For this reason it's difficult to categorize Sautet's movies. They introduce genre conventions—and seem for a while to play by their rules—but then the instability of real life wins out. Max and Mado (which I also wrote about last month) are not quite crime films; they're too fascinated with the private obsessions of their characters, and with the public operations of law and business, to give much weight to the crimes. Similarly Cesar and Rosalie, made during the same period, is a not-quite screwball comedy. The film takes a familiar comic premise—the beautiful woman pursued by two romantic eccentrics—and throws it into the real world, transforming all the primary characters into helpless neurotics.
Rosalie (Romy Schneider, in the third of her five performances for Sautet) is a classy young divorcee engaged to Cesar (Yves Montand), a self-made millionaire two decades her senior. He's crass but well-intentioned, aware of how uncultured he is but struggling to change his ways. (He's something of a variation on Paul Douglas's Porter Hollingsway from A Letter to Three Wives.) Sami Frey is David, a dashing former admirer of Rosalie's who returns to France after several years abroad and immediately declares his love for her. Rosalie resists his advances, but Cesar goes mad with jealousy anyway, devising an elaborate plot to scare David out of town.
The set-up may recall Ernst Lubitsch, but Sautet complicates it in several unexpected ways. For one thing, Cesar's jealous rages become scarier as the movie goes on, culminating with a violent scene around the halfway mark that threatens to turn the movie into Bergmanesque psychodrama. David seems almost as obsessive in his pursuit of Rosalie, which stops being cute fairly early in the picture. When the two suitors become friends later in the film, Sautet doesn't present the development for laughs. Given what we know about the characters, it seems fitting.
Then there's Schneider's opaque performance as the object of desire. It's never clear exactly why Rosalie would run off with either of these men. She isn't the sort of impulsive kook that Carole Lombard used to play, nor is she a dummy. Drawing on the same sad demeanor she exploited in Max, Schneider hints at a profound fear of being alone, and this casts a pall over even the lightest scenes she's in.