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Charlie Kohler is a piano player in a bar. The waitress Lena is in love with him. One of Charlie's brother, Chico, a crook, takes refuge in the bar because he is chased by two gangsters, Momo and Ernest. We will discover that Charlie's real name is Edouard Saroyan, once a virtuose who gives up after his wife's suicide. Charlie now has to deal wih Chico, Ernest, Momo, Fido (his youngest brother who lives with him), and Lena... Written by
Francois Truffaut was a film critic for the magazine Cahiers du cinéma. He was disenchanted with what he saw as a lack of originality and honesty in contemporary cinema. He developed the theory of the auteur in cinema - an idiosyncratic force such as his hero Hitchcock rather than a 'civil servant of the cinema'.
His motivation for entering the cinema was to make films which he, and others like him, wanted to see and which then didn't exist. Cinema with breadth and imagination, which took risks and broke rules. The zest and vitality of his vision is still evident so many years on.
After his impeccable full -length debut, Les Quatre Cents Coups (aka The 400 Blows), which was a slice of life / coming of age tale, Truffaut took a completely different subject matter for this second feature. The source novel is 'Down There', typical US pulp fiction by the little known David Goodis. Its a tale of crime set in seedy locations with a graceless linear plot. Obviously its the way the filmmakers use this source that makes Tirez Sur Le Pianiste the film it is.
Charles Aznavour, a mainstream celebrity in France, is the bizarre but perfect choice for the lead role of Charlie Kohler. His passive, indifferent demeanour makes him an anti-hero of a different kind to Cagney or Brando - one who is ineffective in either solving or preventing crime. This minor cinematic tradition I see as continuing with John Klute in Klute (1971), Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973), reaching its comical apex with The Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998).
Not, in fact, that Charlie has to solve any crimes. He is simply out to save his skin - and those of his brothers. His life is in danger throughout the film yet he is more preoccupied with whether or not he should take the arm of the attractive waitress Lena (Marie Dubois) from the dive where he plays the piano, as he walks her home in a scene that is a perfect marriage of its imagery and internal monologue. It is this kind of juxtaposition of themes (threat to life and romantic shyness) which makes this film such compelling and unpredictable viewing.
The film opens with a charming conversation about the secrets of a happy marriage, spoken by a character we never see again who simply runs into Charlie's brother Chico (Albert Rémy) - who is the catalyst for the 'plot'. The throwaway conversations are really more important to the creative spirit of the film than any of the plot's major concerns. This trend continues with the characters of Ernest and Momo, the pursuing heavies. Though evidently dangerous men, they speak tangentially on a range of subjects (mostly women, though) which cannot help but remind a modern audience of Tarantino's hit men in Pulp Fiction. Indeed much of what I said about Truffaut - how he was compelled to make rule-changing cinema that he and others wanted to see
could of course equally be applied to Tarantino.
The centrepiece of the film goes back to Charlie' past where he was a classical concert pianist. This beautiful vignette explains to us why Charlie is in the pits now. Nicole Berger as Thérèse Saroyan, Charlie's wife absolutely owns this part of the film. This section also features the celebrated and beautiful sequence where the camera chooses to follow a female violinist from the door of an apartment and out into the courtyard. Why? Just for the sake of artistic freedom, it seems.
As well as Aznavour and Berger, the casting is uniformly perfect. Claude Mansard and Daniel Boulanger as the waffling heavies, Marie Dubois as the sweet, maternal young waitress Léna, Michèle Mercier as a tart with a heart with a body to die for (bringing the total of female 'leads' to three!), Serge Davri and Catherine Lutz as Charlie's antagonistic and ultimately tragic employers. The obscure threesome (the latter two brothers have their only major film roles here) of Albert Rémy, Jean-Jacques Aslanian and the young Richard Kanayan are brilliantly effective as Charlie's brothers, all of whom display varying degrees of the criminal element - the 'curse' of Charlie and his family. Early on in the film there is also a terrifically amusing song (complete with karaoke-style lyrics) performed by Boby Lapointe, a real-life Parisian entertainer.
For all its wealth of ideas, though, this is generally not a pacey movie. Its pace is as laidback as Charlie himself at times. But with patience this will reward the audience with all kinds of unexpected delights.
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