A supernatural love story. Romy Schneider plays Line, an airline stewardess hopelessly in love with Pierre Chaillot (Henri Vidal), a rich race-car driver who’s about to marry a heartless princess, Augusta de Munchenberg (Michèle Mercier). The princess leaves the race-car driver to helicopter off with an Italian popstar and Line’s guardian angel takes on her form to make Pierre fall in love with her instead.
It’s a trifle that begins as a madcap Runaway Bride and ends with a runway groom, and not a very good one at that. Why see films from 60 years ago that were not very good then and worse now? Well firstly it’s interesting to see what were considered cinematic attractions then: colour of course, the Riviera setting, the café society life of popstars and princesses, cars and car races, helicopter and airline travel, the glamourising of advertising — all signifiers of modernity, image culture, speed, the high life — and of course the wondrous Romy Schneider, rather bland here but extraordinarily beautiful and given a marvellous moment of transformation when she appears as Pierre’s guardian angel in Line’s body as he’s about to commit suicide over Augusta (see below):
Romy is the star of the film but the perspective is still that of a relay of male looks, and crude ones at that, as we can see below:
If Romy is figuratively crudely undressed via her advertising dummy, the film also puts on display — in a more coy and more dignified way — the body of a very young and very sexy Jean-Paul Belmondo, full of energy and a bit over the top as Pierre Chaillot’s sidekick:
So a film for fans of Romy and Belmondo, a reminder that Europe once had a transnational commercial cinema that offered plenty of attractions, an example of the ideologies at work in the construction of aspirations in modern mid-century Europe where the aristocracy and organised religion were on the wane but still carried weight, a nicely distracting trifle.
Les innocents aux mains sales/ Dirty Hands is an ingenious thriller by Claude Chabrol with a glorious opening: Romy Schneider plays Julie Womser, a St. Tropez housewife saddled with a rich but impotent husband (Rod Steiger as Louis Womser). As the film begins, she’s sunbathing nude, a kite falls on her bum, a cute man (Paolo Giusti playing Jeff Marle) chases after his kite, she asks him to remove it and offers herself to him. She brings him home; the husband’s there, drunk; they make out anyway; and in what seems a nanosecond, they’re planning his murder. I won’t go into the plot because it’s full of clever twists and continues to surprise until the end. Suffice it to say that it’s an elegant, almost minimalist chamber piece, with outstanding use of sound and the zoom lens so typical of that period.
What I want to focus on here are the clothes. The 70s are often seen as something of a sartorial joke; and that may be true of men’s fashion, particularly when we look at old family photographs of ourselves wearing psychedelic prints, long pointy collars, flares and platform shoes. But it’s a glorious period for women’s fashion, so influenced by vintage forties clothing with it’s variant on the platform, the knee-length suit, the cinched-waisted gowns etc. And as the 2015 exhibit, Yves Saint Laurent + Halston: Fashioning the 70s, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York in 2015 demonstrated, ‘No two designers defined and dominated the decade more than Yves Saint Laurent and Halston. They were the era’s most influential and celebrated clothing creators, becoming celebrities in their own right. Both have been the subject of countless books, articles, films, and exhibitions.’
I have already in this blog commented on St. Laurent’s clothes for Romy Schneider in Max et les ferrailleurs and César et Rosalie. I here simply want to explore the various looks developed by Romy Schneider, Chabrol and St. Laurent in Les innocents aux mains sales and how they function as aspects of the mise-en-scène to evoke something about the type of woman Romy Schneider’s Julie Womser is, how she’s feeling, how she’s hiding what she’s feeling; how they express what’s happening to her; how the clothes serve the storytelling, characterisation and mood in the film.
After her nude introduction, we’re shown Romy Schneider in a sexy, hip-hugging black dress; elegant, with a jewelled strap but also showing lots of flesh. What’s evoked is wealth, elegance a sexyness that remains distanced , sober and sheathed, but that nevertheless is offered up to Jeff Marle on a white shag rug as soon as her husband has drunk himself into a stupor
Look 2: The kaftan, such a staple of 70s clothing, particularly St. Laurent’s, here conveying elegant couture casual; perfect for St. Tropez and the opposite of what we associate with Demis Roussos. It’s the setting where the husband surprises her with the gift of the car that is to play such an important part in the plot subsequently.
Look 3: The murder
How does a murderess look? Well, a chignon helps. Here Julie/Romy is dressed in black, the collar a hint of the sexuality that drives the passion and edges it into murder. Note too the cut of the dress, the bit of leg and the heels, which seem as much of a weapon as the chignon.
Look 4: The Sleepless Night. Light blue on a darker shade of blue for ‘une nuit blanche’ when she thinks she’s murdered her husband, can’t sleep and gets ready to make up her lies, dress them into view, and lie convincingly to the police.
Look 5: A Kaftan for The Morning After a Murder. This evokes and might be a precursor to St. Laurent’s famous Russian and Chinese inspired collections of the late 1970s. See also look 7.
Look 6 and 7 : Changes to Call the Police, in a darker shade of blue, closer to her sheets than her nightgown in Look 4, but then returns to Kaftan though this one is slightly different than the one above whilst clearly aiming to recall it. Romy’s Julie clearly’s got a collection in her closet
Look 8 and 9:
She returns to look 2, where her husband had bought her the car, but this time to receive a letter from her lover; and then goes to meet with her bank manager and the police at the bank but in the same dress she called the police in earlier but now wearing a black widow’s cape. The looks are clearly associative, symbolic, meant to unconsciously render situation and character whilst also recalling situations and events (here she’s wearing the kaftan she wore when she received the car that was her husband’s token of love but which we’re here told is how her lover drove away the husband’s body. Love turned to murder via money and passion)
Looks 10 and 11, Turbaned in black and wearing a respectable and elegant grey tweed to meet her husband’s friend and business manager, where she once more meets with the police who are getting suspicious of her. When she goes to see the judge she wears the same sober and elegant colour scheme but in a different outfit (see image three, below right). It’s like at this point in the plot the looks, colours, even textures of the character are seeping into one another.
I also want to bring in here some of the associations turban sand berets have for us: Frenchness, as we can see below with Michèle Morgan; a Parisian variant of it we associate with the ‘we’ll always have Paris’ flashback in Casablanca with Bergman and Bogart; the intelligence and coolness we associate with De Beauvoir (here with Nelson Algren; the turban was a signature look for her as it avoided having to do her hair, clearly not a problem for Julie/Romy); and lastly the underworld of noir femme fatales evoked by Bergman’s take on Dietrich in Arch of Triumph (Lewis Mileston, USA, 1948)
Look 12: At her nadir, when all the evidence points against her plotting with her lover to kill her husband; Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier film her in silhouette in a flowing dress, with a flowing scarf; when she comes in we see her all in black, like the unfortunate black widow she believes herself to be. Then, when her husband tells her what happened we flash back to her making love to her lover, the glittering strap being all that’s needed to associate this scene with the beginning (Look 1) where she had sex with her lover and which we now know her husband watched. Now she offers herself to her husband in an echo of the first time she offered herself to her lover, naked and in the sunshine; here enclosed in darkness and distance. At the end, he pays her, like the whore he believes her to be.
Look 13: After her husband returns and pays her to have sex with him, Julie makes herself up to be her version of an elegant whore, with St. Laurent seeming to draw inspiration from Lauren Bacall’s look at the end of To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, USA, 1944) and Dietrich in Blonde Venus (Josef Von Sternberg, USA, 1932). The Dietrich reference also recalls how in her biography of her mother, Marlene Dietrich by her Daughter, Maria Riva recounts how hard Dietrich worked at her looks, that she designed them in consultation with Von Sternberg and Travis Banton, and how her performances were powerfully based on the progression of ‘looks’ that had a narrative and dramatic function in the film, particularly as ‘put on the scene’ by Von Sternberg as part of his mise-en-scène
Look 14: In black now, still trying to pretend she’s the innocent and respectable widow but the mise-en-scène showing us the situation is not as as clear as it seems. The grey tweed jacket she wore when she went to see her lawyers is hanging nonchalantly from the chair she’s sitting in and later revealed to be accompanied by a matching skirt:
Look15: In most of the last half-hour of the film Romy’s half black/half tweed turns into full black, eventually accompanied by a crochéd shawl of the sort you’d expect rural peasant widows to wear (and echoing the cape she wore in Look 9 when she first went to meet the authorities). It’ s in this dress that the plot and the actress goes through a whole series of events: she’s discovered not to be a widow, the lover she though dead returns, she gets raped in that dress, and she discovers that when she was thought to be guilty there was no sentence whereas when she’s known to be innocent there is. She does a lot of running — seeking help, fleeing danger — in this dress; and the hem seems to be weighted so that it moves beautifully, in sync and as a result of Julie’s turmoil and distress. It’s the ‘little black dress’ in motion and in performance as put into the scene by Romy Schneider and Yves St. Laurent
Still in black, after she’s been rescued from a rape, and comforted by a red and black tartan blanket, of the sort one associates with Canadian lumber jackets, kilts, homey blankets, and worn like a shawl.
Telling her lawyer (the wonderfully cynical and funny Jean Rochefort), ‘when I tried killing my husband, nothing happened to me, now I try to save him and I’m been punished’. Her look is entirely calm, sophisticated (the hairstyle), demure (the heavy scarf/collar) and as we can tell not only from the cut and fabric of the clothing but from those earrings, rich. However, the chignon seems to bear witness to murder.
Look 17: Suffering chic-ly in minimalist modern interiors that evoke wealth, richness (the gold cigarette lighter on the otherwise empty table), anomie and lonelyness and before the great finale where the darkness calls out her name.
Undressing and Dressing:
In a way the whole film is about dressing and undressing Romy Schneider. She’s a mystery the film 9and the audience) is meant to uncover. We first see her in shades, a reflection of the audience’s desires, a morsel eager to be eaten. The film, then often films her in shadow, partially, in silhouette (see image two below)
The film undresses Julie/Romie only to dress her up in various guises, so she performs different types of femininity for her husband, her lover, the police, the judge, and the audience. She’s often shown having agency over this costuming/construction, the clothes part of her masquerade, the body a kind of currency with which she pays and rewards, both part of the way she performs the various aspects of Julie’s character into being. The most telling point is when her husband returns, pays her to have sex like the whore he thinks she is, and she curls her hair and dresses in white in that Bacall/Dietrich echo is that is the only moment we see her in white in the entire film.
In between displaying her body, selling it or having it raped, the film dresses her mostly in black, with various types of accents; shiny for the lover, sober and sleeklined for the murder, enclosing blue when she talks to the police, or framed by grey tweed at the solicitors, or accented by different shawls. The only moments of colour and brightness are the kaftany casualness with the husband or the moment where she contrasts in binary whiteness to accept that she’s prostituted herself to her husband and is wiling to accept the bargain. It’s really quite extraordinary what a look at the uses of clothing in a film can reveal about character, story and storytelling, not to speak of the performer’s art (which I have not quite done so here though Romy Schneider is glorious). It’s a gorgeous wardrobe by Yves St. Laurent, expressively worn by Schneider and beautifully deployed by Chabrol.
The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.
Sidney Sheldon’sBloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.
You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.
You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets its star and protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ’emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of treatment Audrey gets here.
I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.
The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.
The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.
This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.
Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.
Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….
Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Romy Schneider dazzle in Le Combat dans l’île, their first film together. It’s a political allegory played out through a melodramatic love story and visualised as a noir. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Clément, the son of a rich industrialist who’s involved with a crypto-fascist revolutionary group that plans to assassinate a left-wing politician. Schneider is Anne, his wife, a foreigner and formerly an actress, ignorant of her husband’s doings until the maid finds a package in the closet that turns out to be a bazooka.
The film reminded me of Ascenseur pur l’échefaud/ Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, France, 1958) in its spare compositions, low-angle shots on people, wonderings through Paris, acute evocation of mood; and also in the close-ups on faces, the use of silence, and even the way the score is used (though here its mostly Mozart instead of Miles Davis). Both films convey a loneliness, a desperation in love and a quest for meaning that can be characterized as existential; and both convey a textured intensity of feeling that nonetheless seems overhung with ennui. I wasn’t surprised to see Louis Malle listed as producer in the credits.
Romy Schneider is at her most beautiful and touching in Le Combat dans l’île; but then, I seem to feel that each time I see her. She’s exquisite here, still with a trace of baby fat but already seeming simultaneously transparent and mysterious; and capable of expressing a great range of emotion with delicacy and feeling. Le Combat dans l’île was her first film in France where she was to make her home and do her greatest work. Her Anne is extraordinary in that she’s able to convey the extrovert’s life one associates with an actress, her knowledge that her husband is shutting that life down, making it smaller, her love for her husband, and, when he beats her, her fear, hurt. and yes, arousal. Schneider not only succeeds in getting an audience to understand her Anne, but also, whilst invoking admiration for her beauty and skill as an actress, simultaneously incites a feeling of protectiveness towards her character. We understand and are with Schneider’s Anne.
Trintignant matches Schneider and is to me the revelation of Le Combat dans l’îsle . He looks very young here and very attractive. There are moments when he comes out of the darkness and into the frame where the lighting highlights long eye-lashes and a full lower lip. He’s short but wiry and gives the impression of being quietly coiled but primed for violence. His political fervor is rendered as an arousal brought on by a feeling of mastery that also helps to explain his relationship to his wife.
There’s a scene mid-way through the film, when Anne and Clément are in the woods, which beautifully illustrates this sudden burst into the unexpected: Like most scenes between Clément and Anne, it is characterized by a hint of violence that is also a hint of sex, and by a mutual affection that nonetheless victimizes her. It’s like they both find that danger sexy, and maybe for the same reason — the clarity of his dominance;. However, she’s also very much a bird with clipped wings and revolts at the same time as she sumbits.
In the woods, he tells her he’s going to kill the former colleague who’s since betrayed him, and she, aghast at the thought but also at what that might do to them, to her, tells him ‘I wanted to live and you’re killing me. You’re destroying me bit by bit. You’ll end up by killing me too.’ As she says this, he gives a kind of gleeful smile, not at the thought of doing so, but because he finds such power exciting; it makes him feel alive. Trintignant then chases after her nuzzling her neck affectionately without letting go of her hold on him, almost as if he loves her so much and is so insecure of his hold on her that he’s got to force it.
These are fascinating and original acting choices on the part of Trintignant and they’re thrilling to watch. I loved the moment where he stares at himself on a knife at breakfast or when he goes to kiss Anne in his final attempt to win her back and tenderly places a fist on either side of her neck before trying to kiss her. One can’t quite decide whether it’s adolescent confusion or underplayed psychosis that Trintignant is intending but these choices vividly convey why Anne continues to fancy him and why she stays whilst also showing how clearly he is capable of killing someone. It’s a great performance, one that makes of Clément a vivid contrasts to Paul (Henri Serre), the other man in what eventually turns into a triangle.
Clément and Paul are blood-brothers from childhood. The film uses them as structural opposites in the narrative; Clément is short, Paul tall; one lives in the city, the other in an old mill in the country; one is married, one is widowed; one is right-wing, the other at least a democrat. One loses Anne; the other wins her; one forbids her to act, the other provides the platform in which she can shine. It’s too bad that the bad guy is a much better actor. Henri Serre then on a career high due to playing Jim in François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, looks the part beautifully but diminishes his contributions to the film each time he opens his mouth. It’s very easy to understand why in spite of his initial celbritiy he never quite became a star.
The film gets its title from the final combat between Clément and Paul on the island. The battle is for Anne of course but it’s also for a politic, a way of life, and a particular kind of future. I’m not well versed enough in French history to know what the film is allegorizing though it doesn’t take too great a knowledge of history to note that it’s related to then recent Algerian war,. However, such knowledge is not necessary to appreciate this moody, beautiful film which seems to shape a whole way of life and a set of moral attitudes out of shadows and light; and the way that that light hits fog, fire and ice, in the country and in the city.
Le Combat dans l’îsle is a film of the nouvelle vague by one of its lesser lights (I’d never heard of Alain Cavalier before this). It references Godard and À bout de souffle/ Breathless directly when Clément goes to find his wife at the ‘hôtel de Suède’ room no. 12. It also references Truffaut through the casting of Serre. Pierre Lhomme, who’s work here is so great also worked with Jean-Pierre Melville on L’Armée de ombre/ Army of Shadows (which would have been such a great title for this film had it not already been taken). But these are peripheral reasons to see the film.
Le Combat dans l’îsle deserves to be seen for the beauty of its images, the intensity of the mood it creates, the economy with which the two assassinations are depicted (a lesson to any young filmmaker in how to do very powerful scenes on the cheap), the extraordinary performances of Schneider and Trintingant and the complex and exciting depiction of sexual attraction.
Aside from some of the voice-over narration, so typical of noir, my only complaint with Le Combat dans l’îsle is the knowledge that if Clément’s politics had been left instead of right, it would have been Trintignant rather than Serre, in the final clinch with Romy; and who wouldn’t have wanted that? Yet, if that is so, what does it say about the representation of politics in cinema?
A star vehicle for Romy Schneider, one of very greatest of European stars of the 1970’s. La Banquière tells the story of Emma Eckhart, a working-class woman, persecuted for her homosexuality, who becomes one of the great financial wizards of the twenties and thirties before an all-male establishment plots her demise and, failing to outwit her, resorts to murder. The film is a rise-and-fall narrative which combines elements from Baby Face (the uses of sex to facilitate the social and financial rise of an ambitious woman) and career-women films of the 1940s such as Mildred Pierce (the building of an empire almost single-handedly albeit greatly aided by a community of women) though it lacks the energy of the former and the artistry of the latter.
It’s not without its pleasures however: primarily a superb Romy Schneider in one of her most famous roles and greatest hits, Jean-Louis Trintignant as Horace Vannister, the aristocratic villain, and a very young Daniel Auteil as Duclaux, a rather perverse looking and (perhaps thus) amoral young villain-for-hire. The film also has a very interesting look, beginning with a 1970s idea of silent cinema: black and white, energetic tinkling on the piano, the narrative distinguished from the archival footage incorporated into it by showing the latter in the speeded up form typical of shots filmed at 18 frames per second but projected at 24; then, transitioning into a post-WWI world of muted colours and the restrained elegance big money can buy (the Charleston is relegated to speeded-up black-and-white representation) . The Art Deco furniture and bibelots on display are sublime and make one want to pause the film to stare at them (not a good thing really), the clothes are beautiful, and La Banquière is in everyway a sumptuous production. However, it is also one of those films that remind you that many beautiful things inside a shot do not a beautiful or expressive shot make; one sometimes questions if Girod does in fact know what he’s doing with a camera.
La Banquière should be of interest to anyone intrigued by Romy Schneider, the ‘woman’s film’, and/or representations of lesbianism in cinema. I can’t think of another big-budget, star-vehicle in a period setting where the woman at the centre, the woman who acts and is acted upon, is introduced as a lusty beautiful girl in love with girls, persecuted for that preference and encouraged by her father to lead her own life. We’re shown most of this in the first few minutes of the film: After having been caught in bed by the police with another woman and being brought home in a paddy wagon, her father tells her, ‘don’t be ashamed. They want you to feel ashamed so they can step on you. You’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, the world will smile on you!’. It’s, at least historically, quite an astonishing start.
In La Banquière, all the girls fall in love with Emma, facilitate her rise and/or cushion her fall, and, as Emma is played by Romy Schneider, who can blame them? As the film progresses, she marries for money and status, several times, and has a child, all the while maintaining her primary relationships with women, before we’re shown her desires becoming more labile and expansive. The film is interesting too in that her downfall begins when she falls in love with a man (Daniel Mesguich), younger, selfish, worthless. It’s the type of representation sure to arouse debate in some circles, difficult to categorise and very much worth seeing because of that.
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.