Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Written and directed by: François Truffaut

Tirez_sur_le_pianisteIf I had not taken on the project of watching the films of Truffaut and Godard side by side, I might not have found things to say about Shoot the Piano Player. A critic at the time of its release said it would only please “true lovers of movies, ” and as someone not even watching Truffaut’s homage to American noir and comedy films in its proper historical context I am more removed from it than lay-viewers of the 60s. Nonetheless, there’s an interesting trait in both Shoot the Piano Player and The Little Soldier (Godard’s sophmore release from the same year) that is a bit more universal in nature.

The implication of the film’s title, an implication better spelled out by Elton John’s album title Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, is that the piano player is an innocent figure. All the pianist does is make music, and life happens around them. Moral philosophers can debate whether such a figure is truly innocent (how can one be passive in a world of injustice, they ask), but such a debate is not what this film is about. Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) begins the film as such a pianist, but quickly becomes a slightly-modified version of the figure.

The film pulls a bit of a bait and switch, opening with an appearance by a character named Chico (Albert Rémy—the father from The 400 Blows) a comedic, likeable-criminal. Chico, it turns out, is not the film’s focus, his brother (Charlie) is. We are introduced to Charlie when Edward tells him he needs help evading a pair of mildly goofy, but ultimately still dangerous gangsters. While Charlie initially expresses his refusal to get enmeshed in Chico’s world, it soon becomes apparent he has little other option.

Charlie’s story then essentially follows a cynical path: one of finding and losing love, and one of trying to maintain a family that doesn’t exactly help itself. He exists on the cusp of having a fine-to-easy life as a pianist, but misfortune keeps him from finding such a life. He is a calm figure a rocky world. This is where Shoot the Pianist and The Little Soldier overlap. These protagonists are not mischief-makers like Antoine Doinel or reality-denying rebels like Michel Poicard but neutral figures, undone by the mischief and tragedy of others. Of course, in ways they are very different characters. For Charlie Kohler, neutrality is a very natural way to be, whereas Bruno Forestier is someone who has come to adopt a more neutral existence via philosophizing. This difference also highlights the unique ways in which the two films may fall short at pleasing audiences.

As I noted in my review, The Little Soldier, quite simply is a very philosophical film, its not everyone’s cup of tea. Shoot the Piano Player has no such problem. It is accessible, has funny moments and good lines and establishes a simple but effective backstory for its protagonist. It’s featuring a mild-mannered protagonist is an idea with great potential. When agreeable people are exposed to a cruel, unreasonable world, there agreeableness stands out, nicely highlighting the silliness, absurdity and/or cruelty of how others treat them. Shoot the Piano Player achieves this objective, but barely.

I would thus conclude that its weakness as a film is not reducable to any one of its traits: its more a matter of fine tuning. Perhaps Chico and the gangsters should have been given bigger roles to play up the film’s black-comic side. Perhaps Charlie’s back-story sequence should have been more extended to play him up as an innocent-but tragic figure. These too are criticisms I raise with caution. Shoot the piano player is an economical film, and that too I think is a trait worth praising. Is Shoot the Piano Player my favourite Truffaut film, no? Does it offer excellent source material for other stories to spring from? Absolutely


The Little Soldier (1960)

Written and directed by: Jean-Luc Godard

Le_Petit_Soldat“Ethics are the aesthetic of the future,” is perhaps the most memorable line of Godard’s The Little Soldier: a line that begs to be viewed in context. The Little Soldier is Godard’s second feature film and his first as writer-director. While Godard undoubtedly left his artistic stamp on his first film, Breathless, it was written by François Truffaut, and as such, lacked Godard’s signature pastiche of political references.

The Little Soldier is not a complete break from Breathless as a story. It’s protagonist, like the star of Breathless tries to escape a life of violence by throwing himself into romance: a romance that is at once sleazily-superficial and full of ideas. At times this similarity does not reflect well on The Little Soldier. Whereas female protagonist of Breathless is a journalist who challenges her male counterpart in more ways than one, her counterpart in The Little Soldier is presented as comparatively quiet and devoid of critical thought, at least in the first part of the movie.

One of Godard’s motifs is characters making comments about political (often leftist) ideology. The Little Soldier consciously introduces this theme. Early in the film some characters are listening to a radio broadcast. One comments wryly: “This show’s called a neutral person talks. That kills me.” This foreshadows the development of the film’s protagonist and perhaps numerous other figures in Godardian cinema. The world is full of beautiful and important ideas, worthy of articulation. Articulating them and knowing how to act on them are very different things, however.

Another way to explain The Little Soldier is as a film of genre transition. While Breathless was already an offbeat noir, The Little Soldier turns from a noir into something else: a story of a political moment. Godard would go on to challenge conventions of cinema seeing much of established film as incongruent with political progress. The Little Soldier is reflective of such a criticism, but in a far subtler fashion. It subverts expectations, but not in a way that will leave viewers flabbergasted.

The Little Soldier is perhaps less well known than the film proceeded it because, while weird it is not “quirky.” While I do not want to say its characters are not memorable, I am comfortable saying its characters are not memorable unless one reflects on them. Love-interest Veronica Dreyer (Anna Karina) is subtle in every line she delivers, a trait that perhaps takes away from her potential legacy as distinct, an politically important new imagining of the heroine.

The protagonist, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor) meanwhile, is similarly subtle, and is even harder than Dreyer to remember as an individual persona. Granted, I say this in a deeply contextual light. At the time of the film’s release it was banned in France as it implicates the French for their use of torture as a means to suppress the Algerian independence movement, and the film indeed includes graphic (though somehow not emotionally high-strung) depictions of torture. Nonetheless, Godard’s writing style is so ideas driven, its easy for viewers to miss what is right before their eyes.

The Little Soldier offers viewers a lot to talk about. It doesn’t have the straightforward appeal of Breathless, but that doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

Breathless (1960)

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard, Written by: François Truffaut

À_bout_de_souffle_(movie_poster)“What does <dégueulasse> mean?” is the final line of new wave classic Breathless. I won’t say more about the line’s context, in the hopes that you’ll forget it and appreciate it anew when you watch the film. However I will tell you that dégueulasse is the French word for vomit. That’s right, a film you’ll probably watch with an air of pretentiousness ends with the line “what is vomit?”

One of Breathless’s trademarks is its plethora of “What does _ mean?” lines. The film stars two characters Michel Poicard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), the ant-hero protagonist and Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) his love interest who speaks French with a heavy American accent. Patrica’s “What does __ mean?” lines are of course comic, but they also get at one of Breathless’ deeper ideas.

Atypical, a dramedy about a teenage autistic boy, features an episode in which his girlfriend tells him she loves him. The boy, however, is unable to reciprocate without coming up with a precise definition of “feeling love” and determining if he meets the criteria. The implication of the episode is that neuro-typical people aren’t faced with such dilemmas, as they are able and happy to understand emotional concepts on an instinctive level. Of course, the neuro-typical/atypical binary is not absolute, and the desire to break down the human experience into component parts can exist in all sorts of minds. Breathless is interesting because it is not, at least not explicitly, a film about neuro-diversity. Nonetheless, its two characters question everything from what love means to what crime means to what vomit means. This questioning does not render them emotionless robots: Michel displays a regular playful joie de vivre, and Patricia displays ambition, frustration and guilt. It does, however, give their emotions an uncanny, misplaced quality to say the least.

Breathless, one could say is a stylized film. It is a noir with protagonists who hide behind dark sunglasses and clouds of cigarette smoke. The scenes are shot in front of a range of interesting backgrounds, including some dystopia-lite neon in its final moments. Nonetheless, Breathless’ undeniable aesthetic character does not mean its dialogue should be written off as empty, unrealistic filler. Rather, what Truffaut’s script seems to do is take extreme, but relatable human impulses (romantic indecisiveness, poor sense of priorities, escaping darkness through playfulness, and the desire to question everything) and bring them all out at once.

Another important line in the film comes when an author, in a great press-scrum-scene, states his ambition is “to become immortal and then die.” Put differently, the author’s ambition is to escape reality and return to it once more. This is in a way, what Breathless’ viewers are exposed to: a world that is a bit too-rule free to be realistic, but is still recognizable. Breathless may not allow viewers to acquire immortality, but it provides a plausible idea of what it could feel like.

Rife with references to classical music, literature and philosophical questions, in the midst of a existentalist story, Breathless is an archetype of what many of outsiders think of as French art, and an entertaining one at that. It offers viewers a chance to see the writing of one of France’s leading auteurs, and the direction of another (a glimpse at his skills before his works became more niche). It’s by no means a safe recommendation for all viewers, but if you’re looking to make a casual film fan more adventurous it’s a great gateway drug.