(These notes were originally written for an education event in 2001)
Tirez sur le pianiste was Truffaut’s second feature, following on from the critical and commercial success of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). It failed to emulate the success of its predecessor, depressing Truffaut (who cared about commercial success) and pushing him towards the more obvious commercial appeal of Jules et Jim, made in the following year. Yet, from the perspective of 2009, Tirez sur le pianiste was a film ahead of its time. It has aged well and appears now to represent many of the significant innovations of la nouvelle vague – indeed it may be the most representative film of that important movement.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a family of three unlikely brothers. Charlie looks after his younger brother Fido, still a child, and works as a piano player in a bar. One night a second brother, Chico, a petty criminal comes to the bar pursued by two other crooks he has double-crossed. Charlie has a casual relationship with the prostitute who lives across the corridor and he is also the target of the affections of Lena, who works behind the bar. Like all good film noir males, Charlie has a mysterious past.
Truffaut and la nouvelle vague
François Truffaut (1932-84) became a convinced cinéphile in his early adolescence, escaping from his own unhappy family circumstances into the cinemas of Nazi occupied Paris. After the war he became an habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, meeting the other young men with whom he would become identified as first a vigorous critic of the established tradition de qualité in French cinema in the 1950s and later as a ‘new director’. In 1954, at the tender age of 22, Truffaut wrote his famous essay, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma‘, in which he denounced the cinema of ‘old men’, concerned with highly polished and carefully constructed artificial stories, and strove to promote an alternative cinema which gave true expression to the ideas and emotions of the filmmaker. From this developed la politique des auteurs.
The emphasis on the director as auteur or ‘author’ as distinct from metteur en scène (literally the person who films the script) became the effective manifesto of the young, first time, directors who comprised what came to be known as la nouvelle vague towards the end of the 1950s.
Defining la nouvelle vague
One way to conceive of la nouvelle vague from a contemporary perspective is perhaps to think of the ways in which the UK press created the idea of ‘cool Britannia’ or ‘Brit Art’ in the 1990s. In France between 1959 and 1963 over 150 new filmmakers and actors became identified with the new and ‘youthful’ trend in French cinema (and the arts generally). The defining moment (i.e. when the term was first widely used) appears to have been the success at Cannes of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups in 1959.
Film scholars have discerned a number of different groups of filmmakers, each of which challenged the dominant mode of so-called ‘quality cinema’ from the 1950s onwards. The group which gained the highest profile were arguably the quintet of critics turned directors; François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
The group’s ideas were developed through the 1950s in their critical writing. Their filmmaking styles were not identical but they did share a number of commitments so that, at least in the beginning, there were identifiable elements in all their films (and in those of other young directors):
- characters were ‘young and reckless’
- they used new young actors, creating new ‘stars’ – Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran, Anna Karina etc.
- the films were set mostly in Paris or the ‘tourist’ areas of France
- mostly shot on location, using natural light and hand-held cameras – improvised and self-conscious cinematography
- editing ‘rules’ were broken and devices from cinema history re-worked
- rising stars of cinematography, music etc. worked on several new wave films, e.g. Raoul Coutard, Henri Decaë, Michel Legrand
- narratives were either ‘original’ or based on popular fictions; ‘small stories’ were as important as ‘big’ ones
- they often paid hommage to Hollywood and to the European masters (Renoir, Vigo etc.) with direct references in the films
- new producers appeared to back the films, including via co-productions with Italy
- the group helped each other get films started, taking on associate producer roles, providing script ideas or appearing as actors in small parts
- the directors were the product of years of film viewing and criticism rather than film school.
Tirez sur le pianiste as a ‘new wave’ film
- Set on the streets of Paris and the mountains near Grenoble;
- based on a novel (Down There) by the ‘hardest’ of ‘hard-boiled’/‘pulp’ writers, David Goodis;
- mixes American culture and traditional French popular culture, personified by French superstar Aznavour (arguably the most popular singer in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century) in the lead role;
- looks back to the ‘tricks’ and devices of ‘silent’ cinema.
- Although it does refer to ‘genre’ (like the quality films), it is a distinct mixture of generic references, prefiguring the ‘hybrid’ films of postmodern cinema in the 1990s. Ostensibly a ‘gangster/film noir‘, Tirez sur le pianiste is also a comedy and a tragedy about the life and loves of Charlie Kohler. (This particular mixture recalls Alfred Hitchcock – a major influence on all Truffaut’s films.)
- A ‘personal’ film for Truffaut it includes several familiar elements from his other films, including familiar actors, childish, weak men and strong, ‘mysterious’ women. The mixture of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ tones is also a Truffaut trait.
- Photographed with his usual flair by Raoul Coutard, the most innovative of the new cinematographers.
- The film offers a running commentary on cinema itself – the camera is ‘knowing’, almost ‘winking’ at the audience at various moments.
The film was poorly received at the time. Ironically, the ‘faults’ which critics pointed to are now accepted as commonplace – the genre mixing and change of tone. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The famous scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson featuring a discussion about Big Macs (and the talk about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs) is similar in many ways to the inconsequential chat in the car between the two gangsters and their captives – first with Charlie and Léna about women and lingerie and then with Fido about gadgets and foreign clothes.
Truffaut as auteur
Although at first glance very different from the more well-known films that preceded and followed it, Tirez sur le pianiste is immediately recognisable as a ‘Truffaut film’. It is the first of a series of ‘genre explorations’, including three further films based on ‘hard boiled pulp fiction’ – La marieé etait en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (1967) (in which Jeanne Moreau plays Julie Kohler) and La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid) (1969), both based on stories by Cornell Woolrich (best known perhaps as the author of the short story which was adapted for Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and Vivement dimanche! (Finally, Sunday!) (1982), Truffaut’s last film based on a story by Charles Williams.
Charlie is a typical ‘Truffaut male’, seeking the love of a ‘magical and mysterious’ woman, who is far stronger and more confident – not least in the physical sense, since Truffaut males are short and wear a puzzled expression. This also carries over into the quartet of films which follow on from the autobiographical story of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cent coups. The best example is probably Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) (1968) in which Antoine becomes involved in comic attempts to become a private detective in his pursuit of a young woman.
Truffaut’s ‘personal’ style of filmmaking can also be identified in the mix of the comic and the tragic (often abruptly switching between the two), in his love of cinema and all its devices, and in his reverence for masters such as Hitchcock and Renoir.
In the scene in which we meet the bumbling gangsters who ‘kidnap’ Charlie and Lena in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of Chico there is the comic conversation about men and women and an insert (one of several using very traditional cinema ‘effects’) in which Lena identifies the source of the gangsters’ knowledge about her and Charlie. The ‘three screens in one’ use of the DyaliScope frame (a cheap imitation of CinemaScope) is a nod towards the great French cinematic innovator Abel Gance. At the beginning of the sequence, Fido ‘bombs’ the gangsters’ car with milk – a stunt that might have come from Les quatre cents coups or its inspiration, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite.
1. Is Tirez sur le pianiste more accessible now than when first released? Has modern cinema absorbed the ideas that Truffaut thought were experimental (the genre mixing, changes in tone etc.)?
2. What kind of a hero is Charlie? How do we understand his attitude towards women (and that of the other male characters)?
3. Does the film have anything to say about French and American culture in the way it ‘plays’ with American genres like the gangster and the film noir? Is the representation of men and women in the film a reversal of the usual American representation?
Don Allen (1986) Finally Truffaut, London: Paladin
Jill Forbes (1998) ‘The French Nouvelle Vague’ in Hill and Church Gibson op cit
Susan Hayward (2000) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, London: Routledge
John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: OUP
Jim Hillier (ed) (1986) Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Graham Petrie (1970) The Cinema of François Truffaut, London and New York: Zwemmer and Barnes
© Roy Stafford 22/4/01