and Mr Arnaud
Leaving aside the big-budget spectaculars – Germinal (1993), Jean de Florette (1986), Queen Margot (1994) and the rest – the quality French cinema of today divides into two distinct streams.
Outside France, the better known of these streams is associated with the Nouvelle Vague and its aftermath: youthful, risky, jagged films ranging from Godard's À bout de souffle (1960) to Savage Nights (1992) or La Haine (1995).
The other stream, just as constant, is often overlooked. It belongs to filmmakers of a more measured and classical bent, such as Bertrand Tavernier (Life and Nothing But, 1989), Michel Deville (La Lectrice, 1988) and Alain Cavalier (Thérèse, 1986). While the flamboyant French modernists are championed by the internationally renowned magazine Cahiers du cinéma, the classicists are supported, with quiet but fervent fidelity, by Cahiers' long-standing rival, Positif.
If the Australian perception of French cinema seems particularly skewed, it is surely because we do not receive the full stereophonic effect of this rich and diverse output. Discerning arthouse filmgoers may read about Cahiers and the legacy of the Nouvelle Vague, but rarely see anything of the past decade's work by Godard or any of his jazzy confrères. Meanwhile, the calmer, pristine French movies arrive in our theatres, but never quite receive the careful, sympathetic attention that the Positif critics give them on home turf.
Claude Sautet is one of the major French directors who gets lost in this sorry shuffle. His films (such as A Heart in Winter, 1991) are not the least bit strident or aggressive, and that sets him well apart from the post Nouvelle Vague generations. By the same token, the small-scale, jewel-like intimacy of his chamber dramas – almost always concerned with average, middle class people – is pitched at a far less sensational or spectacular level than most French blockbusters of the Cyrano de Bergerac type.
While watching the promotion for Sautet's latest, Nelly and Mr Arnaud, with its tantalising image of a distinguished, elderly gentleman (Michel Serrault) sitting close to a woman (Emmanuelle Béart) in the bloom of her youth, it is hard to fight back the obvious thought: Is this yet another of those salacious, fetishistic male fantasies typical of popular French cinema – and so soon after The Professional (1994) and The City of Lost Children (1995)?
Sautet's emotional terrain is very different. There is certainly a subterranean thrill bubbling underneath the many conversations between the retired businessman Arnaud (Serrault) and Nelly (Béart), to whom he dictates his memoirs. But this is not a romantic fantasy about consummated desire, like The Bridges of Madison County (1995). It is a hushed drama of unspoken feelings, of relationships that remain forever potential – a shadowland of wintry hearts.
With its incessant, urbane talk and its beautifully modulated, low-key performances, Nelly and Mr Arnaud will remind some filmgoers of the work of Éric Rohmer (Full Moon in Paris, 1984). And there are similarities, in the playful way that Nelly and Arnaud always digress from the topic or task at hand, or in Sautet's subtle depiction of love and friendship as artful masquerades.
But Sautet's world is altogether less sunny than Rohmer. His characters tend to be the walking wounded, leading lives of quiet desperation. They have given up on love after one too many disappointments, and their daily routines are fragile constructions that keep loneliness and despair at bay.
Thus, in the course of this story, we witness the end of Nelly's marriage, and the history of her brief fling with a publisher, Vincent (Jean-Hughes Anglade). At first glance, these changes in her life seem as uneventful and painless as the parallel transformation that is happening with Arnaud – selling off his rare book collection as he impassively recounts the facts of his past.
The actors collude superbly with Sautet in creating this everyday mood. Those viewers disappointed with the ABC television series Naked and its half-hearted attempts to penetrate the masculine psyche will appreciate Serrault's deceptively casual portrayal of a man struggling to grow old in a dignified but still vital manner. And Béart, after her trembling histrionic displays in A French Woman (1995), finds here a much surer and more compelling level of understatement.
It is only at the end of this fine film that we are able to intuit what has really been going on inside these characters, and to gauge how their desires, even when duly sublimated, have affected the course of daily reality in surprising and unpredictable ways. In Nelly and Mr Arnaud, Sautet again proves that he is a master portraitist of civilised society's mundane discontents – but also its saving graces and fleeting, personal illuminations.
© Adrian Martin April 1996