As I walked out of SIFF Cinema's screening of Francois Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player (France, 1960) last Friday, one of my companions expressed dismay that there were "no real relationships" in the film. To which I replied, "But isn't that the point? This movie is about isolation."
I’d direct a similar barb at Bosley Crowther (RIP) who wrote the original New York Times review of Piano Player, fuming: “Nuttiness, pure and simple, surges and swirls through the tangle of solemn imitations in this film until one finds it hard to see or figure what Mr. Truffaut is about."
Again, "But isn't that the point?” Piano Player, the story of a sullen deadpan pianist named Charlie and his chaotic downward spiral, is about being confounded by absurd ... uh... “tangles of solemn imitations."
Charlie was once a renowned concert pianist, whose wife sold her virtue in exchange for her husband's fame. When she threw herself from a window out of guilt, Charlie retreats to the shadows, evenutally picking up a gig as a piano player in a dingy bar (where we now find him) dragged into the criminal life by his ham-fistedly deviant brothers, even while his beautiful (and smitten) young co-worker, Lena, attempts to save him.
The plot is a little crazy: After accidentally killing his former boss in a fight over Lena's virtue (the boss is horrified that she used the word "shit" and attacks Charlie), they retreat to the mountains on the lam, where the unlucky Lena meets her death in the crossfire of a shoot-out (whose perpetrators are able to hit only the innocent, apparently). The film closes on an extended shot of the melancholy piano player's face, as he sits, back again, at the bar.
Charlie's loneliness is first and foremost a product of his own incompetence. When he first attempts to approach Lena, who clearly loves him, he gets so caught up in his internal dialogue—for so long—that he fails to notice when she walks out of the room. In a tidy cinematographic trick, Truffaut keeps the camera tight on Charlie's face during this mishap, so the audience is as oblivious as Charlie to Lena's absence. We learn, right along with Charlie, that she split when the camera finally pulls back and pays attention to his surroundings. Because the camera, by diverting our attention, has implicated us in this self-possession, we feel abandoned and socially inept, ourselves.
Or at least I did.
Moments like this–along with other extended voice-overs, jump-cuts and out-of-sequence shots—ground Shoot the Piano Player in its context as part of the opening round of the Nouvelle Vague. (It was the follow-up to Truffaut's touching 1959 debut, The 400 Blows). Adhering to New Wave-style, throughout Piano Player, we stay with Charlie both visually and aurally: We hear his internal monologue, in which he tells the audience everything he cannot tell the other characters, as he agonizes over how to approach Lena, for example. Similarly, we belong to Charlie throughout a beautiful tracking shot as he anxiously walks up the stairs and down a long hall to meet the producer who will give him fame in exchange for his wife's favors. At this point, we are as unaware as Charlie of what awaits his marriage, but the camera makes it clear how small and alone he is.
If all of Shoot the Piano Player were as bittersweet and sensitive as these scenes, the movie would doubtless stand alongside The 400 Blows in the hearts of film critics everywhere. Instead, it is a bit wilder, reflecting something Truffaut said in an interview after making The 400 Blows and before making Piano Player: He’d learned to be "more indulgent." This indulgence shows through in Shoot the Piano Player, which—once again, living in synch with Charlie—has more twists and turns than really fit into its running length.
Shoot the Piano Player closed last night, but Francophiles can certainly indulge their passion with a special double run at Northwest Film Forum of I, Pierre Riviere (Allio, France, 1976) and Back to Normandy (Philibert, France, 2006)—a documentary about making Pierre, which is itself based on the book Moi, Pierre Riviere by French philosopher/superstar Michel Foucault! Does it get any better?
Last week's FilmNerd.