Le petit soldat
Before his convention-shattering debut, Breathless, had even premiered, Jean-Luc Godard leapt into the making of his second feature, a thriller that would tackle the most controversial subject in France: the use of torture in the Algerian War. Despite his lack of political convictions, photojournalist Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) is roped into a paramilitary group waging a shadow war in Geneva against the Algerian independence movement. Anna Karina (in her first collaboration with Godard, whose camera is visibly besotted with her) is beguiling as the mysterious woman with whom Forrestier becomes infatuated. Banned for two and a half years by French censors for its depiction of brutal tactics on the part of the French government and the Algerian fighters alike, Le petit soldat finds the young Godard already retooling cinema as a vehicle for existential inquiry, political argument, and ephemeral portraiture—in other words, as a medium for delivering “truth twenty-four times per second.”
The Criterion Collection presents Jean-Luc Godard’s second feature Le petit soldat on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in the aspect ratio of about 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a high-definition restoration performed by Studio Canal.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is a sharp and drastic upgrade over Fox Lorber’s previous DVD edition, which I always thought was a soft, digital mess, its only pro being it looked better than Fox Lorber’s own crap-tastic, green tinted DVD edition of Breathless (ugh!) The image here is cleaner, sharper, and more natural looking by a wide mile, and actually renders grain this time around, while doing a (mostly) decent job of it in the process! The image is incredibly sharp, details do pop off of the screen, and outside of a few tram lines, a couple of stains, and a few shots with some speckling, the picture is incredibly clean.
There are some oddities, though, which includes some obvious artifacts. While I said grain was mostly rendered well there are instances where the grain looks sharpened and this leads to it coming off a bit noisier and unnatural. The picture also doesn’t handle tight patterns very well: a striped shirt worn by Michel Subor later in the film, for example, presents jagged edges and shimmers as he moves around. Contrast and black levels are quite good most of the time, but there are a handful of moments where the blacks turn more of a dark gray, flattening the image out, and a few scenes during the last third can look to have had the contrast boosted a bit, making the blacks a bit thicker, but these last couple of items could all be more source related and/or intentional, and not really an issue with the restoration or encode.
The oddest issue, though, are a few sequences during the last third of the film where the quality of the source drops substantially. Criterion’s notes indicate Studio Canal used the 35mm original camera negative for their restoration, and while I have no doubt this is mostly the case, it’s very obvious a few sequences and shots came from elsewhere. One scene where Bruno’s head is being held underwater in a bathtub and another where Jacques is on the phone asking about Veronica both look to be sourced from video, or, if not that, an incredibly crummy print. Grain has been wiped out and the image becomes severely flat, contrast is blown, and motion looks more unnatural; these scenes end up looking far closer to my memory of what the Fox Lorber DVD looked like. A quick shot of Karina’s Veronica in the last third also has a similar look, but then it cuts back to a grainier, more film-like image. The first time this happens really took me back, but I’m wondering if this happens because the original footage is lost. In the included interview with Subor from around the time of the film’s 1963 release (after the film had been initially banned by the French government), the actor mentions that a scene where he had his head dunked into a bath tub had still been cut out by the French censors. There is no mention of the other scenes or shots that have the muddier look, but this could explain why it looks like another source had to be used.
Though I ended up writing a whole paragraph about the use of a lackluster source, that all barely totals a couple of minutes of the 88-minute film, and outside of some other minor digital artifacts and some other source issues that pop up, the presentation is still a crisp and solid one, and an incredible upgrade over what was a really shoddy looking DVD. It could be better but I was still more than happy with it.
The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural presentation is more a product of its time, coming off incredibly flat and lifeless. But dialogue is clear, noise isn’t an issue, and there are no drops, cracks, or pops.
The disc only features a handful of supplements, starting with a couple of short interviews, including a 6-minute one with Godard from 1965 and a 14-minute one with actor Michel Subor from 1963. The Subor one (as mentioned in the video section) was conducted around the release of the film and has the actor talking on how it was banned, on why he thinks it was banned, and then recalls studying in New York under Elia Kazan. This is also all done in a gym, where Subor also goes over his fondness for boxing.
Godard’s short interview features the director recalling his surprise at the negative reactions Le petit soldat received when it was eventually released, and he explains why he made the choices that seemed to irk people. Disappointingly the already short interview has a lot of time taken up by a clip from the film, but thankfully there is another interview featuring Godard, an audio one between him and Gideon Bachmann, recorded in 1961. This one is quite a bit more rewarding as Godard is very open during the discussion, which revolves around Breathless, a little about Le petit soldat, his time as a critic, and then the two just talking about aspects of filmmaking and where Godard feels he can go with it. This release is surprisingly short on features—with the only other supplement being an insert featuring an essay by Nicholas Elliott—but this on its own is a very strong addition.
Feels like this one has been a longtime coming and there is a feeling of being underwhelmed because of this; the supplements are slim, and the presentation leaves a bit to be desired. But considering what was available in North America before this is still a substantial improvement and upgrade for the film.