Purity & Invention: a Claude Sautet Retrospective

by A. Jay Adler on September 27, 2012
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From August 1-9 this summer, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a long overdue retrospective of the films of Claude Sautet (1924-2000). Probably best known to younger, more contemporary audiences for his late flowering of 1990s films Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (Nelly and Mr. Arnaud), Sautet established his reputation during a 1970s peak – with semi-regular actors such as Romy Schneider, Yves Montand, and Michel Piccoli – that included such films as Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970),Vincent, François Paul et les autres… (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, 1974), and Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978). My consideration of Sautet’s aesthetic and themes appears in the September issue of Senses of Cinema.

Sautet told stories mostly of middle class French life, for which detractors – those for whom the middle class must always be a political object lesson – criticized him. For some, middle class life can never be particular, personal lives contextualized in culture, time, and place; rather, middle classness must be depicted always as a social malady, either ideological cause or spiritual symptom. In these cases, then, we do not even refer to the “middle class,” which is often, in liberal democracies, a political designation of striving national aspiration and economic empathy. When, rather, it is aesthetically or ideologically politicized, the middle class is the bourgeoisiehaute when ridiculed, petit when contemned.

However, Sautet represented his characters at an immediate temporal and relational level, without historical or ideological didacticism: they are indeed striving, small, loyal and compromised, friends, bon vivants, failures, and sell- outs, despairing and hopeful, passionately in love and out, and fully, sensuously enraptured and ensnared by “the things of life,” the title of the film that gave Sautet a reputation, and which seems so aptly to sum up his vision and his style. How best to convey this immersion in a certain French quotidian – what became for so many the vision of French life in those years – than to utilize fully, symphonically all the elements of film together?

Frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie’s screenplay of Vincent, François, Paul and the Others is literate and sharp, like a reasonably smart and entertaining friend at a party, but you will go home recalling not a single brilliant thing that was said. No one quotes favourite lines from Sautet films. The plot consists, as in The Things of Life and A Simple Story, of only the smaller and greater crises in the lives of some middle-aged and younger people. Composer Philippe Sarde, another regular collaborator, still at work, and ubiquitous in the French cinema of the 70s, provides a score alternately melancholy and unobtrusively buoyant, projecting both the intense drama of our personal turning points and the common hopefulness that will lead us from one day to the next.

From a middle distance in Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, characters are often seen through glass, of home windows, office windows, car windows. They appear less theatrically arranged than observed, even spied upon, as in the closing shot, when the four male friends, three older, one younger, emerge from a café as from all of their recent travails, talking in tones, along with the music, of mild, probably fanciful hopefulness for the future. They are picked out in the camera’s focus amid the many pedestrians and the busy traffic through which they cross the street, and when they pause at the next intersection, the camera freezes them still in the most artful, causal assemblage of postures and gazes – a mid-shot, through a telephoto lens, as from a spy film. From somewhere in the galaxy, they came to watch and study, a slide presented of some people of a certain age in a city at a given time in a region they call France.

You can read the whole essay here.

AJA

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