Tirez sur la pianiste
Review by Sam Bett
Posted on 02 April 2010
Source Criterion Collection DVD
One of François Truffaut’s earliest feature films and his only gangster movie, Shoot the Piano Player feels at once ordered and improvisational. Like a complex piece of music, the film varies in tempo and tone without warning, moving from brisk action scenes to slow domestic sequences. As an expressionist work of art, the film offers an empathetic rendering of how excitement and boredom can coexist in basically average circumstances. But what unifies the story, and makes it more than an exercise in style, are the deep questions it explores about the elusive nature of the self and its vulnerability to others.
Embedded in the title of Shoot the Piano Player is a question of identity that agitates its entire plot: Who is the piano player? For most first-time viewers, this will be a point of curiosity during the opening scenes of the film. The first character we see is not “the piano player” but his brother, Chico Saroyan, running from a revving automobile through the rain soaked back-streets of Paris. Apart from the sound of hurried footsteps on the drenched sidewalks, the scene is quiet and lacking music, underscoring the absence of any piano or pianists. We finally meet the title character when Chico ducks into the dive bar where his brother Edouard works as a musician. Dressing in the back room before heading out to play, Edouard treats his fugitive brother standoffishly and further evades the spotlight by insisting on being addressed as “Charlie.” Edouard’s use of a pseudonym with his own brother and his late appearance in the film both contribute to an emotional evasiveness that obstructs our view of him and makes it difficult to see him in the way we see the other less dimensionally complex characters outside the center stage.
Once-famed concert pianist Edouard Saroyan goes into hiding after the suicide of his wife Theresa, changing his name to Charlie Kohler and taking a job as a barroom entertainer. His retreat from the world is demonstrated throughout the film by the private tone of his narration, which in its self-absorption seems to ignore us as witnesses. His voice is less the voice of a narrator than of a conscience; we eavesdrop on his stream-of-consciousness voiceovers as incidental listeners, not intended audience members. Truffaut’s ample use of stream-of-consciousness voiceovers is one of the more overt literary devices employed in Piano Player, and hints at the film’s literary roots in David Goodis’s novel Down There. Though Edouard often seems to ramble through his anxieties, his thoughts are full of information vital to the plot’s exposition. While Edouard’s dialogue with other characters is often terse and reserved, his narration offers meaningful glimpses into his attitudes on life and love, such as when he hesitates to speak to Lena on their walk home from the bar and resigns himself to silence, remarking that “She knows silence and romance go hand in hand.” While Edouard makes this comment sound as if it is Lena’s opinion, his selection of it shows that it is really a projection of his personal views. His personal belief of this attitude is demonstrated by his own silence throughout this and other scenes, such as when Lena drops him off in the snow and he sets off to walk the rest of the way to his brothers’ cottage, barely saying goodbye while acknowledging through his narration that he knows she wants him to say more.
The story of Edouard’s life with Theresa, coming towards the center of the film, further represents the troubled quietude of Edouard’s character. These domestic scenes, which reveal Edouard’s rise and fall as a husband and famous pianist, explain the tension between his warring identities of “Edouard” and “Charlie.” With Theresa, Edouard is vocal, expressive, and passionate. We get the sense that Theresa’s death limits his emotional range, as if his psyche has been scarred, transforming him into the more sensitive, reserved character we see later. Notably, the scenes with Theresa are mostly unnarrated, suggesting a personal strength and willingness to interact directly with others that shifts to a pained reticence after his wife’s suicide. The central position of this historical flashback also allows us to become acquainted with “Charlie” in his fallen state before we are exposed to his life as “Edouard.” This lends an ethereal quality to Edouard’s time with Theresa, giving it a dreamlike aura that makes her suicide and subsequent absence equally unreal. When the film returns to its plodding crime story, we feel the absence of Theresa the way Edouard must feel it: as a hollow space, a hole in his past which he has tried to fill by forcing himself to forget.
Truffaut counterbalances Edouard’s denial of his past by linking Edouard and Charlie’s experiences together with similar cinematic devices. The extended flashback of his time with Theresa is complemented later on by a series of rapid, short-term flashbacks during a scene in which Lena and Edouard are in bed. The camera revolves around the bedroom, showing the two temporary lovers mingling among the sheets, and cutting either forward or back to shots of the two sleeping. These short-term flashbacks display Edouard’s preoccupation with the past and the future, suggesting a suppressed obsession with regret and fear and an inability to focus on the present moment. Structural links such as these that connect the different periods of Edouard’s life yield a sense of cohesion and connectedness to the plot. Unlike some modern non-linear films such as Memento, Shoot the Piano Player does not set out to disorient or confuse our understanding of time and place. Rather, it offers a mimetic representation of the way it feels to be haunted by our memories of love, and feel them fluidly interrupt the daily progress of our lives. The result is a familiar interchange between memory and consciousness that is easy to follow and never obtuse.
A second question implied by the film’s title: Who is doing the “shooting”? The easy answer is the two gangsters who are after his brother Chico, who do actually shoot at Edouard when they finally find the Saroyan brothers holed up in their mountain cottage. In an earlier scene in the cottage, however, Edouard, Chico and another brother Richard reminisce about the time that a music school official took Edouard for a ride to discuss his studies, and the two other brothers shot at the fancy car with slingshots. When the woman commented on the boys hiding in the woods, Edouard told her that they were his brothers. With an open sentimentality that is rare for Edouard after Theresa’s death, he tells his brothers that when he heard their rocks clang off the car, he felt as if they were there speaking to him, and knew that he would never be able to go away for good. “Shooting” thus has a presence in the film as both a destructive and validating force.
While it is tempting to read the title of the film as a pun on the “shooting” done with film cameras, the original French title (Tirez sur le pianiste) lacks this cinematic connotation. “Tirez” literally means “to pull,” which has its own set of suggestive overtones. One could read it as a comment on the film’s steady prodding at Edouard’s character, and how the plot serves to pull his story out of him despite his shy stubbornness. Even reading the title in the most immediate way, however, reveals thematic importance. Just as Edouard’s brothers remind him of his connection to his family and his roots with their slingshots, the gunfire that eventually catches up to Edouard and the Saroyan brothers and subdues Lena verifies their mortality. To have a life to lose means having an identity to lose. To shoot the piano player, there needs to be a piano player. While Edouard is chased by mobsters, Lena, and us throughout the film and never securely pinned down, the chase itself teaches us enough about his fractured identity to allow for a composite, accumulated understanding of the story of his shy and broken life.
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12:05 am, 19 May 2013 @NotComing