Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Ne me tirez pasi, suis seulement le pianiste

Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player begins using the stylistic components of the film noir genre. We are introduced to Chico being chased through dark, almost pitch black city streets, with occasional puddles of light cast from street lamps. But even from the very beginning, Truffaut is letting us know that this won't be your typical noir b-grade gangster thriller. We never see those giving Chico chase, they are in a car, but instead they shine a flashlight at him, and it almost seems like he is being chased by the light instead of the crooks. Furthermore, the moving camera, subject, and light source all make for a very kinetic mise-en-scene. However, while borrowing stylistically from the noir genre, the content of the film begins to tweak the gangster genre, and conventional cinema in general, from the very beginning. Instead of the chase ending in some grand fashion like a car crash or the quarry being caught and dragged away to a secret hideout for interrogation, the chase ends when Charlie hits his head on a lamp post and falls to the ground. This gives more of a slapstick/Three Stooges ambiance to the film, and most noirs are deadly serious. Other deviations from the noir norm come in the form of Charlie's voice overs that are filled with self doubt, a departure from the hard boiled private detective voice overs, and the almost anti-climactic shoot out at Charlie's parent's house in the country. Where a noir may have used close ups of guns being fired, blood soaked, bullet ridden clothing, and close ups of pained faces, the shootout is filmed in a long shot where the characters are visually overpowered by the house and surrounding forest.
Another way Truffaut defamiliarizes a traditional film narrative is how he introduces characters. Since Chico is the character we first see on screen, and much of the action is centered around him for the first 5 minutes or so, you begin to think he will be the main character of the film. Even when Charlie is first introduced, you get the feeling he will be a minor character instead of the lead. There are a handful of other characters who appear onscreen that seem to be a distraction of sorts from the main narrative. The first is the man who Chico is talking to after he runs into the streetlight. During their conversation the man says to Chico "I will probably never see you again," and true enough he never comes back into the picture. The same is true of Boby Lapointe, the singer in the club who gets a scene all to himself with his "Framboise" song. The scene certainly could have been cut, since it doesn't do anything to further the narrative. In fact producer Pierre Braunberger wanted it removed since he couldn't understand him, which is why Truffaut used subtitles. In an interview with Cinéaste, Truffaut reveals that his inspiration for the subtitles comes from the Canadian films of Norman McLaren where the audience sings along by following the bouncing ball over the lyrics on screen, and says that the "printed word reinforces and makes things funnier,". I particularly enjoy the third instance where Truffaut follows a character with nothing to do with the narrative, the woman leaving the music impresario's office when Charlie/Eduoard is entering. As she is walking down the hall the camera is moving with her, and when the music starts she stops to listen to but the camera still moves, leaving her behind. The next shot is the same woman walking outside, only the piano playing is still on the soundtrack. She is clearly not in the space where the music would be a diegetic element of the soundtrack, so it seems that Truffaut is suggesting that Charlie was such a great piano player that she still had the music in her head while she was walking down the street.
One of my favorite scenes is when Charlie and Lena are picked up by the crooks after his brother. As they drive in the car, the two crooks are spouting misogynist drivel, pausing every now and then to offer Lena an insincere apology if they're offending her. Charlie pipes up with a phrase his father used to say, something to the effect of "If you've had one woman, you've had them all" but his delivery seems forced, like he doesn't really believe what he is saying, and is just trying to fit in with the "cool" gangsters. We've already seen Charlie act shy around women, and as further evidence that he is no "smooth operator", with the ladies. He tries unsuccessfully to take Lena's hand while walking her home and desperately thinks of ways to make her laugh, and in a later sequence he chides himself in his inner monologue for looking at her legs while him and Lena are on the steps to her apartment. The gangsters themselves are a far cry from their counterparts in the noir films that influenced Truffaut. They bicker over their driving skills in the car like an old married couple, and are generally inept as criminals as we learn that Chico has fleeced them out of their share of a heist. In the same interview in Cinéaste, Truffaut explains that he portrays the crooks as comical due to his childhood in the Pigalle neighborhood of Paris where he witnessed thugs like that firsthand. Truffaut does not like the romanticization of the gangster archetype in film, he says that it is "snobbism on the part of artists to like gangsters. There is no reason to like them, they are bad guys...[t]hat is why I made them comical,".
One of the more innovative sequences of the film occurs in Lena's apartment. She and Charlie are shown lying in bed together after having sex, and we see images of Lena talking to Charlie intercut with images of the two of them just lying together silently. I wasn't quite sure what to make of this. I think that maybe it could have been showing what was really happening juxtaposed with what Charlie wanted to happen. Recalling the scene in the car with the gangsters, one of them says how he hates that women always want to talk after sex. So, are the scenes with Lena talking what actually happens after they have sex, and the scenes of them lying silent some sort of male fantasy world that Charlie slips off to where the woman, having pleasured him, says no more? Again, it's hard to tell if this is how Truffaut really feels about women, or if he is taking the piss out of the misogynist stereotypes using a bit of post-modern irony. It would also seem that Truffaut is poking fun at the notions of how women are perceived and should behave. Early on in the film we learn that the bar owner has a "thing" for Lena, but tells Charlie that he is too ugly for her, and that Charlie has a much better chance with her. Much later in the film, Charlie and Lena go in to quit their jobs at the bar. Lena uses some rather colorful language while telling off the boss and he throws a fit. He says he no longer is attracted to Lena since Charlie has "defiled" her, and that he is turned off by her swearing since ladies shouldn't swear. The notion that a woman is defiled after having slept with a man she isn't married to is essentially an antiquated notion in most parts of the western world today. Subsequently the bar owner is punished for holding these antiquated views, and is stabbed to death during his fight with Charlie. If Shoot The Piano Player is in part a response to some of the criticisms of Breathless, one of which was that Godard's film was misogynistic, it would seem that Truffaut lays it on the misogynism extra thick, but with a knowing wink, since he makes the characters who foster those ideas (the gangsters, the bar owner) look like buffoons.

No comments: