A Few Hours of Sunlight is a love story. It's a tragedy. It's a tale of conflicting emotions and betrayal. Or so the cover blurb claims; the actual experience of watching it is somewhat different, leading me to the question of whose idea was it to pull this dated and dull 1971 film out of whatever vault it was (rightfully) gathering dust in?
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat. Though Gerard Depardieu's name is prominently displayed on the DVD cover, he has a very minor role in the film and appears for no more than a scene or two in the middle... certainly far from enough to warrant front-cover status. No doubt Vanguard is counting on Depardieu's name to draw buyers (and in fact, that's why I was interested in the film), but it borders on false advertising to give him first billing on the DVD.
And what a DVD it is, too. A Few Hours of Sunlight (Un peu de soleil dans l'eau froide) is an excellent example of the damage that can be done by a truly poor transfer. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to prevent the distaste for a dirty, washed-out, ugly print with lousy sound quality and an incorrect aspect ratio from influencing one's opinion of the movie.
As for the movie: it gets off to an unpromising start, with Gilles (Marc Porel), the main character, moping about and getting into a fight for no particular reason. He doesn't seem like a particularly likeable or interesting fellow, so I didn't really care that he seemed rather depressed. I'd be depressed too, if I were stuck in a film with such horrible image quality that everyone looked gray and grainy, with blotchy red faces. Oops, I'm talking about the transfer again. OK, back to the film itself. Gilles meets up with Nathalie (Claudine Auger) and there's love at first sight; however, their relationship gets rocky since they really don't seem to have a lot in common. Possibly love at first sight is overrated.
We are, I think, intended to feel that this film is a serious love story, deeply involving, with profound and tender emotions being expressed on the screen. Now, the film doesn't actually succeed in presenting itself as such, but it certainly tries very hard. We get extensive use of long, slow camera shots, shots that linger on the characters' faces as they stare soulfully toward each other or toward the camera without speaking. I assume that this is to convey their deep inner emotions rather than "I have forgotten my lines and the director is still running the camera so I can't just stop." The camera also attempts to add dramatic tension to a few shots by focusing on, say, someone's hand and then moving ever so slowly upward to finally settle on his or her face. Alas, the effect is not to create dramatic tension, per se, but the tension of wanting to reach for the fast-forward button on the remote. The music is likewise used as a sort of bludgeon to try to coerce the viewer into the right mood, sometimes being sappily sentimental (but never particularly memorable) and sometimes, during key scenes, cutting out entirely to leave us staring in (presumably dramatic) silence at the scene.
As the film rolls ponderously to a close, a literary quotation (from which the title is drawn) is displayed; if we hadn't figured it out already, it alerts us to the fact that the film was a tragic love story. Incidentally, it also cements the pretentious air of the film, but that was probably unintentional. And indeed, I'll have to agree that A Few Hours of Sunlight is pure tragedy. Gilles is unhappy. Nathalie is unhappy. After watching this film for an hour and forty-five minutes, the viewer is sure to be unhappy too.
Vanguard has delivered another dismal DVD transfer with A Few Hours of Sunlight; while I applaud their efforts to get little-known and foreign films onto DVD, many of the transfers have been of frankly appalling quality.
Let's start with the butchery of the aspect ratio. A Few Hours of Sunlight is presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, when in fact it's quite evident that it was originally 1.66:1. How can I be so sure? Well, the tell-tale slim black bars on the top and bottom of the image are a tip-off, and the fact that the opening credits are lopped off on the sides is a bit of a clue. What were they thinking? To take the widescreen image and lop off the sides to make it into a 1.33:1 aspect ratio is simply bizarre; it's not like Vanguard has never released a widescreen movie before.
Apart from having part of the image hacked off, how does it look? Well, "ghastly" comes to mind. The image is extremely washed-out, with the picture appearing in faded shades of gray and brown for the most part, except for the occasional brighter color like red that sticks out. However, even the bright colors are peculiar-looking, as we get an odd fluctuation of hue; it's particularly noticeable in the actor's faces. Other color haloes appear throughout the film as well.
The gray, tired-looking print is also in extremely poor condition, with a constant flickering array of scratches and dirt showing up in the image. But then, it's clear that this is a straight VHS to DVD transfer: in the opening sequence, we even get the typical worn-videotape effect of the image and sound being distorted as the tape gets started.
For added weirdness, the English subtitles are mysteriously missing apostrophes, which makes for a rather peculiar effect; and yes, I do mean that all of the apostrophes are missing. Oh, and the subtitles are burned-in. At least they seem to be spelled correctly... for the most part.
A Few Hours of Sunlight has a French-language Dolby 2.0 audio track. How does it rate? Well, you can hear the actors talking. Most of the time. The rest of the time, the sound is very flat and muffled, so the dialogue is quite indistinct. This general lack of clarity is no doubt worsened by the persistent and quite loud background hiss in the soundtrack.
There are no special features on this DVD, unless you count scene selections and a functional menu interface. In all seriousness, the plastic keepcase is very good as well: Vanguard's cases are actually the best I've seen. They're distinctive-looking since they're clear plastic instead of black, and the DVD spindle holds the DVD securely but not too tightly: I've never had a Vanguard DVD come loose in transit, but they're very easy to remove from the case.
The English subtitles are not optional.
I'm sorry to say that A Few Hours of Sunlight simply has too poor a DVD transfer to recommend it in any way. The movie itself is dull and utterly unengaging, but even those who like it would be well advised to stay away from this horrible transfer, which adds insult to injury by presenting the film incorrectly in a chopped-off 1.33:1 transfer of the original widescreen image.