Early on in César et Rosalie, there is a race between two cars that captures many of the film’s qualities. The race is jokey yet potentially dangerous, and although apparently playful it is really about a more serious rivalry and vanity of the two drivers. Finally, one of the cars drives off the road and comes to a stop in a luscious field of fuzzy green wheat; a gratuitously beautiful location to the finale of this race which might be a bit of a lark, but might be something more.
César et Rosalie could be called César et Rosalie et David Aussi as the film is about the intertwined relationships of three people. It is directed by Claude Sautet, a director whose films looked at the private lives of the French middle class. The Guardian obituary of Sautet called his work “very French, in that attractive, fashionable people prepare and eat a lot of attractive food, while grappling with life and love.”
The food is hardly haute cuisine, and seems to be mostly represented by omelets eaten after a night of boozing, but the people certainly have rather uninhibited, sophisticated lives spent driving to parties and weekends at their beach house. They are also attractive. Rosalie is played by the famously good-looking Romy Schneider and is not only beautiful, but free-spirited, and doesn’t want to be tied down to the expectations of her men.
Rosalie divides her time between César’s and her mother’s homes. She has a child with her former husband, an artist, but César apparently comes from a very different milieu indeed. Not only is he quite a bit older than her, he is a wealthy scrap metal dealer. Despite their different backgrounds, it is easy to see what Rosalie sees in César. The man is charming, funny, and gregarious. Just the sort of charismatic role that must have come easily to Yves Montaud, the famous French singer and actor. The sort of bloke who, after a vice-like handshake, would take you out for a rip-roaring night on the town the first time you met him. César is also totally in love with Rosalie.
Things change when Rosalie’s old boyfriend, David, turns up. Handsome, closer to her age, and also working in the arts (as a cartoonist), David is quieter but equally attached to Rosalie. So begins a tussle between the two men for her affections. One of the pleasures of this film is that the characters are so well realised.
The film’s extras include an insightful documentary Serenade for Three, that reveals the character of César is based on the director’s brother. Much of the film seems grounded in reality. It also helped that Sautet had worked as a script doctor during much of the Sixties, giving him valuable experience in honing his characters and their relationships.
Although a car race is a somewhat straightforward way to reflect César and David’s relationship, Sautet doesn’t let anyone’s motives become completely clear or their actions be what we might expect. As he peers into the psychology of human relationships, it is clear that no one knows exactly what they want… apart from omelets and fags. Sometimes we are just left with the moods that grip the three players in this bizarre love triangle.
Despite his Cesar Awards (the main French film awards), a Silver Lion and general high acclaim, Claude Sautet didn’t receive an obituary in the prestigious Cahiers du cinéma film journal. This may be because, as Senses of Cinema explains, Sautet was considered a bit of a fogey, whose films didn’t have the necessary gimlet eye to skewer the banalities of bourgeois life. Perhaps not, but this film has a ring of truth to it, as well as a humour and nuance that is valuable in itself.