Isn’t it a Pity: Two Films By Claude Sautet

Posted by Max Nelson on 8.3.2012

I first learned about Claude Sautet from a French friend who considered Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres his favorite film, and called it one of the best ever made about failure. You’ll want to watch it every month, he said.

What could keep us returning, month after month, to the same representation of defeat? Is it because we relate to the losers onscreen, or because we’re glad, for once, not to relate? Probably a little of both: when we’re suffering, films about failure give us objects of pity other than ourselves; when we’re successful, they remind us how precious success is, and how uncertain. Either way, we pity frustrated writer Paul and dissatisfied doctor François. Above all we pity Vincent, whose business and love life we watch collapse in turn, and equally irreparably. If in general we tend to pity either too much or too little, we might need a film like Vincent... simply to help us exercise, and discipline, an emotion over which we rarely have much control.

But we do more than pity Vincent and the others: we align ourselves with them, root for them, even as Sautet reminds us that their defeats might be well-deserved. In Vincent... there is a marvelous balance between love and chastisement, forgiveness and blame, empathy and distance, and Sautet doesn’t spare himself any of the above: he, too, aligns himself with his heroes until they each seem to manifest a different one of his personal failings. He proves, by taking himself as a test subject, that we continue to want the best for ourselves, even after having confessed all the reasons why we might not deserve it. His revelation, then, was to urge us to apply that logic to the lives of others, to care for him and his protagonists, if only because we recognize our self-love in his/their own.

If Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres represents Sautet’s humanism in full bloom, Max et les Ferrailleurs was its crucible. Here we have the story of an investigator so bent on making the perfect arrest that he manipulates a small-time gang into robbing a bank and walking into his open arms – the human drive for success re-envisioned as the utmost moral, not to mention social, failure. The blame is so squarely laid on Michel Piccoli’s regally inscrutable cop that we doubt he even deserves our compassion. His final fall is as proper as it was inevitable. Still, we pity him.  



We pity him not because Sautet indulges in any cheap backstory to explain his actions (all we know is that he has lost before, and is tired of losing), nor because Sautet chalks his actions up to economic necessity or social injustice (he draws on great stores of cash to set up crooks much poorer than he). We pity Max, if anything, because his great, doomed grasp for success seems so unnecessary, even petty. We pity him because he staked all he had on so terribly little, on the respect and admiration of a world from which he would continue to be detached. His bid for glory seems nothing but an attempt to stave off an aching, gnawing loneliness that, we know, refuses to be staved off. In his scenes with Romy Schneider’s strong-willed prostitute, girlfriend of the lead ferrailleur and instrument of Max’s deception, Piccoli lets play-acting slide slowly into accidental, devastating honesty. Max, taking on the persona of a brooding, lonely banker, ends up answering what, in the film's opening flash-forward, so baffled his commisioner: why did he do it? 

We can’t, at least at first, treat Max with the same degree of camaraderie we reserve for Vincent, Paul, or François. The latter three earn our respect. Max earns only our pity. We care for Vincent and his gang because they resemble us; if anything, we care for Max in spite of the ways that he resembles us. And yet he does resemble us. There will come a moment in Max et les Ferrailleurs – and it will be different for each of us – where one of Piccoli’s desperate mannerisms or empty turns of phrase will remind us of something we said or did or thought years ago, and in that shock of recognition we will find ourselves suddenly on his level, brought down to a state we once (perhaps rightly) deemed worthy only of pity.

The work of Claude Sautet, then, is to raise us back up. To guide us to fail, as Max did to his junkmen, only to show us that even the most unthinkable defeats deserve big-screen memorialization, and with that respect. His life’s work is a bit like Vincent's final, elegant freeze-frame: it resolves nothing, nor does it even much allow for hope. All it does, and all it needs to do, is restore some dignity to defeat. 

Vincent, François, Paul et les Autres screens Saturday at 6:00pm, as part of our complete Claude Sautet retrospective. See any two films in the series - Max et les Ferrailleurs excepted - and save with our double feature package Max et les Ferrailleurs opens Friday, August 10 for a weeklong theatrical run in the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. This is Max's first-ever US theatrical engagement. 

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