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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Two French filmmakers overrated by middlebrows and underrated by cineastes

Posted By on 01.12.13 at 09:00 AM

If this is bourgeois realism, then bring it on!
  • If this is "bourgeois realism," then bring it on!
In a neat coincidence, the restored print of Claude Sautet's Max et les Ferrailleurs comes into town just after Doc Films started its Louis Malle series, which continues every Tuesday night through mid-March. This seems fitting, as the careers of Malle and Sautet overlap in a number of ways. Both had formative experiences as assistant directors; Malle assisted Robert Bresson on A Man Escaped, and Sautet graduated to directing his first crime film, Classe Tous Risques, after assisting on similar features throughout the 1950s. In the 60s both men employed stylistic devices (location shooting, jump cuts, direct sound) as well as actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jeanne Moreau) associated with the French New Wave, though neither considered himself a member of that movement. By the following decade both had settled into relatively conservative modes of filmmaking, privileging character over style and dealing mainly with middle- or upper-class subjects. They even released their final films—Vanya on 42nd Street and Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud—about a year apart, in 1994 and 1995, respectively.

The directors scored their biggest mainstream hits in the 70s and 80s with tasteful, somewhat impersonal movies, and these successes led, perhaps inevitably, to a backlash from cineastes. "In Numero Deux, Jean-Luc Godard holds this up as the epitome of bourgeois realism," Dave Kehr wrote in the Reader about Sautet's Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others (1974), adding, "he may be right." On a similar note, Jonathan Rosenbaum concluded his nominally positive Reader capsule of Malle's Murmur of the Heart (1971) with, "The film is enjoyable, but viewers who find the aristocratic narcissism, the self-congratulating superiority, of most of Malle's work repellent may think it's a bit creepy."

From Murmur of the Heart
  • From Murmur of the Heart
Those sentiments might help explain why Sautet and Malle were out of fashion in both academic film studies and American repertory cinemas for several years after their deaths. I don't remember hearing Sautet's name when I was in college roughly a decade ago (though I remember reading that Wes Anderson named the director's penultimate work, Un Coeur en Hiver, one of his favorite films of the 90s); Malle was brought up occasionally, but never with much passion. Neither director fit into the history of postwar French cinema as my peers and I were coming to understand it. They weren't part of the Nouvelle Vague, and they were at their most popular when the national cinema was supposedly between important movements, the period after the fall-out of the Nouvelle Vague and before the formal breakthroughs of André Téchiné's Hotel des Amériques and Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (both 1981).

And yet this out-of-time quality sometimes ascribed to Sautet and Malle's 70s work now seems to me like its greatest virtue. In particular the character study of Max et les Ferrailleurs feels like it was adapted from a 19th-century novel: Michel Piccoli's eponymous vice cop is clearly a man obsessed with his own power, yet Sautet limits the viewer's access to his inner life, which might explain his obsession. One can only guess at his psychology through his calculating behavior, the methodical way in which he sets up a pathetic gang of two-bit hoods into robbing a bank. He does this by planting the idea in the head of a prostitute who's involved with one of the hoods, posing as a sugar-daddy banker and "confiding" about how poorly secured his bank is.

The movie slows down during the dialogues between Piccoli and Romy Schneider, who plays the prostitute. Their relationship becomes the heart of the movie, with Schneider confessing to loneliness and disappointment and inspiring Piccoli to respond in kind—and possibly even break character. These scenes seem to pave the way for the "bourgeois realism" that so infuriated Godard, yet it would be a mistake to call the filmmaking here complacent. Rather, Sautet is taking what he's learned about the thriller and using it to bring quiet urgency to the character drama (a similar sensibility informs Malle's Lacombe, Lucien). This is unassuming, yet solidly constructed mainstream filmmaking that hints at complex adult emotions beneath the surface—a rare commodity in any era.

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