MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

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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