The Lumière Festival’s Claude Sautet retrospective is being presented under the banner “The Age of Sautet (1960-95),” and that just about says it all. In the years he was active, few French directors better channeled the spirit of their times — not in grand, sweeping gestures, but rather miniature brushstrokes: the way a man and a woman might sit in a boulevard cafe, and the things both spoken and unspoken that might pass between them there; the moments of ease and anxiety around a family dinner table; the disappointments of parents in their children, and vice-versa. These are films that are at once indelibly French but also unassailably human. When I programmed a Sautet retrospective for the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2012, I chose an even simpler title, taken directly from one of his own films: “The Things of Life.”
That movie, made in 1970, was actually Sautet’s fourth, but the first to achieve success at home and abroad. It was even remade (badly) in Hollywood in 1994 as “Intersection,” starring Richard Gere and Sharon Stone. “Things” (“Les choses de la vie” in French) begins with the aftermath of a violent car crash along a rural motorway. A man (Michel Piccoli) lies in a semi-conscious stupor amidst the burning wreckage of his MG, and as he does his life flashes before his (and our) eyes — specifically, his complex entanglement with two very different women: his dutiful, long-suffering wife (Lea Massari) and his adoring, free-spirited mistress (the luminous Romy Schneider, in the first of five films she would make with Sautet). What follows is a remarkable portrait of the compromises of marriage and the fickle stirrings of the human heart, structured as an intricate narrative jigsaw: “Gone Girl” avant la lettre.
It was the start of a prolific decade for Sautet, during which his films were enormously popular at the French box office and widely distributed internationally, including America (where he was championed by Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, among others), but ignored by posh festivals and treated with outright hostility by the angry young men of Cahiers du cinema. The argument against Sautet (who was a generational contemporary of the French New Wave, but never a part of it) was that he was a bourgeois director concerned with rich people’s problems, but while that may describe Sautet’s favored milieu, several of his greatest films (“A Few Days with Me, “Mado,” “Max and the Junkmen,”) moved freely and revealingly between disparate social strata, or showed us the bourgeoisie holding on to their eroding privilege by their fingertips.
Sautet and his frequent writing partner, Jean-Loup Dabadie, were masters of the intricately triangulated menage-a-trois, as in the delightful “Cesar and Rosalie” (1972), where bohemian cartoonist Sami Frey and wealthy businessman Yves Montand become unlikely BFFs while competing for the see-sawing affections of their mutual mistress (Schneider again); “A Simple Story” (1978), in which Schneider is an industrial designer drawn back into the arms of her ex-husband (Bruno Cremer) after abandoning her alcoholic lover (Claude Brasseur); and the extraordinary “Max” (1971), whose titular detective (Piccoli) finds himself falling for the beautiful prostitute (Schneider) he uses to ensnare her petty-crook boyfriend (Bernard Fresson) into a diabolical trap.
Arguably Sautet’s greatest achievement, “Max” sits neatly between the two opposing polarities of the director’s oeuvre: the stylish but commercially unsuccessful thrillers (“Classe tous risques” and “The Dictator’s Guns”) with which he began his career and the sophisticated social dramas with which his name eventually became synonymous. That may go some way towards explaining why “Max” fell through the cracks and went undistributed in America for 40 years, until being rescued by the invaluable Rialto Pictures (who had previously reissued “Classe tous risques”) in 2012. On the occasion of the film’s belated release, some American critics noted a connection between Piccoli’s amoral crime fighter and two other renegade cops of the same cinematic era: “Dirty” Harry Callahan and The French Connection’s Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. But in his mix of cool impassivity and barely concealed power lust, his conflation of entrapment and enforcement, Max shares even more with the fascist stooge, Clerici, who calmly watches as his erstwhile lover is assassinated before his eyes in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”
Sautet (who died of cancer in 2000) hit a fallow stretch in the early 1980s and briefly contemplated quitting cinema, before he sprang back to form with a magnificent late-career run that found him revitalized by a new generation of screenwriting partners (Jacques Fieschi, Jerome Tonnere) and actors (Daniel Auteuil, Emmanuelle Beart). Of those films, the greatest is also Sautet’s last, “Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud” (1995), in which Beart is a freelance literary editor struggling to make ends meet, who agrees to serve as amanuensis for a septuagenarian businessman (the great Michel Serrault) who wishes to write his memoirs. Over the course of their long afternoon sessions, they form a bond that is at once more than mere friendship and less than physical intimacy — two people who are perfect for one another meeting at an imperfect moment in their lives. And one needn’t look too hard at Serrault’s aging eminence grise to find something close to a Sautet self-portrait.
In 2012 at Lincoln Center, it was only possible to show Sautet’s work in faded, damaged 35mm prints (with the exception of the newly restored “Max” and “The Dictator’s Guns”), while most of the films remain unavailable on DVD in the English-speaking world. Another Sautet season, at the BFI last fall, helped to further the cause. For the Lumière Festival, Studiocanal and Pathé have struck new digital copies of all the major titles, in their director-approved versions (for Sautet, a tough critic of his own work, was forever retooling things in the editing room). Now, they await a new audience to give this overlooked master his proper due.