Friday, June 12, 2015

Five by Sautet: The Things of Life

Pierre Bérard is putting the “crisis” back into the midlife crisis. We are talking shattered windshields and twisted metal here. Not surprisingly, he will be carried away from the car crash, leaving behind a fateful letter and some profoundly unfinished business behind in Les Choses de la Vie or The Things of Life, which screens as part of Rialto Pictures’ program of five DCP-restored films by the late, great Claude Sautet, opening today in New York (series trailer here).

Sautet is largely remembered for his extraordinarily sensitive human dramas, but he could also stage an impressive car crash. Initially, it is not clear how bad it is for Bérard, but there will at least be sufficient time for his life to flash before his eyes. Out of courtesy to the audience, Bérard skips his short pants years, focusing on his relationship issues with his mistress Hélène Haltig that came to a head in recent days.

In this case, mistress is a slightly misleading term. Although the architect is still married to his wife Catherine, it is largely a business relationship that allows them both to carry-on rather openly with their respective lovers. It is so French, it is hard to understand why he agrees to formally leave Madame Bérard for Mademoiselle Haltig, a young, beautiful expatriate translator. In fact, Bérard starts to wonder that himself when Haltig’s jealousy erupts. All this leads to quite the bloody intersection, both physically and emotionally.

If this all sounds familiar, hopefully it is because you saw it when it was released in 1970. On the other hand, if you are getting flashbacks of Intersection, Mark Rydell’s American remake starring Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, try your best to forget it. The film is obviously built around a strong conceit, but in Sautet’s hands it never feels forced or programmatic. Yet, he exploits the feeling of inevitability for all its worth, giving us butterflies whenever Bérard steps into his sporty Alfa Romeo.

The trio of Sautet, his frequent leading lady Romy Schneider, and his regular score composer Philippe Sarde were a francophone art house dream team, joining forces on several films, including Max et les Ferailleurs and César and Rosalie, also represented in Rialto’s Sautet package. Michel Piccoli would certainly be no stranger to any of the three. Much like his disillusioned screenwriter in Godard’s Contempt, Piccoli radiates industrial strength world weariness, but in a way that feels mature rather than self-indulgent. Frankly, the unfaithful and indecisive Bérard could have easily come across like a fickle jerk, but Piccoli conveys all the older man’s guilt and uncertainty, making him understandable and maybe even sympathetic (especially if you’re French).

Piccoli and Schneider develop convincingly complicated chemistry as Bérard and Haltig. She is a sophisticated presence and she definitely connects in some emotionally resonant scenes down the stretch, but the translator is conspicuously subordinate to the architect in Things’ narrative.

Things is a tragedy that is not afraid to be tragic—and rightly so. Sautet and Piccoli had enough middle-age seasoning to relate to the characters and themes, as well as the experience and instincts to avoid melodramatic excesses. Sad in a wry and rewarding way, The Things of Life opens today (6/12) in New York, at the Lincoln Plaza, along with four other restored Sautet films.