Nearly 40 years after her death, Romy Schneider remains the most beloved actress to emerge from postwar Germany. Wikipedia informs us that two awards are named after her, and a 2003 TV show voting on “the greatest Germans” placed her at #78. Her mystique is partly marked by the aura of tragedy, for she died at 43, one year after the accidental death of her 14-year-old son. More happily, her legacy is determined by a busy career with many excellent directors who knew how to channel her beauty, intelligence, and sympathy.
Several recent Blu-rays give us the chance to rediscover these qualities. Three of the movies are directed by French filmmaker Claude Sautet, and two of these are combined in a double-disc package from Film Movement Classics called
Sautet/Schneider on its spine. We heartily approve of any excuse to double up classic movies and make the set more attractive. Really, the product could only be improved by throwing in one or two more for luck. We shall discuss all these films in the order audiences first saw them.
The Things of Life (Les Choses de la vie, 1970) Director: Claude Sautet
The Things of Life, a sonata of disenchantment, begins with a closeup on a disembodied or dis-enchassis’d wheel lying among tall grass in a field, where it’s spotted by two excited boys before their parents call them away. As the camera pulls back for a wider shot, a crowd of folks and cars swarm at the scene of what’s evidently a car accident. The event has occurred at a crossroads or intersection, a detail as frankly symbolic as that fateful wheel, whose lonely roll to its resting place will be another visual symbol in this film’s ability to turn the everyday “things of life” into quiet signifiers.
Traffic accidents were a loaded trope in French culture at this time, since all the best people were having them, so the film opens rather like a sequel to the nightmarish auto-apocalypse of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). Hectic editing presents a disorganized symphony of gawkers, who are seen and heard in a cacophony of snippets. Although nobody really knows anything, they tell each other that the lucky driver has fainted. Two truckers repeat their shell-shocked testimony. Shot with a long lens from a great distance, this documentary-style footage echoes the fact that a photographer is among the gadflies, and it functions as a study in human behavior.
This type of “reality” became a hallmark of Claude Sautet’s films. He was interested in capturing “life” at its most unmelodramatic, even when plenty of things are happening. As explained in a one-hour bonus that interviews people who worked on the film, Sautet came to like the long-lens documentary look, here shot by Jean Boffety, and encouraged actors to be “real”.
Don’t be fooled. Not only did it take a good three weeks to shoot the accident, but in order to have perfect control and not worry about blocking traffic, the entire intersection was fabricated, complete with tarred roadway, signs to be knocked over, trees to be hit, and a ditch with a concealed ramp for the Alfa Romeo to flip over properly.
Blue Painting by Mondschwinge (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
There’s an early scene where Helene (Romy Schneider), having gotten out of bed naked in the morning, sits down just as discreetly nude at her typewriter to work on whatever she’s writing while her lover Pierre (Piccoli) enjoys watching her stretched back as she types. Turning to look over her shoulder, her glasses on, she asks him for the French word for inventing things in a story, and he supplies ” affabuler“. “That’s it,” she says. Yes, that’s it.
This particular fabulation is based on Paul Guimard’s novel of the same name and scripted by Guimard, Sautet and regular collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie. If the plot about a man’s life just before a pointless car accident rings a bell with fans of Richard Gere, that’s because Mark Rydell remade the film as Intersection (1994).
That accident isn’t only the beginning of the film, it’s the center, as the first half of the plot regresses a couple of days to build up to it. During the opening credits, scored with romantic piano melancholy by Philippe Sarde, the crash is shown in lovely mysterious reverse as time moves backwards to trace its hero’s movements.
He will spend very large chunks of the film, and by extension his life, in his car (as do many of us) on his journey from oblivious to oblivion, the banal scenes of interaction with family, friends and colleagues interspersed with constant stylized slow-motion flash-forwards (or are they flashbacks?) to details of the crash. Then the plot re-arrives at the full set piece of the extended crash and bewildered public flutter, with people helping and/or getting in the way and generally both excited and subdued at the glimpse of chaos and mortality. Finally the story moves to the accident’s aftermath in the next few hours as several characters gather at the hospital.
Romy Schneider and Michel Piccoli in Les choses de la vie (1970) (© Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal; Photo by Claude Mathieu / IMDB)
As for the mundane details in the life of comfortable middle-class Parisian architect Pierre, they seem just as accidental. He’s estranged from his wife Catherine (Lea Massari) but still works with her. Catherine has a robust new lover, always with a cigar clenched in his teeth. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but one point of a closeup on an ashtray is how much bigger they are than Pierre’s measly cigarettes.
Pierre and Catherine’s adult son Bertrand (Gérard Lartigau) smokes as much as dad and is also a fabricator of some type, making useless little mechanical gadgets that make money (” pas mal“), whereas his parents construct buildings and Helene constructs stories. Bertrand may be learning his father’s behavior or he may be trying to work against it, for in their strained scene together, Bertrand creates a conflict when he impulsively invites his father to come on vacation with them, thus delaying Pierre’s vacation with Catherine.
This will lead to scenes with Catherine that Pierre finds tiresome and enervating (and she hardly enjoys them either), and which are precisely what encourage his disengagement rather than going through motions of proofs and assurances. Helene feels Pierre isn’t “emotionally available” as they say today, while he’s bored by attempts to discuss emotions, by the repeated rituals of communication and interaction. He nips them in the bud.
When she tries to prod him with leading questions like “Why do you love me?”, he refuses the cue with “Because you’re old and ugly,” an inverted compliment of the type she’s seeking that’s another way of saying “What a pointless question” or, to quote a French phrase, “Be beautiful and shut up.”
In other words, she seeks reassurance for her insecurity, which seems unlikely for the stunningly gorgeous (as she is) but isn’t uncommon for actors and creative types. The making-of contains interviews with people who indicate that Schneider shared this trait and that Sautet was similarly withholding with actors and others.
Sautet seems to understand, and wishes the viewer to understand, that Pierre is annoyed by the banality of life, for he’s constantly shown to be standing awkwardly to the side of every transaction, looking on in discomfort, and finds his only refuge in those moments when he can relax and enjoy love without having to talk about it, or when he feels in control of “driving” his isolated life while the miles speed by. This quality will apparently always get in his way romantically, and he’s in danger of quitting Helene as he quit Catherine. There’s much effective McGuffin business in the last third about a letter he writes to Helene.
We understand Pierre so well because Piccoli is so good in his unprepossessing mastery of his character. Piccoli, who has just died at 94 in May 2020, was a gift to Sautet as to many directors. When absorbing his performance as Pierre, viewers may flash back to the depth of shallowness, as it were, of his stonewalling writer-husband in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris, 1963), half of which is arguments with the character’s wife (Brigitte Bardot). Piccoli made a living arguing with drop-dead fabulous women, and it must have been a great life.
As we’ve indicated, Sautet combines documentary or quotidian qualities with highly stylized scenes, including surreal dreams, Pierre’s interpolated memories, and the use of Sarde’s aching score. In the extra, Sarde explains the music’s Ravel-like chords, even when interpolating Vivaldi, and he credits Sautet’s suggestion of a rising note instead of a falling one at the end of the main theme. Artifice is an essential quality to the film, and Sautet’s few previous films had emphasized their artificial movie-ness. He would tend to emphasize the subdued documentary qualities going forward, even when making a crime melodrama like Max and the Junkmen.
Max and the Junkmen (Max et les ferrailleurs, 1971) Director: Claude Sautet
We now interrupt our regularly scheduled discussion of Film Movement’s double feature, which will resume momentarily.
Right after the success of The Things of Life, Sautet reunited Piccoli, Schneider, several of the supporting actors and such collaborators as writer Dabadie, composer Sarde and editor Jacqueline Thiédot for the crime thriller Max and the Junkmen. I’d been saving this film for a discussion of French thrillers recently on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, but it makes sense to insert it here. I swear, so many previously unavailable classics are flying out on Blu-ray, I don’t know whether to spit or go blind.
The film opens in a darkened office where two concerned colleagues are discussing some unclear bad thing that’s happened, and this leads to recounting the story in flashback. Max (Piccoli) is a pale, pasty, sometimes almost ghostly cop in a fedora, and he begins the flashback in disgust that a tip-off about a bank robbery has gone wrong, leading to a death. Max is possessed by the idea of catching a gang of robbers red-handed, and this obsession will lead him to one of the most elaborate entrapment schemes in any policier.
He meets an old WWII buddy in the street, Abel (Bernard Fresson), who hangs out with a small-time gang of car thieves and prostitutes. Max perceives an opening to manipulate them into getting airs above their criminal station, encouraging them in subtle ways to pull off a bank heist so he can arrest them. He rationalizes that this will give pause to more important gangs, but really it’s part of Max’s frustration and ambition.
Once again, Piccoli is playing a highly contained character, and this time his depths must be inferred from beneath his mechanical deceptions. Max’s unknowability is built into the structure of the story, which presents him as a cipher even before we first see him in his car. How Sautet loves people in their cars. In her commentary, Samm Deighan discusses Piccoli’s portrayal and where the film places in his career, in Sautet’s output and in the network of other crime films.
If Max is withholding, so is the scenario. Only much later in the film do we learn that he’s got a private income and used to be a judge until he retired in disgust after being made to release a murderer for lack of proof. This resonates with a common trope of crime films of the era, such as Dirty Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) kvetching about “technicalities” and “the system”.
Romy Schneider in Max et les ferrailleurs (1971) (IMDB)
Of course, the police are part of “the system”, even embody it, and this film’s increasingly discomfiting point is that the system goes out of its way to create the crime it punishes. This happens through the fallout of war (mentioned more than once), the existence of class, the lure of wealth and consumption, and simple human frailty. In a very subtle irony, Max uses the cliché about “making your own luck” to indirectly brainwash the poor saps into pursuing their doom while dreaming of Easy Street. He’s certainly making his luck, and theirs.
Max’s most surgical instrument is Abel’s girlfriend, an independent hooker named Lily (Schneider) introduced more than 30 minutes into the picture. A German, she too has a tragic story dating back to wartime. Max meets her in his freshly rented apartment but they never have sex. They talk, play cards, and do other things while he lets drop that he’s a banker and has major deposits on certain days. It’s the hook, and he’s the one selling a fantasy.
Since he doesn’t want to have sex with her, she more than once wonders “if he’s a man”, and that keys less into his sexuality than his physical existence. Both are made up, Max in pallor and Lily in her gaudy profession, although the more she sees of him, the more natural and beautiful her makeup becomes until her final images are goddess-like. It’s not having to impress him that may finally impress him.
French crime films of this period are thick on the ground and pretty much always great, full of sleek photography and lilting music. They use the trappings of genre (a cop, a crook, a hooker, a bank) to explore human relations and dilemmas in ways that combine romanticism and existentialism, and endings are usually hard-hitting and poetic. The ending of this film is so French it hurts. We’re left to wonder if it’s a tale of redemption or a tragedy of disillusion, and if there’s any difference.
Georges Wilson, Francois Perier and Boby Lapointe portray Max’s partners in crime — that is, other cops. Their “family” feels much less jolly than Abel’s, and that too is part of the film’s point, for we like one more than the other. René Mathelin provides the subdued pastel photography where everything looks like it just rained. Claude Néron, who wrote the original novel, contributed to the screenplay with Sautet and Labadie, and he’d contribute again to Sautet’s next film, the radically different César and Rosalie.
César and Rosalie (César et Rosalie, 1972) Director: Claude Sautet
Sautet’s next collaboration with Schneider answers the question: Instead of a being frustrated by an emotionally reserved lover, as in The Things of Life, what if her character had a lover entirely too emotionally transparent and responsive? Would it be an improvement?
This story is so simple and cunning that it becomes difficult to discuss, not for fear of giving away what happens but of giving away what doesn’t. For the film plays on our acquaintance with the melodramas of romantic triangles, and it teases us with seeming foreshadows and hints, while the surprise of the movie is the extent to which such things don’t come to pass, the extent to which Sautet resolutely avoids melodrama.
César (Yves Montand) is a slightly older gentleman, rough around the edges, rich thanks to a successful business as — guess what — a junkman. He deals in scrap metal from cars and other vehicles, a business he runs with his brothers. His lover and business associate Rosalie (Schneider) is a divorced mother of a young daughter. Their relationship runs in a comfortable rut until a successful cartoonist named David (Sami Frey) returns from abroad.
Five years ago, David sacrificed his love for Rosalie to a friend who’s now her ex-husband, a fellow visual artist. Now that David’s back, the question hanging over their lives is whether he’ll do anything to rekindle his romance with Rosalie. While César is crude, loud, a bit of a charming blowhard and overgrown child, David is young, beautiful and reserved, actually passive, never making a move to impose himself but allowing others to come to him, and they do. César’s fears cause his stupid preventive gestures that go wrong. Then his latent violent impulses and poor self-control come to the fore, sabotaging himself further.
Like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), an obvious comparison, this is a movie named after two people but actually about three people. The making-of calls it “Serenade for Three”. The chief difference is that Truffaut’s film can be called a tragedy, while Sautet makes a comedy of human behavior, so that perhaps we’d have to go back to Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) to find a comparison. The men aren’t having a sexual relationship, yet they become emotionally involved to the point that others remark on it.
Romy Schneider in César et Rosalie (1972) (© Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal / IMDB)
Although we won’t discuss what happens in the film, we give ourselves leave to discuss the fascinating topic of what doesn’t, and perhaps this is a SPOILER. Not only do César’s violent outbursts signal the possibility of tragedy, but Sautet manipulates our alertness to symbolism and foreshadows. He made a whole film, The Things of Life, about a car accident, and this new film opens with a near-accident created by competition between the two men. Not only that, but Rosalie immediately hears about an off-screen acquaintance killed in another car accident, and this makes her think about “the road not taken” and the pattern of her life.
After such a portentous set-up, the viewer must be forgiven for being apprehensive every time somebody gets into a car, and that happens a lot. The film makes feints in the direction of some further automotive tragedy and even narrowly averts it. In the end, Sautet’s discipline proves too strong for such easy maneuvers.
Instead, what unfolds before us is a movie about qualities as rare in films as in life: generosity and forgiveness. We know such things exist. Perhaps their rarity can be attributed to the fact that in order to conjure them into being, it’s only necessary to enact them. As with love and peace on Earth, the very simplicity of this step often makes it insurmountable. It’s a pleasure to be reminded of the possibilities.
At the still, restless, quizzical center of this is Rosalie, accepting the fact that César’s middle-aged buddies and David’s young buddies equally expect her to make herself useful with coffee. She’s bemused by the differences and similarities between the men. Even though the scenario doesn’t spend much privileged time with her, it’s her decisions and reactions that form the heart of the picture as she tries to negotiate the way men relate to each other and to her, and she’s the one who determines the ambiguous yet elevating ending, which is partly narrated by Piccoli dropping in from heaven.
In the making-of, producer Michelle de Broca (ex-wife of filmmaker Philippe de Broca) says that Rosalie’s character and her romantic independence are what convinced her to make this film as her first independent production after Sautet told her everyone else had turned it down. She perceived something radical in Rosalie that was worth bringing to the fore, and that’s partly why the film plays well today. Schneider’s quiet understanding of the role deserves as much praise as Montand’s gauche expressiveness.
Although Sautet’s style and tone aren’t the same as Robert Altman’s, this film is reminiscent of Altman in casually depicting a richly populated world of friends and relatives who drift through sometimes busy scenes, often not bothering to explain themselves beyond this glimpse. Here again is Sautet’s quotidian semi-documentary approach, with Boffety’s camera following people in glides and zooms, sometimes with a long lens, through their perambulations in streets and cafes, their reflections in windows and mirrors. Once again, writer Dabadie, composer Sarde and editor Thiédot are Sautet’s partners in art.
L’Important c’est d’aimer (1975) Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Getting away from Sautet for a while, although she’d return to him, Schneider joined forces with displaced Polish director Andrzej Zulawski, among the era’s most distinctive film artists. His restless provocative cinema adopts the free-wheeling, mobile, handheld, wide-angle style often favored in Eastern European films to bring immediacy to historical films and other dramas, and that tendency is on display here in spades. Sometimes scenes with elaborate shots will build to an emotional pitch and abruptly cut away, creating a jagged collage of contrasts from scene to scene.
L’Important c’est daimer opens unceremoniously and disorientingly with a film within the film. In silk slip with cape-like raincoat, Nadine Chevalier (Schneider) poses in a doorway for the camera, then is shouted at by a harsh woman director to go down the hall into a room where a wounded man lies covered in blood, as is the wall behind him. As the film crew scampers around Nadine and attends to various issues, like touching up the man’s makeup, the director barks at Nadine to straddle him and repeat “I love you”. (We can’t know it yet, but this turns out to be a colossal echo of a later scene.)
Nadine resists and gets berated, and then she notices a shutterbug taking her picture. This is Servais Mont (Fabio Testi), and after two crewmen take him away and try to confiscate his film and beat him up, he knocks them both out and flees into the studio next door to the gayporn he’s supposed to be shooting, where one actor in wig and thong reclines on a mattress reading Isaac Asimov’s The Rest of the Robots. The camera whirls and drifts as various characters come jabbering in and out of frame. The effect is a kind of vertigo high. This description should give you an idea of the sensory, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional overload constituting this movie.
One more example: A handful of people await the opening night reviews of their production of Richard III. The campy gay director, Masala (Guy Mairesse), after casually introducing his wife, reads the first excoriating review: “Expressionistic without rhyme or reason. His directing is a mixture of contradictory intentions and random ideas. The only evidence is that of chaos.” We can’t help wondering if Zulawski is delightedly quoting one of his own reviews or anticipating those for this film. By the way, the critic’s remarks seem a libel on the extraordinary production of which we catch glimpses.
The actor who plays Richard, Karl-Heinz Zimmer (Klaus Kinski!), “responds badly to criticism”, meaning that he arbitrarily picks a fight with some passing customer in the bar, thrashes him violently (all in a single take), announces himself as a well brought up homosexual, and exits with his victim’s two call girls, with whom he’ll spend the night. In a later scene, Servais asks Zimmer “Are you mad?” and he tosses back his head and says, “No, rich.”
Romy Schneider in L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) (IMDB)
So, we have a film about actors and performance and art, about confrontation and carefully fabricated spontaneity, about queer ambiguities and the “campy” — not in the misguided sense of “trashy” or “so bad it’s good” but in the original sense of extravagant, as per Jean Cocteau’s statement “I am a lie that tells the truth.” The Wikipedia article on “camp” informs us that its first dictionary definition was in the 1909 Oxford English Dictionary: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual.”
The core or through line is the fraught relationship between Nadine and Servais, each already mired in complicated situations. Nadine lives for free in a huge gorgeous mansion provided by an Austrian woman fan. Nadine’s husband Jacques (Jacques Dutronc), a Hollywood cinephile who must take a pill to make love to her (“I haven’t taken my pill” becomes a fateful line), is another person who sometimes claims to be gay. She says he saved her from becoming a “whore” and he declares he rescued her “like Zorro”. The 1947 serial Son of Zorro is prominent among his posters.
Also prominent are the titanic melodramas Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957) in its French title Les Plaisirs de l’Enfer (“the pleasures of Hell”), and East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955) of the James Dean dead-star mystique. A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954) would have been appropriate and possibly foreshadowing but it’s not here. Jacques at one point describes the effects in what sounds like a Ray Harryhausen picture, possibly Jason and the Argonauts (Don Chaffey, 1963). When Nadine announces a job dubbing Jane Fonda, he excitedly references Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968).
He collects photos of Louise Brooks, Marilyn Monroe, etc. and his photos factor in the film’s poster image. Perhaps this obsession with glamour shots is one reason he evinces no jealousy at a photographer showing up in their bedroom to shoot his wife. Jacques affectionately claims he had a dream of Nadine poisoning him by pouring Coca-Cola in his ear. This parodiesHamlet and cites Coke as a trashy political-cultural signifier, as per Godard’s famous line on “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” (Masculin féminin, 1966).
Zulawski had been forcibly escorted from the world of communist state-run Polish cinema to the hard-scrabble world of making a living in a commercial cinema spellbound by Hollywood fantasies. We can’t help wondering if Zulawski connects Jacques’ obsession with Hollywood, fantasy, melodrama and glamour to the character’s impotence. He’s hardly above such messages. For example, he states in a bonus interview that he dressed Testi’s character to match anti-government protesters in Poland.
Zulawski also states that he fought for Dutronc against the producers’ wishes in addition to beefing up the role; he’d work with him again in My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989), a lushly romantic tragedy known for its rhyming dialogue, and again having something to do with A Star Is Born.
Nadine’s career has nose-dived such that she takes all kinds of jobs, including appearing in an orgy that’s being filmed from behind a mirror. That intense scene, which breaks upon us in medias res like so many others, is staged along planes of depth as the camera zooms and dollies and Georges Delerue’s music bursts in lush and loud and brilliant and self-conscious, as it does periodically. The music is among several details that may remind viewers of Godard’s Contempt, and another is the fact that Nadine and Jacques discuss this word.
Servais’ complications can hardly be outlined succinctly. He and his grizzled father (Roger Blin) are in debt to the ancient pornographer (Claude Dauphin) who’s running most of these activities. Servais’ lover (Nicolette Machievelli) is the wife of an alcoholic buddy (Michel Robin) in a bathrobe, who seems to live in a bookstore with the beloved dog he calls his second wife. Servais goes further into debt to secretly get Nadine hired for Richard III on the strength of her performance in a movie called “Nymphocula”. Zimmer raves about her performance in what sounds like a lesbian vampire picture, so it must be good.
This may simply be a crazy movie if not anchored by Schneider, who projects vulnerability, pride and strength amid the grandstanding characters. Zulawski understood what a special effect he had in her, for the camera drops all tricks in favor of simple closeups when Nadine is at her most intense. She feels like the still center of the tornado, all the more impressive of impact. The French academy that hands out the César Awards thought so too, for she became the first actress to win in that inaugural year of the awards. It’s worth stressing that this film was a huge hit in France, perhaps a sign of the commercial potential of the sexy elements.
Tall and simmering with wounded grace like a handsome puppy, Testi also comes across. Nadine and Servais offer the only island of almost un-neurotic heterosexuality on display, and theirs is a repressed, even gallant simmer that may or may not be doomed. In other words, the film may be using the thematic and aesthetic trappings of modern, contemporary ambiguity and “shock” to wind its way back to a traditional, old-fashioned confirmation of the boy-girl thing, because that’s the postmodern dilemma of no longer being able to use the old clichés directly without inviting the derision of jaded sophisticates.
Christopher Frank co-wrote based on his 1972 novel, La Nuit Américaine, and the project had been in development for years. The title had to be changed because that was already a Francois Truffaut film. In an unusually candid and useful interview, Zulawski says he didn’t care for the new title, and he explains wide differences between novel and film, which chooses to foreground the triangle with Jacques.
He regrets to this day being forced to remove a scene that sets up why Nadine, in the raincoat of the first scene, returns to Servais’ house at the end. He also regrets having to cut another scene in half for being too shocking, because the producers were “morons” and “rich”. It’s too bad those scenes couldn’t be restored for this 113-minute director’s cut but they probably don’t exist. I won’t describe the half-scene, but it feels like a forerunner to Isabel Adjani’s infamous subway scene in Zulawski’s brilliant Possession (1981), which also suffered censorship issues.
L’Important c’est d’aimer means “the important thing is to love” or “love is the most important thing” or however you’d want to put it. An English-dubbed version played in the US as “That Most Important Thing: Love“, which is how this print is subtitled. The English dubtrack is included. We welcome that thoughtful option but there’s no reason to hear it; the Shakespeare sounds better in French.
As Kat Ellinger writes in her liner notes, this film is among the more accessible and restrained examples of Zulawski’s output of “hysterical excess”, which uses and subverts conventions of melodrama for his own vision. Yes, some of his films barrel along shamelessly and ferociously in their celebration of tortured souls, and that makes them compelling and bracing, for he’s never less than smart and totally in command. The important thing is to watch.
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