I’m not sure if director Claude Sautet was just never esteemed enough by the cineastes of his day to receive his due, but the string of pictures he made with the likes of Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider feel worthy of further, more stringent consideration.
What becomes evident is this kind of prevailing melancholy about his films with fated lovers or destined tragedies all but ready to be searched out. Les Choses de la Vie opens with a scenario that would be quick to tap into the minds of any filmgoer wary of the Nouvelle Vague’s most prominent iconoclast. By that, I mean the living legend, Jean-Luc Godard.
Here a rolling tire sets the stage for a Weekend-like pileup. This one was caused by a collision: a man blazing down the country road doing everything in his power to miss a stalling truck. While this event might provide what feels like an excuse for a dramatic movie, the core of The Things of Life is far more intimate. Some might say it’s stereotypically French: a movie concerned with amour. So be it.
We get a sense of Pierre’s life, past and present, without everything being conveniently spelled out for us. It’s made plain by how people look at one another — how they fill up the space with a shared familiarity. He is now with Helene Haltig (Romy Schneider). You can see the affection with which he gazes at her as she taps away at her typewriter after getting out of bed.
All the allure of Schneider is right there on her face, tucked behind her glasses, as if an instant reminder of why she’s remained such a lasting icon in cinema the world over. A premature end often has a way of canonizing people for posterity, but we cannot sell her short. This has little relevance here. Her vibrance is undeniable on its own merit.
Pierre loves Helene even as he maintains an amicable, if aloof, relationship with Catherine, his former wife. Over a lifetime, they have shared and shared alike in business, with their kids, and through a vacation getaway on Re Island. There’s still a sense that they are fond of one another. Perhaps time has moved on or maybe they regret their choices. For now, it is what it is.
If Pierre is the protagonist, one would be remiss not to mention the palpable distances between father and sons, be it real or imagined. He grapples with his own father, a spirited fellow who hardly seems like the paternal type, and then there’s his own boy who’s growing up fast into a man with his own ambitions. As much as he wants to rekindle their relationship, it does feel like he hardly knows him now.
It’s this very same inkling, a longing for connection that causes him to agree to a trip to the family isle. Of course, it conflicts with his business arrangements in Tunis and the future plans he already worked out with Helene. Their romantic dinner together becomes deflated having lost all the life that was there before. The wine is spilled.
What’s next can only be a wordless car ride. He rolls down the window to toss out his latest cigarette and to keep from suffocating in the silence. Then, he clicks on the radio to fill the void between them. That too gets thwarted. They look to be doomed.
If it’s not evident already, time is allowed a level of fluidity rather reminiscent of Stanley Donen’s Two For The Road even as we motor toward the inevitable — a car wreck and what feels like romantic dissolution. Like its predecessor, the musical accents accentuate the mood. This time it’s not Henry Mancini but Philippe Sarde’s languishing score that is always available, softly plinking away in the background
In fact, it has its own wedding scene — Piccoli observes the giddy guests as they scramble toward a white banquet table set for a feast. He’s a man who’s been all but consigned to his car, smoking cigarettes, and this one exuberant display, far from earning his contempt, provides a seedling of hope…
Then it happens. I need not systematically go through all the gory details. However, in the end, there Pierre is lying on the ground thrown from his decimated automobile at the side of the road in the grass somewhere. It’s an almost out-of-body experience as the world swirls by him, and he exists in his thoughts and his memories.
The motion of the world around him carries on, whether it’s onlookers coming to see the wreckage or the body, then an ambulance comes to rush him to the hospital as the rain starts pouring down. Catherine gets the news and Helene comes rushing to his side too…
The Things of Life is constructed in such an inevitable way, but somehow it’s still entrancing, this sense of moroseness and the elasticity of time in the service of one man’s romantic memories. It’s built around melodrama, yes, but with a very specific bent, totally mechanized, and stylized in such a way as to supply the desired effect. And rather than the Sirkian school of high camp, it seems to hewn closer to the path of John Stahl.
In other words, Sautet, in some ways sucks much of the typical theatrics out of the storyline, or at least they do not seem to be his primary concern. What we are left with is this pervasive sense of lasting melancholy, and it’s a powerful emotive force that would hold over to his next picture together with the same primary players: Max and The Junkmen.