Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sautet at FSLC: Max et les Ferrailleurs

Most Americans would consider it entrapment.  One unyielding Parisian Detective would say it is just “pas de chance.”  He is determined to catch his man red-handed, so if he has to help matters along, then so be it.  However, things do not go strictly according to plan in Claude Sautet’s Max et les Ferrailleurs, which starts its premiere American theatrical run this Friday in conjunction with the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s The Things of Life: Claude Sautet retrospective.

Max has issues, but money is not one of them.  Like a French Milton Hardcastle, the well-heeled crusader was once a judge, but became a cop after he was forced to free too many criminals on technicalities.  His obsession with iron-clad proof stems from this experience.  It has not been working out well lately though.   This will indeed be bad luck for Abel Maresco, a petty lowlife and onetime comrade-in-arms with Max, who has the misfortune of crossing the copper’s path. 

Maresco is on the lowest rung of the criminal ladder.  He is a junkman, who literally lives of the metal and junked cars castoff by serious crooks.  Basically deciding he looks guilty, the anti-hero plants the suggestion that it is time for Maresco and his crew to pull a real job.  To nurture this seed, he starts visiting Maresco’s streetwalking girlfriend Lily, in the guise of Felix, a neighborhood branch banker who regularly receives large deposits from the wholesale meat market.

Ferrailleurs is a fascinating film in Sautet’s canon, because it incorporates elements of both his early noirs (like the briskly entertaining Dictator’s Guns) and his late period intimate character studies.  Beginning in media res, and proceeding to tour through the dodgy corners of Nantes, it observes most of the noir conventions.  Indeed, Max is certainly one cold fish of an anti-hero.  Yet, the scenes of the emotional distant older man developing an ambiguous relationship with a younger, more passionate woman prefigures several of his career defining masterworks, such as Un Coeur en Hiver and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud.

Frankly, it is downright bizarre it took so long for Ferrailleurs to get a proper American release, given the combination of Sautet and its stars, Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider.  The title is an obvious suspect, usually translated as Max and the Junkmen, unfortunately suggesting a Francophone Sanford & Son.  Nonetheless, it is anything but.  In fact, it represents one of Schneider’s sultriest turns, giving her the opportunity to rock some Klute-like threads—again, all very noir worthy.  She also plays off Piccoli’s ultra-reserved protagonist quite effectively.   His Max is a bit of a cipher, but he clearly suggests a tightly wound man about to snap. 

Though it ends in a rather shocking (but oddly logical) place, Ferrailleurs is ultimately quite satisfying.  While its characters are thoroughly compromised, it serves as a sharply delineated morality play, featuring a funky soundtrack from the great Philippe Sarde.  Must viewing for Schneider fans and Sautet appreciators, Max et les Ferrailleurs opens this Friday (8/10) at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, in tandem with the FSLC’s continuing The Thing of Life: Claude Sautet retrospective.