I have always wanted a book with Romy Schneider on the cover. After all, we carry not one, but two Romy portraits exclusively in our Classiq Journal Editions. Not a book about her life (there are a few German publications on the subject), which would certainly veer away from her prolific career of talented actor and towards her tragic personal life, but one which honours her work, her films, the filmmakers and actors she worked with. Finally, that book has arrived (it came out this September). It’s a book about the cinema of Claude Sautet, Le Paris de Claude Sautet: Romy, Michel, Yves et les autres…*, written by Hélène Rochette, and on the cover there is a shot of Romy from Max et les Ferrailleurs, the film Sautet considered his best.
Max et les Ferrailleurs is a bleak, dark detective story that taps into noir while drawing two fine character studies: Michel Piccoli’s Max, a former judge converted into a cop, and Romy Schneider’s Lily, a prostitute linked to a gang of hard-luck, two-time crooks whom he wants to catch in order to restore his recently tarnished reputation in the department. Sautet inverts in fact the moral dilemma of the crime film and makes the criminals more sympathetic than the lawman. Nothing can disturb Max’s icy exterior, nothing distracts his attention, not even Lily. She is no ordinary prostitute either. She is the brain behind the gang of small-time criminals and it is her ambition that will get them all into trouble.
Romy is wearing Yves Saint Laurent in Max et les Ferrailleurs and in this particular shot depicted on the cover of the book she is wearing the black patent trench coat – the revival of the vinyl trench five years after Catherine Deneuve wore hers for another prostitute role, that of Severine in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour. Yves Saint Laurent had an “immediate and astounding sense of costume”, in the words of Roland Petit, and he chose a very sexy, character-appropriate wardrobe for Romy in this film – violet or red low-cut dresses, form-fitting black dress with plunging neckline, ribbon tied around the neck – but it is that trench in particular that stands apart, both shielding her away and marking her off.
The fact that the book is in French has both a positive and a negative side. It is written with the cinema knowledge and passion the French are capable of (it is much less often the case with American books about film), which always takes your own knowledge and passion for cinema one level up, but if it were to be translated to English it would certainly benefit of a much wider appreciation, as it deserves.
Organized in six chapters that analyse not each film in particular, and this is what I loved so much about it, but the elements that are defining for Sautet’s cinema (from that special portrayal of Paris, the image of the eternal capital, with its urban vitality depicted not through geographic landmarks but subtly, by slipping into the dark little streets and the boisterous yet intimate atmosphere of its cafes, bistros and bars, to the use of the car as modern instruments of destiny, to the free and audacious Parisienne, especially the characters of Romy Schneider, to the influence that the American culture had on the most Parisian of cineasts – westerns, the films of Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Ford, jazz music, as “he was capable of conducting certain cinematographic sequences like a jazz solo”, were a great inspiration for the French filmmaker), the book truly seizes the essence and uniqueness of Claude Sautet’s universe. “Sautet invented his own reality, and that’s why his films endure,” film analyst Jacques Fieschi is cited. And the marvelous thing about that reality is that, “in contrast with François Truffaut, who believed that cinema surpassed and amplified life, to the point of wanting to perpetuate the artistic excitement of the shoots,” notes Hélène Rochette, Claude Sautet’s films “cherished all life’s simple pleasures”.
It is the little details the book focuses on, in the true spirit of Sautet himself, who “always liked to scrutinize these little things, these constant trials and errors that anchor an individual in his singularity”. He was sincerely interested in life as it was, in its every moment, in the smallest gesture, in the simplest joy, to be lived in the moment, one of the reasons he liked open endings to his films. “Sautet never intellectualized his approach to filmmaking, that’s why he is considered a craftsman, a good maker,” Olivier Péray, assistant director on Mado, concurred. Claude Sautet reminds me of another great favourite of mine, John Cassavetes, who loved life just as it was and made his films about it, films that are raw, unfiltered, unpredictable, complex, overwhelming, just like real life is – “In Faces I wanted to show the inability of people to communicate; what small things do to people, how people can’t handle certain things that they hear and read in newspapers, see in films; and how, when they are not prepared to think with their own minds and to feel, how all this can become tragic circumstances,” the American filmmaker would confess. The emotions, the reflections on human behavior, the complexity of sentiments, we encounter them in Sautet’s work and we encounter them in Cassavetes’. And Cassavetes is rightfully mentioned in the book, too.
The interviews included in Le Paris de Claude Sautet, all of them recently conducted, in the spring of 2019, with Jean-Claude Carrière, Brigitte Fossey, Myriam Boyer, Arlette Bonnard, Sandrine Bonnairde, further add a new, intimate dimension to Sautet’s cinema and characters: “Claude Sautet did not just capture the authenticity and the truth in a shot, he also achieved this extraordinary balance that does not often exist in cinema, this rare musicality, and you sense that even today, when you hear a scene by Sautet, even on the radio, there is this rhythm in the dialogues which is always right,” Brigitte Fossey confesses.
And, finally, Romy. Romy, who became the impersonation of “the perfect French seduction”, Romy whose “photogenic power and beauty represented at least for a decade the image of femininity on the big screen”, Romy who taught Sautet that “women were courageous, vivacious”, because before he met her, “he didn’t know how to direct actresses and female characters didn’t interest him so much, except as objects,” Graziella Sautet, his wife, recalled. Incandescent, implacable, imperious, ferociously humorous, fiercely independent, Romy, the actor who was the new icon of freedom and modernity.
A while ago I wrote about Romy’s character in César et Rosalie, how I believed that Rosalie came very close to Romy’s own personality. The book draws an incredibly conclusive portrait of Rosalie, Sautet’s heroine who “is never afraid to claim her tastes, her desires and her insatiable quest for freedom”. She is the image of the determined, confident woman driven by her inalterable will to live, because the woman alone guides her destiny and her male alter egos must resolve to accommodate themselves to her decisions. Romy’s presence on screen was unequalled and she came alive in Claude Sautet’s films.
*Note: For an easily accessible, official synopsis of the book, I have linked to the publishing house (and to their credit, Parigramme has an incredible selection of book, some of which in English). However, in these trying times, our intention is to support artists and small businesses of any kind, especially bookstores, therefore I will not link to global online book chains or corporations, leaving you to make the choice of helping your favourite independent bookshop and placing your order with them. If you don’t have a favourite indie bookstore, here is how to find one you can support.