Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be looking at the films of Francois Truffaut. I’ve already written about his debut film, The 400 Blows, I’ll cover all of his films that I can. A shocking number of his films, including The Soft Skin, The Bride Wore Black, Small Change, and his last two films, The Woman Next Door and Confidentially Yours, are not available on DVD. I’ve seen The Bride Wore Black and The Woman Next Door, but not for over twenty years, so they’re not exactly fresh in my mind.
Truffaut was first a critic, and wrote a controversial article in 1954 viciously criticizing the French film industry. He espoused the “auteur” theory–that a director of a film was equivalent to the author of a novel–that was later picked up by Andrew Sarris in the U.S. Truffaut wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, under the editorship of Andrew Bazin, and he and colleagues Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer turned to directing their own films, in a style that would become known as the French New Wave.
Ironically they were influenced by American films–their holy trinity was Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, and especially Alfred Hitchcock (Truffaut would conduct a book-length interview with him). Truffaut’s first film, the aforementioned The 400 Blows, was a sensation at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival. This was quite a coup, considering his criticism of the festival the year before got him kicked out.
Truffaut’s follow-up film in 1960 was Shoot the Piano Player, and it’s American origins are evident. It is based on an American pulp novel, and has noir elements. But this story of minor hoodlums and the pianist who gets caught up with them is secondary to the style. Charles Aznavour, who is known as the “French Frank Sinatra,” stars as a pianist in a saloon. His brothers have fleeced a couple of hapless hoodlums, and are now on the run. These two hoods, called Ernest and Momo, end up trying to use Aznavour to get to the brothers.
The film is less about gangsters than it is about being an artist and getting second chances. We find out that Aznavour was once a concert pianist who learns that his wife slept with an impresario to further his career. Tragedy ensues from this revelation, and he punishes himself by playing rinky-dink tunes in a dive run by a piggish man. But he meets a new woman (Marie Dubois), and is on the cusp of redemption when the hoods interfere.
Shoot the Piano Player, though it has tragic elements, is mostly comedic. Consider the opening scene, which has Aznavour’s brother (Albert Remy) fleeing Ernest and Momo. We settle in, thinking it will be tense and dramatic. But Remy runs into a lamppost, and is aided by a good Samaritan. They have a discussion about marriage–Remy says he would like to get married someday, and the Samaritan says, “You say that like you mean it.”
Later, in a gag worthy of Mel Brooks, Ernest and Momo (who may have been modeled on Thomson and Thompson of the Tintin comics) have kidnapped Aznavour’s little brother. Ernest (or is it Momo?) is bragging about a scarf, and the boy doubts what he is saying. “If I’m lying, may my mother keel over right this instant,” he says, and Truffaut cuts to an iris shot of an old woman, keeling over.
Shoot the Piano Player is the most “new-waveish” of Truffaut’s films. It has jump cuts and a certain self-consciousness, particularly in a shootout at the end of the film. But though shot in a gritty black and white by Raoul Coutard, there is a striking scene of a character sliding down a snowy slope, dead of a gunshot wound.
Shoot the Piano Player did not do well at the box office, impressing only the cineastes. His next film, Jules and Jim, was more accessible, a romantic triangle set over twenty years, from 1912 to 1932. In a dizzying montage that opens the film, with extensive voiceover, Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Parisian. Jim is a ladies’ man, while Jules is shy. The two meet a vivacious woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), who strikingly resembles a statue from antiquity they’ve seen on a Greek island. Jules falls for her, and asks Jim to leave her alone.
Eventually Jules and Catherine will marry and have a child, and move to Austria. The Great War interrupts the Jules and Jim friendship, but when they are all reunited Jim learns that the marriage is falling apart. He and Catherine begin an affair, with Jules’ full knowledge. In fact, the three all live together. Jim and Catherine can’t make it work though, and Catherine, unable to live with Jim or without him, makes a fateful decision.
I’d seen Jules and Jim twice before my most recent viewing, and I just didn’t get it. Maybe multiple viewings and life experience have helped, because on this third viewing, I found it gripping. There’s a lot going on here. It has gained a reputation as being the “menage a trois” film, though it is not, as Catherine, despite being fickle, never shares the men sexually. And though the friendship between the two men is the real love story of the film, it is not a homoerotic one. Truffaut does throw in some ambiguity with a scene in which Catherine dresses as a man (see photo).
Though this is a romantic film, it does have New Wave elements, especially with the extensive voiceover (Shoot the Piano Player does as well, as we often hear Aznavour’s thoughts). I wonder if Woody Allen, who also used a lot of narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, another multi-sided romance, was tipping his hat to this film. Truffaut also uses stock footage from silent film days that gives the film an authenticity, and the music, by Georges Delerue, is that of a farce, not a tragedy. Truffaut mentions in an interview that the source material, a novel by Henri Roche, was written many years after the fact, which lessens the melodrama, and Truffaut sought to replicate that in the film. There are many sad things that happen here, but are not milked for maximum effect.
The film’s most striking legacy is the performance of Moreau as Catherine, a woman ahead of her time. She refuses to play along with the double standard–when Jim goes back to Paris to “say goodbye” to old lovers, she does the same. And as unbalanced as she sometimes appears to be, Moreau makes Catherine the kind of woman who would be hard not to be obsessed with. At no time do we question Jules or Jim and what they do.