Director/Coscreenwriter: François Truffaut
By Roderick Heath
The evergreen lustre the early films of the French New Wave still retain stems in part from a tangible quality inseparable from the moment and place of their making. That sense of fleet-footed adventure encoded in their frames, captured by a bunch of ragged young men and women spilling out into the streets, informed by a sense of lawless enthusiasm, both in taking advantage of an urban space teeming with life usually edited out of films, not yet gentrified and legally corralled into sterility as so many big modern cities are becoming, and excited by the very idea of tactile communion with an art they had previously only worshipped from the theatre seats, theory and aesthetic, cliché and revolt suddenly fusing into new forms, art as a form of obsidian ore. One vital element that connected most of the early films the movement churned out was Raoul Coutard’s photography. Somehow raw and stripped of the usual cinematic gloss and yet also humming with a sense of quicksilver beauty and poise all at once, Coutard’s work was a great part of that mystique, with Paris as his set decorator, as if Cartier-Bresson or Capa had taken up shooting low-budget movies. Amongst the critics turned filmmaker who formed the core of the New Wave, François Truffaut had earned himself a measure of infamy as a reviewer for his harshness, to the point where he was refused an invitation to the Cannes festival in 1958. He took all the chances inherent in putting his money where his mouth was when he made his first film, The 400 Blows (1959), only to stun everyone with his dynamic, intimate, alternately gruelling and beguilingly autobiographical debut. Truffaut quickly followed that success by helping write the script for his friend and fellow Cahiers du Cinema critic Jean-Luc-Godard’s debut as director, Breathless (1960).
Faced with the question of what to offer as his own sophomore feature, and with most people expecting him to continue in the vein of serious, evocative cinema he had forged, Truffaut balked at the idea of repeating his breakthrough and the kind of praise he received for it. Choosing instead to perform a seemingly radical swivel from personal artist to entertainer, and make a work purely to please himself and other film lovers, he next set out to make the kind of gamy, dynamic genre cinema fare he loved, particularly American gangster films. He chose as his basis the novel Down There by oft-filmed American hardboiled writer David Goodis. Shoot the Piano Player, as the film is generally known, nonetheless proved if anything an even more radically free-form, eccentric, wildly energetic exploration of cinema’s raw textures and testing ground for the peculiar way theoretically trashy material can mesh with personal perspective and creative audaciousness and come out as something entirely new. Shoot the Piano Player has at once the breezy, cheeky flavour of a Parisian bar-room joke and an ultimately lacerating edge of the genuinely mournful, as well as a certain wry, distanced, but substantial perspective on Truffaut’s coming of age as a filmmaker of repute. Goodis’ novel, depicting a fallen piano prodigy and his ne’er-do-well brothers who inadvertently draw him back into their seamy criminal world, has a fascinating key-note that Truffaut latched onto, the disparity between the way we understand art as a zone of yearning, disciplined, transcendent reach, and crime, a grimy, degrading world, by offering a character trapped between both spheres. Truffaut, who had dropped out of school and taught himself whilst contending with authorities of all stripes and living by his wits before finding new grounding in the world of film, surely could understand such a schismatic worldview.
Trouble was, Truffaut supposedly realised during the shoot how much he detested gangsters and found it stymied his commitment to the story, so he turned increasingly towards comedy and burlesque to defuse his discomfort. Right from the film’s frantic opening shots, it’s instantly obvious that Truffaut had no interest in emulating the poised, technically imperious art associated with Hollywood’s noir masters, however. Basic rules of cinema as largely practiced up to that date are instantly, brazenly ignored, as shots hosepipe dizzyingly, focus drifts in and out, and Coutard’s handheld camerawork records blurry car headlights and scantly-lit nightscapes in impressionist smears. Such rudely chaotic beauty and evocation of vertiginous urban menace seems to set the scene for some wildly paranoid flight, as it becomes clear a man is running from a car trying to run him down. But the plunge into action resolves when the man, Chico Saroyan (Albert Rémy), collides with a lamppost, a comic diminuendo to an opening that comes on with such nourish menace. Chico is helped up by a passing stranger (Alex Joffé) who then regales him happily about his life with his wife in a scene of ribald conversation: the urgency of a life-and-death chase, the essence of genre storytelling, gives way to its ambling, contemplative, gently humorous dissection. Only when it’s done and they part ways does Chico take off in a madcap sprint once more, as if remembering what movie he’s supposed to be in. Chico’s flight brings him to a bar thrumming with evening life, thanks to the combo playing there, led by the pianist Charlie Koller (Charles Aznavour) whose poster is on the wall outside. Chico proves to have a distinct motive for coming here: Charlie is in fact his brother, the once-famous Edouard Saroyan, now leading a determinedly modest workaday life entertaining the flotsam of the night. The two heavies who have been dogging his trail, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), enter the bar, and Charlie helps stall their pursuit as Chico flees out the back door.
This early sequence in the bar, run by the leather-skinned Plyne (Serge Davri), is a marvel of swift-serve incidents and character sketches, quickly establishing the terse, closed-off nature of Charlie, so different to his criminal yet gabby, friendly brother, and the people Charlie works with or entertains. Such folk include the sleazy but perversely sympathetic Plyne, the wary Mammy (Catherine Lutz), Plyne’s estranged wife still working the bar, and roaming waitress Léna (Marie Dubois), the gorgeous but cagey object of Plyne’s desire. Around them flit vignettes and oddball characters. Two gawky onlookers mull the quality of flesh in the bar (“The other night it was first class quality!”). A man assures his dancing partner he’s interested in her chest because he’s a doctor. Chico chats up Mammy with gaudy patter: “You’re desirable—that’s why I desire you…I’m planning on getting married tonight.” A young man dancing with lovely prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier) gets tired of her teasing way and gives her a slap, only to earn himself gentlemanly retaliation from Chico. Charlie leaps back onto the piano to distract the audience from the sudden invasion by the two heavies chasing Chico, inspiring the singing waiter (singer-songwriter Boby Lapointe) to jump up and regale the audience with his bouncy, cheerfully bawdy song about a man driven to distraction by his wife’s breast enlargements, with lyrics spelt out on screen singalong-fashion. The way Truffaut shoots Lapointe’s performance, momentarily pausing the frantic pace of his images only to focus on a performer who throws out words and vibrates with rapid-fire energy to equal the director’s. Here Truffaut calls back to the Hollywood tradition of shoehorning a musical performance into movies for the sake of broadening appeal, and establishes his own work’s intense feel for the local, street-level cultural life, whilst also offering the director’s own spin on the same phenomenon Godard would later pursue more intently: investigating the synergy of art forms purveyed within art forms, giving the movie over to a performer’s use of space and sound to recalibrate how we react to such elements.
Charlie lives in a drab apartment with his youngest brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan), with Clarisse his upstairs neighbour and friend with benefits. Clarisse sleeps with Charlie after both get home from their exertions that night, in a funny scene where Clarisse’s pop sponge of a mind lends proceedings a mode of cultural burlesque as she recites jingles and gives critical opinions of a John Wayne film (“It proves America wants peace.”), and stirs Charlie to make his own joke at the expense of film convention, as he covers Clarisse’s bare breasts with a sheet: “In the movies it’s always like this.” His zipless, pay-as-you-go relationship with Clarisse suits Charlie’s disengaged approach to life, but he soon finds the contracts of identity are about to snap into effect: Ernest and Momo start tracking him, hoping to find a way to use him to track down Chico, who, along with the fourth Saroyan sibling Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), has ripped them off after a robbery they staged together. Léna alerts Charlie to the fact they’re following him, and she walks with him through the night as Charlie grapples more with his unspoken attraction to Léna than with the dogging hoods. The next morning, Fido spots the two gangsters lurking outside their apartment block and drops a milk container on their bonnet from the third floor. When Charlie emerges from his apartment block, Ernest and Momo swoop on him and drag him into their car at gunpoint, and they soon pick up Léna the same way, intending to pressure Charlie into leading them to his brothers, and Léna realises that Plyne let himself be bribed into giving the hoods their addresses. Léna’s quick wits see her contriving to attract a policeman’s attention, giving her and Charlie a chance to slip away from their kidnappers. Léna then leads Charlie to her apartment where he discovers that, far from being indifferent to him, Léna has been worshipping him from afar, aware of his real name and former identity as a famous concert pianist.
Charlie doesn’t bear much apparent resemblance to the gutsy, inquisitive, often exasperating Antoine Doinel as introduced in The 400 Blows. Fido evokes Antoine more, with his pranks, quips, mop of Presley-esque hair and finger-snapping pursuit of the right jive rhythm, every inch the natural-born Parisian rascal. Charlie nonetheless offers Truffaut’s first grown-up hero with a sense of linkage to his young alter ego, grown up and offered a taste of paradise only to be defeated by life. Charlie is alternately defined by his cool, detached manner and his almost crippling fear of human interaction, a fear that predates the various traumas that define his life and seem rooted in the act of distinction that cleaved him away from his brothers and set him on a path to refined artistry and success. He recalls young Chico and Richard tossing stones at the car that whisked away to his piano lessons, their mocking reminder, still resonating with Charlie, that in the end he’s still their brother. Charlie’s seemingly stoic, deadpan approach to most situations life throws his way, from gangsters chasing after his brother to the topless prostitute teasing him in bed, belies a deep-set sensitivity, and the voiceover narration Truffaut allows him affects a Bogartian cool but also reveals his timorousness in the face of challenges like whether or not he should try to seduce Léna, and the mantra of noncommittal he repeats to himself when situation get too emotionally charged.
Charlie has been forged by a form of survivor’s guilt, a trait bolstered by the grim fate of his wife and former career, described in a lengthy flashback halfway through the film. The former Edouard, a struggling musician, had nonetheless been happily married to Thérèse (Nicole Berger), who worked as a waitress whilst he tried to kick-start his career: their daily games of “customer and waitress” in the café where she worked attracted the attention of impresario Lars Schmeel (Claude Heymann), a seemingly fortuitous meeting that resulted in Edouard’s big break, leading to huge fame as a concert performer under Schmeel’s guidance. But the Saroyans’ marriage started to founder as Edouard finally grew more successful, and eventually Thérèse admitted that Schmeel gave Edouard his chance because she agreed to sleep with him. Thérèse then threw herself to her death after Edouard walked out on her, and he completely left behind his former existence, taking refuge for years in anonymous jobs until one day he worked up the courage to tickle the ivories in Plyne’s café again. Finally, the man reborn as Charlie seems to complete his degradation when he and Léna confront Plyne over his betrayal. Plyne, equally steamed as he realises Charlie has “soiled” the lovely Léna, starts a fight that turns deadly as he tries to choke Charlie, forcing the pianist to stab him in the back.
The greatest quality of Shoot the Piano Player is also the most difficult to fully describe — the blithe way it steps between postures of raucous humour and wistfully earnest feeling, metafictional wiseacrey and waylaying emotional directness. Shoot the Piano Player, amidst the pile-up of jokes, genre touchstones, and romantic ephemera, probes what artistic success means in terms of personal identity, a notion that also extends the attitude of investigation as to what forces define us from childhood to adulthood and what happens to the self when its foundations collapse. This preoccupation would continue to bob up throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre, essayed on an epic scale with his subsequent Doinel films but also evident in works like L’Enfant Sauvage (1969) and The Story of Adele H. (1975). Comedy and tragedy here are wound together like the disparate halves of Charlie/Edouard, right from the opening scene in which thriller canards suddenly swerve into a stranger’s wry but poignant story about how he and his wife got married, had kids, and fell in love in that order, and so has the kind of existence everyone else in the film yearns for but fails at. Even the jokey use of Charlie’s dissonant narration leads in with supple force to a sudden swerve in the way this device is employed, when, during the flashback, Edouard tells himself not to walk out on Therese. His conscious, rational self tries to retain command of his instinctual, emotional self, and fails with terrible consequences. Charlie tries to dispose of the disparity, but such traits remain integral to all human experience, even if some, like Charlie’s brothers and their gangster enemies, operate purely on the level of sensual instinct. This idea is illustrated with bawdy gusto when Ernest raves with wild-eyed glee about erotic wonts and consumerist delights when he and Momo have kidnapped Charlie and Léna. They’re like embodiments of the side of Truffaut’s mind that’s a magpie attracted by shiny objects of all kinds, complete with a watch that rings out the score of Lola Montes (1956).
The New Wave directors were often driven to comment sarcastically on the fame they had been granted by their anarchic, rule-breaking impulses, which edged in some cases into genuinely revolutionary sensibilities, as suddenly a bunch of café bums and movie geeks found themselves media celebrities. Part and parcel with this was their study of their own schismatic sensibilities, their simultaneous immersion in the modes of cinema and self-conscious distrust for it, the critic-intellectual’s unease with the instinctively profligate method of art and the needs of the entertainment-seeking audience. Here Truffaut found a sly way to wrestle with the question of whether such a charmed life could continue, or if selling out would be inevitable. Cleverly, Schmeel, the devil who consumed Edouard’s life, is presented not as a charming playboy but a kindly, fatherly type to Edouard, one who enjoys his pet pianist so much he puts his portrait on his office wall. Charlie’s shyness is initially funny, but we learn Edouard’s anxiety and discomfort in the public eye harmed his personality, as he felt a need to boast and feed on acclaim, and fuelled the mounting sense of crisis in his private life even before that calamitous revelation. Success demands a price, the kind of price that hacks into the presumptions and recompenses of ordinary life. Léna’s adoption of Charlie as lover also identifies him unapologetically as potential gold mine, as she admits to him she wants him to return to his old life to give her a better one. This signals the possibility of a rebirth for Edouard, but also puts Charlie on a collision course with every fact of his identity he’s been ignoring. The bleak side to Shoot the Piano Player is rooted in one basic irony: the reawakening that life demands from Charlie promises rewards but instead simply replays bitter experience. To be alive is to be open to pain as well as joy, and whilst for some that very alternation can be a drug-like habit, for others shutdown is the only option to weather it.
Although general audiences initially met it with bemusement, Shoot the Piano Player became a fetish object for movie lovers in itself for Truffaut’s ebullient cinematic stunts, building upon the remarkable camera freeness and willingness to utilise seemingly antiquated or merely functional effects like the iris shot and the freeze frame with definitive authorial intent. It’s still very easy to see what the fuss was about, as even the following decade or so of pop cinema that would relentlessly mine Truffaut and Godard’s works would rarely recreate the pace and bravura ingenuity with which they’re offered. The rough-hewn, almost home-movie-like crudeness apparent in the film’s earliest shots resolves when Chico enters Plyne’s bar into sudden professional precision, mapping out vignettes with Hawksian concision, but offered with a machine-gun pace that flies far ahead of the more measured studio style. Truffaut’s more ostentatious flourishes come on with real wit and bratty showiness, like a triptych shot of Plyne in negotiation with the gangsters revealing him in different postures ranging from noble stonewalling to money-grubbing treachery. Or, most famously, a sudden cutaway after Ernest swears a story he’s told is true on his mother’s life, only to offer a glimpse an old woman suddenly keeling over from a heart attack. As opposed to Godard’s increasingly studious preoccupation with the semantics of expression through cinema, Truffaut remained far more intuitive, catching ideas and whims and condensing them into visual motifs with intelligence but also carefree zest. One of Truffaut’s greatest stylistic pirouettes comes during the flashback sequence, recounting Charlie’s journey to give an audition for Schmeel: his finger hovers for a moment in giant close-up over the doorbell button, the momentousness of the act for the young, talented, but fatally uneasy man captured in all its epic intimacy.
Truffaut, instead of following Charlie within for the moment of truth, instead tracks the glum-faced violinist who was auditioning before him as she leaves Schmeel’s apartment. The sounds of Charlie’s thunderous romantic strains momentarily make her pause, and continue to resound on the soundtrack as she leaves the building and heads out into the streets, presumably, to a life of anonymity, whilst Charlie has been anointed, with the suggestion, ever so ethereal, that something is wrong. The hints of machinating fate Truffaut offers in this disorientating interlude soon takes shape but offers in its moment an islet of mysterious beauty that suggests another level to Charlie’s journey, the power of music, celebrated again by Truffaut in parentheses with his film. Truffaut returns to the musical interlude motif late in the film, during Charlie and Léna’s flight from the law, shots of the car’s progress along misty highways and into snowy alpine hills set to a languorously romantic song about two lovers who signify their continuing ardour with signs like going bareheaded. Similarly dreamy is a bedroom sequence, as Charlie and Léna make love and sleep peacefully together, counterpointed in aching dissolves with the images of Edouard’s old concert posters on the walls – past, present, and future all in flux. The soft edges of such sequences stand in contrast with the violent filmic syntax elsewhere, as in the rush of shots depicting Edouard’s plunge back into his hotel room and out to the veranda only to see Therese dead far below on the pavement, a moment that communicates the suddenness and horror of such a loss in volubly immediate terms. Truffaut even displays outright contempt for standard movie grammar, as in the concluding moments when the criminal Saroyans and their nemeses flee in cars, Truffaut hacking up the action into summary shots, as if contemptuously farewelling these halfwits and bad seeds who leave human wreckage in their wake.
Truffaut’s admiration for Hitchcock, which he would later try to work out in more belaboured terms in his fascinating misfire The Bride Wore Black (1968), is first sighted here during Charlie’s fight with Plyne, drawing on Dial M For Murder (1953) as a desperate fight for life sees a blade sunk into a spine, in a moment charged with perverse intimacy. But Hitchcockian erotic overtones are swapped for the weird spectacle of apparent masculine bonhomie, as Plyne affects to embrace Charlie after their hot heads have cooled, only to then start throttling him, a spasm of sexual-nihilistic disappointment turning the bar owner deadly as Plyne grunts out his fury for Charlie despoiling his idealised, virginal version of Léna. Earlier on Charlie had given Plyne a sympathetic ear when he confessed his crush on the waitress, revealed in his gruff pathos as he readily admitted he was far too ugly to charm her (“Perhaps it’s glands,” Charlie suggests; Plyne replies, “No, it’s my face.”). Charlie’s defensive killing is witnessed by neighbours, but he thinks he won’t be able to prove the circumstances, so Léna and Mammy hide him in the café cellar and then help him flee to his parents’ house in the Alps, which has already been taken over by Chico and Richard as their hideout. Meanwhile Ernest and Momo kidnap Fido, and force him to take them to the same place.
Aznavour’s lead performance was one Shoot the Piano Player’s great coups, bringing to the part surprising physical wit, his weirdly charming molten-plasticine face, and definite comfort with playing the instrument central to the character’s life and way of mediating the world. Although not at the time an experienced actor, he perfectly embodies Charlie’s bipolar nature and wears his sad-sack suppliance as assuredly as one of the trench coats he wears. Some of his best moments come during his first walk with Lena, counting off steps with his fingers behind his back as he tries to work up the courage to take her arm, before starting to suggest they get a drink together, only to find she’s already flitted off into the night. But the whole cast is excellent, particularly the uncanny trio of ladies around him, Mercier, Berger, and Dubois, each a study in a diverse types demarcating different classes and ways of looking at female archetypes. Mercier the black-haired gamine, Berger the classical cool, continental blonde, and Dubois the fresh-faced, brightly smiling urchin: Berger is particularly effective delivering Helene’s long, confessional monologue, prowling around the hotel room in an inescapable shot, pinioned like a butterfly in a collection. Mercier, who would later find great fame playing the cult heroine Angelique in French films, brings an insouciant delight to her role as a featherlight character happy to play bedmate to Charlie and part-time mother to Fido, but who hits the bottle out of guilt after the hoods snatch Fido from under her nose in a vignette of throwaway pathos.
Dubois, who was Truffaut’s discovery for the film (her real name was Christine Herze), has her finest moments breezily handing Charlie the mission of giving her a better life, which Charlie seems to accept with his familiar deadpan stoicism, only for her then to state, with a show of lancing vulnerability as she farewells him to work, that the only thing she really asks of a man is to tell her when things are over. Later, when Lena drops him off at his parents’ mountain house, Charlie is stricken as he tries to work out how to cast her out of his life now that he seems to have been claimed by the family curse, Aznavour’s face calcified by the conflicting desires to cut himself off from her as he’s sure he’ll bring her doom, and the urge to not let her go, resolving with the unspoken wish, “I wish she’d let me finish drinking that bottle.” The drive into the mountains shifts the film’s gear into a more rarefied realm, charged with an ironically dissonant sense of romanticism and melancholia that cuts across the grain of madcap energy seen in the rest of the film, as Charlie settles down to wait out the night with cigarettes and weltschmerz as his brothers crow that their brother has finally joined them. The dawn brings good news, as Lena returns to tell Charlie he’s been vindicated by the witnesses and can return to the world. But it also brings the two hoods, with the canny Fido snatching a chance to give them the slip.
A gunfight between the two gangs breaks out, with Lena, sprinting through the snow to try and reach Charlie’s side, gunned down accidentally. In spite of Truffaut’s improvisatory shooting style, Shoot the Piano Player manages to coherently encompass its manifold impulses, starting off with shots of Chico running and building to the climactic moment when Lena dashes through the falling snow. The film is offered as an embodiment of perpetual motion until suddenly it doesn’t – the gun cracks, Lena falls, and slides down the snow-crusted hillside like a pathetic toboggan, coming to a halt in anaesthetising snowfall, the streetwise yet innocent young lady finding an unexpected fate worthy of some Thomas Hardy heroine. Charlie and Fido dash to find her, but recover only an ice-caked corpse, whilst the battling nitwits speed away to whatever end they deserve. As for Charlie, Truffaut reveals in his final, delicately poignant last shots, he returns to his former place behind the piano with fingers dabbing the keys robotically, playing with stone-faced detachment, hovering again in a place outside of life’s regular flow. Perhaps it was Truffaut’s peculiar faith that cinema could be anything that he wanted it to be that made him think he could offer a film so expansive and unruly in its sense of life and death and how the two sometimes overlap, affirming even in the midst of tragedy a romantic’s conviction that life without love is meaningless, be it human or artistic.