Shoot the Pianist (1960)

D: François Truffaut
S: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois

François Truffaut's second film is a slight affair, a French take on the American crime melodrama from the novel Down There by David Goodis. The basic story is workable enough, raising a number of questions about responsibility, relationships and destiny. Former concerto pianist Charles Aznavour takes refuge in relative anonymity as a café-bar entertainer. When his criminal brother blunders into the club on the run from gangsters, a chain of events begins which forces him to question his reasons for living and the essential nature of his character. Truffaut embellishes the film noir clichés with an energetic cinematic style, beautifully filmed by Raoul Coutard in sumptuous widescreen. The film is occasionally peppered with surreal dialogue scenes and flashbacks which give it a slightly self-parodic air, and it comes complete with a downbeat ending and a reflective inner monologue which demonstrates a heightened awareness of generic conventions. There is a sense though that more effort has been put into the execution than the vision, as it does not so much add up to a coherent whole as seem like a collection of moments which loosely articulate an idea.

Like Godard's A Bout de Souffle, the film uses the structuring norms of American cinema to reveal the powerful cultural legacy it has left upon French society. Rather than the basis of a pointed social critique, this provides Truffaut with an opportunity to film individual scenes and moments with an eye for just how much fun he can get out of replicating the style of its predecessors and then moving beyond them with extended existential reflection and the occasional gag at the expense of traditional cinematic practice. It is more playful than radical, with the result that its dour central character and occasional pretentiousness seem irritatingly out of place. It lacks Godard's capacity to blend the elements of parody and drama which distinguished the former film, and seems extraordinarily lightweight after Truffaut's debut The 400 Blows.

Aznavour makes a suitably enigmatic lead and gives an effectively understated performance. He lacks the magnetism to completely hold the audience's attention though, and the film has to keep introducing new characters and situations to sustain momentum. The level of characterisation is relatively low despite the scenes of intellectual musing which constantly pop up. The film does not really create and develop authentic individuals in a real world environment. It is content to establish a slightly surreal cinescape born of contemporary French society and 1940s Hollywood in which people are ciphers of lifestyles and social groups who mouth meaningful dialogue which clearly comes from beyond the world of the film itself. You are constantly made aware that issues are under discussion, yet Truffaut's insistence on making fun of the genre and indulging himself with clever compositions and camera direction is more a distraction than a truly radical undermining of the self-serious society from which he comes.

To its credit, the film is expertly put together and thankfully brief. It works best as a cheerfully affectionate poke at movie lore, and is probably best approached from that perspective. Yet given the films which have preceded it in its homeland, it is something of a moot point. It is much less convincing as a serious probing of character and theme, being too fragmentary and superficial to completely engage the subject and it eventually becomes tiresome as trope.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.