Shoot the Piano Player

François Truffaut's second film, Shoot the Piano Player, is a spirited caper that keeps veering back and forth from farce to tragedy and then back again. It's looser, more stylistically playful than Truffaut's neorealist-informed debut, The 400 Blows; this second film is more in the spirit of Truffaut's contemporary and friend Godard. It's an attempt to make a Godard-esque genre film, fun and light, marked by its stylistic diversions and casual approach to narrative, but shot through with moments of bracing seriousness. It's a game that keeps reminding the audience, uncomfortably, that sometimes games end badly, that what's fun one moment might be tragic the next. Certainly, Truffaut's leading man, the pianist Charlie (Charles Aznavour), perfectly embodies these contradictions and tensions. Aznavour has a rubbery face, a clown's face, a face that would've worked well in silent comedy. Thinking about how to make a waitress he likes laugh, he scrunches up his face in concentration, and that, unexpectedly, is what makes her laugh, that malleable face. In another scene, eying the va-va-voom prostitute Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), he raises his eyebrows in a caricatured leer, all but winking at the camera.

Charlie, however, is mostly a sensitive guy, shy and decent. He'd once been a famous concert pianist, but now he simply plays honky-tonk dance music at a dive bar, raising his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) and satisfying himself with nightly visits from Clarisse when his shyness around less accessible girls cripples his attempts to put the move on them. Charlie's life changes, however, following a visit from his brother Chico (Albert Rémy), a two-bit crook who's always getting into trouble, and now has two tough guys following him after he double-crossed them on a robbery. Chico's arrival at Charlie's bar sets the two thugs, Ernest and Momo (Daniel Boulanger and Claude Mansard) onto Charlie's trail, and thrusts him together with Léna (Marie Dubois), the pretty young waitress he'd always liked but never had the nerve to talk to. That's the start of an adventure that's treated with all the lightness of a game of "let's pretend," even if it ends up somewhere much darker — suddenly the shy piano player is mixed up in some gangster business, but he's got the girl, and life seems good.

Truffaut's touch here is light as air, even though his style is especially intrusive in that jazzy early New Wave way. The film opens with Chico running through streets so dark he's barely visible, then crashing into a lamp post and getting helped up by a passing stranger. At this point, the frenetic and confusing chase vibe of the early scenes, with barely glimpsed shadows racing through the darkness, is abandoned for a relaxed conversation between Chico and this man. The pair amble along, discussing love and marriage, and the man touchingly tells about his marriage, his children, the moments when he doubted his marriage early on and the decisive moment when he knew for sure that he loved his wife. It's moving, and real, and has virtually no connection to anything that comes after; it's simply a nice moment, a bit of chit-chat to pause for and linger with before returning to the snappy genre picture, already in progress. Even the thugs aren't that intimidating, despite their habit of waving around pistols and strong-arming people into their car for sinister purposes. When they pick Charlie and Léna up for a ride, there's an undercurrent of menace but for the most part it just seems like a lark, like they're all going out for a little jaunt to the country. They talk and joke, and one of the thugs expounds on his misogynistic view of women, while Léna lightly spars with him and mocks him as though he's an old friend rather than a kidnapper and a criminal. Charlie even leans forward conspiratorially to make a little joke of his own, and they all laugh, as the car speeds along towards its destination.

The kidnappers' bickering is another source of amusement, as of one of them teases the other about his driving skills while Charlie and Léna exchange wry glances and raised eyebrows. Later, the crooks will kidnap Fido, too, and the kid gamely plays along once they've got him, admiring their gadgets and their fancy clothes, chatting with one of the crooks about his exotic toys, like a musical cigarette lighter that plays a tune when it's opened. The other crook, not to be outdone, tries to convince Fido that his silk scarf is actually a rare Japanese metal delicately woven into a fabric-like consistency, but the kid's not buying it. At least, not until the thug swears that if he's lying, his mother should drop dead — which the old broad promptly does, in an old-timey insert that Truffaut playfully drops into the scene, a great sight gag that further enhances the impression that this is all for laughs, that any serious threat is balanced by the jaunty aesthetic and do-anything visual sensibility.

At other times, the film might be amiably bouncing along only to be interrupted by the sudden intrusion of something deeper and more substantial, as when the film's present-day storyline crashes to a sudden halt, replaced by a lengthy flashback to Charlie's past and his marriage to Thérèse (Nicole Berger). It's a moving, ultimately tragic story, an explanation for Charlie's later alienation and isolation, and it's especially affecting because it clashes so thoroughly against the tone of the scenes that surround it. This is true of the stark finale, as well, in which bloodshed and violence erupt in the clean white expanses of a snowy countryside, with Charlie's family home isolated in the center of an open plot of snowy land.

That conclusion, as dark and startling as the end of Breathless — and there's a strong argument that Shoot the Piano Player is Truffaut's Breathless — sets the tone for the film in the end, and makes it easy to forget all the lighter moments that preceded it. But the film's playfulness still lingers past the tragic denouement, making this a strangely charming tragedy. Truffaut has great fun, for example, with the prostitute Clarisse: she virtually never appears on screen without the camera running admirably up and down her body, gliding along her unreal curves. When she visits Charlie in his apartment early on, she performs a little striptease, not so much with Charlie as with the camera, with the cinema audience, dangling out her panties from behind a screen, stripping out of view of the camera. And then suddenly she's just sitting in bed topless next to Charlie, and he scrambles to correct her casual nudity, joking about her sudden abandonment of the tease, telling her that she's being too immodest for the movies, that the girls in the movies always have the bedsheets strategically covering their chests. She just poses, for a moment, like a dark-haired Bardot and giggles, striking a self-conscious movie idol pose. The film as a whole, despite its darkness and violence, never seems to fully abandon the light touch of moments like that. It's a cinematic potpourri that's alternately charming, funny, and heartbreaking — and very much aware, in its self-conscious way, that it's a movie, and that these are movie emotions.