César and Rosalie
May 23, 2022
Bernard Le Coq
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
ésar and Rosalie (1972), Claude Sautet’s increasingly sobered comedy about the vagaries of love, doesn’t add up to much, and doesn’t seem to know exactly what to make of its female lead. Even then, it’s so likable and spiritedly acted that its flaws are only incidental in our overall enjoyment of it. The title couple is played by Yves Montand and Romy Schneider. When we first meet them, their relationship has
been a reliable institution for a while now: César, a life-of-the-party, impetuous scrap-metal merchant, has for years kept Rosalie, a single mother and divorcée, as his live-in girlfriend. Their relationship is comfortable — they might as well be married — but, as we’ll find out, not so fixed in place that the right threat can’t put it in real danger.
A little into César and Rosalie, one unexpectedly arrives in the form of David (Sami Frey), an attractively reserved comic-book artist. He and Rosalie were in a relationship what feels like eons ago; when he abruptly left both her and town, she married the guy from whom she’s now divorced. David, unmarried and without kids, reemerges at a wedding César and Rosalie are attending. The way he nonchalantly mentions to César in the venue’s backyard that he’s always loved Rosalie hits our ears like an oblique warning. César turns out to be right for feeling a little anxious because of this seed's planting: Rosalie is back in David's arms so immediately it's like her history with César spontaneously evaporated.
But what emerges after that is not a new, more-rewarding second chapter with David but a seemingly never-ending love triangle. Rosalie develops a tendency to miss the man she’s just left not long after settling in with the man on whom she’s apparently decided. For the rest of the movie she wavers between the two. But with both beaus tending to nudge her into a typical domestic role — it’s common to see her essentially waiting on them — when she goes back to them, and with their worst characteristics coming to the fore concurrent to Rosalie’s uncertainty (David’s proclivity for cool detachment, César’s short temper that can momentarily flare into volatility), it’s clear that Sautet, who co-wrote the film with Jean-Loup Dabadie and Claude Néron, isn’t so worried about making us root for one coupling in particular. César and Rosalie is more interested in how Rosalie creeps closer to total liberation in her indecisiveness — if while being oddly incurious about her inner life or self-conception along the way — and also the fickle dynamic emerging between César and David, who at first resent each other and have more than one sour exchange (both verbal and physical) but seem more and more to actually consider themselves close friends as Rosalie becomes harder to pin down.
César and Rosalie gracefully, almost imperceptibly progresses from farce (the cutesy musical cues early on indicate how it wants to be perceived) into something more level-headed. It doesn’t land anywhere classically satisfying — which is probably befitting for a plot so flighty — but is always a pleasure to watch. The dialogue feels almost overheard, jotted down. It has a relaxed funniness. And Schneider is charmingly restless, Frey captivatingly cool, and Montand particularly terrific playing against type as a charismatic extrovert. His resolute love for this woman who won’t commit to him is surprisingly touching. The ultimate key to this trio of performances, and the movie’s winning us over, is that you always have a clear sense of both why these people are so alternately attracted to and repelled by each other. In César and Rosalie, love is as much a pleasure as it is a trap. B+