“I see in Sautet the son of Jacques Becker,” director, critic, and historian Bertrand Tavernier once observed. “This connection has still not been investigated.” Tavernier did elaborate somewhat in a 2008 essay on Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques (1960), the first film he reviewed as a teenage cinephile. We can begin to trace the connection between the two French directors with Becker’s final film, Le trou (1960). Released just weeks after Becker died at the age of fifty-three, Le trou was an adaptation of the first novel written by Joseph Damiani, who wrote under the pseudonym José Giovanni.
Before he was pardoned by French president René Coty in 1956, Damiani was serving time on death row, and Le trou is the story of his attempt to escape prison with four fellow inmates. When Jean-Pierre Gorin included Becker’s adaptation in his Criterion Top 10, he wrote: “Pure filmic pleasure, more complex than it appears, because all depends on the intensity with which Becker piles details upon details. It makes the film a perfect ‘how to burrow through walls when you only have a toothpick for a tool’ movie and a kissing cousin of Bresson’s A Man Escaped, minus the grandiosity of patriotism . . . And to boot, get ready for the most laconic and hands-down greatest last line of any movie.”
As Tavernier explains, it was Becker who introduced Damiani to Lino Ventura, who “took an immediate interest in Classe tous risques,” and arranged to have Damiani meet an up-and-coming assistant director he’d been impressed with, Claude Sautet. Starring Ventura as a mobster on the run and an as-yet-unknown Jean-Paul Belmondo as his guardian, “Classe tous risques—in a less gaudy and obvious, more secretive, insidious way—was just as revolutionary as Breathless,” argued Tavernier. Sautet “succeeded in infusing his action scenes with absolute authenticity, breathing such an incredible sense of real life into them that it is said they won him the admiration of Robert Bresson.”
“What actually unites [Becker and Sautet] between generations,” writes Austrian Film Museum curator Christoph Huber, “is their talent for sensitive portrayals of characters and an ‘invisible’ mastery of mise-en-scène: precise and pointed, and thus completely inconspicuous in design. In each of their eras, despite many critics’ rejection of their work upon its initial release, the two counted as cinema’s leading chroniclers of middle class life.” From Wednesday through June 26, the Museum will present The Things of Life: Claude Sautet / Jacques Becker, a series of double features pairing films from each of the directors.
Becker’s career in cinema began when he took on a small role in his friend Jean Renoir’s final silent film, Le bled (1929), and he eventually became Renoir’s assistant director, working on such classics as Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) and Grand Illusion (1937). During the Second World War, he was a founding member of the Comité de libération du cinéma français, which published an underground journal and made films about French and Belgian Resistance fighters. After Paris was liberated, Becker made a series of comic features about the lives of young people in the city—Antoine et Antoinette (1947), Rendezvous de juillet (1949), and Édouard et Caroline (1951)—but also took critics and audiences by surprise with a period drama.
Casque d’or (1952), starring Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani as ill-fated lovers in turn-of-the-century Paris, was poorly received but later championed by François Truffaut and other young critics writing for Cahiers du cinéma. “Every character in the film,” wrote Philip Kemp in the essay accompanying our release, “no matter how briefly glimpsed, is precisely characterized, giving us the sense that (as Becker himself put it) they all ‘go on living off-screen, between scenes, even before the film starts.’ It’s a world seen whole, neither romanticized nor sensationalized, but presented as a complex, living community in its own right.”
Following up on Classe tous risques, Sautet reteamed with Ventura on L’arme à gauche (1965), an action film audiences ignored. But then he came across the screenplay that, as N. T. Binh puts it, “would change his life.” Les choses de la vie (1970), starring Michel Piccoli as an architect whose life with his lover (Romy Schneider) flashes before his eyes while his Alfa Romeo takes a tumble, won the Louis Delluc Prize and became a box-office hit. Sautet “had suddenly become one of the most prominent ‘high-profile’ directors of the day,” writes Binh, and in the films that followed, such as César et Rosalie (1972), Vincent, François, Paul . . . et les autres (1974), and Une histoire simple (1978), “critics and audiences would recognize a bittersweet portrait of France in the 1970s.”
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