Shoot the Pianist

Shoot the Pianist

This beautifully restored release of Francois Truffaut’s 1960 film is a joy to look at. There is not a single mark on the pristine negative transfer to distract from Raoul Coutard’s fantastic black and white cinematography – which with its early use of handheld camera work, typical of the French New Wave, gives proceedings an extra kick of pace and urgency. It works especially well in moments shot deliberately by hand from above and from a distance – giving a proper documentary aspect

Shoot the Pianist is an interesting and deliberate mixture of genres, which throws up many pleasurable surprises, the chief one being that despite its serious subject matter it is very funny. It was based on a popular novel of the same name. Truffaut’s intention in adapting the American noir novel and transposing the story to France, was clearly to apply the hardboiled aspect to the loose collection of stylistic tics the New Wave had consciously embraced. Jump cuts, voice-over, cutaways, voice-overs, longer takes in real locations – these things are all present and correct and give the film a real sense of being curiously modern, despite being over fifty years old.

Hangdog pianist Edouard, played by Charles Aznavour, was once a big deal on the concert circuit but now plays with a small band in a bar under a false name, Charlie. When his brothers get involved in a criminal plot involving gangsters they track him down looking for his help. As he gets unwillingly embroiled in this world of dodgy dealing and debt he also gets involved with a waitress from the bar, Lena (played by Marie Dubois), and we discover why he is hiding from his old life in the first place.

It is a simple story, but gorgeously told – containing elements which if not direct influences on films like Pulp Fiction and Amelie, have definitely fed into those filmmakers’ consciousness. After all this is a  film which involves two hit men talking in a car, amusingly, about things which have nothing to do with the crimes they are threatening to commit; and features a hilariously unexpected staged cutaway depicting something which had just been said. Any audience member could see this film and feel elements of it are bizarrely familiar even though they were clearly brand new experiments at the time.

As well as the humour there is a dark thread of loneliness and the bashful shyness it engenders running through the narrative. Everyone talks about love and sex, even the hit men, although they are all increasingly bad at relationships because they are so timid. Charlie, although the hero of the piece, isn’t the kind of strong minded figure who can leap free from any situation with a single bound. He is filled with self-doubt, which is wonderfully articulated through thoughts being spoken in voice-over as he and Lena slowly get together.

It’s very much a recommend watch – it looks beautiful, cracks along at a brilliant pace, and tugs at the heartstrings when it’s not being enormously funny. It’s very tricky to pin down, a collage of styles and themes almost, but that’s partly why it’s so watchable – it’s very difficult to second guess, and as such is surprising on every level.  From the modernity of the filmmaking to the salty depiction of French life in 1960, there is an enormous amount to discover.

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