Recently, I was talking with a group of friends, and somehow the subject turned to great directors we found overrated. At a certain point, someone mentioned François Truffaut. I just don’t get it, my colleague said, referring to the tonnage of praise heaped on Truffaut throughout his short life and beyond.
This is a well-worn complaint, and here’s how it goes: Truffaut was too complacent, too precious, too superficially cinephilic, too sentimental about children, and far too willing to let his extraordinary cinematic fluency carry what would otherwise have been so much inconsequential bourgeois fluff. Let it be said that this position is rather heavily dependent on a comparison between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and between their respective approaches to politics and narrative during the crunch moment of the late sixties—Godard the revolutionary antinarrative firebrand versus Truffaut the apolitical storytelling lapdog. As May ’68 and its polemical extremes have faded into the distance, Godard’s cinema has retained much of its power, while his politics have come to seem modish and fairly ridiculous. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s body of work has only become more impressive with each passing year. His often remarked facility with the language of cinema, as evident in his great films as in his minor ones, now seems less noteworthy than his daring sense of speed, his attraction to complicated emotional states that few of his colleagues would even touch, and the always remarkable proximity of life and death in his work. Not to mention the continual sense of surprise.
If there is a skeleton key to Truffaut’s oeuvre, it is Shoot the Piano Player, the film in which all of his assorted gifts and preoccupations are in play and meshed into a uniquely idiosyncratic whole. The film offers powerful evidence of his love of American cinema and literature (this is far and away the most successful of his five adaptations of American pulp fiction), as well as of his career-long concerns with doomed romances and hardened but spirited children. There is that wonderful speed, a pleasure in and of itself, that amounts to a kind of worldview—actions, objects, places, and sensations glimpsed and seized on, almost spontaneously forming a vivid afterimage in the mind’s eye. And his high-velocity storytelling is intimately tied to the feeling of impending mortality, the sense of every given moment in time coming and going, never to return. As for surprise, Shoot the Piano Player is about as unpredictable from one moment to the next as any film I know—from the subtitled singer (Boby Lapointe, who was introduced to Truffaut by the writer Jacques Audiberti) to the expiring mother. Most famously of all, it is a film about a type of emotional reticence that is almost too delicate to pin down in words. To call Shoot the Piano Player the story of a “shy person,” as Truffaut himself did, is only to touch on the emotional depths of Charles Aznavour’s Charlie Koller/Edouard Saroyan. Perhaps he is less shy than hesitant at the moment of truth, forever surging with inspiration only to halt and retreat into doubtful reflection. It is a rhythm of life to which many of us are accustomed but to which few of us would admit, and Truffaut was far ahead of his time in building an entire movie (let alone a crime movie!) around this tricky emotional dynamic. Aznavour’s piano player anticipates a whole range of modern movie characters, from Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow (Truffaut was the first choice of screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman to direct Bonnie and Clyde, on the basis of Shoot the Piano Player) to Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle to Robert Forster’s aging bail bondsman in Jackie Brown to the eternally reticent heroes of André Téchiné and Arnaud Desplechin. At this point, it must be said that Truffaut and Aznavour’s creation seems no less fresh today than it did in 1960.
One thing’s for sure—it seems far less bewildering half a century later, at least to French viewers. “Is the film more comic than tragic?” a journalist asked Truffaut, following the film’s disappointing to disastrous reception by the critics and the public (not to mention the censors). “It’s both,” he answered. “With Piano Player, I wanted to make women cry and men laugh.” A flippant answer to a typically single-minded journalist’s question, but the sureness of the response is matched by the sureness of the execution of the film itself. There is nothing tentative or unachieved in what is, after all, the sophomore effort of a young director. “How sure is Truffaut’s command of cinematic language!” Joseph McBride once wrote of Fahrenheit 451; and the same could be said of the director’s abilities with actors, narrative, and the balance of endlessly shifting moods—in this case, antic comedy, ruminative reserve, romantic longing, and tenebrous regret.
In the spring of 1959, Truffaut was hard at work with Godard on an adaptation of Jacques Cousseau’s Hot Weather, to star Bernadette Lafont. At the last minute, reckoning that neither French cinema nor the new wave needed yet another film about young love, he switched gears and turned to David Goodis’s 1956 novel Down There, published in France as part of the Série noire collection. Goodis, whose novels have provided source material for filmmakers as disparate as Delmer Daves (Dark Passage), Jacques Tourneur (Nightfall), Jean-Jacques Beineix (The Moon in the Gutter), and Samuel Fuller (Street of No Return), was a favorite of Truffaut’s. He found in Goodis a singular mixture of the hard-boiled, the romantic, and the fantastic. “At a certain point,” Truffaut said of Goodis’s books, “they go beyond the usual gangster story and become fairy tales.” Truffaut was also enchanted by the fact that no matter what transpires in the stories—murder, kidnapping, suicide—“the men speak only of women, and the women speak only of men.” Truffaut’s idea was to marry Goodis to the stop-start rhythms of the comic novelist Raymond Queneau, creating a film that was “practically a musical.” This unusual idea caused him no small headache during the editing, due less to confusion than to nervousness at trying to pull off something so new.
Truffaut said that it was a single image from Goodis’s novel—the car silently approaching the house in the snow, where Saroyan’s crazy brothers are holed up—that sparked him to make the film, and Truffaut and cinematographer Raoul Coutard do indeed give the image a very special kind of quaintly miniaturized beauty. But I have a feeling that it was the image of Aznavour himself in the lead, complemented by the heartbreakingly beautiful Claudine Huzé (Truffaut gave her the stage name Marie Dubois) as the devoted and doomed Léna, that turned all the lights green for him. In Aznavour, he saw a countenance that recalled Saint Francis. But it’s a sure bet that he also saw what his friends recognized right away—a face and a charmingly reserved manner that recalled his own. Somehow, the mixture of shyness and confidence in the figure of the forlorn piano player provides us with a perfect mirror for Truffaut himself, whose films are so rich, vibrant, and eminently enjoyable that one is continually caught off guard by the realization of their complexity, their bravery, and their emotional depths.
Kent Jones is a film critic who lives in New York City. A collection of his writing is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.