‘The Things of Life’ succeeds in its refusal to be cleverer than necessary
Directed by Claude Sautet
Written by Paul Guimard, Claude Sautet
Claude Sautet’s films often get lost in the New Wave shuffle. Alongside contemporaries Bertrand Tavernier and Alain Cavalier, his cinema was alive and kicking in the 1960s, though he didn’t come into his own as director until later in the decade.
1970’s The Things of Life is a non-chronological look at the transience of life. Starring Sautet regular Romy Schneider (The Trial, César and Rosalie) and French stalwart Michel Piccoli (Contempt, Belle du Jour, The Grand Buffet) as on-again, off-again lovers, the film is framed by a terrifically shot car crash where Sautet effectively uses repetitious action and slow-motion for emphasis.
With the opening of the film Sautet concentrates his camera on a lone car wheel in the grass. The simple shot is important. It mirrors the circular nature of the film and implies the danger that has just occurred.
From this, Sautet cuts to the many bystanders watching the aftermath of the accident. There are the two truck drivers telling their side of the story to the police, men with cameras and families watching wide-eyed from passing cars. As the frame lands on the car, completely engulfed in flames, the action reverses and the car jumps away from the tree it is up against and winds its way backwards up the road to safety as Pierre Bérard (Piccoli) drives, unaware of the crash to come.
This prologue is Sautet’s summation of his theme, which is a simple one: that life can change in an instant.
Much of the film centers on Hélène (Schneider) and Pierre’s relationship. Pierre has a son and a wife, whom Hélène is not convinced he will leave. Pierre seems bored and frustrated at times and, after a party at her parent’s house, he unexpectedly announces to Hélène that they are parting ways. Taking to the road, Pierre composes a letter to Hélène further indicating their separation. On his travels he picks up a couple with car trouble and suddenly has a change of heart. He calls Hélène and leaves an enigmatic message that he will be at her side soon.
That Sautet has clued the audience in to Pierre’s horrific accident already, the suspense in the film is therefore in the when and not the what. Will Pierre make it to Hélène before the crash? What will become of the letter?
Sautet handles all of these questions deftly, and in doing so diverts the film from falling into the tedium of mundane suspense. In fact, Sautet does not strive to make an overly complex film. The non-linear structure is not, as with the modern trend, to subvert expectations and supply a final twist where the beginning is not what one would have expected to cause the ending. Instead, as the title indicates, Sautet is interested in the tragedy of happenstance. In this way, The Things of Life is much more closely aligned with early Kieslowski or Resnais’ Je t’aime, je t’aime than with what could be its surface level companion, Amores Perros.
Therefore, while the questions raised by the suspenseful bits of narrative are in the end answered, the climax of the film is still, despite our having already seen it at the beginning, the replay of the car crash. It has taken on new meaning given the circumstances, but is no more or less satisfying in the final act than as in the prologue.
That Sautet spends much of the film on the bystanders of the crash furthers his thesis of the transient life. His lingering camera suggests what is on the minds of those passers-by: ‘that easily could have been me.’
The Things of Life succeeds in its refusal to be cleverer than necessary. Sautet understands the story he is telling, which is not always as easy a task as it sounds. The final ten minutes of the film are particularly haunting, including an eerie hallucination sequence by Pierre post-crash. Sautet doesn’t reinvent the wheel with The Things of Life, but his wheel is dramatic and poignant.