14 January 2011

Les Choses de la vie, a film by Claude Sautet

Yesterday I re-watched, for the first time in a while, the very first movie — or should that be film? — that I ever saw in France. It was 1970, and I had arrived in Aix-en-Provence with a group of American students a few weeks earlier.

Some of the teachers who worked for the study abroad program organized the outing. I'm sure I had never been inside a movie theater in France before that. The film was called Les Choses de la vie, and it was directed by Claude Sautet (Paris 1924-2000). Its release seemed to be a big event in France, or at least in Aix. The movie theater was packed.

The only French movie I remember seeing before my first trip to France was Un Homme et une femme, Claude Lelouche's movie with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. I saw that one in a little movie theater in Raleigh, North Carolina, when I was still in high school. I thought it was intriguing — the language, the scenery in Paris and Normandy, all of it. It just made me want to come to France as soon as I could figure out how.

The actors in Sautet's 1970 film were Michel Piccoli (born in Paris in 1925) and Romy Schneider (born in 1938 in Vienna). In the story, they are a couple but he has been, or is still maybe, married earlier to Catherine (Léa Massari, born in 1933 in Rome). Piccoli decides to end his relationship with Schneider and writes her a letter to tell her. He is driving back from Brittany to Paris when he changes his mind.

This is what they call the « bande annonce »
for Les Choses de la vie (1970).

He calls and leaves her a message with her answering service, asking her to meet him in Rennes (Brittany) at a hotel. He has the "Dear John" letter in his pocket. Then he has a terrible automobile accident along the road. He is lying, bloody, seemingly unconscious, in a field, as police and medical personnel arrive.

He isn't unconscious, though. His brain is functioning. And he keeps thinking: I have to destroy that letter. Then an ambulance arrives and takes him to the hospital. His wife (or ex-wife) Catherine arrives there first. Romy Schneider is on her way...

I'll stop there. I don't want to spoil the ending.

Claude Sautet's films are some of my favorite French movies. Several feature Schneider, and one of the best is called Une Histoire simple (1978). It also features Claude Brasseur and, especially, Bruno Crémer, an actor who died last year.

Another good Sautet film is Un Cœur en hiver (1992), with Daniel Auteuil, André Dussolier, and Emmanuelle Béart. (I'll say this for Evelyn: the two main characters are luthiers, in other words violin-makers. Evelyn will know why I'm telling her this.) Un Cœur simple is what is called in French un drame psychologique, and it's a story of a fairly mysterious love triangle.

One more Sautet film is up high on my list, and it's called Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud (1995). I first saw it on an airplane back then, and afterward Walt and I went to see it in a movie theater in Avignon. Its stars are the late, great actor named Michel Serrault, who is best known for his outlandish performance in La Cage aux folles. In Nelly, he is another character completely.

Here's the bande annonce for Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud.

Nelly in the film is again played by Emmanuelle Béart. She is a young woman whose marriage has not worked out and who goes to work for M. Arnaud (Serrault), a friend of a friend. Her job is to transcribe a book he is writing — his memoirs. He of course falls in love with her, but there is no romance involved. There are several other good characters involved in the plot, one of whom is played by the Anglo-French actor Michael Lonsdale, another by Jean-Hugues Anglade, and Nelly's estranged husband by Charles Berling. Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud is a quintessentially Parisian film, and it was Sautet's last.

Sautet made other great films: César et Rosalie (1972), for example, with Yves Montand, again Romy Schneider, Samy Frey, Isabelle Huppert, and others. A lot of it takes place on the island of Noirmoutier, on the French Atlantic coast. There was also Vincent, François, Paul... et les autres (1974), with Montand, Serge Reggiani, and again Michel Piccoli, as well as Stéphane Audran (one of the finest French actresses) and Gérard Depardieu (then a very young man). Most of Sautet's films deal with the middle class, and the working people in them tend to be managers or business owners.

Finally, Un Mauvais Fils (1980), with the late Patrick Dewaere alongside Yves Robert and Brigitte Fossey, is the story of a young man who comes back from the U.S., where he had drug problems and did prison time. He tries to rebuild his relationship with his widowed father. He ends up working in a factory and meeting a woman who is also a recovering addict. Un Mauvais Fils was a departure for Sautet, dealing with grittier, working-class issues and characters, and a younger generation.

Here are some scenes from Un Mauvais Fils,
with analysis by a couple of French film critics.

These are not action films. Except for the car accident in Les Choses de la vie, there are few spectacular events. If you let yourself get drawn in, however, you can get the feeling you are living life alongside Sautet's characters. If you watch these movies, remember that French films seldom have what the French call le happy end that you get in American movies.

If you want to get a feel for French life between 1970 (or earlier) and the mid-1990s, and see what it looked like for the middle class in Paris and in the provinces in those days, watch Claude Sautet's movies. I put the DVDs on over and over again.

There was a lot of competition in movies back in 1970 — M*A*S*H, Woodstock, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, Fellini's Satyricon, The Boys in the Band, ... just to name a few. But for me, the most memorable one was Sautet's Les Choses de la vie. I'm sure you can get that one and the others from Netflix.


  1. Ken ~ Thanks to you I
    purchased Nelly and another
    film, both recommended in an
    earlier blog. Enjoyed both
    very much. Was not familiar
    with Sautet's work and glad
    to be made aware of it.Of
    course, Serrault one of the
    most compelling of actors..
    miss him.
    Mary - New Bern

  2. Walt recommended Nelly to Sue and I and its in our French collection with many others.
    We learn so much from you posts. Thanks from two very wet Aussies.

  3. Hi Ken, I didn't realise 'Un Coeur en Hiver'was directed by Claude Sautet, it's an excellent film, which I haven't seen since it was released, must rent it!

    I love Daniel Auteuil as an actor - have you seen DA and Juliette Binoche in 'Caché'? It's one of the most gripping, but unsettling films I've watched, very thought-provoking, I recommend it.

  4. Love this post, Ken! I enjoyed Un Coeur en Hiver and liked Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud even more.

    I think the first french movie I ever saw was "The Red Balloon". I loved when I turned 16 and could go to the Vogue Theater in Louisville for foreign films. I still much prefer foreign movies, especially French ones. Those old Rohmer movies were fun to watch from Netflix.

    Can you get Netflix there? There streaming is wonderful.

  5. Some films to add to our Netflix list. We saw Vincent, etc way back and liked it, but I'd forgotten the name and never knew the director's name. Way back when, Philadelphia had two repertory film theaters and they kept us busy. Netflix fills that gap for us now.

  6. I watched a great French mystery film the other night. Ne le dis à personne.

  7. Starman, I saw Ne le dis à personne recently and really enjoyed it. Canet is a talented film maker and also a good actor.

    Evelyn, no, unfortunately, we can't get Netflix. Or at least I don't think we can. If there's an equivalent service in France, I haven't found it. But we have about 10 movie channels on our satellite system so we get a lot of movies — French, American, and others.

    I'm making a lot of DVDs these days. Don't know what I'll ever do with them all, but I'll have them. Some I watch over and over again.

  8. I don't know many French films (though you are making me think I should change that) but L'Homme du Train is one of my favorites.

  9. In 1970, during my stay as a student in Paris (where Ken and I crossed paths at the same hotel, but only recently discovered it), the French film I went to see was "La Fiancée du Pirate" with the wonderful singer, Barbara, and Bernadette Lafont, still a great actress. I remember not understanding any of it, but the feminist message came through.
    When I was in high school, a friend and I went to see "Le vieil homme et l'enfant" (Claude Berri) and "Un homme et une femme", but I had the benefit of subtitles. I liked these movies, so I ended up liking French.

  10. The film (les choses de la vie) has a very beautiful soundtrack by Pierre Sardou. I haven't seen the movie (difficult to get...) but enjoy the music very much. There is also an excellent recent jazz cover of the main theme by a singer called Youn Sun Nah (chanson d'Helene; check it out in iTunes).

  11. how does "les choses de la vie" end i never got a chance to watch the ending and im really curious.


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