The title of N.T. Binh’s wonderfully revealing documentary is extremely apt; there was, indeed, a kind of magic about the films of the late French director Claude Sautet, whose major works explored with a seemingly effortless intimacy the lives of middle-class people, their loves, their jealousies, their ambitions and their disappointments. With plentiful use of film clips, well chosen and in pristine condition, and based on hours of audio interviews with Sautet, recorded before his death in July 2000, plus the observations of his collaborators and of his widow, this is an important reminder of the career of a great director. If it encourages retrospective screenings of Sautet’s work, it will have performed a great service, but, in any case, it should be seen at festivals, on the tube and on DVD and VHS formats for years to come.
Sautet was never appreciated in the U.S. as much his contemporaries like, say, Francois Truffaut, though overall his films were at least of equal quality. His best known pics, including “The Things of Life” (1969), “Cesar and Rosalie” (1972), “Vincent, Francois Paul and the Others” (1974) and “A Heart in Winter” (1992), employed some of the top stars of French cinema: Yves Montand, Romy Schneider, Michel Piccoli, Gerard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Beart, Daniel Auteuil among others, and, under Sautet’s meticulous direction, they gave some of their best performances.
Sautet started in the industry as an assistant director, and though he worked with major directors, including Georges Franju and Jacques Becker, he also worked with a great many mediocre ones. He worked, often uncredited, as a script doctor.
His segue to direction came when he replaced Maurice Labro on a Lino Ventura film and then made his first feature, “Classe Tous Risques” (“The Big Risk”), a highly accomplished gangster movie with Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo. When it was released in 1960, the film was overshadowed by the New Wave of young auteurs, including Truffaut, and it was four years before Sautet made his second feature.
This was “L’arme a Gauche,” aka “Guns for the Dictator” (1964), a misguided attempt at a Hollywood-style action film and, again, a disappointed Sautet put his career as director on hold after its generally poor reception.
But, in 1969, he made the film that really established him, “Les Choses de la Vie” (“The Things of Life”) in which Michel Piccoli played a man torn between two women — wife Lea Massari and mistress Romy Schneider — whose life flashes past him after a disastrous car crash. Pic wasinfinitely better than “Intersection,” the belated Hollywood remake. According to Sautet’s widow, Graziella, Schneider provided Sautet with a portrait of the kind of woman he loved, and she positively glowed under his direction.
“Max and the Junkmen” (1971) starred Piccoli as a cop who takes the law into his own hands, but, per Sautet, it was more a film against Stalinism than an anti-police film. It deserves to be better known.
“Cesar and Rosalie” (1972), originally titled “Love at First Sight,” a triangular love story with Schneider, Montand and Sami Frey, was a major success, as was “Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others” (1974).
After “Garcon!” (1983), a superbly choreographed film in which Montand plays a waiter in a busy Paris bistro, there was another long break. Sautet returned to make films with a new generation of actors, including the excellent “A Heart in Winter” (1992), with Daniel Auteuil and Andre Dussollier as rivals for the hand of Emmanuelle Beart; and Beart also starred, memorably, in his final film, “Nelly and M. Arnaud,” as a young woman who goes to work for a much older man (Michel Serrault.)
Though director Binh includes revealing comments from many of Sautet’s collaborators, he curiously only features one of the many actors who worked with Sautet — Jean-Pierre Marielle.
Music was majorly important in Sautet’s films, and the comments of his regular composer, Philippe Sarde, are particularly interesting.