When A Bout De Souffle was released in 1960, it was a defining moment in French Cinema. Directed by Jean-Luc Godard & starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, its documentary style and slight narrative broke cinematic convention and marked the filmic start of the French New Wave. Its originality made A Bout De Souffle an unparalleled success with both critics & audiences and it remains a cinematic classic that’s revered by many.
Released in the same year and also starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Classe Tous Risques did not share the same success as A Bout De Souffle. Director Claude Sautet’s style differed from that found in La Nouvelle Vague and the critics’ wrote-off Sautet’s output as passé. The film disappeared in to the ether created by Godard & Truffaut’s new style and Sautet left the world of film directing for over a year. Re-released as part of a season dedicated to Sautet’s work, Classe Tous Risque is showing at the BFI Southbank, amongst other selected cinemas, during September & October.
Foregoing the formulaic rise & fall of the mobster narrative already well told in early Hollywood classics such as Little Caesar & Scarface, Classe Tous Risque tells a captivating tale of a man having to deal with the consequences of a life of crime. Our central character, Abel Davos, is not a mob boss untouchable to the powers that be, but a criminal fighting to stay one-step ahead of the law. Hiding out in Nice with his two young children, Davos is desperate to return to Paris, where the rest of his old gang live & operate.
Sautet’s storytelling is masterly, as the director juxtaposes both thrilling and disconcerting scenes of violence with a tender examination of the relationships between both family & friends. Davos and his children are eventually smuggled out of Nice by the boyishly charming Parisian thug Stark who, despite the pair’s differences, becomes a close friend. Wanted by the police and almost certain to be executed once caught, Davos is a man all but broken by a life of pilferage and Stark seems to be the only one willing to stand by him.
In the role of Davos, Lino Ventura is both exceptional & remarkable. His large frame makes him an intimidating presence, but his wide, weary eyes show the pain and suffering of Davos’s life now. That we are never directly encouraged to either like or dislike Abel is a testament to Sautet’s storytelling ability; his callous use of violence shocks, but his determination to do right by both his children & Stark gives Davos a warming character that we want to root for.
Developing into a central figure as the film enters its second act, Stark is a far more likeable character. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s charming and energetic performance helps to lighten the films tone after a tense and somber opening. Stark’s want to help Abel and the magnetism & wit he displays during his developing relationship with actress Liliane makes him identifiable to the audience and becomes the closest Sautet gets to a protagonist.
Close relationships formed a substantial part of Sautet’s output and, as well as exploring Abel & Stark’s developing friendship, Classe Tous Risque examined the breakdown of the unspoken honor among thieves. The scene in which Abel confronts his former comrades over their desertion of him in Nice is electrifying drama. Davos’s visible feelings of a man betrayed adding to the breakdown of his character.
While the examination of his characters gives Sautet’s film its heart, it’s the thrilling scenes of Davos’s opening escape from Italy that enthrall. Davos’s friend Naldi creating a distraction on a motorcycle, allowing Abel to pass a road block out of the country, is a sequence that even today looks impressive; the decision to film real stunts instead of using a screen showing the passion Sautet had for his work.
If anything, Classe Tous Risque is equally important a film in the context of today’s cinema as it was when first released in 1960. Despite being ignored when first released, the film showed that you didn’t have to adhere to the narratives & techniques of La Nouvelle Vague to create an excellent film. In the context of today’s films, Sautet’s forgotten gem gives you the opportunity of watching a much more human gangster film that doesn’t adhere to the formula Hollywood generally insists on sticking too; surely that’s an offer you can’t refuse.
Classe Tous Risque is showing regularly at BFI Southbank between Sep. 13th & Oct. 8th and at other selected cinemas across the UK. Full details can be found here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/bfi-film-releases/classe-tous-risques