Les choses de la vie (1970)
Directed by Claude Sautet
Sautet made quietly masterful melodramas about lives lived in contemporary France. He paid exquisite attention to the reverberations that came from choices his characters made to live apart or together, in one place or another, and in conflict between their public roles and private wants. Les choses de la vie (“The things of life”), Sautet’s fourth feature and first commercial success, is among five of his films whose new digital restorations will receive their US premieres this month. It is also among his collaborations (five each) with the actors Michel Piccoli and Romy Schneider, who star as the middle-aged engineer Pierre and his younger mistress Hélène, for whom Pierre once might have left his wife Catherine (Léa Massari). The film unfolds largely inside Pierre’s mind following a car accident, as he transmutes his physical pain into reflections on and regrets about his relationships with both women. Its story takes place within a distended version of time that allows us to flash back and move forward in observation of all three people as they decide how to reveal their feelings, and as they break their own hearts over lies. Aaron Cutler (June 12-18, showtimes daily, as part of a program of Rialto Pictures Sautet restorations at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas)
A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence
Directed by Roy Andersson
Opens June 3
A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is an unfashionably philosophical, if comic, reflection on man’s inhumanity to man—and, in one scene, monkey. But it’s certainly self-aware. Let’s start with the title, which sounds like a 60s European art film sent through translation software. Director Roy Andersson, who has only made five feature films in his 45-year career, viewed his fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman as a rival when the latter was still alive. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence can be seen as a way of trying to top Bergman’s metaphysical aspirations, while retaining a sense of humor.
At first, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence seems like a series of plotless sketches. (The film consists of 39 shots.) It opens with three deaths in a row, but lets us off easier than World of Glory, the 1991 Andersson short dramatizing the Holocaust. Gradually, a narrative emerges. In the main thread, two shy, down-on-their-luck novelty goods salesmen live in a flophouse and try to scrape together a living. Elsewhere, a flamenco teacher uses her position as an excuse to feel up a male pupil. The film slips in time several times—in parallel to the scene with the teacher, King Charles XII emerges from the 18th century to pick up a male bartender. The patrons of another bar join together in song. The salesmen repeatedly demonstrate the wonders of vampire teeth and a grotesque mask to an apathetic clientele; even they seem as bored as they people they talk to. Most powerfully, Andersson reflects on the horrors of racism and colonialism in a two-scene sequence that never sheds a drop of blood on-screen but outdoes 12 Years A Slave for sheer discomfort.
The strangest thing about A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is how much it feels like a product of this moment. The film is a contemporary of “the Golden Age of Television,” not Bergman’s Persona. The lighting and cinematography look like video, not 35mm, although Andersson’s framing and blocking do call for the space of a theatrical setting. He never moves the camera and places the actors at a remove from it. A sense of depression is reflected in his reluctance to use close-ups or camera movement, yet Andersson has quite an eye for beautiful set-ups even within the restrictions he’s given himself. His sense of humor is deadpan and misanthropic yet humanist. Andersson’s dour wit isn’t far from Louie. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence expects the worst from the human race but holds out a slim hope for the best.