From the 1960 Highsmith novel with the same English language title, This Sweet Sickness is a 1977 film by Claude Miller starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Moui. It’s perhaps the most delirious narrative of all the screenings in this Highsmith season, ending in a full-blown fantasy sequence.
David (Gérard Depardieu) is an accountant at a company in Central France. A typical Highsmith anti-hero, he ‘lives a lie’ – each weekend heading for Chamonix in the French Alps where he claims he is visiting his parents in a nursing home. In fact they are dead and he is secretly building/furnishing a chalet for his childhood sweetheart Lise (Dominique Laffin). Unfortunately she married someone else when David was away for two years (military service?) and is now pregnant with her first child. The film’s French title translates as ‘Tell Him/Her, I love Him/Her” which is intriguing and seems more informative that Highsmith’s original English title. This is because David himself is being pursued by Juliette (Miou-Miou) – and she in turn is being chased by David’s colleague François (Christian Clavier) who is attempting to cheat on his wife.
Claude Miller directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Luc Béraud. While keeping the central characters and the opening narrative close to Highsmith’s story (i.e. the book’s plot as reported on Wikipedia), Miller changed the second half in several ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, Highsmith did not like the adaptation. Miller, who died in 2012 just before his last film Thérèse Desqueyroux was shown at Cannes, was influenced by François Truffaut. Under Truffaut’s guidance he directed his first feature in 1976, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that aspects of Dites-lui que je l’aime seem to refer to Truffaut’s own interest in Hitchcock. At the beginning of the film David visits a cinema, sitting in front of Juliette who has recently moved into the same lodging-house. The screening is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and a cut takes us straight from the auditorium to Joan Fontaine on the screen as the new Mrs de Winter exploring Manderley, the de Winter house. Juliette will eventually explore David’s chalet in Chamonix and if you know Rebecca you won’t be surprised at the chalet’s destruction in Dites-lui que je l’aime.
Claude Miller’s film is indeed ‘filmic’ and there are several interesting images/sequences. A photo in the chalet from the 1950s shows David and Lise as children. It sits below the kite (named ‘Fergus’) that they used to fly together. Outside the chalet a boy and girl, roughly the age of the children in the photo, are playing a game of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Where have they come from? The chalet is quite isolated in the hills. David comes out and shoos them away. Later in the film he sees another pair of children playing the same game. Are these children real or a figment of David’s obsessive imagination? In David’s bedroom at the chalet, a print on the wall shows a young woman looking out at the viewer. I think this might be Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Standing at a Virginal’ – or something similar (I think she was the other way round)? I thought that the scenes outside the chalet in the snow were reminiscent of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960).
In 1977 Gérard Depardieu was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent French film star – a status he had obtained by the early 1980s. I watched him only a few weeks ago in 1900 (Novecento) (1976) which was shot only a couple of years earlier and he seems to have put on a lot of weight in just two years. In the image at the top of this post, he still displays a youthful sensitivity and charm (the glasses remind me of James Dean), but at the same time he hints at the brutality and wildness he is capable of. This was all part of Depardieu’s star persona and would come to the fore when he toured the US in 1990 to promote Green Card. In Dites-lui que je l’aime he slaps, punches and throws both men and women and throws wine or water in their faces. This film is unusual for Highsmith because, apart from Carol (UK-US-France 2015), it is the only one to my knowledge to involve two leading female characters, one of whom (Juliette) is nearly as active an agent as David himself. There is a sense in which Highsmith might be seen as misogynistic in terms of her female characters, but here she is perhaps better seen as misanthropic. I did find the violence dished out by David quite shocking – possibly because he flared up so quickly and was out of control before his victims were aware of what was happening. One of the main victims is Juliette – who dishes out her own form of emotional violence. Depardieu and Miou-Miou had ‘form’ in this kind of emotional drama, in Les valseuses (1974), a film that also includes Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Fossey, both of whom have appeared in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ films.
In trying to classify this film, I can’t help thinking that it is a bit like ‘Truffaut-Hitcock on speed’ – it’s a psychological thriller, crime melodrama and emotional romance rolled into one. The performances of Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Claude Piéplu (who plays David’s eccentric neighbour) carry the energy that this mixture of repertoires suggests and I think this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the adaptations I’ve seen.
I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again. But I confess that I found the film narrative to be riveting and I soon forgot about the image quality. I watched this in one of the smallest screens at HOME which was nearly full. The last HOME screening in the season is this coming Thursday and since it’s directed by Claude Chabrol I’ll be there early to get a good seat. Can’t wait, this has been an excellent season.
This classic screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in a good quality 35mm print was viewed by about a 100 people. Given the box office figures for art films reported in Charles Gant very informative ‘Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound the attendance was reassuring. Roy has also raised concerns about this issue on this blog. It is true to say that French films, and especially by François Truffaut, have usually performed well at the UK box office.
I first saw the film a few years after its initial release at a Film Society in a 16mm print. I and my friends were impressed by the striking visual and aural style of the film; shot in black and white Franscope. The three protagonists, Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henry Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) were fascinating characters beautifully played by the leading actors. And the supporting cast was excellent, including several attractive and skilled actresses: frequently the case in French films.
The film is adapted from a relatively short novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. The story commences in la belle époque, the period before World War I. This period is beautifully reproduced with fine inputs from the Costume Designer Fred Capel. The part, set in Paris, is brought to an end by World I. Here Truffaut provides a series of archive sequences of the conflict, but it is emphasised by changes to the aspect ratio – twice the footage is stretched in to anamorphic frame. After the war there are sequences in Austria and then again in France. Footage at one point of Nazi book burning shows us to have reached 1933. The film closes in a crematorium.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white widescreen by Raul Coutard. The camera is constantly on the move – with pans, tracks, circulating camera, even zooms (which on this occasion work) and a wipe. And there are frequent lap dissolves and jump cuts. In that sense it fits into the unconventionality (for the period) of the nouvelle vague. The editor Claudine Bouché has mastered an exceedingly demanding plot and set of shots. The soundtrack by Témoin contributes important aspects to the film’s impact. The music score by George Delerue is varied and inventive. Apparently the Production Design was also by Fred Capel, but he is uncredited. It is likely that some responsibility, given the use of locations, fell on the ‘continuity girl’, Suzanne Schiffman,
Props, plot references and film inserts are also noticeable. There are statues, photographs and paintings which seem significant. Apart from cinema there are references to theatre and literature. This provides a complex web of signifiers surrounding the characters. And there are visual and aural motifs – notably an hourglass which set limits on the time.
The focus of the story is the two friends of the title. Catherine is much less developed and she remains enigmatic. In a conversation between Jules and Jim she is referred t as ‘flighty’. A critic (Dudley Andrews) describes her as ‘pure woman (spontaneous, tender, cruel).’ The film, in the voice of the narrator (Michel Subor), supports this viewpoint. So the lead woman is really a male construct. This is probably the most serious flaw in the film.
This is a film that can seen and re-seen, offering discoveries at every viewing. And the quality of the style remains fresh after any number of viewings.
Seeing a film in its original format nowadays is a special pleasure. So it is worth noting for readers for whom Leeds is accessible that the Hyde Park is screening Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966 – on Feb. 22nd) in a 35mm prints, [but not Alphaville which is a DCP, my mistake].
I’ve criticised several of François Truffaut’s films featuring men stuck in adolescence, but when it comes to presenting children and real adolescents as believable characters on screen he really has no equal (apart from Jean Vigo, perhaps). L’argent de poche has no plot as such. Instead, it details what happens in a small community over a few weeks at the end of the summer term and into the holidays. The classroom here is the obverse of the terrible hole that confronts young Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cents coups. French pedagogy (rote learning) seems stuck in the pre-historic era in the year before schools go co-educational, but humanity shines through in every frame.
The film was made in the town of Thiers in central France (and some scenes are strongly reminiscent of Les Mistons, filmed not that far away and also featuring children, albeit with a different focus). The adult casting includes several actors, but the children play themselves. Truffaut here moves towards a more neo-realist style with several scenes played out in long shot and long takes as well as more conventional scenes in the classroom and family home. (I’m not sure that the shooting style is that different to earlier films, but it feels different.) There is one terrifying scene of potential tragedy, brilliantly handled, but cat-lovers should turn away. Elsewhere it is a deft mix of comedy, careful social observation and a little drama.
Once again, there is a Truffaut alter ego in the boy who is abused and neglected, but everyone else is part of a wonderful community – a community that visits the cinema en masse and where Pathé Newsreels are still showing alongside an adventure film with an exotic title that reminded me of the potboiler watched by the couple in Brief Encounter. Was the world ever like this? I doubt it, but it feels so real that only the completely insensitive (there are a few such commentators on IMDB) will fail to be filled with a warm glow after watching L’argent de poche.
(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