Cesar et Rosalie (1972)

It occurs to me that the title Cesar et Rosalie is a rather peculiar choice for this movie. However, it’s also very pointed. If Jules et Jim was about two friends caught in a ceaselessly complicated love affair with one woman (Jeanne Moreau), then here is a story shifting the focus just slightly. This time it is Romy Schneider caught between two suitors.

It opens with two men who both were coupled with the unseen woman named Rosalie. Formerly she was with a handsome comic book artist, but before they could ever get around to marriage (what would have been her second), she ended up with a middle-aged scrap metal man (Yves Montand). He’s quite successful in his trade while maintaining a penchant for gambling.

Whether it’s solely because they are represented by creative types, it feels like there’s a kind of vacuity about the younger generation. Yves Montand, now there is a man with something interesting about him. After doing some digging, I found out he was actually Italian by birth though thanks to his music and acting, he became synonymous with French cinema. Films like Wages of Fear and Le Cercle Rouge work in a pinch. He’s one of France’s indelible faces, and here he is another character with a lumbering larger-than-life posture.

Both a bit of an overgrown baby and a gregarious teddy bear. He can be found smoking his cigars and establishing himself as the life of the party. He loves to vocalize, and in contrast to his rivals, there’s something refreshing about his blustering style. You know what you’re getting.

In comparison, I’m less inclined to be infatuated with any semblance of the bourgeoise milieu as embodied by David (Sami Frey). This might be a poor descriptor because he’s only a comic book artist, albeit a very successful one. But there’s a detached, casual air about him that feels far more refined. It lacks all of the volatile personality exhibited by Cesar. If I speak for myself, Cesar seems like one of the common men.

However, right about now it’s worthwhile to acknowledge a handful of his shortcomings. He’s quite petty and jealous for the affection of Rosalie. In one instance, his childish antics and brazen show of bravado leave them idling in the underbrush at the side of the road. In the aftermath of a convivial wedding party, a game of chicken ensues between him and David becoming a portent for future drama.

Although he and Rosalie have been together for some time, and they have a contentment between them, there is still this lingering sense of individuality. Rosalie is a mother. She has been married before and maintains her own independence. She remains with Cesar mostly because she wants to be, at least for now. That could easily change, and, eventually, it does. Her whims make her alight once more for David because his quiet charms have not atrophied with time. She feels the electricity between them still.

At the midpoint, the picture hits the skids. Cesar’s ugly underbelly comes alive as his transgressions and jealousy take over. He acts as if he owns Rosalie and in one harrowing scene practically throws her out the front door. He’s a wounded brute prone to violence. There’s no way to condone his behavior even as it reflects the toxic social mores of the era (or many eras).

But of course, he can never forget her. He feels lost without her and so he resolves to find her with David. He tracks them out to their beach getaway but instead of coming to have it out once and for all, Cesar returns sheepishly with his tails between his legs. He’s paid for the damages he inflicted, and Rosalie looks over his sorry figure and can hardly contain her amusement.

It’s moments such as these where it becomes apparent how the movie is mostly able to coast on the goodwill of its stars and their various romantic dalliances. Initially, it feels like Romy Schneider spends a great deal of time in the kitchen grabbing drinks and making coffee for her man. However, she’s also a keen observer of male anthropology.

Like Moreau before her, she really does play the deciding part in this film. As much as it seems framed by the male perspective, though our title subjects have shifted slightly, Rosalie does hold a great deal of sway in the story. It does feel like these men need her more than she needs them or, at the very least, she is not willing to settle into this kind of relaxed equilibrium where they exist in a menage a trois without the intimacy.

Is it wrong to consider this the most French of romantic setups? It becomes plainly apparent that this is never just a film about Cesar and Rosalie. There must be parentheses or ampersand including David tacked on the end (or any other love interest for that matter). The film is far more crowded and complicated than a mere romance actuated by two solitary human beings with Sautet crowding the canvas and relational networks of the film with so many ancillary swatches of life.

Although it feels like it’s not about very much, Sautet is able to hone in on this core relationship and tease out both the comedic eccentricities found therein while still leaving us with this kind of wistful resolution. It’s not a tragedy in the same way Truffaut managed when he detonated Jules et Jim, but it leaves us with that sense of regret that love often conjures up in the human heart.

All these characters could have done things differently to patch things up, to stay together, and earn the Hollywoodesque ending. However, what leaves an impression is this kind of pensive anticlimax. It’s a lighter touch than The Things of Life or Max and The Junkman, even as it might owe something to Lubitsch.

3.5/5 Stars

Wages of Fear (1953)

2c3da-salairedelapeurr350Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this international thriller stars a cast headed by Yves Montand. The film opens in a hell-hole of a town in South America where many jobless drifters spend their days. The joke is that it is really easy to get there, you just can never get out again. 

A Frenchman named Mario (Montand) is one of these vagabonds who has little to do except make eyes at a pretty girl (Vera Clouzot), and sit around the local hangout. Then a massive fire breaks out at a nearby oil field of the corrupt, American Southern Oil Company (SOC). In order to stop the devastation, the solution is to use explosions triggered by nitroglycerin. But the journey to the fields is extremely dangerous so there is the brilliant idea of finding four eager vagrants to transport two trucks of nitro on this 300-mile suicide mission. In need of a break, most of the town jumps at the opportunity. However, only four men actually get this “privilege.” 
One is Mario, another his jovial roommate Luigi, and then the closed off and menacing Bimba. The fourth man who eventually joins this trio is Jo who is an older French fellow who befriended Mario. Then, Mario and Jo leave in one vehicle followed by Bimba and Luigi with the fun just beginning. They must navigate the treacherous roads full of not only bumps but barricades and giant boulders. All the while they are worn thin physically and psychologically. 

Soon the confident Jo turns into a sickly coward, but the other three must keep on going if they want their payoff. In the end, this mission turns out to be too much for some. Eventually, Mario gets ready to return to his girl with $4,000 in toe, a deliriously happy man.
First off, when it is said that this film is a “thriller,” we are not talking about a Hollywood thriller here, with overwhelming action followed by twist after turn. What makes the Wages of Fear so powerful is the sustained intensity because every moment that the nitroglycerin is in the picture you half expect something to go wrong. As such a thriller, I almost came to expect the ending because I really do not think it could have ended any other way. In many ways, it is not simply a critique of the American oil industry, but also the American film industry, and it confidently defies both.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

LecerclerougeDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring a cast including Alain Delon and Yves Montand, this crime film hearkens back to heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle, back in the 1950s.

In a cold open, two storylines are introduced. One man, Vogel, is in custody and is handcuffed to a policeman as they board a train. At the same time, a man named Corey is let out of prison, on good behavior, and he is tipped off on a possible heist job. In both cases, we have little background information to go on. Then, Corey pops in unexpectedly on an old mob boss and forcibly “borrows” some money from the man, who has also stolen his girl. He buys a new car and throws off a couple of thugs who were sent after him. As the morning dawns, the captive on the train makes a daring escape and flees into the nearby forest. Soon roadblocks are set and the manhunt begins. He desperately gets into an open car trunk to hide, ironically it is the same car of the man, who was recently released.

However, he was noticed and Corey tells him to get out of his hiding place.  Vogel is tense but his cool and collected acquaintance helps him sneak through a checkpoint noting that Paris is his best chance of escape. Corey is chased down once again by Rico’s henchmen, but Vogel sneaks out and comes to his aid. They head to Paris and find a sharpshooter to case the jewelry store and help them with their plan. The police detective is still searching for his quarry, and he tries to enlist the help of a crooked club owner. Meanwhile, the plans are made, and the heist is pulled off with great precision and efficiency. They get away with the jewels smoothly enough. However, the marksman settles to take no part of the plunder, and their initial buyer falls through. Relatively quickly there is a new person interested, so Corey takes the goods to him. Only too late Vogel comes to warn him, and just like that, they must flee the premises with police all around.

Much like Le Samourai, this film gives off an extremely cool vibe, and it makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. Alain Delon is such a smooth operator, and whether it is the way he dresses, talks, smokes, or pulls off the heist, it cannot be easily dismissed. However, the other main players give serious and nuanced performances of their own, which cannot be overlooked. Melville makes all of his scenes so interesting, through the setup and the fashion in which his characters go through the world of the film. His characters act in the mode of behavior that they believe is correct and most are rather taciturn and guarded. I cannot decide if I like Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge better, but it must be said they are in a special class of crime films.

4.5/5 Stars