Is this a love triangle or the perfect screen bromance? Either way, César et Rosalie is a witty and sophisticated romantic drama about the ebb and flow of relationships between a divorcée and the two very different men in her life.
It's not just the coiffures and collars that were outsize in 1972. Everything about scrap-metal dealer César (Yves Montand) is big – from his exuberant personality to the cigar that's often welded to his lip. He's an unlikely match for the lovely and vivacious Rosalie (Romy Schneider), who usually prefers artistic types, like her ex-husband Antoine. She overlooks César's sartorial lapses ("yellow" shoes with a dark suit) and lack of sensitivity, because he adores her young daughter and is generous to a fault.
When Rosalie's ex-boyfriend David (Sami Frey) turns up at a family wedding, the sparks fly. With his saturnine good looks and softly spoken manner, cartoonist David is a threat that must be neutralised. But César's confidence soon turns to jealousy, then panic and finally rage, as his clumsy machinations drive Rosalie into the arms of the younger man.
We've all seen this kind romantic dilemma played out in numerous other films – from vulgar farces to angst-ridden indie dramas. But I've rarely seen it handled with the intelligence and subtlety shown by director Claude Sautet and his co-writer Jean-Loup Dabadie. The emotional shifts are reflected by the constant movement of the two male leads – a whirlwind of slamming doors and car journeys undertaken on a whim. When David overtakes César en route to the wedding reception, he's effectively throwing down the gauntlet to the older man. Later, the road trips grow longer and more contemplative, as César and David evolve from rivals into friends with a shared interest in the mercurial Rosalie.
It's a risky business trying to make an audience care about a woman who can't make up her mind over 100 minutes of toing and froing. In the documentary "Serenade for 3" that accompanies this 40th anniversary re-release, surviving members of the crew explain that the role of Rosalie was originally intended for Catherine Deneuve. But Schneider's warmth plays much better here than Deneuve's froideur would have done. Her Rosalie is tolerant and even half-amused by César's tendency to treat her as his personal property – right up to the moment when he tosses her out onto the street.
Sporting a trench coat and wreathed in cigarette smoke, Montand's César reminded me at times of a Gallic Humphrey Bogart, who's destined to be disappointed in love. Sautet based the character on his own brother "the talker who never stopped", though there's clearly a lot of Montand in there, too. Faced with a rival who veers between impromptu recitals of Bach and smashing up property, Sami Frey wisely opts to underplay the role of David.
Twenty years later Sautet directed Un Coeur en Hiver, another finely wrought drama about two men united and divided by their love for the same beautiful woman. César et Rosalie, with its deft blend of wry humour and romantic drama, feels like the sunnier forerunner to Sautet's late masterpiece. Both films end on a note of ambiguity, which will suit filmgoers who don't need their romances to be tied up with a neat, chocolate-box style bow.