1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.
In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.
La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.
There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.
It’s a very deft film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection. In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.
The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.
Simone Signoret being great
La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.
In his lushly illustrated new book, Moments That Made The Movies (Thames and Hudson, 2013), David Thomson, referring to the famous nightclub scene in Morocco where Dietrich sings ‘Quand l’amour meurt’ before kissing a woman and then throwing Gary Cooper the flower she takes from her, writes: ‘the moment is weightier than the film, and more enduring. But these days people like to take their films in bits and pieces – video allowed for that – so one day it may be that no one makes full movies any more, just arresting moment.’
Claude Sautet is responsible for more than his share of arresting 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 someone!’ in César et Rosalie; the introduction of Romy Schneider, ‘irised’ through a spyglass, in Max et les ferrailleurs; and many more. His cinema has more than its share of moments that startle either with beauty, meaning or emotion. But his films are always greater than, add up to more than, those moments. Un mauvais fils is no exception.
In Un mauvais fils/ A Bad Son, Paris is seething with strikes, demonstrations, protests but none of the characters in the film can think of anything but their own internal ache. They walk the same streets as people who are aware of and engaged with the surrounding world, drink with them in bars, pass by posters that interpellate involvement and participation from others but which they fail to see. Their thoughts are elsewhere: on what they could have done, should have done, should have been; or on their next fix — the latter being a sign of the failure to measure up to all of the former.
Patrick Dewaere, a singular star and iconic presence of 1970s French cinema, is beautifully cast as Bruno Calgagni, the ‘bad’ son who went to study in America only to be locked up for five years for dealing the heroin he was hooked on but could no longer afford to buy. The film begins as he returns to Paris, where the police greet him at the airport and tell us what got him to that moment. He returns home to find a father who’s loving but also impatient and increasingly reproachful, his very face a picture of disappointment. The son tries to please but always seems to put his foot in it. A scene where he’s drinking with his father at a bar and attempts to impress him by picking up two women, possibly professionals, one for each of them, only to be met by his father’s outrage and disgust is particularly poignant, squirm-inducing and, as we will learn later, hypocritical.
Father and son are loving, both trying their best but failing, albeit each in his own way. The awkwardness, misunderstandings and careless hurtings continue until the father accuses the son of being responsible for his mother’s death; that the shame and hurt he caused her incited a spiral of depression that lead to her taking her own life. This accusation, a breaching of silence that opens the floodgates of anger and blame, is a climactic moment and turning point in the narrative.
We are introduced to Dewaere at the beginning of the film already looking like a cock-eyed spaniel eager to please but bewildered at being wounded, finding himself unloved and drifting in the world through a haze of hurt — that aspect of Bruno doesn’t fundamentally change. He’ll be just as angelic, child-like, sensitive, honourable and manly throughout the rest of the film. But be it careless or cruel, his father’s accusation spurs Bruno to action: his response is to leave the apartment they’re sharing, find a job, make his own way in the world and find his own woman.
Bruno will echo, rhyme, repeat and return his father’s behaviour later in the film when the tables are turned: he will prove himself his father’s son and be just as accusatory and unforgiving when he finds that the affair his father is currently involved with had started way before and might have been just as responsible for his mother’s state of mind as his being in an American jail. It will take him the rest of the film to forgive and come to terms with the father he’s clearly always loved.
Bruno finds some peace when he finds work in an antiquarian bookshop, meets a lovely gay couple and falls in love with Catherine (Brigitte Fossey), herself a former junky. He’s been off the smack for five years; she’s not quite off it, not yet. The film shows the progression of their affair with great tenderness and humanity and without eschewing any of the complexities that such a relationship entails. One of the most touching and moving sequences is when Bruno, understanding of Catherine’s need, lovingly tweaks her with heroin. All this is shown with the arm injected off screen to reduce the most voyeuristic dimension of such a representation and to focus on feeling. The film is refreshingly non-judgmental regarding the drug-taking, really treating it as an illness that good people fall prey to and suffer from rather than, as is often the case, attributing their drug-taking to a lack of character, morals and will.
A LANDMARK REPRESENTATION OF MALE HOMOSEXUALITY
If the film’s representation of heroin addicts is sensitive and humane, its representation of gay men seems to me a landmark, one that deserves greater attention, and is one of many reasons to seek out this film. Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet:Homosexuality in the Movies, published a year after the release of Un mauvais fils details a long and damning list of derogatory stereotypes through which homosexuality had been glimpsed to that point, usually briefly; and often only to be feared, derided or extinguished: the evil lesbian, the pansy, the butt of humour, the subject of suicide etc;
In Un mauvais fils, the contours of the representation remain stereotypical; they’re a short-cut, a way of knowing, and with a root in the real. Thus Adrien (Jacques Fulfilho) is an antiquarian dealing in old books, bourgeois, mad about opera, and supporting a younger foreign lover, Carlos. But as with so much of Sautet’s work, the character is so complex, so human that actor and director endow those contours with shape and shading and thus exceed them.
Adrien loves Catherine, wants to help Bruno, is understanding of all, is the catalyst for the film’s conclusion and, more importantly, figures as as the film’s moral conscience. Un mauves fils even accords him his own little aria, which, whilst not up to the heights of Mimi’s in the La Boheme he loves so much, is such a great speech, such a landmark speech in a history of the representation of gay men in cinema that I attach a clip below and a rough transcript of what he tells Bruno below that. Dulfilho, won a César, the French equivalent of an Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actor, for his work here.
Adrien: ‘You might as well jump, it will at least be faster!’
Bruno:‘You don’t know my life…I needed to escape, at least once’
Adrien: ‘There’s no escape bar jumping out the window! Escape! From what? From oneself? From others? From loneliness? From fear? We escape? We go for a walk? To go where? Here is how things are: it’s nine am, I’m 63, I look at myself and I’m cold and I’m homosexual and I’m covered in debts. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my life, the bookstore, Carlos. I’d love to get drunk and then when the effects have worn off I’d be thirty, I’d own the bookstore, everyone would be homosexual, those that are not would be persecuted, Carlos would be left-wing and there’d be no more bullshit! Yes, it would be great! On condition of being able to return obviously.
GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
It is one of the great moments in the film but as I mentioned at the beginning, Sautet’s films, this one included, add up to more than its parts. Sautet’s a humanist in perspective, a classicist in style, and meticulous in all aspects of his filmmaking. See for example, the fluid long takes with scenes shot on a diagonal that somehow creates a vertical space of action on the horizontal wide-screen; or the the subtle and significant shifts in focus as the father and his girlfriend are driving in to work (see clip below). Note too, how in keeping with the themes of the film, the camera often ends on nothingness (see example above), on empty space that is not without significance: the empty space created when characters leave a room to make love in another room so that what they do may be imagined. But also things like the shadow of a staircase bannister once characters have vacated it. This has an effect not unlike that we see in Ozu or on the films of Takeshi Kitano and in Sautet’s film comes across like an extinguished sigh, a place of action where the desired action did not in fact take place.
See also how carefully sound is used, sometimes so that it sets up one scene or continues from another – not unusual but so beautifully done; note too how often we are not permitted to hear what the characters themselves do as a way of creating tension and drama. I’m also very admiring of the colour design of the film (see image capture below), how each scene has its own dominant colour scheme that is carefully choreographed throughout the film’s narrative: the browns and beiges at the beginning, the bright yellows or reds in the construction scenes, the patterning in blue when Brigitte Fossey gets her hankering for her fix in the seaside.
Note too the wonderful editing, sometimes as indicated earlier, lingering a bit too long on the space of action after the action has finished or moved elsewhere but note the beautiful use of dissolves too (see illustrations below); for example, after Bruno vomits in the metro, there’s that wonderful dissolve of the weeping flower over the rainbow and the sky onto the two men at the bookstore. And then, as is so characteristic in this film, the filming is from outside a window so that it reflects the life outside that the characters inside are oblivious too. Truly lovely.
SUBTLE SHIFTS IN FOCUS
SUBTLE USE OF COLOUR DESIGN
DISSOLVE INTO REFLECTIONS OF OUTSIDE
By the time, the film gets to the end, you know, identify, feel for these characters. It’s a melancholy film but one that feels tender and true. The ending with the son just lighting a cigarette and looking lovingly at the father as he sleeps just brims over with unspoken feeling. The film offers no utopian resolution just an understanding, a forgetting, a moving on, a decision to continue and choose love. That feeling is not the result of one moment, it’s the building up of many scenes, many choices of mise-en-scène, many small miracles of acting. It’s very beautiful.
Max et les Ferrailleurs is a noir in colour — bright Eastmancolour in the DVD transfer I saw — fresh as paint, and as brightly coloured as a children’s playground. But it’s a shadowy world that is depicted; one of cops and robbers, bars and cafés, precincts and prostitutes. And if each of the characters that people this world has their reasons for behaving as they do, none of them is saintly and none of their motives are pure.
The film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli), a mono-manically obsessive cop intent on bringing a bunch of two-bit crooks to justice through the manipulations of the psychically bruised but physically peachy Lily (Romy Schneider), the girlfriend of one of the ferrailleurs, the not too bright but not too bad Abel (Bernard Fresson).
As with Les choses de la vie and César et Rosalie, this is another adaptation of a novel — this one by Calude Néron, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sautet and Jean-Loup Dabadie — and another tightly structured, carefully composed and subtly told tale of morally complex people. But Max et les ferrailleurs is a darker film then either although it’s a darkness that is composed by a layering of subtle shadings. First of all, the crooks aren’t really that bad. They’re just a bunch of guys who prefer to spend all day shooting the shit in a junkyard to working. They dream of a score but are really too lazy and unmotivated to do anything about it — until Max sets up his trap for them, a score so easy that they can’t help but fall into it. So who’s the bad guy, the entrapper or the entrapped?
It is no credit to Max that he sets his trap through Lily. We’re told she’s German, born in Bonn, who began street-walking in Munich as a teenager. She’s had a hard life; been pushed into drink and drugs from pillar to post throughout Germany by abusive pimps — to the point where she’s survived a suicide attempt. She’s finally free of all that and is, as Inspector Rosinsky (François Périer) tells Max, if not someone, at least something. She’s in a pleasant, not too involved relationship with the easy-going and rather nice Abel and she’s at home in Nanterre.
It turns out that Max knows the amiable Abel from when they did they did their military service together. Abel doesn’t ask Lily for money and he doesn’t mind that she turns tricks for a living. Max isn’t a bad person, or at least he doesn’t begin that way, but he’s effectively entrapping his friend by paying for the services of his woman. Moreover, Abel is the friendly and nice one. The worse that can be said of Abel is that he’s not ambitious and doesn’t quite stick to the letter of the law. But that is at least as true of Max.
In order to entrap the gang, Max hires Lily. He pays her a lot, too much for someone who pretends he only wants to talk. In fact, it’s through these talks that he begins spinning his web. But he also can’t help looking at her, taking endless photographs and papering the walls of his rented flat with them. She begins to see him as something more than a trick too. They develop feelings for each other as they talk, feelings that they sense but can’t quite admit to; after all, there’s money involved. The camera loves Romy Schneider. Max loves looking at Romy/Lily through the camera. We love what we see, even what he sees, though his looking overlaps into a voyeurism that we share, but tinged with a perversity that begins to make us a little uncomfortable. We love Romy Schneider. Lily’s done nothing bad to Max. Yet, she senses an easy score and is not above setting up a robbery of the bank Max pretends to run.
Max et les ferrailleurs is shot in fluid long-takes. It doesn’t feel as the kind of cinema that blows you away by its use of the medium – it’s certainly not self-consciously ‘cinematic- — until you go over how the story is told in your mind, and think of how subtly, how beautifully, how classically, how economically and how powerfully what is shown and how it is shown affects how you understand and what you feel.
I’ll linger on two scenes here as brief examples. The first (see above) is our introduction of Lily. In a subtle, narrationally motivated way, Sautet gives Romy Schneider a fabulous star entrance. We see her through Max. In fact his face goes in and out of focus as we see what he sees. An iris, meant to stand in for the long end of the telescope, provides a space in which Romy and Abel then appear. We know she’s a prostitute partly because of how she’s smoking and walking and mostly because of what she’s wearing: a ribbon around her neck tied into a jauntily-angled bow (Romy’s signature look for this film, she will wear such a ribbon in different colours in most scenes with Max), high-heeled ankle-strapped shoes, and a shiny black vinyl raincoat that might be a nod to Joan Bennet’s iconic streetwalker look as Kitty March in Fritz Lang’s Scarlett Street (1945).
Soon Max’s attention focuses strictly on Lily. His telescope, which began following first the gang and then the couple starts following her movements rather than Abel’s. In fact, his first question to Inspector Ronsinsky is a follow-up for context and background to the interest first aroused scopically. After the Inspector gives Max and us this background plot (the unenviable but inevitable task of ‘supporting players’ in the type of film where stars are, protagonists do, and the rest of the characters tell), we return to look at Lily, and though the images we see at first illustrate what the voice is telling us, that Nanterre has become her home, they also exceed that telling. We see that she’s beautiful, we see that she’s happy, we see that she’s part of a community, her window looks out on a world that calls to her and that she’s a part of; and she’s got Abel, nice Abel, a man who clearly is fulfilling her sexually and supporting her emotionally, in the background, behind her, and to her delight. This is the pleasant and pleasantly functional, if maybe not rapturously joyful, world that Max, with his quest for ‘justice’, will destroy.
The other moment I’d like to linger on is the moment Max succeed in capturing the crooks and goes to tell Lily with the intent of reassuring her that she’s in the clear. A gendarme blows his whistle almost as if to announce the moment. The film then cuts to Max going into a café. The camera follows Max as he goes into the café but then remains outside as he goes towards Lily (the camera first moving right but then left). Why does Sautet leave the camera out? What distance is being created? It’s interesting too that there’s a mirror behind Lily so that his reflection is present in Lily’s reaction to what he’s done. The moment, however, is Piccoli’s as it suddenly dawns on him that he hasn’t only captured crooks, he’s destroyed lives, he’s de-facto put a death-warrant on Lily, he’s destroyed a potential future for them both, in fact, he realizes he’s worse than the poor sods, too lazy to even devise their own hold-up that he’s just put behind bars. Every nuance of perception and feeling is visible on Piccoli’s face, all understated but understandable. It’s an absolutely great moment in the film.
Max et les ferrailleurs is full of such moments: elegant, outwardly simple, seemingly casual, none of it drawing attention to itself, but capable of expressing all the complexities of what it is to be human in a series of unfoldings that deepen into a highly pitched but silent scream of feeling. A wonderful film.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
César et Rosalie is the kind of film current cinema seems to have given up on: about love; small scale but thought through; each shot both a picture worth looking at and a space of feeling; and about something worth feeling too, which is to say it’s about that which hurts.
César (Yves Montand) loves Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Years before, Rosalie had loved David (Sami Frey), an art designer and illustrator, but he moved to New York for work. On the rebound, she married an artist, Simon (Dimitri Petricenkio) and had a child with him, Catherine. Neither cared for the other enough to stay together but they each love their child and get on very well as a result. As the film begins, she’s with César, a rich dealer in scrap metal, rough-hewn, extrovert, manly, in many ways the opposite of the quieter and more artistic David. César is head-over-heels in love with Rosalie. But then, David reappears.
Two men in love with the same women is a staple of Hollywood cinema. But there, the bigger star always wins, even in Lubitsch’s Design for Living (and by-the-by, Ralph Bellamy is perhaps the most famous never-quite-a-star who made a career of playing the man who lost out in films of the 30s and 40s)). There was another type of film, one where men were equals in relation to their feelings for the woman, and where they in fact bond with each other over their feelings for her (which she reciprocates towards both, though maybe not at the same time or when they want or need it most). In this type of film, which begins to appear later, the woman is the central character: Truffaut’s film might be called Jules et Jim but its plot is all about Catherine; and the camera is completely in love with the woman who plays her, Jeanne Moreau. Perhaps due to the influence of ‘La Nouvelle vague’ in general and Jules et Jim in particular, there was a vogue for this type of scenario in the 1970s: Mike Nichol’s The Fortune (1975) is but one example; and in fact Paul Mazursky even directed a loose remake of Jules et Jim called Willie and Phil (1980) which I remember liking very much. César et Rosalie is part of this cycle, at the very beginning of it in fact, and in my view, the best exemplar of it.
But let’s return to the beginning. César and David interact before they meet, in a competitive car chase to the wedding of Rosalie’s mother that César loses. César is a man who is not used to being challenged much less beat. And, in relation to Rosalie, it’s not David that beats him, more a kind of nostalgia Rosalie has for that which never was between her and David that nonetheless remains a whisper of a yearning, one which César’s crude attempts to drive David away inflames into a shout . She still longs for dreamy, artistic David. But she continues to love earthy, business-savvy César. He in turn does everything possible to keep her, not only buying her a country house but, eventually, even bringing David to her. Near the end of the film, she flees from both but, in the process of losing her, the men discover they like each other and become firm friends.
At the end, as César and David are eating by a window, the camera shows us Rosalie, seen behind an iron gate, arriving in a taxi. The camera then cuts back to the men and we see David looking at César looking at her. David’s always been the one who loved without desiring. César’s love has been total, focused, certain. However, as the camera returns to Rosalie, the frame freezes, a throb, a heartbeat before we can be really sure of who she’s returning for; perhaps she’s returning for both.
These nuances of feeling, mixed up, uncertain, sometimes with emotion at battle with reason is one of the things that makes viewing César and Rosalie such a rich and lovely experience. Another is that though Rosalie loves both, she’s never really confused about her own feelings. She’s not only honest to others but to herself; and Romy Schneider, lovely in every film I’ve seen her in, is especially touching here. There’s something feline, fragile but honest about her Rosalie. She seems gentler than everyone else in the movie, elegantly melancholy as if the tinge of sadness that envelops her weighs down her movements; as if her integrity, her principles,and her honesty, were burdens impossible to shake.
Montand is also a joy. He’s at his most likeable and best here. I’d forgotten how sexy he can be; big, light of step but with a firm stride, short of thuggish but capable of brutishness; and with a showman’s eagerness to please. He makes us understand why César is a successful businessman and shows us that charm is part of the arsenal he draws upon in his constant battle to win. One gets a sense not only that he sees Rosalie as a class above, as almost too good for him, but that the intensity of his emotions have taken him by surprise. Montand has a way of jutting his shoulders back, tilting his head up and flashing a great big smiles that shows he’s a seducer who knows how to charm, and charm all: men, women children. We see him in action, singing, telling stories, and he’s at all times believable: we’re as delighted as the audience within the film. Yet there’s also the panic in his eyes, and the sadness ,and the bursts of violence over what happens. We see that, although he might be a class below David and Rosalie economically, his feelings are as pure, as honest and as refined as anybody’s.
The film is produced by Michelle de Brocca and beautifully mounted with superb production values. Phillip Sarde’s music has a jaunty electronic urgency that gallops situation and feeling along. Sautet stages scenes in long takes with, and I’d never thought I’d use this phrase, an elegant and restrained use of the zoom. Characters express their feelings in beautiful locations beautifully filmed by Jean Boffety and the locations and the way they are filmed are part of the way the film expresses those feelings. Schneider wears a glorious Yves St. Laurent wardrobe, amongst the most elegant 70s fashions you can hope to see, particular in terms of clothes worn as everyday wear, that I would like to know more about. We even hear Michel Piccoli as a discrete voice-over narrator filling in some of the backstory but in a way that deepens and enriches: we never get the feeling he’s telling us all there is to know.
Here’s the beauty and strangeness of César and Rosalie: there’s a sense in which the wardrobe, locations and situations are somehow addressed to a female audience; the plot also seems to centre on the woman; and yet, it is the character of César who is the vehicle for and bears the burden of feeling. And it is perhaps that combination that makes it seem so rare and special, particularly when packaged as a glamorous, commercial, big-star vehicle. César and Rosalie is exquisite.