Claude Sautet is the finest French filmmaker you've probably never heard of, a discerning craftsman who began his career in the late 1950s only to be swept aside by the unstoppable New Wave. Sautet was simply never a Nouvelle Vague type: He began his career as a screenwriter — he was a script doctor on Georges Franju's chilling, dry-ice elegant Eyes Without a Face — and his early pictures, like the 1960 Classe Tous Risques (featuring Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo) fit the classic gangster mold that was just then going out of fashion. Although Sautet worked as a screenwriter throughout the 1960s, it wasn't until 1970, with his tender, bittersweet romantic drama Les Choses de la Vie (The Things of Life), that audiences really took notice. Just as Jean-Luc Godard got boring, Sautet got cooking.
Sautet died in 2000 at age 76, and even if his output as a director was relatively slender (he made just fourteen features in all), the films he did make were so intelligent and supple that it's surprising they've been largely ignored or forgotten. Rialto Pictures and Coral Gables Art Cinema are about to remedy that with new DCP versions of five Sautet classics: The Things of Life, Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971); César and Rosalie (1972); Vincent, François, Paul, and the Others (1974); and the director's final film, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995). Together, these pictures constitute a mini Sautet masterclass.
Sautet's touch was watercolor-light, almost glancing, but the everyday problems he wrestled with — the boredom that sets in even with true love, or the sudden thundercloud revelation that the person you adore just may be in thrall to someone else — are the things that, at some point, weigh on us all. His characters were largely members of the Parisian bourgeoisie; in other words, their issues were mostly what we'd call white-people problems. But Sautet's films don't spring from a place of entitlement — their lilting grace is a kind of humility. Feelings are implied rather than overtly shown, and that's not just because Sautet's characters tend to follow proper social norms. It's because Sautet seems to know that life is just too damn delicate to be rendered in big, flashy loops.
In Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, Emmanuelle Béart plays a married woman, deeply in debt, who accepts the financial help of a wealthy older man, played by Michel Serrault. He talks her into helping him write his memoirs, and the relationship that develops takes some turns that seem sinister. But Serrault's performance, shaped gently by the ocean rhythms of Sautet's filmmaking, pushes the picture into a place of unexpected tenderness. When Serrault tells Béart that he made his money in real estate, "making Paris ugly," it comes off as the most intimate confession — but the suggestion is that if he hadn't done it, this beautiful young woman might never have come into his life. Even if it's a sin to sell off one kind of beauty, sometimes another sort can appear, like a glowing second chance. There's no easy resolution to Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, which is what makes it so touching — and far from sentimental.
Sautet had favorite actors, and they show up in several of these films: Michel Piccoli, with his worried leonine face, appears in The Things of Life, as well as crime drama Max et les Ferrailleurs, and Vincent, François, Paul, and the Others, a portrait of three men staring down midlife crises. Yves Montand, with his fabulous, rubbery features, appears both in Vincent and in César and Rosalie, a piquant half-comedy about a three-way romance.
But Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider may have been Sautet's true favorite. Schneider made five films with Sautet, including Things of Life, Max, and César. Her death, in 1982, at age 43, affected him deeply, but his movies helped preserve her mysterious, captivating spark.
In The Things of Life, Schneider plays Hélène, the young woman with whom Piccoli's architect Pierre is openly having an affair. But Pierre still has strong ties to his wife (played by the stunning Lea Massari, of L'Avventura and Murmur of the Heart) and teenage son. He's not sure if he should break things off with Hélène. We find all of this out just as Pierre suffers a possibly fatal car crash: His life hangs in the balance, and its recent events unfold in flashback — his worries literally the stuff of life and death.
Sautet captures Schneider's quiet eroticism solely in the way he focuses on the nape of her neck or the curve of her honey-toned shoulders. Hélène doesn't always wear the glasses she needs, but when she puts them on — they're old-school tortoiseshell numbers — she's even sexier, a sly inversion of the old trope in which the four-eyed secretary type must remove her specs to become beautiful. No wonder Pierre is mad about her, but she's slightly elusive, too, a vision he can't quite get his arms around.
A serendipitous fashion-history bonus of Sautet's films is that his characters, mostly well-heeled sophisticates, are often decked out in pretty terrific clothes: Schneider gets a fab assortment of mod Courrèges shifts in The Things of Life, and a swoon-worthy wardrobe of French-preppy Yves Saint Laurent separates in César and Rosalie. But as beautiful as Schneider is — with her broad, noble brow and secretive smile — she's anything but passive. In César, she once again plays the object of a man's desire: In this case, it's Montand's freewheeling, self-made businessman César who strives to hang onto her. When one of Rosalie's old lovers shows up (played by the almost comically dreamy Sami Frey), César's anxiety causes him to act out in ways that are deeply unbecoming.
Through it all, Schneider's Rosalie is mostly unflappable. When she does reach the end of her rope with César, it's easy to see why. As Rosalie, a woman used to the luxe life, she's serene and regal, but hardly untouchable: Her loyalty to César, captured in the way she delights in his bumbling efforts to please her, is one of her finest qualities. She laughs at his stupid jokes; she pokes fun, gently, at the way his suit has gone all rumpled after he's suffered a string of indignities. There's joy and light in her face nearly every moment — no wonder Sautet loved to film her. The rich are different from you and me. But when they radiate as much life as Schneider does, how can we look away?
Claude Sautet Retrospective
Opens Friday, September 11, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, 260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables; 786-385-9689; gablescinema.com.