The directors behind the French New Wave (la nouvelle vague) had a great love of American movies and Tirez sur le Pianiste is a wonderful pastiche of two great Hollywood genres – gangster movies and film noir.
The New Wave was an artistic movement which has had a profound effect on movie making ever since, so much so, it’s hard to appreciate with a modern eye how truly ground-breaking these films were when they first hit the cinema screens. At its peak between 1958 and 1964, the movement introduced more realism into filmmaking and held that films should bear the hallmark of the director who made them in the way that films from the great Hollywood directors such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Orson Welles did. Many of the new wave techniques such as jump cuts, voice overs, shooting on location, natural lighting, improvised dialogue and having an anti-hero at the heart of the movie are now movie mainstays. At the time these features were innovative and, as most of these films were shot on a small budget, had the added advantage of making a virtue out of necessity.
The film opens with a scene that could have come out of any American film noir movie, a man being chased by assailants unknown. That this is not your run-of-the-mill gangster/film noir movie is made clear when the man being chased runs smack into a lamppost, is then helped by a passer-by and they go on to have a very French conversation about marriage! The assailants and the chase seemingly forgotten!
The star of the film is not the man being chased though in the opening scene but the man he runs to for help, his brother Charlie, played wonderfully by Charles Aznavour. Definitely not your typical manly film noir idol, he’s definitely no Robert Mitchum or Glenn Ford. He is however a man with a past. He was a child virtuoso from a family of thieves, and formerly a hugely successful concert pianist. His real name is Edouard Saroyan, but he now calls himself Charlie Koller and left his former life behind when tragedy struck. Charlie is now hiding from life, his emotions and himself by playing piano in a down-at-heel, Parisian bar.
As for the gangsters, they look like they’ve stepped out of Tintin. Two behatted, pipe smoking buffoons whose presence adds a lot to the many comic moments of the film. Two of these moments spring immediately to mind. The first is when they force Charlie into the car arguing about whether they should bother showing him the gun or not, and Charlie’s reaction when he eventually sees the weapon; and the second is the vignette after one of the gangsters, Ernest, swears on his mother’s life that a piece of his attire is made from a special Japanese metal. This particular gangster also takes that most unlikely of gangster narcotics -snuff; the other has a musical lighter on him and claims to have an American snorkel pen with automatic refill, a parking alarm clock, a fibre belt, a tropical hat, a suit from London made from Austrian wool and shoes made from Egyptian leather. To cap it all, having now kidnapped Charlie’s younger brother Fido, they run out of petrol en route.
Different moods are juxtaposed with each other in this movie. One minute we have the gangsters chasing the errant brother. Next we have a very tender and tentative love scene shot at night in the streets of Paris between Charlie and his co-worker at the bar, Lena. This scene would feel in place in any romantic comedy. Then the next minute we are back to the two pipe-smoking gangsters following our would-be lovers.
There’s a nice moment when the prostitute Clarissa goes to bed with Charlie (and check out the look on Azanvour’s face as she slips into bed). As the new wave was into a more realistic way of filming and after all it is a French movie, you get to see the woman’s breasts in this love scene. In a nice conceit, Charlie points out to Clarissa while lifting the sheet up to cover her chest that that’s where the sheet would be if they were characters in a film.
This earthy love scene is in stark contrast to the affectionate and gentle love scene with Lena, where Truffaut uses various camera tricks to depict the scene from superimposing their kissing onto a kaleidoscopic view of the room, to intercutting between them in bed whilst chatting and asleep.
The film ends in tragedy yet again for our hero and we see him back at the piano, once more cutting himself off from the world around him as a means to avoid life, love and pain.
Tirez sue le Pianiste is a great introduction to the French New Wave. It uses many of the techniques which became staples of the New Wave and the story is charming. The humour that is interwoven throughout the film doesn’t prepare you for the tragic ending but that makes the tragedy all the more heartfelt and truer to life.
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