Only a tiny handful of film festivals have ever made it to their 70th edition, but celebrations when Spain’s leading such event — at San Sebastian, the upscale, seaside jewel of the Basque Country — reached this venerable anniversary were surprisingly low-key. The announcement that the festival’s main retrospective would be dedicated to French writer-director Claude Sautet (1924-2000), for example, made few waves.

Never accorded the kind of lofty status long enjoyed by his Nouvelle Vague and Rive Gauche contemporaries such as Godard, Varda, Rivette, Truffaut or Rohmer, Sautet has generally been seen as a proficient but decidedly second-echelon figure in his nation’s crowded cinematography: perhaps a grittier Claude Lelouch, sometimes with a genre-oriented streak that puts him in the lineage of Jean-Pierre Melville and Jacques Becker (the latter the focus of San Sebastian’s 2016 retrospective, perhaps not coincidentally). 

Another outstanding French director, Bertrand Tavernier, said in a 2017 interview: 

I see Claude Sautet as the son of Jacques Becker. There is a link between them which has never been studied or acknowledged. If you look closely, you’ll discover that most of the films of Jacques Becker were not very well received. Now they are… The same way Sautet for a long time was judged by a certain part of the critique as somebody bourgeois, typical of the Fifth Republic. I mean, most of his films speak of the beginning of unemployment. You have little enterprises closing down. You have a spirit of melancholy in his films, of loneliness, of sadness.1 

Sautet’s “crime” in his most productive period — the 1970s — was that his films were, without exception, squarely commercial enterprises, designed to be appreciated by mainstream audiences. He foregrounded familiar faces with box-office appeal, working with Romy Schneider (reliably luminous), Michel Piccoli (always magisterial) and Yves Montand (constantly a bustling life-force) multiple times. 

Even his first outing, the zany-comedy outlier Bonjour, Sourire! (1956), boasted a cast drawn from the biggest draws in French variety entertainment: Henri Salvador, Jimmy Gaillard (a tap-dancer with matinee-idol looks and charm who deserved a more prolific big-screen career) and Annie Cordy — the effervescent latter best known to experimental-film aficionados as the voice repeatedly belting out “Bonbons, Caramels, Esquimaux, Chocolats” on the soundtrack of Peter Tscherkassky’s Happy-End (1996). 

Time and again, Sautet hit the box-office bullseye. Of his six films made during the 1970s, four — Les choses de la vie (1970), César et Rosalie (1972), Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres (1974) and Une histoire simple (1978) — ranked among the top 10 most lucrative domestic productions of their years; Max et les Ferrailleurs (1971) placed 11th. And even the relatively underperforming Mado (1976) still attracted more than a million spectators (Les choses de la vie nearly hit the 3 million mark; Cesar et Rosalie and Vincent Francois Paul et les autres both exceeded 2.5m, the latter proving Sautet’s biggest draw among Parisians.)

After France belatedly came up with an equivalent of the Academy Awards — the Césars — in 1976, Sautet’s pictures were showered with nominations: Schneider won her second Best Actress trophy for her affecting turn as one of Sautet’s modern, independent, free-spirited women in Un histoire simple, which was also Oscar-nominated in the Foreign Language category. Sautet would end his career with Best Director Césars for both Un coeur en hiver (1992) and his swansong, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995). 

But while many of his works remain popular, even iconic, within France, he fell out of fashion quite rapidly in terms of international reputation. In the more than two decades since his death from liver cancer, Sautet has once or twice seemed on the verge of proper rediscovery via his 1960 gangster thriller Classe tous risques. Co-starring Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo, and very much in the vein of Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) — with Ventura, Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau, and upon which Sautet worked as assistant director — the film was restored and re-released in the USA in 2005 before its Blu-Ray was pantheonised in the Criterion Collection in 2008. Five years later it obtained another spell of re-release in several countries including the United Kingdom. 

Classe tous risques

That Classe tous risques has now arguably surpassed Les choses de la vie as Sautet’s best-known film makes it even more ironic that the former was the only one of Sautet’s 14 feature-length directorial outings to be missing from the San Sebastian retrospective — its curator Quim Casas, when asked about this omission via email, replied to me that it was unavailable due to “family rights issues.”

One can imagine Sautet’s own dismay and surprise that Classe tous risques, a box-office disappointment in its day which has steadily accumulated a cult following down the years, should be absent — while its featherweight predecessor, Bonjour, Sourire!, which he always disowned, should be included. The Classe tous risques gap was offensive for completists; celluloid enthusiasts (such as myself) were meanwhile disappointed to learn that all the screenings in the retro would be via DCP (especially given that an extensive, 35mm-only Sautet retro is scheduled to take place in a major European capital early in 2023.) 

On the positive side, all 13 films were shown on several occasions across the festival’s nine days — I was able to see the full baker’s dozen despite being in town for only six nights. Even with 13 of the 14 Sautet features included, the tribute had something of a bare-bones feel: it included no examples of films which Sautet worked on as a writer but did not himself direct. A particular shame that no room was found for Jacques Deray’s box-office sensation with Belmondo and Alain Delon, Borsalino (1970) — which Sautet co-wrote with Deray, Jean-Claude Carrière and Jean Cau. 

Compare and contrast with the 2003 retrospective dedicated to Preston Sturges, which included his dozen directorial features and nine pictures he wrote for others, and was (still the norm back then) presented entirely from 35mm prints. That year was my first San Sebastian; I stayed for the whole event, and experienced the vagaries of the weather in those parts: roasting sunshine and 30-degree temperatures for the first half, then an abrupt drop in the thermometer accompanying chilly fogs for the second.

The 2022 renewal was relatively unremarkable in meteorological terms, but those attending the Sautet retro — and the screenings were pleasingly full, their reliably star-laden casts proving a popular draw with the middle-aged and elderly locals — experienced more than their share of drenching downpours. Watching his oeuvre in a compressed period makes certain of his preoccupations and favoured tropes eminently clear, high among them his affection for a sudden, intense rainstorm. Avec lui, le deluge. These showers usually end as quickly as they begin; corollary to the emotional outbursts and arguments which flare up dramatically and then are rapidly forgiven and forgotten — most notably when Michel Piccoli’s François (in Vincent, François, Paul et les autres) loses his temper when lunching with his circle of intimate friends, castigating the group before exiting the room in high dudgeon; a few minutes later, they are all chums once more. 

Time and again his characters (into whose lives more than a little rain must evidently fall) find themselves engulfed in this manner, running for cover — often to be found in their cars. Motor vehicles are a favoured location for conversation, with the paysage beyond rendered via never-quite-convincing back-projection. They are also, in Sautet’s pictures, regularly prone to mechanical mishap of one kind or another; the remarkably-staged crash which begins and permeates Les choses de la vie is unambiguously the fault of excessively speedy driver Pierre (Piccoli.) 

The drops fall equally on the rich and the poor — Sautet’s focus is usually on the fairly well-off bourgeoisie, sometimes on earthier proletarians — symbolising the levelling capriciousness of fate and man’s powerlessness in the face of greater forces. As Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna remarks after the death of a bank-robber in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995): “it rains; you get wet.”

Les choses de la vie

In Les choses de la vie, the pluie arrives as Pierre is lying semi-unconscious in a field, having been thrown from his silver-grey Alfa Romeo during the spectacular accident which is glimpsed, scattered, shattered like a windscreen (forward and backward, in regular and slow motion) during the arresting opening seconds. As an ambulance arrives to take Pierre to hospital in Le Mans — ironic choice of venue, given the circumstances — the heavens suddenly open, scattering the gaggle of observers who have assembled in the wake of the accident. 

Les choses de la vie, the only one of Sautet’s films to play at Cannes (in the 1970 competition), is stylistically the closest to Nouvelle Vague experimentation: as well as giving Piccoli and Schneider roles that rank among the choicest of the careers — Sautet was very much an actors’ director — it also showcases the editing of Jacqueline Thiedot. Thiedot cut all of Sautet’s films from his second Ventura collaboration, the Caribbean-set, gun-running thriller L’arme a gauche (1965) right up to Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, for which she won her first and only César. 

Thiedot was one among several key collaborators with whom Sautet would work again and again — cinematographer Jean Boffety (seven films), screenwriter Jean-Loup Dabadie (six) and composer Philippe Sarde (10 of his last 11 films, the sole exception being Un coeur en hiver, which uses only Ravel compositions.) Sarde’s scores, lush but never intrusive, are a crucial element in Sautet’s classy evocations of French life across the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

The most remarkable of Sautet’s many cloudbursts comes in his fourth and final Piccoli collaboration, the unfairly overlooked Mado — his longest (135min) and perhaps most ambitious enterprise, a languidly confident ensembler blending romance, thriller and social commentary. Near the end of the film, more than a dozen of the main characters travel from Paris the countryside in several cars; their return to the capital is stymied first by traffic-jams, then by rural diversions, then by flooding. Losing their way and uncertain whether to proceed to the left or to the right (an effectively unsubtle bit of political allegory), they are finally halted when their cars become hopelessly stuck in deep mud. 

As the rain slackens off, they make the best of the situation, creating heat and light with a makeshift brazier, uncorking several bottles of wine, and launching what becomes a sensual bacchanal that lasts until dawn. This sequence stretches out longer than is necessary in narrative-development terms, Sautet revelling in the sheer exuberance of his creations amid challenging circumstances, and evidently reluctant to bid them adieu.

On the way to this Dionysian debauch, our hapless travellers had found temporary refuge from the storm when happening upon a wedding-party going on in a village inn. Initially excluded but gaining entry when a pal is spotted inside, the motorists plunge into the bustling interior, wreathed in cigarette and cigar fug (Sautet’s characters nearly all smoke like chimneys), where food and drink are eagerly consumed. 

As well as the inevitable “rain scene,” Sautet’s films are guaranteed to include at least one sequence such as this: the son of a bar-owner, he seems happiest when placing his characters in a busy brasserie, a noisy pub, or a hectic restaurant — the latter the main setting of his somewhat old-fashioned 1983 comedy Garcon!, with Montand as a middle-aged waiter on the verge of leaving the profession for greener pastures.

In Sautet’s films, bars and pubs are places where different social classes can mix in easy egalitarianism — his post-1968 France may be a place of perpetual social and economic upheaval (political matters, while seldom centre stage, are never far from the surface), but gloom can easily be dispelled by an hour or two of bonhomie in a boozer. The perils of the alternative — brooding solitude — are most vividly illustrated in Max et les ferailleurs, in which the eponymous Max (Piccoli) is an ascetic, humourless and obsessive cop from a wealthy background, doggedly on the trail of a criminal gang based in the rough-and-tumble Paris suburb Nanterre. 

Max et les ferailleurs

Operating behind the front of a scrap-metal operation, these “junkmen” are a raffishly bohemian bunch including some former student radicals, a jazz-trumpeter and a decidedly glamorous sex-worker (Schneider). The colourful and sympathetic crooks, who hang out in a typically raucous Sautet-style pub, are much more pleasant company than the forces of law and order. (Tavernier dubbed it “a very dark, kind of sombre film. In a way a pessimistic film about police manipulation. I think it’s superb. It’s a great masterpiece.”)2 

Sautet can handle quiet conversations in private rooms; his delicate touch is evident in the cosy, sensual domesticity of Schneider and Montand in their high-rise Paris flat in Les choses de la vie, and later via the carefully subdued modulations of Emanuelle Béart with Daniel Auteuil in Un coeur en hiver, and with Michel Serrault in Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud. But he seems happiest in noisier spots: in L’arme a gauche, a crowded pool-room boils thick with smoke and intrigue. 23 years later, in Quelques jours avec moi (1988), the characters — among them a fresh-faced, 28-year-old Vincent Lindon — regularly congregate in Le Terminus, a fug-clouded, boisterous bar in downtown Limoges. Amid chaos, clarity; not for nothing does the handwritten epitaph on Sautet’s Paris gravestone read “Garder le calme!!! Devant la DISSONANCE!!!” And the more intense the rainstorm, the clearer the air will be in its aftermath.

San Sebastian International Film Festival
16 – 24 September 2022
Festival Website: https://www.sansebastianfestival.com/


About The Author

Neil Young is a journalist, curator, filmmaker and actor from Sunderland, UK, based in Vienna, Austria. A professional critic since 2000, he has contributed to many international outlets including Sight & Sound, The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, Little White Lies, Modern Times Review and MUBI Notebook. He works in consultation and/or programming capacities for several film festivals including the Viennale and Vienna Shorts (Austria). His feature-length directorial debut Rihaction premiered at the Diagonale festival in Graz, Austria in 2019 and he has since completed several other films of various lengths which have been screened internationally. His acting roles include in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (2019) and Paul Poet's Soldier Monika (2024.)

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