Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.
NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.
Grade: 97 (A)
The 400 Blows was a major critical and commercial breakthrough for Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave, and Truffaut was followed quickly by many of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps most notably, Truffaut’s friend Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless (co-written by Truffaut), an irreverent gangster film and one of the rare directorial debuts that can be put in the same league as The 400 Blows. Truffaut had his own irreverent gangster/noir film up his sleeve: Shoot the Piano Player, a fast-paced 81-minute romp that mixed melodrama, genre tropes, and slapstick comedy. The film was commercially unsuccessful, but it’s become a major touchstone in French New Wave cinema, perhaps the best and most accessible introduction to the New Wave, and the most playful and fun film Truffaut ever made.
Charlie (Charles Aznavour) is a well-liked but soft-spoken pianist in a low-rent Paris saloon. His brother Chico (Albert Remy, who played Antoine Doinel’s stepfather in The 400 Blows), is a hood who stole money from a pair of gangster partners and is now on the run. Charlie helps Chico escape, but soon becomes a target of the gangsters himself. All the while, Charlie falls for Lena (Marie Dubois), a waitress at the saloon who’s one of the few people who know the truth about Charlie- he’s really famed concert pianist Eduoard Saroyan, who disappeared from the spotlight after the death of his wife.
Shoot the Piano Player is populated with a fun cast that understands the film’s playful tone- particularly good is the lovely Marie Dubois as Lena- but there’s an inherent moodiness to noir, and famed actor/singer Charles Aznavour nails it with his performance as Charlie. Charlie is an isolated man who, even at the height of his fame, has trouble relating to other people and opening up. It’s a feeling Truffaut, an outcast of youth, relates to strongly.
Charlie is alienated from society- he barely talks to anyone, and when Lena shows clear interest in him he’s too shy to do anything about it. Our protagonist has had a rough life, even if we don’t know why yet, and he’s too scared to go out and take what he wants. Shoot the Piano Player shows Truffaut’s first attempt at portraying romance on film, and he’s already masterful. Charlie’s tentativeness is clear- Truffaut shoots his hands as they move towards Lena’s, only to move away again. Aznavour’s narration could come off as completely unnecessary if not for its playfulness and effectiveness at getting inside the head of a reticent character. But Lena’s a persistent girl, and she’ll take what she wants. Oh, plus they’re being chased by gangsters. In the movie world, that tends to bring people together.
But Charlie isn’t a blameless man. A Citizen Kane-like flashback shows his rise and fall as a concert pianist. Charlie was too tentative and reclusive to even get his own audition with a talent agency; his wife had to take matters into her own hands. When Charlie does become successful, the introvert becomes a self-important jerk, valuing his own art above his relationship. “I stopped talking when I realized you stopped listening”, he says to his wife at one point. But she can’t listen- the man is only concerned with his own success, and when she finally reveals that she slept with the talent agent in order to give him a career, his withdrawn, aloof nature keeps him from forgiving her, leading to her suicide. Truffaut doesn’t judge Charlie, though- he sympathizes with the melancholy hero. He never had a normal life, being taken away from his family at fourteen to become a piano virtuoso. But Charlie cannot forgive himself for this, or for Lena’s death at the hands of the thugs. By the end, when he’s given up his dream of being a concert pianist and returns to the saloon, he has a stone-face and far away eyes. He is the quintessential noir protagonist- a poor schmuck who only has himself to blame.
And yet despite some dark plot turns and moments, Shoot the Piano Player is not a dirge, but rather one of the most entertaining films of its era. A clear precursor to the self-aware gangster comedies of Quentin Tarantino and the playful, idiosyncratic comedies of Jonathan Demme, the film is best remembered for its style and its tangents. Just as he did with The 400 Blows, Truffaut mixes and matches all sorts of different film styles- the neorealism of de Sica and Rossellini; the noirs and gangster films of Howard Hawks, John Huston, and Billy Wilder; the slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Bros. (not to mention characters named after Chaplin and Chico Marx); the cinema of alienation of Nicholas Ray; the virtuosic personality-driven filmmaking of Orson Welles; and the suspense of Truffaut’s favorite filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock.
Truffaut blends his diverse influences together all while implementing New Wave tropes- jump cuts, voice-overs- and following Andre Bazin’s call for more personal filmmaking- in his own words, he “wanted to break with the linear narrative and make a film where all the scenes would please me”. The proof is in the pudding- the best scenes aren’t necessarily related to the plot, but are tangents. An early highlight shows the bar patrons dancing to Charlie’s piano music and interacting- “Is it my breasts you find exciting?” “You bet, I’m a doctor!”. Then there’s the nonsense song in the early going or the ridiculous fight turned serious in the final stretch. But if there’s one sequence that best exemplifies everything that’s wonderful about Shoot the Piano Player, it’d be a famed tangent involving two gangsters who kidnapped Charlie and Chico’s little brother. The men bring up all sorts of nonsense gadgets and trinkets they own to the young boy, and when the boy questions the veracity of one of their statements, one thug says “may my mother drop dead if I’m lying”…cut to an old woman dropping dead. It’s unique, it’s wild, it’s unpredictable and unprecedented- it’s pure French New Wave from the movement’s finest director.