Each year, Comic-Con invades San Diego with such relentless force that the rest of the local arts community tends to get overshadowed. Don't let that happen to Jean-Luc Godard's Le Petit Soldat and Jean-Pierre Melville's Un Flic, two classic French films opening for one week in glorious 35mm restorations on July 19 at the Ken Cinema. Their arrival is truly super.
Those new to the films of Godard, a key member of the massively influential film movement "La Nouvelle Vague" (The New Wave), will find Le Petit Soldat, his darkly playful and subversive 1963 spy thriller, a perfect introduction.
Journalist Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) works all the angles in Geneva, a town bisected by waterways, bridges and loyalties. Pinned between shadowy French operatives and Algerian insurgents, Bruno gets tangled in an assassination plot that exposes more than one raw nerve. His doubts and fears are expressed through multiple monologues—lengthy political diatribes usually aimed at his newfound love, Veronica (Anna Karina).
Le Petit Soldat may be one of Godard's first films in a career that spans multiple decades, but it already expresses his special brand of cynicism. "I'm too old to play an active role," Bruno says, conveying a weariness that contradicts his youth and bravado. For a man verbalizing poetic bombs like "The secret war mixed men and ideas at a deadly pace," Bruno is surprisingly passive.
This is Godard's main point. While the camera hardly stops spinning, zooming and fidgeting, Bruno relentlessly questions his own decisions. Does he kill? Does he love? The "real tragedy" may be politics, as Bruno so aptly puts it late in the film, but the real disease of the modern world is indifference.
With all its verve and rage, Le Petit Soldat makes for an interesting double feature with Melville's melancholic final film, 1972's Un Flic, a master class in smooth pacing and precision. The opening scene is so hypnotic that it depicts a seaside heist as if it were a series of foggy, windswept memories unfolding in real time.
No words are shared as three men in trench coats and fedoras swiftly take control of a bank, only to have their plans destroyed when one employee gets heroic. After multiple minutes of near silent movement, the blast from a machine gun is downright deafening.
Fate always deals criminals a cruel hand in Melville's films— Un Flic is no different. From the beginning, greater forces are working against ace robber Simon (Richard Crenna) and his tight-knit crew. But this sense of despair and inevitability also pertains to Alain Delon's tormented cop, Edouard, whose methods border on unjust. In Un Flic, the flipsides of the law are basically the same coin.
Melville is deeply interested in the way codes of honor and professional relationships invariably crumble under the pressure of circumstance. Edouard betrays a loyal transvestite informant out of spite for failing to convey information in a timely manner, and each member of Simon's trusted gang becomes a casualty of momentary weakness despite their history together.
Stylistically, Un Flic is nearly drained of all color and emotion, leaving behind only the barren parts of a genre where any hint of vibrancy will get you killed. Peeling wallpaper lines Simon's hideout, while Edouard's office appears a disinfected microcosm of a lifelessly modern police station. Melville's compositions favor dilapidated buildings and empty streets, as if all of France was on the verge of renovation unbeknownst to the characters themselves.
In this sense, both Le Petit Soldat and Un Flic are concerned with the death of social and personal awareness. Control may seem attainable to these hardboiled characters, but they're simply careening off one another just long enough to dig their own graves.