On first glance, Class Tous Risques (The Big Risk) is a Jean-Pierre Melville film. Crime/heist, criminal underworld, French heavyweight actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo). But Claude Sautet takes his New-Wave-era-but-not-New-Wave-film in a different direction.
Easy plot summary: Lino Ventura plays Abel, the criminal on the run. His old friends abandon him and newcomer Eric (Belmondo) helps him out and takes care of his kids. It’s a slow-burning revenge film but also very much a study of a man in complete desperation.
What sets this film apart from others of its kind, and from Melville, is the silence. There’s a great sequence where Abel and his friend and partner-in-crime Raymond (Stan Krol) rob a cash-guarding police officer. The scene is made up of mostly sidelong glances and reaction shots. The sound is very much diegetic (though the score does swell up frequently throughout). Sautet strings the scene out making it feel almost real time. It’s only a relative realism, but we can feel the stress.
So this brings me to this post’s digression. What is realism? Sautet is not necessarily the person to be talking about realism for, but he’s a good jumping off point on a topic I’ll return to. Realism, in film, is an attempt to recreate reality. When I think of it I assume at least three approaches: 1) visual realism, 2) aural realism, 3) narrative realism.
1 – For many reasons, some worthwhile others not, the handheld camera has come to equal realism. Easy explanation is its inheritance from the documentary world, where documentary is an attempt to literally capture reality. But this relationship doesn’t seem logical. If the true idea of realism is to mimic how we capture reality, is a jarring, shaking camera any more or less equivocal with the human eye than one that is locked down and static? Stare at something. Can you keep the horizon line and all objects within your “frame” in the same place? Why then the handheld need? Perhaps it has less to do with a true imitation of the eye, and more with the idea of creating a camera that is simply alive, in the same way that any viewer is. The camera’s eye doesn’t flicker, it’s heart beats. It breathes. Now I don’t always buy this either, and I know I’ll talk more visual realism in terms of handheld camera again, but also lighting and costuming in the future. This is a good start.
2. Aural realism. More easy explanations: diegetic sound is realistic. We can’t hear that 12 piece-orchestra whenever we’re in a dramatic moment. When we cry no soft strings come in. Nonetheless, shouldn’t an attempt at realistic sound take into account things like panning audio? Like the fact that when we “zone out” we “forget” to hear things? Like one ear being more sensitive than the other? Nit-pickiness in here, but I’ve seen some examples – heard is the better word – that really try to take this to an extreme. The great war film Come and See has one of the more successful (as far as I am able to understand it) imitations of temporary deafness.
3. Narrative realism. “I didn’t believe that line.” “No one would actually do that.” If you say/overhear this, does that mean the film isn’t realistic? Or just the opposite? None of us are scripted as far as I know. So the fact that we “actually do that” despite all logic, odds, and lack of foreshadow is perhaps as realistic as anything that seems to fit into the general flow of the story. Is a film more realistic if it’s made up of a bunch of seemingly random choices (like when I ordered the chicken instead of the turkey today. Very random. No one say that coming. I am very realistic)?
So…anywho…Class Tous Risques is actually really good. I am just apparently not really in the mood to talk about it. This post is sort of a prologue for one that will be inevitably more detailed and likely as rambling, but touch on (hopefully) a film that really does strive to realism. We haven’t even started on the whole idea of first person camera and the post-Blair Witch diary craze.
Short enough, Scott?