Claude Sautet occupies a unique place in French cinema. Although he directed some of the biggest hits of the seventies and worked with some of the biggest stars, few critics considered him an “auteur” in his lifetime. Paradoxically, it was at the end of his career, a time when most directors are in decline, that three major films sparked his rediscovery and enabled him to close out his body of work on a high note. His first feature had been an extraordinary crime film, Classe tous risques (1960), which may seem atypical for Sautet but is actually one of his most revealing works.
Though he arrived on the scene in the early sixties, the same time as the New Wave filmmakers, Sautet was never part of that movement. He had been shaped by the popular cinema of the 1950s, working as an assistant director, then as a coscriptwriter, on comedies and action films. In fact, although he always considered Classe tous risques his first “real” feature, he had already directed a 1956 comedy called Bonjour sourire. Initially hired as assistant to the director, Sautet was called on to replace him when he defected at the last minute. But as he hadn’t chosen the project, he thought of his work on it as purely “technical.”
This suggests how deeply Sautet considered Classe tous risques a personal film rather than merely another in the popular commercial genre. It had been entrusted to the novice director only thanks to the backing of the great Lino Ventura, who once saw Sautet, then an assistant director, completely take over a set. Sautet worked closely with José Giovanni, author of the book on which Classe tous risques was based, to press home what he found most compelling in this story based on the life of a real person: the downfall of a once all-powerful crime boss who winds up at “the bottom of the barrel.” Sautet was excited about shooting the first part of the film in Italy, which gave it almost a neorealist feel. He managed to cast the unknown Jean-Paul Belmondo (Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless hadn’t been released yet) as Ventura’s partner on the run. The cast also included Giovanni’s sister as Ventura’s wife and, in the role of a traitor, Marcel Dalio, whose performances in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game were unforgettable. This casting was surely Sautet’s way of paying homage to a director he greatly admired.
That Classe tous risques turned out to be a commercial failure was such a bitter disappointment to Sautet that he announced the abandonment of his career as a film director. But only two years later, when the film was discovered by a group of young cinephiles (including future director Bertrand Tavernier) and was rereleased on the art-house circuit, it had a spectacular reception and quickly became a cult favorite. Meanwhile, Sautet had returned to another career—as a clandestine adviser and script doctor on other directors’ projects (including films by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Louis Malle, Alain Cavalier, and Robert Enrico). It was these secret activities, which he had taken up in the fifties and would continue in parallel with his work as a director until the end of his life, that led François Truffaut to nickname Sautet “the mender of French cinema.”
In 1965, the ever loyal Ventura called on Sautet to direct an action film, L’arme à gauche, but that, too, failed to achieve the commercial success its makers had hoped for. And once again Sautet turned his back on directing. Then in 1969, by sheer chance, Sautet’s friend the author and scriptwriter Jean-Loup Dabadie had him read the film script that would change his life. Les choses de la vie, from a novel by Paul Guimard, was a highly emotional drama based on a car crash and told through flashbacks. For Sautet, known only for virile—and unprofitable—crime dramas, it was casting against type. Yet he became enamored with the project, and the film went on to become one of the biggest box office hits of the year and turned Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider into superstars of French cinema. Sautet had suddenly become one of the most prominent “high-profile” directors of the day. During the next ten years, he dominated the box office with films like César et Rosalie (1972), Vincent, François, Paul . . . et les autres (1974), Une histoire simple (1978), all written by Dabadie, and in which critics and audiences would recognize a bittersweet portrait of France in the seventies.
Yet there lies hidden in Sautet’s cinema a dark vein, a sense of foreboding whose tormented roots can be found in Classe tous risques. Solitude, violence, and corruption are the standard crime film ingredients that constitute the shadowed side of Sautet’s world, but this sense of imminent danger actually permeates his entire body of work, running beneath the surface of even his lightest films. It is particularly evident in his least popular, most secretive films: Max et les ferrailleurs (1971), a masterpiece of film noir shot right after Les choses de la vie but misunderstood in its time; Mado (1976), a despairing assessment of social and emotional relations in a world in crisis; Un mauvais fils (1980), the only film Sautet set in the working-class milieu in which he grew up.
After the partial failure of Garçon! (1983), starring Yves Montand, Sautet announced, yet again, that he was leaving the film world. It took the enthusiasm of a young critic turned producer, Philippe Carcassonne, to provide the opportunity for Sautet’s surprising comeback: Quelques jours avec moi (1988), featuring two actors of a new generation, Daniel Auteuil and Sandrine Bonnaire. This film would be followed by two more, Un cœur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995), forming a kind of trilogy that brings Sautet’s filmography to a close in an apotheosis—and an ultimate refinement. In these three increasingly Spartan films, Sautet focuses on his favorite theme: the difficulty of human relationships, the need for others, people’s inability to forge the links that bring them closer together. He explores his obsessions with mastery and complete serenity, leading even the most skeptical commentators to reexamine his work in the new light of these stunning final films. It’s significant that the last shot of his last film, Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud, ends in the same way as the last shot of his first, Classe tous risques: the main character, having lost everything except, perhaps, the knowledge of his own vulnerability, disappears into a crowd of passersby, as if to indicate that Sautet’s protagonists are always among us.
Translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott.