by Ben Sachs
The directors scored their biggest mainstream hits in the 70s and 80s with tasteful, somewhat impersonal movies, and these successes led, perhaps inevitably, to a backlash from cineastes. "In Numero Deux, Jean-Luc Godard holds this up as the epitome of bourgeois realism," Dave Kehr wrote in the Reader about Sautet's Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others (1974), adding, "he may be right." On a similar note, Jonathan Rosenbaum concluded his nominally positive Reader capsule of Malle's Murmur of the Heart (1971) with, "The film is enjoyable, but viewers who find the aristocratic narcissism, the self-congratulating superiority, of most of Malle's work repellent may think it's a bit creepy."
And yet this out-of-time quality sometimes ascribed to Sautet and Malle's 70s work now seems to me like its greatest virtue. In particular the character study of Max et les Ferrailleurs feels like it was adapted from a 19th-century novel: Michel Piccoli's eponymous vice cop is clearly a man obsessed with his own power, yet Sautet limits the viewer's access to his inner life, which might explain his obsession. One can only guess at his psychology through his calculating behavior, the methodical way in which he sets up a pathetic gang of two-bit hoods into robbing a bank. He does this by planting the idea in the head of a prostitute who's involved with one of the hoods, posing as a sugar-daddy banker and "confiding" about how poorly secured his bank is.
The movie slows down during the dialogues between Piccoli and Romy Schneider, who plays the prostitute. Their relationship becomes the heart of the movie, with Schneider confessing to loneliness and disappointment and inspiring Piccoli to respond in kind—and possibly even break character. These scenes seem to pave the way for the "bourgeois realism" that so infuriated Godard, yet it would be a mistake to call the filmmaking here complacent. Rather, Sautet is taking what he's learned about the thriller and using it to bring quiet urgency to the character drama (a similar sensibility informs Malle's Lacombe, Lucien). This is unassuming, yet solidly constructed mainstream filmmaking that hints at complex adult emotions beneath the surface—a rare commodity in any era.