Sex and Sophistication Persevered in Lincoln Center Retro

Only the French could birth perfectly bourgeois film artists and that descriptive fits Claude Sautet as a tribute, not an insult. Seeing the 13 features in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sautet retrospective, “The Things of Life” (thru Aug. 16), transports one to that emotionally generous 70s-to-90s era when American moviegoers went to foreign language films for the perfume of sex, sophistication and bourgie complexity. All that’s lost in contemporary film culture (it’s been gutted, dogma’d, mumblecored) yet it remains vivid and intoxicating in Sautet’s soap-operas.

Curator Scott Foundas titled the retro after Sautet’s 1970 film Les Choses de la Vie (The Things of Life), a more operatic version of the usual Sautet melodrama with a stunning montage that no doubt inspired Brian DePalma’s Femme Fatale climax. (The montage details LIfe in shocking, lyrical increments. Jean Boffety’s cinematography captures natural light and existential tragedy in captivating, musical counterpoint. Sautet may be practiced in face-to-face contretemps but the car crash sequence–a Nouvelle Vague salute to the crisis/memories/fate flashbacks of Hollywood’s classic Slattery’s Hurricane–is one of cinema’s most exquisite examples of melding kinetics to philosophy.)

This surprisingly weighty Sautet series is a companion piece to Foundas’ brave, admirable Claude Lelouch retro last year. Less rambunctious than pop-infatuated Lelouch, Sautet used classy scores referencing Bach and Beethoven to cushion his characters’ amorous charades. Seen frequently conversing in automobiles (a 60s French movie staple that is pivotal to Sautet’s eros-vs.-fidelity dialectics), their recitatives articulate men and women’s mixed emotions that French artists regularly dare to reveal but that American audiences can only, enviously, acknowledge.

These days, only Andre Techine’s multiculti, omnisexual masterworks carry Sautet’s torch. Still, one should behold Sautet’s rigorous fascination with heterosexual romance–since it holds true to all humans’ experiences: The blue-collar/boho masculinity of Yves Montand and Sami Frey in Cesar and Rosalie. Michel Piccoli’s complicated virility in The Things of Life. Michel Serrault and Jean-Hughes Anglade’s span of manliness and sophistication in Nelly et M. Arnaud. Then exult in the ideal femininity of Romy Schneider, Lea Masari and Emmanuelle Beart in all those films. Are they more sexy than beautiful? That’s Sautet’s essential cinematic life question.

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