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How We Lived On It (55) – La chanson d’hélène

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Romy Schneider
Romy Schneider (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you have missed it, my retrospective on the artistry of French filmmaker Claude Sautet appears in the current issue of Senses of Cinema. During Sautet’s 1970s peak, his female muse was Austrian actress Romy Schneider, who appeared memorably in five of his films, winning France’s Cesar Award for best actress for the 1978 A Simple Story. Like a lot of younger and older men in those days, I fell in love with Romy Schneider, who was then still in her thirties. It seems Sautet, too, artistically and paternally, was more than a little in love with her. After Schneider’s ex-husband committed suicide in 1979, and her fourteen-year-old son died in a freak accident in 1981, the actress drank heavily and died of an apparent heart attack in her sleep within a year. She was 43. Sautet’s career went into decline after her death, only to revive in the last decade of his life in the 1990s.

Another great artist associated with Schneider is French actor Alain Delon. Delon and Scheider were lovers for five years and engaged to be married when both were very young and early in their careers. They remained friends and acted together even after the split, and when Schneider died, it was Delon who arranged to have her son, David, reburied beside her. In June 1982, less than two weeks after her death, Delon, who, now 77, says Schneider was the love of his life, published in Paris Match, a long love letter to her. It ended

My Puppelé, I look at you again and again. I want to devour you with my eyes, and tell you again and again that you’ve never been so beautiful and calm. Rest. I’m here. I learned a little German, with you. Ich liebe dich. I love you. I love you my Puppelé.

When Schneider was paid homage at the 2008 Cesar Awards, it was Delon who accepted the honor on her behalf.

The music for Schneider and Sautet’s first collaboration, The Things of Life, in which Schneider’s Helene loses her love in an auto accident just as he is about to return to her, was scored by the great French film composer Philippe Sarde. The film’s love theme was set to words and recorded as “La chanson d’hélène.” Schneider and her co-star, Michel Piccoli performed it on French television. Here it is sung over scenes of the two from the film. I like this version best, film of Schneider and Piccoli recording the song in the studio. Schneider’s voice is tenderly childlike and fragile.

This contemporary version, by Korean jazz singer Youn Sun Nah, is sung to puppetry and dance. I have not been able to identify the filmmaker, puppeteer, or dancers.

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Culture Clash

Purity & Invention: a Claude Sautet Retrospective

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From August 1-9 this summer, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted a long overdue retrospective of the films of Claude Sautet (1924-2000). Probably best known to younger, more contemporary audiences for his late flowering of 1990s films Un Coeur en Hiver (A Heart in Winter) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (Nelly and Mr. Arnaud), Sautet established his reputation during a 1970s peak – with semi-regular actors such as Romy Schneider, Yves Montand, and Michel Piccoli – that included such films as Le choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970),Vincent, François Paul et les autres… (Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, 1974), and Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978). My consideration of Sautet’s aesthetic and themes appears in the September issue of Senses of Cinema.

Sautet told stories mostly of middle class French life, for which detractors – those for whom the middle class must always be a political object lesson – criticized him. For some, middle class life can never be particular, personal lives contextualized in culture, time, and place; rather, middle classness must be depicted always as a social malady, either ideological cause or spiritual symptom. In these cases, then, we do not even refer to the “middle class,” which is often, in liberal democracies, a political designation of striving national aspiration and economic empathy. When, rather, it is aesthetically or ideologically politicized, the middle class is the bourgeoisiehaute when ridiculed, petit when contemned.

However, Sautet represented his characters at an immediate temporal and relational level, without historical or ideological didacticism: they are indeed striving, small, loyal and compromised, friends, bon vivants, failures, and sell- outs, despairing and hopeful, passionately in love and out, and fully, sensuously enraptured and ensnared by “the things of life,” the title of the film that gave Sautet a reputation, and which seems so aptly to sum up his vision and his style. How best to convey this immersion in a certain French quotidian – what became for so many the vision of French life in those years – than to utilize fully, symphonically all the elements of film together?

Frequent collaborator Jean-Loup Dabadie’s screenplay of Vincent, François, Paul and the Others is literate and sharp, like a reasonably smart and entertaining friend at a party, but you will go home recalling not a single brilliant thing that was said. No one quotes favourite lines from Sautet films. The plot consists, as in The Things of Life and A Simple Story, of only the smaller and greater crises in the lives of some middle-aged and younger people. Composer Philippe Sarde, another regular collaborator, still at work, and ubiquitous in the French cinema of the 70s, provides a score alternately melancholy and unobtrusively buoyant, projecting both the intense drama of our personal turning points and the common hopefulness that will lead us from one day to the next.

From a middle distance in Vincent, François, Paul and the Others, characters are often seen through glass, of home windows, office windows, car windows. They appear less theatrically arranged than observed, even spied upon, as in the closing shot, when the four male friends, three older, one younger, emerge from a café as from all of their recent travails, talking in tones, along with the music, of mild, probably fanciful hopefulness for the future. They are picked out in the camera’s focus amid the many pedestrians and the busy traffic through which they cross the street, and when they pause at the next intersection, the camera freezes them still in the most artful, causal assemblage of postures and gazes – a mid-shot, through a telephoto lens, as from a spy film. From somewhere in the galaxy, they came to watch and study, a slide presented of some people of a certain age in a city at a given time in a region they call France.

You can read the whole essay here.

AJA

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