An early episode in Les choses de la vie shows a young man, Bertrand Bérard (Gérard Lartigau), politely demonstrating to his attentive father Pierre (Michel Piccoli) his latest novelty invention: an electronic bird call sound synthesizer that is programmable to a variety of frequency settings. Pierre appears skeptical of the potential market for such an artificial and seeming impersonal “pet” device, but Bertrand explains that the product popularity is unexpectedly high, fueled in part by people who prefer the constancy of ambient sound of birds in the household, but without the demands of daily attention, feeding, and ancillary responsibilities associated with the care of real, live birds. The explanation would invariably prove to be a reflection of the unresolved state of Pierre’s personal relationships as well. As the film opens, a badly injured Pierre, drifting into and out of consciousness, is rushed to the hospital after being ejected from his sports car following a high velocity crash. Recalling episodes from days leading up to the accident that reveal Pierre’s strained, but passionate relationship with his beautiful, young mistress, Hélène (Romy Schneider), and his devoted, understanding wife, Catherine (Léa Massari), the film then alternates between past and present – reconstructing, like the police traffic investigation that proceeds in the aftermath of the accident – the seemingly mundane fragments of his inextricable romantic entanglements.
Claude Sautet creates an understatedly haunting, sophisticated, and insightful portrait of emotional attachment, indecision, and intimacy in Les choses de la vie. Structuring the narrative of the film in medias res as the middle-aged protagonist is transported to the hospital, Sautet figuratively reflects Pierre’s emotional uncertainty as he struggles with the inertia of commitment and a new life with Hélène, unable to sever the bonds of common history associated with his failed marriage to Catherine: Hélène’s self-imposed exclusion (and unshared family memories) from the Bérard island home in Ré; Pierre’s procrastination over a visa application for a long-term business trip to Tunisia; his fixated preoccupation with a damaged table in the summer house; his impulsively written, unaddressed letter to Hélène that reveals his innate ambivalence. As Pierre unconsciously assesses his unfinished household tasks – the trivial “things of life” that bind him to his estranged family – what is revealed is a resigned longing for a lifetime of irretrievable memories and an irreconcilable sentiment of profound regret.
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