Thursday, September 04, 2008

Film Forum: Shoot the Piano Player

Of François Truffaut’s twenty-one full length features, four (Shoot the Piano Player, Mississippi Mermaid, Bride Wore Black and Confidentially Yours) easily fit within the crime film genre, with a fifth (Soft Skin) qualifying as a stretch, making up a significant portion of his filmography. Add to that his science fiction work as the director of Fahrenheit 451 and his acting role in Close Encounters, and you have Francois Truffaut, the master of genre cinema. In that context, his sophomore film Shoot the Piano Player is a perfect choice to conclude the Film Forum’s French (New) Crime Wave retrospective, with a week long run of a new 35mm print starting tomorrow.

Charles Aznavour might have been similar in stature to a Cagney or Bogart, but the French singer-songwriter looks nothing like a hard-boiled protagonist in Piano Player. Instead of wise-cracking his way through the action, Aznavour’s Edouard Saroyan (a.k.a. Charlie Kohler) is an introvert made even more withdrawn by the guilt and trauma buried in his past. Haunted by personal tragedy, Saroyan has essentially dropped out of life, both personally and professionally. Adopting the Kohler alias, he now grinds out sentimental drinking music as the house pianist for a working class gin mill. However, when his brother Chico, a semi-professional thief, comes looking for his help, it threatens to upset Saroyan’s morose equilibrium.

The resulting plot involving Chico’s doubled-crossed accomplices, though colorful, is not really the point. It is how Saroyan reacts or does not react, to their criminal machinations, as well as the possible reawakening of his life through the romantic interest of a pretty co-worker that really matters. For Piano Player to work, we must believe that despite often seeming callous or emotionally stunted, there is indeed a soul buried somewhere deep within Saroyan, which Aznavour conveys convincingly.

How Saroyan relates to music seems to suggest something about his personality. To console himself after a failure of nerve, Saroyan invokes jazz pianists he admires in an interior monologue heard through Aznavour’s voice-over. He lists spectacular improvisers like Art Tatum and Errol Garner, as well as the bluesy Junior Mance, whose name is famously mangled in the subtitles (its currently “Juno” something). While Saroyan might admire the improvisational freedom of jazz, he excelled in classical recitals, where the opportunity for self-expression is greatly circumscribed by the notes on the score and the composer’s intent. He now performs hackneyed ditties, in which attempts at personal expression are unnecessary, even unwelcome. Yet there is something about his playing that still commands attention.

Piano Player has all the conventions of both the Nouvelle Vague and the noir crime film, which might explain its widely mixed critical reception when first released. While at times willfully eccentric, bordering on the outrageous, it is a tragedy at heart. One can debate Paino Player's position in the Truffaut canon all day, but it remains an essential film of the French New Wave. Seeing it on the big screen is highly recommended. Its New York repertory run starts tomorrow.