‘Max Et Les Ferrailleurs’ opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 11th for a weeklong run.
The French director Claude Sautet had been making movies for forty years until his death in July of 2000, at the age of 76. He wrote and directed fourteen movies, and wrote another eleven for other directors. This is a pretty languorous pace for most filmmakers, but Sautet was so consistently smart and reliable that producers and other participants didn’t really press him – they were just happy to be in on his latest project, or have him helping on theirs.
The French New Wave of the late fifties and sixties threw Sautet for a loop – much of the deconstruction and self-referential experimentation with form that the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette epitomized were the opposite of Sautet’s modus operandi. Sautet’s films are conventionally narrative character studies, but he was practically allergic to formulaic scenarios, grand aesthetic pronouncements or clever twists and trickery. The films of his that I’ve seen are always deliberate and involving slow-burns, with lots of patiently constructed character detail that earns our attention and empathy throughout. If Godard’s too fractured, Rohmer is too talky and Truffaut is too earnest, I’d recommend the films of Claude Sautet as your entryway into French films of the later 20th century. Classe Tous Risques (1960) is a superb and thoughtful film noir; his films with the sublime Romy Schneider, including Les Choses De La Vie (1970) and César Et Rosalie (1972) are excellent, and his last two films with Emmanuelle Béart, Un Coeur En Hiver (A Heart in Winter) (1992) and Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud (1995) cemented his world-class reputation as a tasteful but rigorously humanist filmmaker.
Max Et Les Ferrailleurs (Max The Junkmen, or Max And The Scrap Dealers) (France, 1971) was one of a cycle of five admirable films that Sautet made with Romy Schneider in the 1970s. Settling in France after some youthful roles in her native Germany, Schneider was a prodigiously talented natural – beautiful, detailed, patient and alert, and the camera loved her. After some sixties misfires in Hollywood, she returned to Europe to make an impressive array of comedies, romances and dramas – the Sautet films, La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969), Ludwig (Luchino Visconti, 1972), Love At The Top (Michel Deville, 1974), Le Trio Infernal (Francis Girod, 1974), That Most Important Thing: Love (L'Important C'est D'Aimer) (Andrzej Zulawski, 1975), A Woman At Her Window (Pierre Granier Deferre, 1976) and Death Watch with young Harvey Keitel (Bertrand Tavernier (1980) – before her sad early death in 1982, at 42 years of age.
This particular film focuses on Max (Michel Piccoli, another superb and prolific French actor), who pursues a career as a police inspector after having become disillusioned with being a judge in Lyons – too many criminals were released for lack of evidence, and his investigative work is focused on catching criminals red-handed to make ironclad cases against them. His investigations lead him to a group of small-time scrap metal dealers who aren't indisposed to steal the occasional 3-ton spool of copper wire or take apart the occasional stolen car. They’re mostly just friendly mopes making a living as best they can, under the radar. Max also discovers that he actually knows one of the scrap dealers, a chummy knockabout named Abel (Bernard Fresson) whom he met in the service. Max decides to encourage Abel and his cohorts to aim bigger, and knock off a bank, but he has to do it in a way that doesn't tip off Abel to his intentions. Abel’s girlfriend is the resourceful Lily Ackermann (Romy Schneider), who makes her living as a prostitute. She and Abel are a devoted couple, despite her profession; she has arranged her working life to exert exclusive control over who her clients are, and she keeps every cent of income she earns. Max poses as a wealthy nonchalant banker, and becomes a client of Lily’s – she’s intrigued that he only wants her company, not sex, but is willing to pay her generously for the service. In feeding Lily information about ‘his’ bank, Max assumes, rightly, that she’ll eventually compel Abel to act on the robbery.
Sautet (and Claude Néron, adapting his novel with Sautet’s longtime writer-partner, Jean-Loup Dabadie) keeps the moral landscape in the narrative pretty snarled. Max is, essentially, committing entrapment, but his Commissioner superior (Georges Wilson) has enough faith in Max’s rectitude to let it play out. But Max must also deceive Rosinsky (veteran French character actor François Périer), the inspector in whose jurisdiction Max’s manufactured crime will take place, and that deception figures prominently later on. Abel and his working pals, as mentioned, are a pretty amiable bunch, and we’re convinced that the robbery isn't really something they would have been inclined to do of their own volition. Finally, we have the charade that Max is playing with Lily – we’re constantly torn between admiring Max’s ingenuity in constructing the set-up through her, while having enormous misgivings about his inevitable betrayal of her. Schneider’s Lily is an enormously likable woman, and her scenes with Piccoli are terrific. It’s hard to imagine that she deserves this, regardless of how much justice is being served.
In his narrative, in his efficiently matter-of-fact mise-en-scène, in the chummily humorous tone that ripples underneath the hard-boiled policier surface, and in his handling of his actors, Sautet creates complexities and intrigues that are much larger than the sum of the film’s parts. This is a rare, terrific opportunity to see the work of one of France’s real film pros on the big screen, and it’s enormously entertaining as well. Highly recommended.
If you’re interested in more about Claude Sautet, check out this invaluable article from the Senses of Cinema site.