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The French Old Wave: Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques

 

By Tim Palmer

Commemorated widely, the French New Wave is basking in the afterglow of its fiftieth anniversary.  Few today dispute the resonance of this movement—its guerilla modes of production, its intellectual auteurs, its playfully non-traditional aesthetics, its joyous cinephilia.  But despite all the nostalgia, it is worth remembering that the New Wave did come at a cost; many drowned in the wake of these Young Turks.  Most modern historians, indeed, still recycle the same vocabulary devised by François Truffaut to refer pejoratively to all pre-New Wave French cinema as a Tradition of Quality, or, worse still, as le cinéma de papa, Daddy’s cinema.  By result, alongside Truffaut’s particular 1950s nemeses (notably the screenwriting double act of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost) many once-respected classical artisans have been relegated to obscurity, an entire mainstream ethos written off, a stigma attached to French commercial cinema from which it has never fully recovered.  Just witness the vitriol directed at the popular 1980s cinéma du look, or, more recently, towards Luc Besson and his buoyant EuropaCorp operations.  Lingering here is an unquestioned value system about French film—that genre cancels out individuality, that high production values are synonymous with low culture, that commerce destroys art.

Criterion’s revival of Claude Sautet’s Classe tous risques, originally released in 1960, just as the New Wave broke, offers a timely reminder of this unjustly scorned classical French mainstream.  Classe tous risques demonstrates how before, during and after the New Wave, genres like the policier crime film and the costume drama could actually be the vehicles for robust, sometimes elegant, and often sophisticated cinema.  New Wave hype notwithstanding, inherited prejudices cast aside, films like Class tous risques often seem less dated, occasionally more idiosyncratic, and more stylistically coherent than their infamous 1960s contemporaries. 

Clearly, Sautet was no poster boy for the late-1950s French new generation.  Indeed, Sautet’s early professional course diverged wildly from the restless independence demanded by his more assertive peers.  While the Cahiers cohort was flourishing into a group of self-made cineastes—auteurist advocates spreading industrial conspiracy theories—Sautet was quietly paying his dues, serving out his apprenticeship, as was the normal practice.  After completing his studies at IDHEC (which after 1946 was France’s state-mandated film school) Sautet laboriously worked his way up through the ranks, as assistant and second-unit director on made-to-order films like Bonjour sourire! (1955; which Sautet actually completed as nominal director), Les Truands (1956) and the Lino Ventura thriller Le fauve est lâché (The Beast is Loose, 1959).  Reminiscing years later, sounding just like his Japanese counterpart Seijun Suzuki, Sautet remarked that his job at this point was simply to make terrible scripts, cobbled together by incompetent directors, a little more interesting to watch. 

Sautet’s mature-phase career hinged on two fortunate collaborations.  The first was assisting Georges Franju on the hit Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960).  The second, Sautet’s breakthrough, came when Ventura recommended him for a property touted as his latest star vehicle.  This was José Giovanni’s novel Classe tous risques, a fictionalized account of a terminally down-on-his-luck gangster, Abel Davos, whom Giovanni had met while himself languishing on death row, jailed for his part in a racketeering scheme after the Liberation.  Giovanni, pardoned and soon a well-regarded Série Noire author, went on to write the source texts for three of French cinema’s greatest crime films: besides Classe tous risques, Sautet’s full debut, there was Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (The Hole, 1960), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième souffle (The Second Breath, 1966; less successfully re-adapted by Alain Corneau in 2007). 

Timing is everything, though, and when Classe tous risques was released in Paris, in March 1960, it was quickly overshadowed by Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless), which arrived a week later boosted by a marketing blitz and New Wave momentum.  Sautet’s film was eventually re-released two years later to more lucrative effect, but by then the damage to its reputation was done.  In retrospect, however, Godard’s and Sautet’s debut features have striking similarities.  Both exploit the versatile repertoire of emerging star Jean-Paul Belmondo, cast twice as a petty thug with flashes of grandeur; both showcase an international lead female role (Jean Seberg for Godard; the Sicilian Sandra Milo for Sautet); and both reflect clear debts (those of A bout de souffle are still overlooked) to policier materials popularized during France’s commercially vibrant mid-1950s. 

In keeping with these policier roots, Classe tous risques traces the decline and fall of Davos (Ventura), once a gangster kingpin, now hard-up and attempting to return home from Italy following years of bitter, self-imposed exile.  After a failed heist in Milan, Davos flees with his family to the French south coast.  En route, his wife, Thérèse (Simone France) is killed by border police, but Davos escapes with his two young sons and is joined by Eric Stark (Belmondo), a fixer dispatched by his ex-gang members.  This unlikely quartet, along with Liliane (Milo), head for Paris, where Davos soon finds Stark to be his only reliable comrade, as his allies prove fickle and his enemies close in.

Following the Old Wave-New Wave connection, Classe tous risques is a fascinating foil to Godard’s more overt deconstruction of the policier, itself a generic mainstay of Franco-American mass culture.  Whereas Godard begins A bout de souffle with Belmondo, ensconced in hotwired hotrod, tossing off jaunty plot predictions directly to camera—at one point he speculates about talking Patricia into traveling with him to, rather than away from, Milan—Sautet, more respectful towards crime film conventions, opens with a laconic male voice-over, as Davos and his lieutenant, Naldi (Stan Krol), prowl the Italian streets prior to a robbery: “For them the city was neither pleasant nor unpleasant.  They took no notice of it.  And the people were no more real.”  Both filmmakers—one born of the mainstream; the other from its disenfranchized fringes—take the policier as their point of departure, yet their discrepancies in style and tone reflect the changing stakes of 1960s French cinema, the transitional era to come.  Godard’s approach is garishly modernist, using commercial formulae purely as the means to auteurist ends, while Sautet’s design is revisionist but still classical, stylistically unified, with arguably more elegant, and at times (it must be said) honestly affective results.

Taking Classe tous risques on its own terms, its true values emerge.  As pointed out by Bertrand Tavernier (an outspoken defender of the pre-New Wave period) in a spry essay accompanying the DVD, Sautet leaves the policier’s typical setting, the Paris underworld (“We were finally getting out of Pigalle”) to follow Davos on a taxing, border-crossing journey, using the landscape as evocatively as a Western.  Another of Sautet’s major generic shifts is the presence in Classe tous risques of children and families; the 1950s American and French genre entries were largely the preserve of solitary males and their professional-masculine camaraderies.  Throughout Sautet’s film, Davos’s wife and children provide pointed commentaries on the attritional costs of a life of crime; Davos is a desperate father and breadwinner as much as a waning gangster.  After Thérèse is abruptly killed during Davos’s flight to France, Sautet cuts to a shot of their eldest boy, his limpid eyes struggling to grasp what has just happened—a quietly devastating moment in a surprisingly moving film.  In the same vein comes a later scene, as Davos heads north, when his two sons trot loyally beside him (a poignant echo of Bruno and Ricci in Bicycle Thieves, 1948) only to be cautioned that they must now walk ten yards behind him, such is the risk of discovery.  Although the inevitable gangster double-crosses and betrayals soon pile up, Davos’s real point of breakdown—with the underrated Ventura never better at capturing the complexities of a chronically violent man’s melancholies—comes when he must relinquish his children into the care of an old acquaintance.  As the kids descend into the Métro, Sautet’s staging is wordless but evocative: Ventura turns his back to the camera, slumps, grinds his twitching hand into a tree, while Belmondo, looking on, steps to his side and ushers him gently to their waiting car.  (Another witty genre inversion is that it is Davos, who would traditionally act as the senior mentor to a rookie apprentice, now needing emotional and material help from the younger Stark.)

Also included by Criterion in support of Sautet’s film maudit is the testimony of Jean-Pierre Melville, never a man to pull his punches, and never one to let New Wave mythologies obscure the achievements of classical cinema (especially his own).  Newly translated, Melville’s piece, “The Quiet Courage of a Great Filmmaker,” argues with typically acerbic force for the superiority of Davos’s and Stark’s friendship over Truffaut’s unconvincing pairing of Jules and Jim.  Sautet’s sketch of a male relationship is laconic yet lyrically behavioralist, Melville opines, whereas Truffaut’s is outspoken but affected and immature.  Certainly, we might extend Melville’s analysis to Sautet’s style and key collaborators.  One figure here is another underregarded technician, Ghislain Cloquet, a cinematographer perenially in the shadow of New Wave regulars Raoul Coutard and Henri Decaë, yet the man responsible for the unerring images of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard, Balthazar (1966), Mouchette (1967) and Une femme douce (1969), Jacques Demy’s Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967), and even Arthur Penn’s American New Wave harbinger Mickey One (1965).  (According to Tavernier, Bresson remained a keen admirer of Classe tous risques, in part due to its aesthetic strengths.)  Unlike many of its flashier New Wave rivals, Cloquet’s photography for Classe tous risques is understated, meticulous, and economically expressive.  These are, nonetheless, memorable and richly cinematic designs: like location shots of Nice for a chilly, overcast dawn conversation between Davos and Thérèse, working hard to maintain morale while their children, blithely unaware, play on a beach in the rearground; to beautifully deep-staged compositions of Davos and his henchman pacing the Milan streets, prior to a botched hold-up, their nervous body language distinguishing them from the thronging street crowds.

Subsequent to Classe tous risques and its underwhelming reception in the context of the New Wave, Sautet’s career ebbed and flowed.  During his least prominent moments, especially during the 1960s, Sautet was a widely employed script doctor and reader, part of Tavernier’s rough cut screener group, and an uncredited contributor to various mainstream products, exemplified by spy movies like Atout coeur à Tokyo pour O.S.S. 117 (1966).  Much later in life, Sautet did get a last laugh of sorts, with critical and popular successes like Un coeur en hiver (1992) and Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud (1995).  But Classe tous risques is Sautet’s finest hour, a worthy adversary for the anti-classical New Wavers, a wonderfully stimulating corrective to lazy critics who still follow Truffaut’s disingenuous claims that conventional French film culture of the late 1950s and early 1960s had nothing to offer.

Tim Palmer is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  His article about the vivid yet neglected 1950s French policier, “Paris, City of Shadows: French Crime Cinema Before the New Wave,” was published in New Review of Film and Television Studies 6:2, Summer 2008.

 

Film Details

Classe tous risques, (1960)
France

Director Claude Sautet

Screenplay Sautet, José Giovanni and Pascal Jardin

Original Novel José Giovanni

Producer Jean Darvey

Director of Photography Ghislain Cloquet

Music Georges Delerue

With Lino Ventura (Abel Davos), Sandra Milo (Liliane), Jean-Paul Belmondo (Eric Stark), Marcel Dalio (Arthur Gibelin), Michel Ardan (Henri Vintran), Claude Cerval (Raoul Fargier), Jacques Dacqmine (Blot), Simone France (Thérèse Davos)

Runtime 108 minutes

DVD, 2008
USA

Produced and Distributed by The Criterion Collection (region 1)

Aspect Ratio 1.66:1

Sound Mix Mono 1.0

Extras New restored high-definition transfer.  Excerpts from Claude Sautet ou la magie invisible, a 2003 documentary on the director.  Interview with Classe tous risques novelist and screenwriter José Giovanni.  Archival footage interview with actor Lino Ventura.  Original French and US trailers.  New and improved English subtitle translation.  Booklet with new essays by director Bertrand Tavernier and Binh, a reprinted interview with Sautet, and a 1962 tribute by Jean-Pierre Melville.

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