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Sautet Returns to the Scene : French director looks at new generation in first film in five years

June 25, 1989|KEVIN THOMAS

After an absence of five years, veteran French director Claude Sautet has returned to the screen with one of the finest films of his career, "A Few Days with Me," which stars two of France's major young actors, Daniel Auteuil and Sandrine Bonnaire. A master in the depiction of the crises of middle-age in such films as "Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others" (1976) and its companion film, "A Simple Story" (1979), Sautet this time concerns himself primarily with substantially younger people.

Throughout his career, Sautet, a handsome, silver-haired man of 64 and much Gallic charm, has been a script doctor, and that's what has occupied him in recent years. "Often, working for other people starts me thinking about my own work," he said during an interview recently while on a tour to promote "A Few Days with Me," which opens this week at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. "Perhaps the five years between my own films was my fault. I kept going around and around thinking about people who were 50-to 55-years-old who felt sorry for themselves. When a producer asked me if I had a story I would like to film I thought of (Jean-Francois) Josselin's novel, which I had read several years before." Thus, the birth of "A Few Days with Me."

Sautet films are distinguished by a graceful, rhythmic pacing and a recurrent theme of friendship. In every film, Sautet introduces us to a group of people who for the most part are warm and supportive and who usually constantly surround one or more of the key figures. "A Few Days with Me" is no exception.

Sautet said both characteristics grow out of his childhood experiences. "I grew up in the outskirts of Paris in an extended family with an immense number of children. The center of life was a cafe where everyone mixed freely--the doctor, the bus driver, everyone. This is where I also discovered the secret loneliness of people, of being lonely in a crowd. One of the classic subjects is solitude--I didn't invent it! Comedy starts when the individual starts to break out of this. I always try to create an imbalance, an edge to friendship. You never know what's going to trigger the next moment. My real subject is always uncertainty."

Sautet failed his exams for his high school diploma, but his mother told him that it was of no importance: he would have to be an artist. He went on to the School of Decorative Arts, majoring in sculpture. During the Occupation, Sautet avoided obligatory duty in Germany by working with juvenile delinquents, which "taught me a lot in directing actors."

After World War II, Sautet, faced with poverty, passed a civil service exam qualifying him to be a provincial bureaucrat. Once again, his mother, furious at such a choice, stepped in and sent away for an application for IDHEC, France's state film school. Sautet passed the entrance examination.

As an assistant director for many years, Sautet gradually found himself making suggestions for improvements in scripts, gaining a reputation for his abilities in fixing other people's work. Eventually, he was asked to direct, making his debut in 1955. It wasn't, however, until 1969 that he gained an international reputation with "The Things of Life," an exquisite, poignant study of the breakup of a longtime relationship between a successful architect (Michel Piccoli) and his beautiful mistress (Romy Schneider).

Sautet would continue to direct Piccoli and Schneider, and later Yves Montand, in some of their best performances. In 1972, he teamed Montand and Schneider in "Cesar and Rosalie," a huge hit in France in which Montand had an all-stops-out part as a combustible, rough-hewn scrap metal dealer whose relationship with Schneider, a divorcee with a small daughter, is undermined by the reappearance of a one-time lover (Sami Frey).

In regard to his evident rapport with Montand and the late Schneider, Sautet believes he was lucky to meet both of them at points in their careers when they were not satisfied with their work.

"Ah, Montand was supposed to be this homme de politiques , but he was just repeating what Simone Signoret told him," Sautet confided. "He's just a child. Actually, I wrote 'Cesar and Rosalie' prior to meeting him. There's so much to draw out of him that he doesn't realize he has in him. When I met Romy she had kind of disappeared from the screen--she was only 32 or 33 at the time. She was frustrated in not being able to express all that she had inside her. When you draw out such passion from actors you become very demanding of them and they of you."

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