MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady Klady@moviecitynews.com

Leonard Klady on Claude Sautet

About a month ago the American Cinematheque screened what I mistook for the French filmmaker Claude Sautet’s first directing credit, Classe tous risqués. I’d seen the film relatively recently when the Los Angeles Film Critics presented Jean-Paul Belmondo with a career achievement award. It’s the tale of a gangster on the run (Lino Ventura) and his driver (Belmondo) and is largely distinguished by the two central performances, particularly the coiled spring that was the young JPL and was the point of departure for his iconic persona.

Sautet had been an assistant director and screenwriter who along with the likes of Jose Giovanni and Jacques Deray were associated with genre films, especially policiers. So following 20 years of working in the trenches it was a shock that his breakthrough would come with Les Choses de la vie (1970), a meditation on life that was uncompromising and devastating. And although he would occasionally return to the thriller format, it’s sagas of the bourgeoisie that he’s most identified with and provides his legacy.

Five of those films have been restored and are touring with the Los Angeles dates beginning this weekend at the Laemmle Royale. In addition to Les Choses de la vie, the program focuses on his work in the early 1970s, Cesar et Rosalie, Max et les farrailleurs, Vincent, Francois, Paul et les autres and his final film (Sautet died in 2000) Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud released in 1995.

On a personal note, those “early” films shaped my attitude toward the French. His characters were recognizably flawed but not unbowed. They were elegant, witty, impeccably mannered and struggled to do the right thing. They did in the clinch unless wholly unforeseeable elements prevailed. I rarely encountered them when I began to travel to France. It was a tremendous disappointment only somewhat placated by the release of a new film by M. Sautet.

His work is readily embraceable. He was an elegant filmmaker with a precise, unfussy visual sensibility. Characters emerged into the sunshine and he allows his performers to play or rather stretch often well worn screen personalities. He essentially reinvented Romy Schneider who appears to have been his muse. The brittleness of the German-born ingénue evolved into the quintessence of the mature, sexy and conflicted Frenchwoman.

In César and Rosalie, Schneider is the elusive object of desire for Yves Montand. He cannot help his compulsion as much as she cannot accept his kindness and decency and makes bad decisions that involve her former lover. It is a film about not committing with elements of surprising friendships and twists that suggest that any one the principle characters might just make a radical change.

In re-viewing Sautet’s oeuvre I was struck by his ability to impose a thriller-like structure to his human dramas without losing the emotional potency of the material. He was consumed by reversals; he had a rat-trap perspective of “this is” and “what if” and it all flowed organically from the people that populated his stories.

In a fashion he was drawn to a sort of drawing room structure whether that literally transpired in a room or at a countryside outing. Again and again characters seek to recapture something of their past through someone that’s seemingly unattainable. It’s an aspect that intensified as his career progressed and was central to Un Coeur en hiver (not part of the series) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud. In the latter the title folk are a young woman in a miserable marriage and an old businessman that befriends her. Arnaud (the ever brilliant Michel Serrault) extends her a kindness and once she extricates herself from the shackles of her daily travails he asks her to assist in the writing of his memoirs.

Without the trope of endless flashbacks, Nelly manages to convey the past and in so doing Arnaud appears to believe he is that young man. Obviously untrue but never sentimentalized, it is the stirring of old emotions that she retains immunity to as she carries on her own life. It’s bittersweet like so much of Sautet’s work without losing its sense of humor or the undying affection he instilled in his work.

 

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas