Jean Luc Godard is known mainly for his first film Breathless but he has spent a career making great, near great and important films. His second feature Le Petit Soldad doesn't have the same skillful buoyancy as Breathless but it is does have a certain urgency and is a well-paced political drama.
The film is about a war deserter named Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) -- who gets embroiled in an anti- terrorist organization and is ordered to assassinate a leftist University professor. But due to his confusion, his own moral rectitude and the love of a woman (Anna Karina) - who is a member of an Arab group - he doesn't commit the murder. Instead he chooses to run away. Subsequently, he is caught by an Arab group and tortured. He escapes but still disconcerted -- and still longing for idealistic qualifications --he decides to commit the murder. Despite this, it is too late for him to truly claim any kind of victory political or personal.
Bruno – like many characters in Godard films – is an ineffectual intellectual without loyalty or commitment who is locked in a self-conscious world of consumer goods, political perplexity and old Hollywood gangster movies. Bruno wants to believe in a political cause and he wants to be in love but due to circumstances he cannot have both so he takes the road of betrayal, which leads to the downfall of himself and everyone around him.
Le Petit Soldad was shot cheaply, it moves fast and on the surface seems to be insignificant. It's like a Greek tragedy done with elements of Italian neo-realism, handheld camera's and real life set pieces. But delve deeper, look closer and you realize that the film is an effective personal / political drama that goes against the grain. The French authorities saw it this way back in 1961 and - due mainly to the references to torture in the Algerian war - banned the film for two years.
From this film came Godard's famous line, 'Cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.' And while Godard may not have believed that statement it does say something about the significance of cinema as a political tool. What Godard has said though of this film is, 'My style of commitment was to say to myself: they reproach the New Wave for showing nothing but people in beds — I'm going to show some who are politically involved and have no time to go to bed."
The image is presented 1:33 to 1 and – according to the jacket – it looks better than ever. The restoration was done through a video cleaning process and it does look as sharp and clean as is possible considering that it was shot rather cheaply. There is very little edge enhancement and compression artefact is only present if you're looking hard for it.
Godard and his New Wave compatriots wanted to make their films more realistic and rougher so one of the ways they did this was to eschewed the perfection of studio sound. The DVD is presented in monoaural and is a bit muffled at times but since that was part of the original effect nothing is lost. At times the film has a documentary like sound, which is exactly the effect Godard wanted. With this film too Godard began to work a bit with his masterful use of sound editing and music. Overall the DVD sounds good but not great.
The only significant extra is a Mini audio Commentary by film critic David Sterrit, which is an interesting alternative to a full-length commentary. Fifteen minutes of footage is strung together and Sterrit - in crash course mode - explains all that he can about Godard and the film. For those who don't have the time for a full-length audio commentary or who don't like to listen to a lot of dead air this is a welcome extra. For Godard fans this commentary will be too short but for the rest of the viewers out there this is a comprehensive 15 minute introduction to Godard and the film. From the menu there are also mini filmographies of Anna Karina, Michel Subor and Jean-Luc Godard and some weblinks. The film is 88 minutes long and there are 16 chapters. Subtitles are in English and are removable.
Le Petit Soldad is one of the lesser known Godard films but it is an important one because it established his inclination for political dramas plus it is well acted and directed. The DVD looks great, sounds good, has one worthy extra and is worth a look if you want to begin to understand the most important and influential filmmaker of the 1960's.