by Shubhajit Lahiri
Francois Truffaut, along with his iconic contemporaries Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette et al, was one of the founding members of the revolutionary French Nouvelle Vague movement. And whenever we mention the name of the former Cashiers Du Cinema critic and renowned French auteur, we either associate him with his first and most famous film, 400 Blows, or his third feature Jules et Jim. But it was his second work – the immensely endearing Shoot the Piano Player – sandwiched between the two universally acclaimed classics, that not only was one of the most defining movies of the New Wave movement, but is also considered by many to be Truffaut’s greatest masterpiece.
Charles Aznavour, a legendary singer/songwriter in real life, gave a terrific performance as Charlie, a once-famous artiste, but now a washed out piano player at a run-down place in Paris. He goes through the motions without any palpable attachment to the world around him. But then, one not-so-fine day, his brother turns up at his place and informs him that two gangsters are after him, and asks him to help him escape. Meanwhile, he slowly finds himself falling for his sweet and captivating co-worker Lena (Marie Dubois). Thus starts a tale of love on the run as the two gangsters start chasing them in order to get hold of Charlie’s brother.
The movie has a strong flashback narrative too. While the present tells us who Charlie is, the past tells us how Edouard Saroyan, a renowned piano maestro, has ended up becoming an unknown honky-tonk player at a bar where nobody cares for his keyboard play. We learn about Charlie’s first love affair, his marriage, how he climbs the ladder to fame, and how his wife’s infidelity (though for Charlie’s sake) makes him loose his attachment with all the niceties of life and love, and turns him into a loner and a morally detached existentialist.
Like most Nouvelle Vague movies, Shoot the Piano Player, was less concerned about its plot per se, and more about the idiomatic, thematic, stylistic and the mise en scene aspects. Loosely based on David Goodis’ pulp thriller Down There, the movie comprised of a free-flowing blend of the landmark techniques of the iconic movement, like jump cuts, unrelated montages, ad-libs, improvised screenplay, dialogues that at times have no bearing with the scene under consideration, to name a few. Arguably the most audacious and experimental work in Truffaut’s career, it was a loving homage to and a fascinating pastiche of American genre movies, especially but not limited to, film noirs, gangster films and B-movies.
The story of a washed out protagonist trying to escape his past, comical shady thugs, and love on the run might seem straightforward, but the array of memorable dialogues, brilliant comical interludes, moments of heart-touching delight and humanism, unabashed self parody, understated commentaries on human interactions and the place of art in our lives, and marvelous turns by the various players, made this quirky, irreverent, darkly comical, delectably humorous, subtly melancholic, deftly layered, and bittersweet film a wonderful cinematic achievement and a delightful film to watch.
It was extremely unfortunate that upon its release people failed to realize and appreciate its iconoclasm and artistic value. It was a failure at the box office and people apparently forgot that it was ever made. This broke Truffaut’s heart, and he never made a movie as experimental or avant-garde as this one (only the brilliant La Nuit Americaine came close in terms of being so fluent in its irreverence and audacious in its approach). However, over the years, its greatness has been established, and its place in the pantheon of influential films preserved for posterity. A good work of art, as they say, is never really lost.