental act involved in perceiving. Notice the forms of the word: the past “perceived” versus the gerund “perceiving”. One implies something done and completed; the other refers to an activity that continues. This maps on to Bruno’s assessment of the relationship between photography and cinema. The first presents a completed perception (the mental object) while the latter involves the viewer in the unfolding of perception (the mental act).

Photographs always strike one as being in the past tense—even when it’s a photograph just taken. They capture the fleeting ephemerality of time and attempt to freeze it, to preserve it. This is its manner of truth—its correctness. Hence the photo finish proves which horse won by a nose because it freezes process into product. Film seems to operate otherwise. Even historical films (meaning either period pieces or simply old films) cannot totally present a pastness in a simple manner without involving you in that pastness.

Of course, film language has developed innumerable ways to cue an audience into pastness and yet flashbacks shift the viewer into the past, making it present momentarily, rather than denoting pastness in a straightforward, immediate manner. The mere fact that we watch action unfold with the issue of that action not being immediately clear means that we are brought into film as a presencing medium, as opposed to the past-related medium of photography. The truth of the photograph is the brute fact as perceived object: completed, merely correct, reduced to pure Being. The truth of film is the involved act of perception: ongoing, demanding commitment, open to Becoming.

And yet, we are not dealing with a simple dichotomy here. After all, the present-orientation of film is a sleight of hand, an optical illusion. One might be tempted to allude to Henri Bergson here and claim that the photograph reduced time to the snapshot, the quantitative unit, the all-at-once of spatial time while film engages in the qualitative intensity of duration. But as Bruno states it: “Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.” In that sense, it’s purely quantitative—perhaps more so than the photograph because it literally measures out time into a quantitative iteration of passing stills laid out contiguously across the spatial expanse of the reel of film. What seems, at first, to be a declaration of the greater fidelity of film to truth turns out to suggest that film reveals the lie underlying both aspects of the “true.” Those images on the screen seem real, or rather they seem to capture a representation of something real in a manner consonant with that realness. They seem correct.

Moreover, the seeming life exuded by these representations demands that we attend to them; they demand our steadfastness and they seem to manifest an ideality within the space of the real. And yet all of it is predicated upon a sleight of hand, a quantitative reduction of time to space. These objects that we seem to follow only move owing to the faculty of our imagination; film profits off of our manner of processing perceptions and our willingness (or natural inclination) to accede to them.

Now David Hume had long ago suggested that our notion that external objects subsist, that they are coherent and consistent, depends not on our senses (for when we look away how can we know they persist), nor on our reason (for we can offer no proof of their existence that can withstand an assertion that is directly contrary to that proof). Rather, our notion that something subsists, that a thing has identity and retains that identity even though we are not continually attending to the thing, depends on our faculty of imagination, the faculty that collects our perceptions and our ideas that are built upon their foundation. But imagination is grounded in habit.

For Hume, imagination is the site of our grasp of causality, resemblance, and contiguity. We grasp one billiard ball striking another and the latter moving as cause and effect not because we can see cause and effect (all we see is one ball moving, touching another, then the other moving; we cannot see a transfer of energy from one to the other). Nor does Hume believe we reason our way to causality: to speak of a causal power is simply a tautology (it’s merely describing what you assume to be true). Thus, our access to the notion of causality derives from habit: we see collisions often enough that we assume they will behave similarly.

But this tells us little about what really is, only what appears to be. Hume’s insight here applies to film: we invest ourselves in a set of movements that are not in the material (or, better, not performed by the various stills as such) but rather in our perception (that is, in our imagination). To ask whether they are “true” or not is to miss the point. But that felt need for truth persists unabated.

All of this culminates in the strange, extended speech at the end of the film. Bruno is speaking aloud now—this is not construed as a voice-over, but is ostensibly spoken to Veronica. And yet the tone and the tendency of the thought to slip aimlessly from topic to topic coupled with moments of poor sound synchronization and Bruno’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly—all of these stylistic quirks make this moment into a soliloquy: a theatricalized act of speaking to oneself, of giving unbridled vent to unconstrained thought.

Moreover, it’s a soliloquy that mimics the concatenating propensities of the imagination. He is not reasoning with Veronica, nor with himself. Thoughts elide and slip one to the next. Bruno’s disaffection becomes ever more acute. He searches for something solid, something true, upon which he can establish thought and identity. Hume’s skepticism toward the existence and persistence of external objects applied equally to the existence and persistence of the self. All perceptions are self-composed and discrete. What need have we of an additional assumption of a self-consistent and enduring self? Perhaps we are just the concatenation of perceptions and ideas without further subtending unity.

Bruno feels likewise and his thoughts, fractious at the best of times, reach a stage of crisis. He finds no meaning in the Algerian war, finds no meaning in political commitment. He longs for the closed wholeness and seeming significance of the Spanish Civil War (he particularly revels in the gesture of the closed fist of the anti-fascist salute—a perfect symbol for defiant wholeness, gripping closure, resolute truth). He seeks some grounding element for his dissipating sense of self: “Apart from ourselves, our own faces and voices, we have nothing. But maybe that’s the important thing: to come to recognize the sound of your own voice and the shape of your own face.” But even this search is predicated upon the recognition of external signifiers of the internal self—a constructive act of the imagination that takes the evidence of the senses and creates the fictive comfort of an enduring self.

Of course, to recognize a voice is to recognize speech. The voice says something, means something. But on what ground does meaning find foundation? Bruno asks: “Where does speech come from? Maybe people talk on and on like gold prospectors to find the truth, but instead of dredging in a river, the dredge among their own thoughts. They eliminate all the words of no value and end up finding just one. But a single word by itself is already silence.” Speech is not simply mine. I didn’t invent it. I come to know the world by coming to learn how to speak. The world is meaningful because my relationship with it involves navigating the meaning of speech. I come to know the world by swimming in language—one learns to swim by swimming; one learns the world by ascribing meaning to it through language.

But there is this constant nagging yearning for some sure point, some secure footing. Bruno describes it as the one word that holds value, the one word that remains true despite the chatter of language. But that word by itself is meaningless. Speech operates through a flow of words. Yet it’s neither simply that flow (not merely the act or the perceiving, truth as steadfast loyalty, cinema) nor is it a collection of individual units (words or objects perceived, truth as correctness, photography).

People talk on and on because they produce meaning through the concatenation of observations about the world. That concatenation generates its own manner of necessity in its connection to a world that runs alongside it without the connection between the two flows being evident. As I construct the world (or as it is constructed for me through language) I construct myself and I too am merely a concatenation of observations—but here the focus is placed on the perceiving more than the perceived. Nothing guarantees that any of these strands of linked perceptions (of the world, of my articulation of the world in language, or of my sense of self) hold together to be any kind of unified whole. I look for coherence and causality but all I find is mere contiguity and concatenation.

While Cavell endeavors to show that we must mean what we say in a very important sense, Bruno suggests that we simply cannot and must not mean what we say. Every vision of a unitive whole (whether that be the whole of the world, of language, or of the self) crumbles into an empty collection of perceptions with no means of coherence. If meaning requires some kind of point of stability, then it cannot be had here. There is no truth here—not in the sense of correctness and not in the sense of steadfastness. The time for reflection has arrived, but nothing can possibly come of it.

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Criterion Collection has released a Blu-ray edition of Jean-Luc Godard’s second film, Le Petit Soldat. The film is too often overlooked and is worth experiencing anew. Criterion didn’t lavish as much attention on this particular film as they generally do. There are three interviews from the 1960s: two with Godard and one with actor Michel Subor.