Friday, March 11, 2011

Shoot the Piano Player


François Truffaut's second film, Shoot the Piano Player, is a spirited caper that keeps veering back and forth from farce to tragedy and then back again. It's looser, more stylistically playful than Truffaut's neorealist-informed debut, The 400 Blows; this second film is more in the spirit of Truffaut's contemporary and friend Godard. It's an attempt to make a Godard-esque genre film, fun and light, marked by its stylistic diversions and casual approach to narrative, but shot through with moments of bracing seriousness. It's a game that keeps reminding the audience, uncomfortably, that sometimes games end badly, that what's fun one moment might be tragic the next. Certainly, Truffaut's leading man, the pianist Charlie (Charles Aznavour), perfectly embodies these contradictions and tensions. Aznavour has a rubbery face, a clown's face, a face that would've worked well in silent comedy. Thinking about how to make a waitress he likes laugh, he scrunches up his face in concentration, and that, unexpectedly, is what makes her laugh, that malleable face. In another scene, eying the va-va-voom prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), he raises his eyebrows in a caricatured leer, all but winking at the camera.

Charlie, however, is mostly a sensitive guy, shy and decent. He'd once been a famous concert pianist, but now he simply plays honky-tonk dance music at a dive bar, raising his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) and satisfying himself with nightly visits from Clarisse when his shyness around less accessible girls cripples his attempts to put the move on them. Charlie's life changes, however, following a visit from his brother Chico (Albert Rémy), a two-bit crook who's always getting into trouble, and now has two tough guys following him after he double-crossed them on a robbery. Chico's arrival at Charlie's bar sets the two thugs, Ernest and Momo (Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard) onto Charlie's trail, and thrusts him together with Léna (Marie Dubois), the pretty young waitress he'd always liked but never had the nerve to talk to. That's the start of an adventure that's treated with all the lightness of a game of "let's pretend," even if it ends up somewhere much darker — suddenly the shy piano player is mixed up in some gangster business, but he's got the girl, and life seems good.

Truffaut's touch here is light as air, even though his style is especially intrusive in that jazzy early New Wave way. The film opens with Chico running through streets so dark he's barely visible, then crashing into a lamp post and getting helped up by a passing stranger. At this point, the frenetic and confusing chase vibe of the early scenes, with barely glimpsed shadows racing through the darkness, is abandoned for a relaxed conversation between Chico and this man. The pair amble along, discussing love and marriage, and the man touchingly tells about his marriage, his children, the moments when he doubted his marriage early on and the decisive moment when he knew for sure that he loved his wife. It's moving, and real, and has virtually no connection to anything that comes after; it's simply a nice moment, a bit of chit-chat to pause for and linger with before returning to the snappy genre picture, already in progress. Even the thugs aren't that intimidating, despite their habit of waving around pistols and strong-arming people into their car for sinister purposes. When they pick Charlie and Léna up for a ride, there's an undercurrent of menace but for the most part it just seems like a lark, like they're all going out for a little jaunt to the country. They talk and joke, and one of the thugs expounds on his misogynistic view of women, while Léna lightly spars with him and mocks him as though he's an old friend rather than a kidnapper and a criminal. Charlie even leans forward conspiratorially to make a little joke of his own, and they all laugh, as the car speeds along towards its destination.


The kidnappers' bickering is another source of amusement, as of one of them teases the other about his driving skills while Charlie and Léna exchange wry glances and raised eyebrows. Later, the crooks will kidnap Fido, too, and the kid gamely plays along once they've got him, admiring their gadgets and their fancy clothes, chatting with one of the crooks about his exotic toys, like a musical cigarette lighter that plays a tune when it's opened. The other crook, not to be outdone, tries to convince Fido that his silk scarf is actually a rare Japanese metal delicately woven into a fabric-like consistency, but the kid's not buying it. At least, not until the thug swears that if he's lying, his mother should drop dead — which the old broad promptly does, in an old-timey insert that Truffaut playfully drops into the scene, a great sight gag that further enhances the impression that this is all for laughs, that any serious threat is balanced by the jaunty aesthetic and do-anything visual sensibility.

At other times, the film might be amiably bouncing along only to be interrupted by the sudden intrusion of something deeper and more substantial, as when the film's present-day storyline crashes to a sudden halt, replaced by a lengthy flashback to Charlie's past and his marriage to Thérèse (Nicole Berger). It's a moving, ultimately tragic story, an explanation for Charlie's later alienation and isolation, and it's especially affecting because it clashes so thoroughly against the tone of the scenes that surround it. This is true of the stark finale, as well, in which bloodshed and violence erupt in the clean white expanses of a snowy countryside, with Charlie's family home isolated in the center of an open plot of snowy land.

That conclusion, as dark and startling as the end of Breathless — and there's a strong argument that Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut's Breathless — sets the tone for the film in the end, and makes it easy to forget all the lighter moments that preceded it. But the film's playfulness still lingers past the tragic denouement, making this a strangely charming tragedy. Truffaut has great fun, for example, with the prostitute Clarisse: she virtually never appears on screen without the camera running admirably up and down her body, gliding along her unreal curves. When she visits Charlie in his apartment early on, she performs a little striptease, not so much with Charlie as with the camera, with the cinema audience, dangling out her panties from behind a screen, stripping out of view of the camera. And then suddenly she's just sitting in bed topless next to Charlie, and he scrambles to correct her casual nudity, joking about her sudden abandonment of the tease, telling her that she's being too immodest for the movies, that the girls in the movies always have the bedsheets strategically covering their chests. She just poses, for a moment, like a dark-haired Bardot and giggles, striking a self-conscious movie idol pose. The film as a whole, despite its darkness and violence, never seems to fully abandon the light touch of moments like that. It's a cinematic potpourri that's alternately charming, funny, and heartbreaking — and very much aware, in its self-conscious way, that it's a movie, and that these are movie emotions.

21 comments:

DavidEhrenstein said...

Shoot the Piano Player was as much a part of my high school years as Breathless. We all used to see it constantly. The Bleecker Street Cinema played the main theme before every movie they screened. That's why I was gobsmacked to learn it had been a major flop in France.

Truffaut used the house where the brothers retreat to in the finale in La Sirene du Mississipi.

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, apparently this was part of the post-Breathless lowering of commercial expectations for the New Wave. A little baffling, that, unless audiences just sensed the juggling of tones somehow and stayed away.

Sam Juliano said...

"It's looser, more stylistically playful than Truffaut's neorealist-informed debut, The 400 Blows; this second film is more in the spirit of Truffaut's contemporary and friend Godard.......Truffaut's touch here is light as air, even though his style is especially intrusive in that jazzy early New Wave way."

Beautifully rendered, and this is one Truffaut that has gained in reputation over the years. I know Sarris has long called for a re-assessment. The humanism and acute social themes on display in the director's two great masterpieces (THE 400 BLOWS and JULES AND JIM) yields here to one of his most stylistic offerings, which as you rightly note is heavily couched in the spirit of Godard. Pictorially the film is as ravishing as any Truffaut has ever made, and there's an almost existiential underpinning to its ironies as applicable to its central character. The film's mood swings from farce to near-tragedy came under attack by critics upon release and as stated only in the past decade has it risen to the point where it's regarded now as one of this beloved director's finest works. I definitely like your suggestion that the film is Truffaut's BREATHLESS, (heck it was even shot by Coutard) and it's certainly unlike anything else in his distinguished catalogue. There's a deft mix of literary and noir elements in it's execution, and there's an enrapturing score by George Delerue that is unforgettable.

David Ehrenstein's recall of the Bleecher Street Cinema brings back so many memories. I'm 56 now, and was a regular in that famed art-house's hey-day, when Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, Bunuel and Fellini were always seen on the marquee. OI loved the Thalia, the New Yorker and those Third Avenue Cinemas too, but the Bleecher was really something special.

Anyway, yet another astonishing review of French cinemas here in these hallowed halls.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I've written a piece about moviegoing back in those days and the theaters I haunted. It's going to be appearing in an upcoming issue of Film Comment

Ed Howard said...

The film's mood swings from farce to near-tragedy came under attack by critics upon release.

That's a shame indeed, as the film's tonal shifts are what makes it so good - though I might reverse that forumulation to "near-farce and outright tragedy." In any event, there's a lot going on in this film, with, as you say, elements of Truffaut's familiar humanism blended with existentialist tragedy and stylish genre trappings. He doesn't abandon the humanism of The 400 Blows (one of the great humanist films, right up there with Renoir) but cuts it with all those Godardian flourishes and the cynical edge that goes with them.

David, that sounds very promising - I love hearing all those reminiscences from an era that, in terms of cinema anyway, I wish I could've lived through.

Sam Juliano said...

A shame indeed Ed! Fortunately the critical establishment has learned the error of their ways!

David: I am greatly interested in that upcoming FILM COMMENT piece too, as Ed is! I'll be there! My wife and I parked behind the Angelika two weeks ago to see THE LAST LIONS, and I actually pointed that corner out where the Bleecker Street Cinema was, as she is nine years my junior and doesn't remember it at all. I remember that great video shop that the theatre ran too! They ran some Bergman triple features there as I recall.

Jeffrey Goodman said...

Ed, one of my favorite films ever. Thanks so much for another excellent review. Just wanted to mention, if you don't have it already, that this book is a strong addition to the film:

http://www.amazon.com/Shoot-Piano-Player-Francois-Truffaut/dp/081351942X/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299872363&sr=1-2

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Jeffrey, for the link.

Shubhajit said...

Ed, thanks for this exceptional review of Shoot the Piano Player.

I absolutely LOVE this film. I can't say I have seen a lot of Truffaut's films, but I've some of the ones that are renowned the world over, including the two films that sandwiches this one In Truffaut's filmography - 400 Blows and Jules & Jim (which, incidentally, I didn't like as much as most critics did).

I really liked 400 Blows & Day for Night, but Shoot the Piano Player ranks as my favourite Truffaut film, and along with Godard's Breathless & Band of Outsiders, one of my favourite French films.

Yeah, the film is deliciously freewheeling, and forms a marvelous pastiche of jazzy, whimsical Nouvelle Vague sensibilities. Its lovely concoction of comedy and tragedy ensures one can watch this film umpteen number of times.

I know early New Wave films were built upon American film noirs and gangster films. Yet, would you go so far as to call this a post-noir? Or would you rather stick with caper comedy? Perhaps both these descriptions would be equally valid, right?

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Shubhajit. I'm with you on Jules & Jim, it's never been a favorite. This film is something else altogether, equal parts fun and moving.

As for genre, it's certainly got touches of noir in terms of story (though very little in terms of style, I'd say, with the possible exception of that deep black nighttime opening) and crime/caper flicks and gangster pictures and more. I don't know, I don't get too hung up on genre, it's just a real good movie, a quintessentially New Wave movie that reflects the Cahiers critics' love of Hollywood genre pictures.

MadMan_731 said...

Really its been some time since I last saw this movie. Probably about two years, now. I don't remember it as well as I should, and your review actually makes me want to revisit it. Especially since I'm viewed more French cinema since then. The main character is really great here, although I thought the film was merely very good (90/100 isn't a bad rating, though).
Man that ending isn't just sad, its beyond tragic. One of the most depressing finales put to screen, and really something that I'm not sure audiences back then were expecting. I didn't know it was going to happen myself.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Jules and Jim deeply affected me as it was a period film that seemed utterly contemporary. Hitchcock said he disliked period films becuase "you can't imagine the people going to the bathroom." In Jules and Jim you most certainly can.

Craig said...

I saw this a year ago with no clue what it is was about (other than it was Truffaut), and I started thinking about it again recently after reading a short story ("Professional Man") by David Goodis in Best American Noir of the Century. Goodis wrote Down There, the novel on which Shoot the Piano Player is based. He also wrote the Bogart-Bacall Dark Passage. Not knocking Truffaut's contribution, but it's interesting to pull a film like this out of the auteur's hands for a moment and see the cross-pollination that transpired between mediums and continents even in the twilight of the classical noir era.

To take it a step further, if I remember correctly, it was Shoot the Piano Player that largely inspired Benton and Newman to script their "French New Wave" crime saga Bonnie and Clyde and nearly persuade Truffaut to direct it.

Craig said...

He also wrote the Bogart-Bacall Dark Passage.

Clarification: Goodis wrote the original novel. Delmer Daves adapted it for the screen.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, MadMan, it's definitely a good one, and you're right about the ending. It's such a shock, a real departure from the tone of the rest of the film, which isn't always exactly light but doesn't get anywhere near that depressing.

Craig, thanks for the info on the basis for this film's story, I didn't realize it was the same author as Dark Passage (a weird, interesting film itself). It's a good point: I always tend to err on the auteurist side and sometimes lose track of the importance of the script in writing about the director, but there's no doubt that the story's noir sensibilities are informed by that script and the influence of American crime fiction and movies in general. And the reciprocal influence of Piano Player and Breathless on subsequent American independent films completed the cycle.

Craig said...

Oh, I wasn't blaming you for anything, Ed. Just seizing on an opening to push my agenda!

Michaël Parent said...

Once again Ed it's an excellent review! I really like the French New Wave because the "auteurs" took the narratives of the films and tried make films like the French classic litterary authors did. I like the freedom of those films that can seems "sloppy" for a modern day film-goer!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Quite true, Craig. That's why they offered Bonnie and Clyde to Truffaut and Godard.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Michaël. That sense of freedom is a big part of what set the New Wave apart.

Adam Zanzie said...

My memories of this are really way too dim. I remember distinct images in so many of Truffaut's other films--the wintry finale of Mississippi Mermaid, the psychological school sessions of The Wild Child, the theatrical performances of The Last Metro and practically everything about The 400 Blows--but I've almost entirely forgotten the specifics of Shoot the Piano Player, just as much as I've almost entirely forgotten the specifics of Day for Night. Maybe it's because I prefer Truffaut when he puts a little more soul into his films. When he tries to be Godardian he just seems to be making less of an impact--though I do remember enjoying Shoot the Piano Player and I'd like to see it again. One thing I do remmeber: that opening scene in bed ("Hey, up here, like in the movies!"). That was a pointed observation of sex in movies at the time. Not to mention a reminder that the French were (are) less cautious about that stuff than we are.

Ed Howard said...

It's worth another look, Adam. For one thing, I think it's got plenty of soul, and for all its very self-conscious movie-movie moments and attempts at Godardian genre pastiche, it's surprisingly affecting and deeply felt.

And that scene in bed is a clear highlight, though it's not the opening scene. I love the way it plays with expectations and tweaks the usual depiction of sex in movies.