Colonial fictions: Le Petit Soldat and its revisionist sequel, Beau Travail
by Justin Vicari
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.
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