Tirez sur le Pianiste (1960)

Tirez sur le Pianiste, literally translated as “shoot the pianist” is a film by François Truffaut, directed in 1960. The production company for this film was “Les films de Pleiade”, a French company that made 50 films in 20 years, the last in 1973. This is his second film in the new French genre “nouvelle vague”, the first being “Les quatre cents coups”. Here he follows in the footsteps of Jacques Tati, a director who made films that hark back to silent film. He inspired the next generation who wanted to make a new kind of film. They saw the director as an author, so this was a reaction against the author’s cinema in France, the “cinéma du qualité”.

The “nouvelle vague” emerged in the late 1950s and consisted of a group of French filmmakers (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, etc.) who wanted to break with classical cinema. These directors worked closely together; a good example of this is “À bout de souffle”, a film directed by Godard and written together with Truffaut. The cinematic style of this movement gave a new, fresh look at cinema. To distinguish themselves from previous generations, people started experimenting. In this way they returned to silent films, where dialogue was not so important. These were very visual films, with telling images. Another innovation that would have a major impact was the “jump cut”. This is an editing technique in which the middle portion of a continuous shot is removed and the beginning and end of the shot are spliced together. The effect created in this way is that moving objects or people in the shot suddenly find themselves in a different place. This technique is used to make the audience aware of the unreal character of cinema.

“Tirez sur le pianiste” tells the story about a man and his brothers. The film begins in medias res, with images of the main character playing the piano in a small and cozy café. We get a flashback and see how he used to have a wife and was a very famous concert pianist. That went wrong and he disappeared. Now he gets into trouble again because of his brother and at the end of the film he and his new girlfriend get into a shootout with gangsters and she dies. The last shot is an image of this man, back at the piano, back where we started.

The pioneer of the “nouvelle vague” was Jacques Tati. But Truffaut, and also Godard, developed this further and made the “nouvelle vague” great. Truffaut wrote a pamphlet about this movement about, among other things, the use of color and the wide screen (tele-lens) entitled “Une certaine tendency du Cinéma Français”, which he published in the magazine “Les cahiers du cinéma”. He applied author politics to American cinema, thus also calling Hitchcock an author-director. There is therefore an influence of American cinema present in the “nouvelle vague”, namely one from American genre films such as the gangster films and thrillers.

There is also a clear influence of modernism. At one point, in the cafe where Charlie (played by Charles Aznavour) works, they play and sing a song, the lyrics of which appear on the screen; a kind of karaoke. The applied form principles are also inspired by modernism. Various images are combined, such as when the café owner accepts a bribe from the gangsters and gives away the address of Charlie and his girlfriend. Here the image is split and we are shown three ovals, where the same action takes place at a different time. We see the café owner’s various reactions, while the gangster explains what is going on. The editing can also be traced back to a previous period: Russian Formalism. The best example is seen in “Potemkin”, a film by Eisenstein. Charlie goes to his manager-to-be and he doubts whether he should go in. This doubt is stretched enormously and we see very slowly how he wants to open the door and ring the doorbell.

Italian neorealism also has a visible influence in this film. “Tirez sur le pianiste” is set in the streets of Paris, just as “Ladri di biciclette” is set in the streets and alleys of Rome. Both films are taken from everyday life. The film was shot on the street and is about everyday life. This refers to Vischonte’s scene where a girl performs normal actions in the kitchen, but realises that she is pregnant. This “temps mort” has no plot relevance but is important for the atmosphere of the film. This film is completely unsteady in tone: it alternates between melodrama, comedy, thriller and back again. For example, the fight between the café owner and Charlie is completely ridiculous (knife versus horn, pause for breath) and metaphors are sometimes literalised (on my mother’s head). This is a ridiculous, burlesque humor typical of the “nouvelle vague”.

Finally, I would like to explain why the film is black and white, while color films already existed and were incorporated. The film industry was just recovering from the World War and therefore did not have a lot of money. So the reason why this film is black and white is very simple: it was cheap. Other than that, I didn’t notice in the film that it was made with limited resources. I thought it was a very nice mix of silent film and American gangster film.

Happy watching,

Loes M.

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