Discovering the Cinema of Claude Sautet


By James Hancock  June 8th, 2015

If a filmgoer passionately studies film history long enough, one can become a victim of one’s own obsession where the joy of discovering a great old filmmaker for the first time happens less and less frequently. When I first got into watching old movies I was completely spoiled and it seemed like nearly every day I was discovering a new classic by a director like Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Josef von Sternberg, or Sam Peckinpah. After 20 years of being a total film fanatic, however, this thrill of discovery requires much more work, often involving what is essentially an archaeological dig in order to find neglected old movies deserving of rediscovery. The effort is always worth it but I miss the good ole days where I could basically open any book on film history and quickly be spoon fed dozens of amazing recommendations at a glance. This week, however, is different. Rialto Pictures has already done the heavy lifting for us by releasing five films by Claude Sautet for the first time on DCP playing June 12-18 at New York ‘s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (see their amazing trailer below). If you haven’t heard of him, you are not alone, but I’ve learned from many incredible moviegoing experiences that anytime Rialto puts their name on an old movie and rereleases it, I’d be a fool not to sit up and pay attention.

When I first heard about this retrospective of Claude Sautet’s work I quickly looked him up to see if I recognized any of his films. The only one that jumped out at me was a screenplay credit on Georges Franju’s terrifying Eyes Without a Face (1960). From what I’ve read, Claude Sautet made a name for himself as a screenwriter and expert script doctor during the 1960s. But in the early 1970s, Claude Sautet asserted himself as a major director of films of haunting beauty and it is this period that Rialto has chosen to celebrate. The films include Les Choses De La Vie/The Things of Life (1970), Max et Les Ferrailleurs/Max and the Junkmen (1971), César and Rosalie (1972), Vincent, François, Paul and The Others (1974) and the last film that Sautet made, Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud (1995). This past week I was lucky enough to see all of them except for Vincent, François, Paul and The Others, a film that until recently has been terribly difficult to find. I had no idea what to expect but when I saw that Romy Schneider was featured in the first three movies, my curiosity soared. To say I am smitten with the Austrian-born sex symbol is an understatement. I’ve been a fan of hers ever since I first saw her in The Trial directed by Orson Welles and for my money she delivers some of the best work of her career in her collaborations with Claude Sautet. Her bathtub photo shoot with Michel Piccoli in Max and the Junkmen is a thing of beauty that has to be experienced. What’s so refreshing about the three films they made together is their refusal to repeat themselves creatively giving Schneider the chance to flex her acting chops and show her amazing range as an actress in drastically different roles in each of their films.


Michel Piccoli & Romy Schneider in ‘Les Choses De La Vie’ (1970)

Sautet also makes excellent use of his leading men Michel Piccoli and Yves Montand. I tend to think of Yves Montand as a total stud from movies like Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), but in César and Rosalie he delivers an extraordinarily vulnerable and contradictory performance in what is easily one of the best films about jealousy and friendship that I’ve ever seen. In the heist film Max and the Junkmen Michel Piccoli gives a cool, laconic performance worthy of the best gangster films by Jean-Pierre Melville. The flip side of this persona is his performance in The Things of Life. Structurally this is most interesting of the films on the program where we see Piccoli’s indecisiveness and self-doubt over the women he loves in fragmented dreamlike vignettes as his life flashes before his eyes during a horrific car crash. Having now seen several of Claude Sautet’s movies, his incredible sensitivity and subtlety with his actors appears to have been his greatest strength as a filmmaker.

I don’t want to go into too much discussion of the movies in that part of the pleasure of seeing these films for me was going into them with no preconceived notions about what I was going to see or how Claude Sautet measures up against his filmmaking peers of that period, filmmaking legends such as Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Melville. One very annoying habit of film purists (that I am often guilty of) is telling the uninitiated which films they are obliged to like or respect. When a young filmgoer is introduced to a great work such as Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) or Bergman’s Persona (1966), they are rarely afforded even a small window of time in which they can experience the films with a fresh perspective before enduring a lecture from an older cinephile about what they are supposed to think. My suggestion is go into these movies with an open mind and just enjoy Sautet’s work on its own merits. What I will say is that Rialto Pictures is an incredibly reliable source of great cinema and they’ve been on a quite a hot streak lately. Through them I saw René Clément’s extraordinary film ‘Forbidden Games’ (my review) and they are releasing a 4k restoration of Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) on June 26th at New York’s Film Forum. That alone should give them a lot of credit in the bank with anyone hungry for great cinematic experiences. For my part, I am grateful to Rialto for making my filmgoing easy for a week by introducing me to the work of Claude Sautet and spoon feeding me several outstanding movies that I not only thoroughly enjoyed but also will be returning to see again in the very near future.

The Films of Claude Sautet will be playing at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas June 12-18. Tickets available here.


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Polish poster for 'Max and the Junkmen' (1971)

Polish poster for ‘Max and the Junkmen’ (1971)

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