The French bourgeoisie have rarely been afforded much sympathy in French-language cinema, whether by Luis Buñuel, who exposes the weirdness behind middle-class conventions, Claude Chabrol who sees guilt, jealousy, and crime seething under the surface of bourgeois marriage, or Jean-Luc Godard and the French New Wave, who denounced the high-budget literary period films of the ‘tradition of quality’. But Claude Sautet, in one of his first international successes, demonstrates, in urbane apartments against the Gallic backdrop of the Vendée, that even the French middle-class are people and that they have their problems. Not since Jacques Demy’s musicals and Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart had the lives and loves of the French middle to upper-middle class been displayed so prominently or unwaveringly.
The eponymous César (Yves Montand) is a self-made scrap-metal dealer, who enjoys all the appurtenances of his wealthy, upper-middle class life: a glass of Grand Marnier, high stakes poker matches, lean Cuban cigars, boyish sports cars, Johann Sebastian Bach, and, most of all, Rosalie (Romy Schneider). Everyone loves Rosalie, César says it himself; a wide-eyed minx of downtown dysfunction, nubile and elegant in Yves Saint Laurent, she is multilingual, exuberantly generous, and rich enough. Rosalie is in love with César, at least until David (Sami Frey), whom she used to love, reappears in her life. David is a hirsute, discreetly charming cartoonist, who has not returned to fight César, only for Rosalie. Rosalie is drawn to David, then back to César – and then we have, in the rapid, overlapping spirit of Gallic comedy, various arrangements of César and Rosalie; David and Rosalie; César, David and Rosalie; and even César and David, whose unlikely friendship is the only lasting connection made in the film. César and Rosalie is really César and Rosalie and David.
They are introduced, as a ménage-a-trois, in a wreckless, farcical car chase, set to Philippe Sarde’s original score, a bizarrely appropriate hybrid of Yogi Bear, Tetris and classic noir music. In a masculine display of one-upmanship, César, with Rosalie in the passenger seat, attempts to overtake David, because every woman loves that sort of thing, but ends up spinning wildly into marshland. Suited officials hurry to his rescue, as if his junkyard was national intelligence, setting up a polite and light-hearted tone that is only sustained sometimes. César is impulsive and jealous, which sends him into very serious rages, while David has a casual way of dealing with conflicts that threatens to undermine their significance. Rosalie loves both of them, but more than anything else, she loves the fact that they love her, and that she has the courage to move on and leave them. She only relies on herself, and will only stay for a time.
Like Sautet’s films before, Les Choses de la Vie, and afterwards, Vincent, Paul, Francois, et les Autres and En Coeur en Hiver, César et Rosalie is about fashionable, attractive people doing fashionable, attractive things in fashionable, attractive places, while negotiating the complexities of close human relationships. Although, in comparison to those above, not overly or consistently serious, the film deserves to be treated seriously, for the interactions and performances of Montand, Schneider and Frey, and for Jean Boffety’s vivid pastel cinematography.