One of France's most respected directors, Claude Sautet was without equal in his ability to chronicle the banal complexities of French bourgeois life. In such works as Les Choses de la Vie (1969), Vincent, Paul, François, et les Autres (1974), and Un Coeur en Hiver (1992), Sautet explored the personal relationships and emotional frailties of everyday men and women with warmth and assurance, providing audiences with rare insight into the lives and loves of the French middle classes.
Born in the working class Parisian suburb of Montrouge on February 24, 1924, Sautet worked as a social worker and music critic before attending the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques in the late '40s. He toiled for a number of years as a writer, assistant director, and TV producer, penning, among other works, Georges Franju's horror classic Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959). Although Sautet made his directorial debut in 1955 with Bonjour Sourire, it was not until he wrote and directed Les Choses de la Vie (1969) that he earned international attention. An ostensibly simple story about a businessman (Michel Piccoli) who must choose between his wife and his mistress, the film introduced a number of themes that would continue to be apparent throughout Sautet's subsequent work, particularly concerns revolving around one's home, loved ones, and material possessions. Les Choses de la Vie was shown in competition at the 1970 Cannes Festival, where its enthusiastic reception announced Sautet as one of the new decade's more promising talents.
He followed Les Choses in 1971 with Max et les Férrailleurs, which starred Piccoli as a former judge whose obsession with bringing criminals to justice leads him to concoct an unwieldy scheme involving a prostitute (Romy Schneider, whose starring role in Les Choses revived her career) and her criminal boyfriend. 1972's César et Rosalie was another journey into the mundane emotional dilemmas of the bourgeoisie, with Schneider portraying a married woman whose former lover comes back into her life. Sautet next addressed his favorite bourgeois themes in Vincent, Paul, François, et les Autres (1974), one of the most acclaimed films of his career. A melancholy portrait of four middle-class men who meet in the country every weekend to eat, drink, and discuss their lives, it featured strong, assured performances from a cast that included Piccoli, Yves Montand, Gérard Depardieu, and Stéphane Audran.
After having further critical success with Mado (1976) and the Oscar-nominated Une Histoire Simple (1978), which featured Schneider in a César-winning performance as a dissatisfied 40-something working woman, Sautet entered something of a career lull. During the course of the 1980s he made only a few films, of which Garçon! (1983), a drama starring Yves Montand as a middle-aged waiter, and the comedy Quelques Jours Avec Moi (1988) were relatively well-received. Sautet returned to form in 1992 with Un Coeur en Hiver, his latest meditation on French middle-class bourgeois life. Starring Emmanuelle Béart as a beautiful violinist who comes between two business partners (Daniel Auteuil and André Dussollier), the film offered an intricate, subtle exploration of the inner lives of its three main characters, both recalling Sautet's works of the 1970s and proving that the director was able to give his oft-revisited central themes fresh treatment. Un Coeur en Hiver was a popular and critical success; its numerous international awards included a Best Director César and Venice Film Festival Silver Lion for Sautet.
Following this triumph, Sautet continued his tradition of writing scripts for other directors, something that, earlier in his career, led François Truffaut to affectionately dub the director a "ressemeler de scenarios" (re-soler of screenplays). He provided the script for Intersection, the 1994 remake of Les Choses de la Vie. Although the film was a disappointment, it was overshadowed completely by what would turn out to be Sautet's last film, the 1995 Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud. Similar to Un Coeur in its focus on an unlikely love triangle, Nelly starred Béart as a young woman whose work for Monsieur Arnaud (Michel Serrault), an emotionally repressed retired judge, is compromised by her affair with a young publisher (Jean-Hugues Anglade) and the presence of her estranged husband (Charles Berling). Nominated for a score of Césars, the film ultimately won two, one for Michel Serrault and the other for Sautet.
The award was a fitting end for Sautet's career; five years later, on July 22, 2000, he died of liver cancer at the age of 76. Following his death, French President Jacques Chirac said that the writer and director "held out the mirror of our times," a fitting tribute to a man who provided filmgoers with such poignant explorations of the more intimate details of human nature.