Shoot The Piano Player

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #315: François Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player.


I only have ten more films to re­watch in The Criterion Collection be­fore I can start watch­ing stuff I haven’t seen be­fore again. I’m look­ing for­ward to that day. Here’s a lit­tle con­text about Shoot the Piano Player. It is con­sid­ered part of the French New Wave, and its di­rec­tor, François Truffaut, one of the pre­mier nou­velle vague au­teurs. It is based on a pulp fic­tion novel by David Goodis called Down There. The film is much bet­ter than the novel. This is also one of those films that sends aca­d­e­mics into shark­like slaver­ing fits due more to its con­text than its qual­ity. That isn’t to say it is a crummy film. It is very en­ter­tain­ing, poignant, pol­ished and still fresh af­ter nearly 50 years.


But the Möbius strip feed­back be­tween the film, its dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion as French film noir from American film noir, its self-aware­ness, its ob­vi­ous un­der­cut­ting of ex­pec­ta­tion, and its hu­mor lend the fo­cus more on Truffaut’s di­rec­tion, the mech­a­nism, rather than the con­tent. That is re­ally only to be ex­pected, since the gen­eral con­tent, apart from the afore­men­tioned un­der­cut ex­pec­ta­tions, is noth­ing re­ally new. Despite the fact that there is a sui­cide, a few mur­ders and some kid­nap­ping, a sort of dy­namic equi­lib­rium is main­tained with brief philo­sophic in­ter­ludes and con­sis­tent hu­mor. The re­sult is a film that leaves a viewer sated on all fronts, gorged or starved on none.


The most in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter is, of course, the pi­ano player: Charlie/​Edouard. There is a re­mark­able amount of his char­ac­ter ex­po­si­tion in a film that is only 81 min­utes long. At times the viewer is privy to his in­ner mono­logue, but ul­ti­mately he re­mains a mys­tery and his ob­ses­sion with the pi­ano a si­mul­ta­ne­ous bless­ing and curse. Still, this un­solved mys­tery doesn’t leave any dis­sat­is­fac­tion, as it is ob­vi­ous that Charlie is con­tent with his lot, as long as there is a pi­ano within fin­ger range. Charlie re­minds me of this open­ing pas­sage:

Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jel­ly­fish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shi­nes through it, and the dark en­ters it. Borne, flung, tugged from any­where to any­where, for in the deep sea there is no com­pass but nearer and far­ther, higher and lower, the jel­ly­fish hangs and sways; pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast di­ur­nal pulses beat in the moon­driven sea. Hanging, sway­ing, puls­ing, the most vul­ner­a­ble and in­sub­stan­tial crea­ture, it has for its de­fense the vi­o­lence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has en­trusted its be­ing, its go­ing, and its will.

–Ursula K. LeGuin The Lathe of Heaven


While Charlie isn’t quite as pas­sive as a jel­ly­fish, he does have a cer­tain stoic ac­cep­tance of the sit­u­a­tions he finds him­self in. The only time he is vis­i­bly ag­i­tated is when Lena is in dan­ger. The rest of their char­ac­ters play their parts, so it re­ally is the man­ner of the film-mak­ing, the gim­mick shots, the sight gags, the un­der­cur­rent of smar­tassed French hu­mor that gives the film its pep.


Criterion Essay by Kent Jones.
Carter B. Horsley Review.
Tom Huddleston Review.
• Pulp cover of David Goodis’s Down There.
• YouTube clips [12].

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