Made a directly after his breakthrough film, 1960's Breathless but not released until 1963, Jean-Luc Godard's film Le Petit Soldat is a very different picture than that auspicious debut and it sees the director playing less with his obvious influences and instead carving out his own unique style.
The politically charged film takes place during the Algerian war for independence from France. The setting is Geneva, and introduces us to Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a Frenchman who has deserted the army he was in, now making a living as a newspaper photographer. He also does work for an underground organization with anti-Algerian leanings based out of Switzerland. He's also very much in love with a beautiful Russian woman named Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina, in her debut role). When this group asks him to assassinate a radio host with Algerian sympathies, he gets caught in the middle and is captured and then tortured by his own team, men who now suspect him as working as a double agent.
"Cinema is truth 24 times per second."
It was this torture scene that got Godard into some hot water with French authorities that were none too impressed to see their own government called out for sanctioning torture and led to the film being shelved for three years. Even after it got a wider release, it still remains a lesser known entry in the director's filmography, at least when compared to more popular pictures like the aforementioned debut and pictures like Weekend and Masculine, Feminine. Still, Le Petit Soldat is a very well made and interesting film. You can easily draw comparisons here between Subor's character in this picture and Belmondo's in Breathless, as we get the impression that neither one of them takes their respective profession particularly seriously (Subor being a secret agent and Belmondo being a gangster). This causes problems for both men, and again, there are parallels with their relationships with women as well, the obsession is there in both pictures and both couples (Subor and Karina and Belmondo and Jean Seburg) have long, informal conversations about life that are somehow fascinating to listen to even when, on paper at least, they have no right to be. The performances from our two leads are great. You can already tell in this picture, early in their work together, how much Godard's camera loved Karina, she's framed beautifully throughout. She and Subor have an interesting and amiable chemistry and like so many of his characters from this period, come across as effortlessly cool.
Production values are strong here. While the film was made on a modest budget Godard captures some impressive images throughout. The cinematography is excellent and the editing is slick and quick, sometimes quite quirky. There's great use of shadow and light throughout, the black and white film stock adding an element of noirish visuals to the proceedings. There's plenty of food for thought tossed to the audience throughout the picture, loads of literary references, nods to the theater, and of course, musings on the state of cinema and of acting. Subor's camera can be seen in certain parts of the film as a stand in for a pistol or a rifle, which makes the metaphorical aspects of certain scenes interesting from both a visual perspective and a socio-political one.
Criterion brings Le Petit Soldat to Blu-ray in a 1.33.1 fullframe 1080p high definition transfer approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard with the feature taking up 27GBs of space on the 50GB disc. The digitally restored picture does show some fluctuations in contrast that look to be from how the picture was shot, but otherwise the black and white image looks very good. The picture is quite clean, showing very little noticeable damage at all. Naturally grainy, the picture is free of any noticeable noise reduction, edge enhancement or compression problems. Depth, detail and texture are frequently quite impressive. Black levels generally look very nice. All in all, the picture quality here is very strong.
The French language 24-bit LPCM Mono track on the disc is understandably limited in range by the original source material but taking that into account, it sounds fine. The score has some depth to it and the levels are properly balanced. There aren't any issues with hiss or distortion worth noting. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.
Extras start off with a quick six-minute Interview With Director Jean-Luc Godard From 1965. Here he sits in a café and speaks briefly about making the picture. The disc also contains a fourteen-minute Interview With Actor Michel Subor From 1963. Shot in a gym, this is a bit more substantial as it allows him to talk about working with Godard and his co-stars and express his thoughts on the picture. Last but not least, we get a half-hour-long Audio Interview With Godard From 1961.
Additionally, the disc comes packaged with an insert booklet that contains an essay by critic Nicholas Elliott as well as credits for the feature and for the Blu-ray release.
Le Petit Soldat is an interesting picture, one that is worth seeing a few times in order to properly digest and a picture ripe with ideas that make you think. It is visually impressive, quirky and wildly creative and so too is it very well-acted and fairly stylish. Criterion's Blu-ray release is a great disc overall, presenting the picture in very nice shape and with a few extras as well. Highly recommended.