The writer, actor, and director Sacha Guitry emerged from the theater to become one of France’s best-known and most inventive filmmakers, and La poison marked his first collaboration with another titan of the screen, the incomparably expressive Michel Simon. With Guitry’s witty dialogue and fleet pacing, the black comedy is the quintessential depiction of a marriage gone sour: after thirty years together, a village gardener (Simon) and his wife (Germaine Reuver) find themselves contemplating how to do away with each other, with the former even planning how he’ll negotiate his eventual criminal trial. Inspired by Guitry’s own post–World War II tangle with the law—a wrongful charge of collaborationism—La poison is a blithely caustic broadside against the French legal system and a society all too eager to capitalize on others’ misfortunes.
Sacha Guitry’s La poison gets a Blu-ray release in North America courtesy of the Criterion Collection. The film comes on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The restoration comes from a high-definition scan of 35mm fine grain positive. I haven’t seen the UK Masters of Cinema edition so unfortunately cannot compare.
The high-definition image looks nice but I have to express a mild bit of disappointment. The image is sharp, detail is decent and it does have a general filmic look to it. The restoration work has been mostly impressive but both some minor marks and a handful a larger marks remain, and there can be some instability with shifts in the frame that are more notable during some cuts. Having said that none of these source issues are all that aggressive and they don’t register all that much so I wasn’t overly concerned with that aspect of the presentation. Where I was a bit let down was in the digital presentation. Most of the time it is fine enough but I found film grain a bit clunky and noisy/compressed in a number of shots and I found some tighter patterns could have the slightest shimmer to them. Contrast levels are okay with decent blacks and whites, but there were times I felt them boosted a bit with heavier blacks and I thought the tonal shifts in the grays could have been smoother (thinking of The Breaking Point in this regard). Though it was ultimately fine enough in the end I’m sure it could look significantly better.
There’s a flatness to the French linear PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack, and there can be a bit of an edge to the dialogue and music. Still, it’s free of any severe noise or damage and sounds clean for its age.
The release contains only a handful of supplements though they total well over two-hours together. Still, I can’t say I found the features terribly engaging.
Director Olivier Assayas offers a 16-minute appreciation of the director, covering his style and humour and why they appeal to him. He talks about a number of films before getting into La poison specifically and how it and his later films compare to his earlier works, including casting other actors (like Michel Simon in this case) in what would usually be the Guitry role.
A pair of hour-long documentaries are also included. On Life On-Screen: Miseries and Splendour of a Monarch is a documentary on the work of Guitry and Michel Simon and then their collaborations together. The feature does have more of a focus on Guitry and spends more time looking at his life and career through interviews with those that knew him as well as scholars, including his biographer. There is also discussion about the accusations that were thrown at him after the war about collaborating with the Germans, and they also take on the criticisms of misogyny also thrown at him.
The other feature is an episode of Les cinéasts de notre temps about Guitry that aired in May of 1965. Through interviews (including with Simon) the episode works its way through Guitry’s life and career and appears to be offering a bit of a defense of his work, more suggested by the opening bit that goes over the lackluster critical appreciation the filmmaker had received throughout his career (Simon recalls one critic saying his films are “just champagne bubbles”). Throughout we also get a number of stories about the man, either personal or from the set, like Simon recalling how Guitry allowed him to do just one take instead of multiple (this may have also helped with the film being completed in just over a week).
Criterion also includes a booklet (yes, a booklet) featuring a fairly lengthy essay by Ginette Vincendeau, getting a little into Guitry’s career and then the film’s dark humour and despicable characters, probably more a product of the post-war period. The booklet also includes a reprint of an obituary for Guitry written by François Truffaut, the director explaining his admiration for the man and his work, even offering his brief thoughts on a number of his films.
I liked the booklet quite a bit and it ends up being the strongest addition here. The rest, though fine and great for newcomers to Guitry’s work, weren’t the most engaging pieces for me. I guess the term is “your mileage may vary.”
It’s a fairly “ho-hum” edition with an “okay” presentation and “meh” special features. I’m realizing the only thing I really like about this release is the cover art. The more I look at it in hand the more I like it. The rest of it is underwhelming.