Unpredicable Performance: Francois Truffaut’s Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (1960) – Blu-ray review
The ne plus ultra of the French New Wave, as Truffaut gets giddy on the sheer rush of making a film.
Tirez Sur Le Pianiste
(Francois Truffaut, 1960)
Even the title – which translates as Shoot The Pianist – sounds like two rival films colliding, which gives some sense of what it must have been like for audiences in 1960. Something was stirring in French cinema and, after Jean-Luc Godard’s debut Breathless, and Francois Truffaut’s own breakthrough, Les Quatre Cents Coups, people were already learning to expect the unexpected. Even so, Truffaut’s follow-up is remarkably hard to categorise: a musical-comedy-thriller adapted from an American novel but which couldn’t be more Gallic in its romanticism, pessimism and hangdog sang-froid.
According to the introduction on this Blu-ray, Truffaut deliberately set out to dash the expectations of the mainstream audiences who loved his debut but whom he never wanted to pander to. The result is an exercise in pure cinema, wilfully mercurial as it breaks rules, shifts gears and changes moods. The same could be said of Breathless, except that Godard was radical to the core, whereas Truffaut’s instinct for narrative means that the disparate styles somehow cohere rather than collide. It’s perhaps the most New Wave of the New Wave films.
Like Tarantino decades later, this is the work of a fan and many of the artistic choices have to be judged as such. Truffaut chose the material because he liked the author – but makes sweeping changes to the plot. He ignored the primary actors of the era in favour of singer Charles Aznavour – and then never has him sing. The material emulates the noir thrillers that Truffaut wrote about as a critic (the premise of a man dragged back into his past, not to mention the unusual flashback structure, echo Build My Gallows High) but his hero is more worried about getting laid than fighting the bad guys – much like Tarantino’s True Romance.
So ignore the plot; just enjoy Truffaut trying out everything he had learned from those endless days and nights in darkened theatres. The non-sequitur opening acts as a thematic overture to events while deliberately stalling the story. Voiceover is used ironically, as Aznavour talks to himself, sometimes heeding his private advice but often ignoring it – or, in one of cinema’s great sight gags, duping both Aznavour and ourselves as he ponders how to flirt with his new love. The film’s middle third is dominated by an extended flashback that adds psychological depth to Aznavour’s pianist, but doesn’t actually connect to the thriller plotline except to foreshadow its tragic end. Truffaut punctuates events with cutaways – notably the gag involving a gangster “swearing on his mother’s life” – just because he can. And there are in-jokes galore, including Aznavour covering up the naked breasts of his lover with a sheet, telling her “that’s how they do it in cinema.”
Even so, there’s a sustained mood – wryly fatalistic and wistful – ingrained in every frame. In lesser hands, this might be pastiche, but Truffaut uses so well it makes Charlie as mythical as he is comical. Partly that is down to Aznavour, whose heavy-lidded gaze has seen all the cruel jokes that life has to play, and prefers to smoke himself into oblivion. Partly that is down to the innate good taste of hiring Georges Delerue to compose the jaunty/elegiac music (the film’s tone in microcosm) or letting Raoul Coutard zip about in DyniScope. But mostly, it’s down to Truffaut realising that he can now redefine how they do it cinema and making a film according to nobody’s rules but his own.