Saturday, 3 March 2007

Francois Truffaut - The Films 2: Shoot the Pianist (1960)

Francois Truffaut discusses the film at the time of release in 1960

Francois Truffaut followed his highly successful debut, The 400 Blows, with Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste) (titled Shoot the Piano Player in the States), a very different film from its predecessor. Unfortunately the film was not popular with the general public and under-performed at the box office. Nearly fifty years later many critics regards it as an under-rated masterpiece, and it certainly shows Truffaut's grappling with the 'new wave' style of film-making, continuusly experimenting with new techniques and styles, although not always successfully.

Truffaut wanted to show his debt to American film-makers, after the very French The 400 Blows, and decided to make a gangster film, although he later admitted he loathed gangsters, particularly the hackneyed stories of the Hollywood 'bad guy as hero,' genre. His reasoning was that he wanted to experiment with a rigid formula, as a contrast to the very free-form style he'd employed on The 400 Blows.

In fact, the auteur/director mixed several different genres into his gangster film, so that Shoot the Pianist ends up as a tale of tragedy, lost love, violence and also comedy - a mixture that doesn't always work, and dates the film in ways that aren't evident in his other work.

Shoot The Pianist

The film opens with Chico (Albert Rémy), a small-time crook, being pursued by two mobsters, Momo and Ernest. He finds refuge in a piano bar where his brother Edoard (Charles Aznavour), performing under the assumed name of 'Charlie' as a piano player. Edoard has renounced the gangster lifestyle and is bringing up his much younger brother, Fido. It turns out that Edoard was a classical pianist of some renown, who gave up the show business career when his wife committed suicide.

Edoard has secretly had a strong liking for Lena, a waitress at the bar where he works, where unbeknownst to him Lena has long been in love with him.

Will Edoard and Lena get together and escape the vengeful gangsters who know that Edoard helped his brother Chico escpape them? Or will history repeat itself for Edoardo, with the new relationship ending in tragedy and death? This is the central question at the heart of the unfolding story.

The crooked Chico seeks refuge with his brother Edoard, a gifted piano player

The problems the 'low budget' new wave shooting style caused for the film are evident from the very first opening scene. The cinematographer Alfred Rémy reveals on the accompanying commentary track that because they were amateurs they used cheap bulbs that Truffaut didn't have time to replace when they exploded on the night of shooting because of the unexpected rain.

The end result is that the opening scenes are so dark as to be almost impenetrable, because of the dimness of the few remaining bulbs that were left for the film crew to use after the night rain. Many critics describe the dark opening as a 'brave' move by Truffaut, and typical of the 'new wave' desire to change many things about film-making, but to this viewer it ws just annoying.

There are other 'brave' scenes too. In one unintentionally hilarious scene, we see the start of the blossoming relationship between piano player Edoard and waitress Len as he walks her home from the bar where they both work one night. The strong silhouette of the camera and tripod on a tracking dolly is projected onto Edoard's white raincoat, apparently unnoticed by the director or his crew at the time of shooting! Flaws like this are what make the belated plaudits of 'under-rated masterpiece' somewhat alien to this reviewer.

Lena, a waitress, is in love with Edoard, but it takes him some time to realise it

The film does have its moments though, and Aznavour has real screen presence, despite his dour, misanthropic demeanour throughout. This is no modern-day, impeccably groomed and coiffured screen hero, and we see Aznavour, frequently with a grubby fag in hand, in more natural state, eg with hair unkempt after waking up with his lover. The scenes are all very natural, and the realism of the bedroom scenes, featuring a clearly at-ease bare-breasted female, must have been daring and unconventional at the time of release.

The film has classical structure (many of the scenes are conventionally shot, and surprisingly static at times), but introduces experimental 'new wave' film-making. In one scene we see a kiss that was actually filmed backwards - a failed experiment (it was impossible to tell that the kiss had been recorded differently) that Truffaut used to try and capture something 'different' about the first kiss between the two young lovers at the heart of his story.

The bar owner where Lena and Edoard work has secretly fancied Lena for years, and sells the couple out to gangsters Momo and Ernest when he realises the two have slept together

The film ends as a curiosity, and for me Truffaut's attempts to liven up the genre of the American gangster movie, by mixing in other stories to make the film more interesting, and experimenting with different shooting styles, isn't entirely successful. There is a particularly long discussion on Truffaut's favourite subject - women! - in the middle of the film between the gangsters and the two leads whom they've kidnapped. It feels too artificial and contrived, and separate from the main story, to convince, as do several other scenes in the film.

That being said, the film has a certain French charm, and Aznavour's dour anti-hero, is a joy to watch. The closing scenes, featuring a Hollywood-styled shootout in the snow, are also strong and stay in the memory long after the film is over.

The problem, for me at least, is that the film doesn't feel like one story - more like several different ones that have been jumbled together to make a less than cohesive whole, although admittedly the end result is highly original and somewhat unforgettable as a result.

Gangsters Momo and Ernest pursue Lena and Edoard to the family home in the snow

The extra's on this release follow the same format as those on others in this Francois Truffaut series. A short 'Introduction' gives some spoken background information on the film, narrated against a series of stills from the film. There is a 15 minute conversation with Truffaut, recorded for TV in 1961, where he shares his thoughts on the making of the film, and a theatrical trailer which has a very different tone from the film itself.

But by far the standout extra is the commentary from cinematographer Raoul Coutard, interviewed by Serge Touriana. Coutard worked on several Truffaut films, having met the fledgling director while working with Jean-Luc Godard. He has no sense of false sentimentality about Truffaut, and is happy to share anecdotes about the problems and frustrations of making the film, whilst also being respectful of the talent he was working with. It gives a fascinating insight into Truffaut's working methods, and one that really doesn't come across in the published interviews with Truffaut himself.

Shoot the Pianist is an interesting curiosity, and certainly one worth a rental, if only to see clues as to how Truffaut's film-making, strongly influenced by the work of his contemporaries at Les Cahiers du Cinema, would proceed. It repays repeated visits although its weaknesses, as well as its strengths, become more and more apparent on each subsequent viewing.

Edoard the piano player is played by Charles Aznavour

1 comment:

wooodenelephant said...

une autre vue...