Les Choses de la vie (1970)
aka: The Little Things in Life
A film directed by Claude Sautet

Genre: Drama

Film Review

Les Choses de la vie photo
Claude Sautet made his directing debut in 1955 with Bonjour sourire, a lame mainstream comedy that is completely unrecognisable as the work of one of France's most revered auteur filmmakers. This was followed by two reasonably successful forays into film noir thriller territory - Classe tous risques (1960) and L'Arme à gauche (1965) - but it wasn't until his fourth feature that Sautet found his voice and became a darling of the critics. Les Choses de la vie is so unlike Sautet's previous directorial offerings and so typical of his subsequent work that it is tempting to label it as his first film. It is certainly the first of Sautet's film in which his profound engagement with ordinary people coping with the banalities of life is first apparent and it is the first of several films in which he worked with Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider, two of the most iconic actors in French cinema of the 1970s.

From Les Choses de la vie onwards, Claude Sautet's films are more about people than incident, and almost invariably the people in question are middle-aged members of the lower bourgeoisie negotiating a severe case of midlife crisis. Les Choses de la vie begins with one of the most dramatic incidents imaginable, a road accident in which a man is mortally injured, but this is merely the pretext for what follows, a Proustian montage of fragmented memories in which a man struggles to make sense of his existence just before it is snatched away from him. It is the most tragic of ironies that just before the collision, the main character, Pierre (a remarkable Michel Piccoli), made a decision that would allow him egress from his present life of tedious bourgeois conformity and lead him to a happier future with his adoring mistress Catherine (Romy Schneider at her most radiant). In a series of flashbacks we see Pierre grappling with the existential conundrum that will decide his future (to stay or not to stay...), blissfully unaware that he has no future. His crossroads will be his terminus.

Les Choses de la vie has next to no plot, only vague snatches of life pasted together in an erratic fashion, and yet it is the most enchanting and poignant of Claude Sautet's films. Pierre's memories are intercut with horrific shots of the accident that will claim his life, some played in slow motion, some at normal speed, heightening the drama and sense of tragedy. There is a terrible inevitability about the accident. The scene of the car crash is prepared like a stage set - the other vehicles are in place, like a baited trap, waiting for Pierre's car to come into sight. Throughout the film, it is evident that Pierre's pursuit of personal happiness can end in no other way. This is how life is, and looking backwards, as the film forces us to do, there is a brutal inevitability about what happens to the central protagonist.

Running to just over eighty minutes, Les Choses de la vie is a masterpiece of narrative economy and it moves at such a pace and with such elegance that it feels shorter than it is. Sautet's main achievement was to construct such a gripping piece of cinema from fragments of everyday life, dispensing totally with the linear narrative and in doing so creating something far more powerful and enticing. Philippe Sarde's haunting score not only adds a lyrical potency to the film, it also helps to make it cohere into a satisfying whole. There are no great moments of drama, just a gentle melancholia which is only momentarily disturbed, like a pebble thrown into a placid lake, by an unsettling dream sequence in which Pierre imagines his future wedding with Hélène and sees not only his friends but also the strangers he glimpses half-aware at the site of his accident. This is the point at Pierre knows he is to die, the moment when he wakes up to the pointlessness of his existence. Fleeting moments of happiness are all he has left to cling on to as he goes under, absorbed into the great cosmic nothingness that awaits all mortal things.

The success of Les Choses de la vie with critics and the cinema-going public helped to bring a fresh impetus to the auteur side of French cinema at a time when the Nouvelle vague was fast becoming an irrelevance. The film was awarded the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc in 1970 and not only established Sautet's reputation as a serious filmmaker at home and abroad, it also provided a substantial boost to the careers of Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider. Sautet would subsequently give these two actors some of their best screen roles, in films that include César et Rosalie (1972), Vincent, François, Paul... et les autres (1974), Mado (1976) and Une histoire simple (1978). Les Choses de la vie would be remade many years later by Mark Rydell as Intersection (1994) with Richard Gere and Sharon Stone, a film that pales into insignificance when set alongside Claude Sautet's exquisite meditation on the meaning of life.
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Pierre Bérard, a 40-year-old architect, is on his way to a business appointment when his car collides with a lorry on a quiet country road...
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Film Credits

Directed by Claude Sautet
Starring: Michel Piccoli, Romy Schneider, Gérard Lartigau, Jean Bouise, Boby Lapointe
[Read more...]

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