Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life (Claude Sautet, France, 1970)

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Les choses de la vie
Les choses de la vie

The original trailer for the French release in 1970 promised that Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life would be ‘about people, people like you, people to whom things happen, things of life: beautiful, sweet, stupid; things of life that make life worth living’. If the ‘you’ referred to is an ideal ‘you’ – richer, more glamorous, more beautiful – then, the film delivers on that promise.

What might have been.
What might have been.

Les choses de la vie begins with an image of the wheel of a car in a field. We realise that a car has crashed in a rural motorway. Inside the car is Pierre (Michel Piccoli), a successful architect. As he drifts in an out of consciousness, we find out what his life has amounted to, what has been important to him: Catherine (Lea Massari), his wife, whom he’s separated from but  who he still has unresolved feelings for; Helène (Romy Schneider), the mistress who adores him but whom he finds a bit clingy and demanding; the son, suddenly grown-up and growing more distant by the day; his parents; the problems with his job; the things he did wrong and might never get a chance to fix; flashes of joy experienced whilst sailing with his family or kissing his mistress in a meadow.

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Les choses de la vie could so easily be soap opera; could so easily have become what its American re-make, Intersections (Mark Rydell, USA, 1994), turned out to be: a glossy, glamorous melodrama with people one couldn’t relate to and that remained at one remove, as if the pretty-ness of the image was a glass barrier to feeling. Yet, Sautet’s film is something else: even more exquisite to look, but here the look providing a lens through which to see a complex life in a way that is  much deeper, much finer.

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It’s a poetic film, sad, with an emphasis on feeling and on thought rather than on action; where things are felt but hidden, half-said, mis-articulated; where the narrative shows all the complexities that the characters cannot themselves express, may not yet know, may in fact be trying to hide; a film where things are expressed visually and aurally, as befits a film.

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The film is structured around the car-crash, spectacularly choreographed by Gérard Streiff and shown in a variety of ways depending on the mood the film is intent on conveying when it returns to it, as it does throughout the film; it’s the event that anchors the narrative and permits it to drift off in fragments whilst still being experienced as linear; it works as memory, as drifting thought, but it at all times makes sense to the viewer.

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We sometimes see it in slow motion, or with the film speeded up, or even with the film being run backward; and when we return to the accident, we sometimes cut to the witnesses of the crash, sometimes to an event in Pierre’s life; sometimes just to his point-of-view as he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to him. In one instance we see a shiny black boot, stepping on a gorgeous ground of green grass, poppies and little blue flowers. As Pierre tries to focus, and at the very moment in which he realizes he might die, he can still see beauty amongst the black.

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One can understand why Sautet thought Jacqueline Thiédot, chief editor, important enough to come first at the end credits. The film is a masterpiece of editing. But really, the film is a masterpiece for many reasons.

Helène talks about love
Helène talks about love

It’s full of wonderful moments: the two scenes where Pierre and Helène discuss their relationship, first in the elevator and then in the car, where the shadows as the elevator ascends through floors, or the lime yellow of passing traffic, create a murkiness, a lack of clarity, that symbolizes all of the mis-communication, the pain of Helène’s honest and vulnerable expression in the light, or lack of light, of Pierre’s inability to express his own emotions, in the light, or lack of light, of his silence.

Pierre feels as strongly but cannot speak about what he feels.
Pierre feels as strongly but cannot speak about what he feels.

Or the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider at the auction (see clip below), where one can see exactly why Pierre fell in love with her; or those moments of bliss sailing, never to be repeated, already in the past as the image fades to white; or the exquisite pan around the wedding banquet where the dream of what might have been suddenly turns into the nightmarish realization of what actually is in one sweeping camera movement.  This is the work of a truly great director.

Sautet here also enjoys the collaboration of  an extraordinary team. Not only the aforementioned Thiédot but also an intricate screenplay based on the novel by Paul Guimard which Sautet superbly knitted together  with Guimard, Sandro Continenza and Jean-Loup Dabadie, who would later write at least dialogue for many of Sautet’s other films (including the marvellous César et Rosalie). Jean Boffety is director of photography and responsible for very beautiful and  evocative images with a lighting design that signifies; one in which, things are half shown as they are half-spoken, capable of great beauty in that wonderful Eastman colour that picks up primary colours and makes them almost shine (sadly it is also the process most prone to fade and turn to red ). Also the camera renders the space almost sculptural in the way that it frames all that happens as spaces of changeable feeling and meaning; all this greatly aided by Phillipe Sarde’s very beautiful score (the film itself is almost structured as a fugue).

Romy is dressed by Courrèges
Romy is dressed by Courrèges

A popular success, Les choses de la vie was the 8th highest earning film of its year with 2,959, 682 admissions. It won the Louis Delluc Prize for Best Film in 1970. It was also nominated for Golden Palm at 1970 Cannes Film Festival. The film would revitalise the careers of Sautet and Schneider and lead to many future collaborations between them, including Max et les ferrailleurs/ Max and the Junkmen and César et Rosalie, both superb. Les choses de la vie was remade in Hollywood  as Intersections directed by Mark Rydell and with Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Lolita Davidovitch. It might be worth noting that the performances of Piccoli, Schneider and Masari are so great they completely eclipse any memory of the American actors, which I saw first. Courrèges did Romy’s chic, career-girl A-line mini-dresses. Lovely.

To my knowledge, Les choses de la vie is not available in the UK or the US with English sub-titles. I hope someone does something about it soon. It’s only a matter of time before Sautet’s great works are re-disovered. Les choses de la vie is one of them.

José Arroyo

2 thoughts on “Les choses de la vie/ The Things of Life (Claude Sautet, France, 1970)

    […] moments in cinema: the wonderful close-up of Romy Schneider when Michel Piccoli first sees her in Les Choses de la vie; the moment where Yves Montand, full of sea air and lust for life, says, ‘I feel like fighting […]

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    […] with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who […]

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