One hundred years of Claude Sautet, the master of sober and mature cinema who was despised by many film critics

The French director, born on 23 February 1924, left behind classic titles such as ‘The Things of Life,’ ‘A Heart in Winter,’ or ‘Nelly and Mr. Arnaud’

Claude Sautet
Patrick Dewaere and Claude Sautet, during the filming of 'A Bad Son,' in Paris, in 1980.Jean-Louis URLI (Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Javier Ocaña

Claude Sautet’s lonely characters always did strange things for love. And they rarely knew how to love properly. His characters tended to be lost, in a social, economic, moral and intellectual sense. His films were laden with fearful, elusive men — hesitant about the possibility of making choices — and concrete and combative women.

Claude Sautet (1924-2000) directed films between 1960 and 1995. Not many: only 13, starting with The Big Risk (1960) and ending with Nelly and Mr. Arnaud (1995). There’s also a 14th film, Hello Smile! (1956), that he never considered to be his.

Of Sautet’s productions, half a dozen are masterpieces, while the rest are formidable or notable works. Despised in his day by the members of the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, one of the major publications for French film critics and creators, he was admired by Jean-Pierre Melville and François Truffaut, contemporaries who were as independent-minded and complex as he was.

Sautet would have turned 100 years old this February 23. Hence, this is an excellent moment to look back at his mysterious figure and his bitter works, which can now be accessed by new audiences via various streaming sites.

Cahiers du Cinéma was a very influential magazine at that time and its judgments, as if coming from [religious authorities], were the law,” the director told Michel Boujut in the book Conversations with Claude Sautet, published in Spain by the San Sebastián International Film Festival, which dedicated a retrospective to him in 2022. The Things of Life (1970) was defined in Cahiers as being overly tender, while the happily desolate A Heart in Winter (1992) was said to smell “of formaldehyde.”

In a 2009 interview, Michel Ciment, the former director of Positif, a rival magazine, denounced the “terrible” attitude and “dogmatism” of Cahiers towards Sautet. “At Positif, we defended Sautet a lot when he was heavily attacked… but what links Sautet, Truffaut and Chabrol? Their psychological narratives [and] realistic cinema. All three shared the same type of cinema. But Truffaut and Chabrol are considered masters, while Sautet was viewed as a nothing, because he didn’t write in Cahiers... these are the defects of criticism. Criticism must be open-minded and then prioritize and evaluate work. An evaluation [of a film or a director] should never be based on dogma. It’s stupid!”

Sautet began his career as a screenwriter of important films by Georges Franju (Eyes Without a Face, 1960) and Jacques Deray (Crime on a Summer Morning, 1965), as well as an uncredited consultant on scripts. An admirer of jazz and of Howard Hawks and John Ford, in addition to the fabulous duet formed by the filmmaker Marcel Carné and the writer Jacques Prévert, champions of French poetic realism, Sautet tirelessly searched for a serene way of living… and, at the same time, for a supreme standard in his work.

His career could be divided between harsh police films starring characters who are adrift, such as The Big Risk (1960) and Max and the Junkmen (1971), and dramas about members of the bourgeoisie united by failure, “who have known each other all their lives and who use friendship as a refuge to escape their anguish.” The latter category includes The Things of Life (1970), Vincent, François, Paul and the Others (1974) and Mado (1976). Across the board, his films were defined by supreme elegance, taking on a more expansive style in the 1970s and 1980s, and a more introspective and raw touch in the 1990s.

His tough yet gloomy men, played by stars such as Michel Piccoli and Yves Montand, and his much more inviting and independent female figures (portrayed by Romy Schneider in the first stage and Emmanuelle Béart in the last) move and fascinate viewers, because they’re never the same, and they’re always more than what they seem. “I’m tired of living with a resigned man, who [rots] like a head of lettuce day by day,” says Schneider’s character in Max and the Junkmen. Here are five of Sautet’s best films:

The Big Risk (1960)

Based on a novel by José Giovanni, one of the essential creators of the French detective genre, both in literature and cinema, and with a script by the writer himself and Sautet, music by Georges Delerue (his soundtracks for François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard are iconic) and starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sandra Milo, The Big Risk was loaded with big names.

A French noir about a breathless life, it stars a bank robber who has been sentenced to death in absentia. More than a decade later, he’st still on the run in Italy, wandering from city to city with his wife and two small children, with the goal of returning to France.

As in Heat, by Michael Mann — so influenced by elements of the French policeman — the audience is on the side of the bad guy, attracted to his nobility and his dignity. Ventura’s minimal, subtle gestures, sincere smiles and brief way of speaking made the criminal all the more gentlemanly. The hopeless, anxious and fatalistic tone culminates in a dry and atrocious ending, narrated by an omniscient voice-over that leaves the viewer speechless. Jean-Pierre Melville, master of the noir genre, was particularly enthusiastic about The Big Risk.

Max and the Junkmen (1971)

Near the end of his career, he had some good competition, but Michel Piccoli’s character in Max and the Junkmen is the meanest, darkest and most complex guy in Sautet’s cinema. He plays a former judge who becomes a police officer to keep the criminals he considers to be guilty off the street (they were acquitted due to lack of evidence). A professional obsessed with violent crime, with an inferiority complex and astonishing arrogance, he embodies contradiction.

At his side is Romy Schneider in their second joint film after the wonderful The Things of Life (1970). She had to convince the filmmaker that she could indeed play a prostitute from the Parisian red light district, who hangs around with a group of lazy, miserable nobodies.

This was the director’s favorite film: the story of a gloomy, vain man, which culminates with a pair of devastating images after a masterful sequence shot with three cameras among a crowd. But in the end, the robbery of the bank cannot be seen by the viewer, because Sautet keeps the gaze where it belongs, in the streets.

A Simple Story (1978)

In this film, Sautet wanted to address an unfortunately common story: that of a middle-aged woman who tries to find herself, without being dependent on a man. And he wanted to do so without the slightest dramatic emphasis.

“For a while now, whenever I’m with you is when I miss you the most,” Schneider’s character, a divorced woman with a teenage son, tells her current partner. The lyrical line is uttered in a dark tone, after she makes the totally liberated decision to stop dating, move in with him and abort the child they’re expecting

The film stars a large group of middle-aged friends with various sentimental and work problems. They’re caught between layoffs, depression and infidelities. The female protagonist tries to provide the calm that the others don’t have: “fatalism doesn’t exist, because freedom exists.”

With thoughts like these, and the long pauses that accompany them, the director is taken over by the verve, the conversations and the resentments at play, planting his camera amidst the silence of his characters. He tries to capture their thoughts, worries and dreams. Sautet’s external gaze is on the internal state of his creations. He’s in search of freedom and the sisterhood of assertive women.

A Heart in Winter (1992)

A Heart in Winter touches on the darkest and most devious sides of pristine, successful and cultured people. In this case, the cultured folks are a luthier — an artist who takes exquisite care while creating violins — a musical savant and an icy and impenetrable guy who is played by Daniel Auteuil (who barely moves a muscle). “If you talk, you might say nonsense. [But] if you keep quiet, on the other hand, there’s no risk and you may seem intelligent,” says Emmanuelle Béart’s character. She’s as angry as she is fascinated by an opaque and unpleasantly conciliatory man, who has created a closed world for himself and plays a cruel game of seduction.

The male protagonist is a man with a cold heart, inspired by Mikhail Lermontov’s short novel A Hero of Our Time (1841). Aware of creating a chamber drama (a film involving a small number of characters in few locations), Sautet chose pieces that are “neither too well-known nor too melodic” for the various musical moments: the triplets and sonatas of French composer Maurice Ravel. As the director said of his relentless character: “It’s hard to know if he’s acting, hiding, or protecting himself.” The film won four awards at the Venice International Film Festival, tying for the Silver Lion.

Nelly and Mr. Arnaud (1995)

This is the director’s cinematographic testament. Mr. Arnaud isn’t Sautet (nor does he have to be), but he’s so much like him!

Given its plotline, the film may sound sleazy, but with its sour melancholy and its singular temperance, it only exudes delicacy. A young woman in financial difficulties accepts a good amount of money to pay off her debts. She also accepts an offer to edit the memoir of a former judge and retired businessman, whom she barely knows — an “older gentleman,” but not an “old man.”

Nelly and Mr. Arnaud displays the enormous capacity of the French filmmaker to shatter expectations. It also reveals his attachment to uncertainty and his talent for making the most unexpected things happen in every dialogue and every action.

Overall, the movie is a portrait of a series of characters who seek an inner calm that comes to them in the most mysterious of ways. It could have been a film about a dark and corrupt relationship, but, in fact, it’s the story of a man with a lot of experience, who watches over a woman who still has a lot of life ahead of her.

Michel Serrault is magnificent as Sautet’s alter ego, but Emmanuelle Béart is extraordinary: her simple replies of “yes” and “no” couldn’t be uttered with more conviction, nuance and authenticity.

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