Une histoire simple (Eine einfache Geschichte), 1978, Claude Sautet

The Things of Life
Claude Sautet / Jacques Becker

May 10 to June 26, 2023

Claude Sautet (1924–2000) and Jacques Becker (1906–1960) represent two of France's classic directors and were each celebrated as the "most French" directors of their respective eras. What actually unites them between generations is their talent for sensitive portrayals of characters and an "invisible" mastery of mise en scène: precise and pointed, and thus completely inconspicuous in design. In each of their eras, despite many critics' rejection of their work upon its initial release, the two counted as cinema's leading chroniclers of middle class life. In Sautet's case, for instance, this applies to his films with Romy Schneider, which brought him international fame: The worldwide success of Les choses de la vie (1970) was followed by four more collaborations which contributed to Sautet's reputation as a sensitive portraitist of the middle class.
Still, while films like César et Rosalie (1972; with Schneider and Yves Montand) and Vincent, François, Paul...et les autres (1974; with Montand, Serge Reggiani, Michel Piccoli, and Gérard Depardieu) were enthusiastically received by audiences, Sautet's due place among his country's master directors was long withheld precisely because of his commercial success: He was left in the shadow of the Nouvelle Vague and its offshoots, whose intention to make art and their displays of originality have not aged as well as Sautet's sovereign timelessness.
His intermixing of a popular approach with a particular subtlety and precision in his staging may have seemed slight, but he worked hard for it: The wealth of details in the characterizations and portrayals of the milieus make his films, beyond their power as images of his time, universal studies of human beings with all their strengths and weaknesses as well as their perpetual hopes and disappointments. His colleague François Truffaut saw "life itself" captured in Sautet's films, placing him closer to someone like the great Japanese filmmaker Ozu Yasujiro – or even Jacques Becker, whose affiliations to Sautet go beyond filmmaking, as is doubtlessly reflected in their related cinematic works, for instance, an express love for music, especially jazz, and a weakness for Hollywood cinema and its direct storytelling.
"I see in Sautet the son of Jacques Becker," noted director and film historian Bertrand Tavernier. "This connection has still not been investigated." For the first time, our double retrospective is dedicated to this relationship that Sautet confirmed many times and that also influenced our programming: Each evening presents a Becker-Sautet double feature, sometimes with a close, sometimes with only a loose connection. At the same time, the series is a welcome opportunity to shine the spotlight on two of France's major filmmakers who have been forgotten in Vienna for far too long.
Just as film history pitted Sautet against the Nouvelle vague, Becker remained overshadowed in the film canon by his best friend: As assistant director (and occasional actor) for Jean Renoir, he began his film career in the 1930s and became one of Renoir's co-directors on La vie est à nous (1936), a remarkable docudrama commissioned by the Communist Party. Becker's actual career as a director began during the German occupation of France with crime films like the subversive masterpiece Goupi mains rouges (1942). With Falbalas (1945), a drama set in the world of Parisian high fashion, Becker (who was then involved in the Resistance) managed a rare realistic portrait of the occupation, providing at the same time a foretaste of his often comically colored, post-war milieu studies. Antoine et Antoinette (1947), Rendez-vous de juillet (1949), Edouard et Caroline (1951), and Rue de l'estrapade (1952) won audiences over with a fusion of moving intimacy and detailed accuracy in the portrayal of their milieus, which would later inform Sautet's major work; Becker also had a reputation for capturing the zeitgeist of a young, urban middle class.
Now a recognized masterpiece, the historical drama Casque d'or (1952) with Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani was instead a major flop that led to Becker's return to genre material under commercial pressure. Before his early death from haemochromatosis, he was able to complete masterpieces like Touchez pas au grisbi (1954; with Jean Gabin) and Le trou (1960): Even in crime attire, Becker's films won audiences over with their intense proximity to real life, which inspired an enthused Truffaut to write: "What happens to Becker's characters counts less than how it happens to them."
Sautet's crime film Classe tous risques (1960; with Lino Ventura and Jean-Pierre Belmondo) shares the same winning qualities: Through Becker's intervention (as in Le trou, an adaptation of Jose Giovanni), Sautet made his debut as an auteur after years as an assistant director and script doctor – a talent that also allowed him later to develop his work free from financial pressure and to surmount creative crises. Sautet was in his element on Les choses de la vie, which also brought him together with his main collaborators (script: Jean-Loup Dabadie; camera: Jean Boffety; music: Philippe Sarde); Max et les ferrailleurs (1971) casts its star duo Schneider/Piccoli against type for a social study in a criminal framework à la Becker before Sautet perfected his critical images of society.
"I feel I am in a French tradition that is nevertheless influenced by Italian comedy and American cinema," Sautet once described his orientation, which he continued with a feminist emphasis in Une histoire simple (1978; with Schneider) and a dip into the world of unemployment in Un mauvais fils (1980; with Patrick Dewaere), films which unfortunately gave him increasingly less satisfaction. Quelques jours avec moi (1988; with Daniel Auteuil and Sandrine Bonnaire) is yet another new beginning to a final trio in which Sautet composed films as "music in and of itself." Just as at the end of Becker's career, reduction leads to semantic intensification in which the creator's particular genius clearly shines and just like (posthumously) Becker's Le trou, Sautet's Un coeur en hiver (1993) and Nelly et monsieur Arnaud (1995) were only recognized belatedly as masterpieces. With harrowing laconicism, they again demonstrate one of Sautet's dictums, which also applies to Becker: "Things never happen the way we expect. That is the subject of all my films." (Christoph Huber / Translation: Ted Fendt)
With several introductions by Christoph Huber and Elisabeth Streit

In collaboration with Institut français d'Autriche
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