Earlier this month Gene Siskel Film Center presented My Journey Through French Cinema, a 200-minute essay film by the venerable writer-director Bertrand Tavernier (Round Midnight, Life and Nothing But) that presents his country’s movies through the lens of personal reminiscence—much as Martin Scorsese did with My Voyage to Italy (1999) and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995). In concert with the documentary, Film Center is also screening nine films that Tavernier discusses; most of them are commonly available favorites (Grand Illusion, Children of Paradise, Cleo From 5 to 7), but the series includes the first Chicago screening in decades of Claude Sautet’s fascinating Les Choses de la Vie (“The Things of Life”), which was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 1970. Tavernier was friends with Sautet for 40 years and is so taken with Les Choses that he chose its final shot—of a dazed Romy Schneider wandering into a crowd as the focus blurs—to be the concluding image of his essay.
You can see why Tavernier might have seized on the film as a kind of summation: Sautet, adapting Paul Guimard’s novel Intersection, ponders no less than the curse of free will in a world governed by chance. Pierre (Michel Piccoli), a middle-aged architect in Paris, can’t make up his mind to leave behind his estranged wife, Catherine (Lea Massari), and teenage son, Bertrand (Gérard Lartigau), to move to Tunis with his young lover, Hélène (Schneider). Pierre has arrived at a crossroads in life, both figuratively and literally: speeding along a country road in his Alfa Romeo, he swerves to avoid a stalled truck in his path, and the car flies off the road, rolling in midair and finally expelling him onto the grass. Waiting for an ambulance, he flashes on people close to him and worries that if he dies someone will find and deliver to Hélène the kiss-off letter he’s written but never mailed.
Tavernier first met Sautet in 1960, after being floored by the director’s blistering crime drama Classe Tous Risques (“Consider All Risks”). Made ten years apart, these two movies couldn’t be less similar in their social milieus, but thematically they’re strikingly similar. Classe stars Lino Ventura as a gangster who’s been on the lam for years with his wife and two little boys, now aged four and seven. Like Pierre in Les Choses, he’s pulled away from his nuclear family by another relationship, with his old partner in crime, and as the family try to sneak back into Paris from exile in Italy, the wife is killed by police, which leaves the gangster responsible for his children. In My Journey, Ventura remembers José Giovanni, author of the source novel, asking Sautet for his take on the story and the director telling him, “I see Lino walking, holding his kids by the hand. Then, later, I see his kids walking 50 yards behind him.”
For Pierre the dilemma is less acute—his son is 19 and has a thriving business designing electronic novelties—but it’s compounded by an inability to act decisively. Pierre has been with Hélène for some time now, but whenever she presses him to sign papers accepting a new position in Tunis, he procrastinates. Bertrand, who’s about to begin his national service, invites Pierre to join him and his mother for a visit to their old summer home on the Île de Ré, and when Pierre uses this as yet another pretext for delay, Hélène glumly concludes, “We’ll never leave.” Interviewed in My Journey, Tavernier remembers Sautet describing Pierre as “a guy who’s glad to die because it saves him from making a choice.” His greatest concern as his life ebbs away is that fate will decide for him.
One thing you can say for Sautet: he knew how to shoot a speeding automobile. Classe fairly leaps off the screen as the gangster and his friend, traveling separately from the wife and children, fly down the highway by car and stolen motorcycle, separating to outflank a police roadblock. For Les Choses, Sautet films the car crash in minute detail but incorporates it into a fractured chronology. In the opening shot, children gather around a tire that has flown off the Alfa Romeo, then a wider shot reveals the crowd surrounding the crash site; for the credit sequence, Sautet runs the crash sequence in reverse slow motion, ending with Pierre safe in his garage and turning off his headlights. Leaping back in time again, Sautet spends the movie’s first half mapping out Pierre’s complicated personal situation, as well as his fraught relationship with a ne’er-do-well father and his professional conflict with a rapacious developer. But periodically, to provide a violent contrast to these everyday concerns, the director cuts to slow-motion close-ups of Pierre stricken with fear inside the rolling car. The crash unfolds from so many angles that when Sautet finally runs the whole thing in real time—mere seconds onscreen—it feels like a rocket.
This postmodern storytelling is more impressive than the movie’s second half, which relies on the melodramatic convention of cutting back and forth between a critically injured man and his unsuspecting loved ones far away. More flashbacks arrive, easily interpreted now as Pierre’s life passing before his eyes. He drifts into a twilight world, musing in voice-over, “I’ve ruined my suit. . . . I’m tired. . . . I feel fine in the grass. . . . I should be in pain but I’m not.” As Sautet observed, Pierre is relieved to be off the hook, his heart soaring as his power to act leaves him. To live is to choose, the old saying goes, though as Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, once added, “to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.” Pierre doesn’t seem too sure about any of that, which might be the reason he can’t keep his wheels on the road. v