Charlie Kohler seems to be just a tired, shy piano player. He plays the same honky-tonk (at least what the French call honky-tonk. I think of something quite different) tunes while a constantly smiling drummer backs him up. Behind those tragic eyes, however belies a former life that was full of fame and disappointment. He is hiding from this past as much as possible. He can think of no other way than playing the same tunes over and over again in a dingy bar while adults rub up against each other in a desperate attempt to get laid.
The first time I saw this film, I was expecting a dour noirish film full of underworld antics and fatal shoot outs. I thought the film would echo the same tone that the 400 Blows had. In many ways I came expecting what many critics at the time was expecting: a super serious, highly intellectual crime drama. When it turned out to also incorporate slapstick comedy elements and conventional romance, I was disappointed. I hated the film. I thought it was totally uneven and a waste of time. This initial assessment did not incorporate the ideology behind the French New Wave and even one of the other famous French New Wave classic, Breathless. The French New Wave started out of these directors’ love of cinema. They wanted to create a cinema that looked back as well as forward. They didn’t want to beholden to a script, sets, or traditional structure. Because Shoot the Piano Player did not have a traditional script, sets inside a studio, traditional structure, a set genre, or a strong sense of good and evil (all of the tenets of French New Wave and experimental filmmaking), it is a true French New Wave film.
Upon second viewing, I threw out the expectations that I had the first time and set about to just enjoy the film. I had a better time with it. I think it is essential in viewing this film that you see it as more a sister to Breathless than to The 400 Blows. Although The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player shares ideas and even actors, the application of these ideas are completely different. Shoot is more experimental, more playful than 400. The constant switch from serious and sad longing that the character feels for his love interest and for his wife in the past is counterbalanced by the heightened characters he is surrounded by. For instance the “bad” guys who are out to get money back from Charles’ brothers are presented at first as these brute men who will cut you at any moment, but when Charles and his love are kidnapped, the conversation stumbles upon these men complete lack of understanding about the intricacies of women. They come off as buffoons who never grew up past twelve (which is why the scene between them and Charles’ little brother is so cute) and completely harmless. Charles easily outwits these buffoons, but they fight back by kidnapping his brother. This again seems like it will heighten the tension, but that tension is cut with a knife into small little pieces by the ensuing scenes. The same thing happens when the lovers finally come together. Instead of having a very steamy intense love scene, the story flashes back to a previous romance between Charles and his wife who ends up committing suicide. The love he feels for this new lover is undercut by the regret he feels for his wife’s suicide.
There are several small moments throughout the film that make viewing this film multiple times in order to catch them all totally worth it. (I am not going to tell you what they are, they are different for every person who watches the film and it spoils the fun to point them out beforehand) Although the film does not feel complete despite having a very definite ending, I still enjoy watching where Truffaut goes with the characters and the plot. I like that Truffaut took a chance that seemed to be more in the vein of Godard’s films instead of his. I admire his willingness to experiment and his sense of fun. More filmmakers should take heed of his example in this film.