MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.
Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.
There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.
It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.
This fascinating youth pic, from the Czech New Wave, both ‘universalises’ the teenage (or early-20s) experience and sets in squarely in its time. The time was just before the ‘Prague Spring’, but clearly government influence was already loosening, particularly with the relatively graphic nudity and the scene where the youth union meeting is satirised. Being a teenager yearning for a (sexual) relationship is the predominant narrative of youth pics and Czechoslovakia in the ’60s was no different. In fact, it was accentuated by the 16:1 ratio of women to men in the blonde’s (Andula) town, Zruc. To counteract the problem the local factory’s ‘social director’ persuades the army to move a garrison of men to the vicinity. However, they turn out to be middle aged reservists of little interest to Andula and her friends.
The troops’ arrival is one of many comic set pieces in the film. The girls, and the town, are full of hope until the balding men arrive who promptly march to their barracks singing a ridiculous song of blood and glory. Similarly in a dance hall three men bicker amongst themselves on how try of pick up the girls. They send a waiter with a bottle but it’s delivered to the wrong table. Writer-director Milos Forman’s observes all this affectionately, he is not mocking the small town travails of his characters.
As was much European cinema in the ’60s, the Czech New Wave was a ripple of the French nouvelle vague and the long conversations between characters reminded me of early Godard and there is a wonderful moment of Czech surrealism where a necktie is found around a tree when Andula walks through the wood for an assignation that never happens. The dancehall scene reminded me of the one in Billy Liar, shot three years earlier, emphasising how, in the sixties, youth culture was becoming internationalised.
Forman cast locals, mostly non actors, giving the film a realist edge that adds to the charm; it’s not surprising that Ken Loach often cites it as a favourite film. Its political edge is seen when the youth union meeting, of women, is asked to vote to be chaste. Only Andula, hiding at the back, doesn’t put up her hand in favour emphasising the conformism expected by the Establishment at the time. However, while she is something of a rebel, Andula is also a victim; she is betrayed by the smooth talking pianist. Their ‘love’ scene, with the recalcitrant blind, is funny. Overall the film is suffused with a melancholy tone; it entertains but doesn’t forget the pathos of young lust.
At the inaugural symposium of the German Screen Studies Network at King’s College, London in July, a number of films were screened at London’s Goethe Institut to complement the conference’s theme of ‘The Return of the Real.’ See details on the network here.
Unter dir die Stadt (literally ‘below you the city’) is a 2010 film directed by Christoph Hochhäusler and is an example of the ‘New’ New German Cinema of recent years, which also includes film-makers such as Christian Petzold. Similar to Petzold’s Yella (2007), this film examines the construction of relationships in Germany post-Wende. How does the human function in the world of glass and steel that is the modern capitalist nation and in an economy that creates human migrants across borders in modern Europe? Hochhäusler examines the relationships of the people in power in the business world and explores the spaces which sit hight above the street (where the little people move around). Under these business men lies the city – sitting in rooms with uninterrupted views of the cities, with expensive artwork on the walls. What happens when human emotions intrude on the machine-like efficiency of money-making?
These films are fascinating because they represent a reinvigorated film movement in Germany which does not always get the play outside of the country that it should (where the recycling of the historical dramas examining Germany’s troubled past are much more likely to receive distribution and global film awards – see Das Leben der Anderen (2006) for example. Das Leben was an Oscar-winning success and is a very emotionally satisfying film, through its melodramatic structure. Meanwhile, a number of film-makers have been exploring a new kind of language to represent social worlds and problems now. Like aspects of Godard, these films are not the most accessible in the slow pace of plot development or in the way in which they marry visuals and soundscape. Like aspects of Godard, this is a minimalistic kind of film practice which looks to go back to zero to reinvent how to tell the story. These film-makers (many of them trained at the Berlin Film School) are interested in film critique and their film knowledge has led them to be seen as the inheritors of the French New Wave’s mantle in lots of ways – being referred to as la nouvelle vague Allemande. See this article by Marco Abel, who has written extensively on these film-makers, here:
Visually, the film is arresting. Hochhäusler (and his cinematographer Bernhard Keller) construct a number of frames where the world is reflected in windows and the clarity of what we are looking at is obscured. In the opening sequence, we appear to be moving through a bank of leafy trees, until we discover it is simply their reflection in the windows of a department store and suddenly we are staring directly at the plastic mannequin (the copy of a woman). We begin to follow Svenja, an ambiguous heroine who finds herself following a woman wearing the same shirt as herself. The film enjoys playing throughout with ideas of copying and originals – back-stories are apparently invented by characters to hide their true origins (a metaphor for the work of economic migrancy) and the successful, middle-aged banker, Roland, works in offices in Germany (it was shot in Frankfurt and Cologne) and London which have exactly the same design including the same art on the walls. It’s a corporate world which is shown to sponsor art and music, but which is hopelessly out of touch with reality. As Roland and Svenja embark on a more human kind of relationship (this much is in the trailer), the film explores what happens when the real intrudes from the streets.
The film is heavy in its use of symbolism, but like Yella it is part of a series of films in recent German cinema which directly engages with effects of globalised capitalism on Germany and the Germans and tries to find a visual language for conjuring up what it is like to live in these times. Both films are very potent in their minimalism and avoidance of melodrama – dialogue is spare and characters’ motivations are not always fully explained. Here’s a trailer (unfortunately no English version available, but shows the visuals):
I guess the English title has the benefit of pithiness that the original title (God and the Devil in the Land of Sun) but suggests that the film is about race when it isn’t. The film is about desperation of the dirt poor of the impoverished land the sertão, ‘backlands’ of north eastern Brazil. Cow herder Manuel kills his boss in rage in response to his appalling treatment and so, with his wife, go ‘on the run’. First they join a preacher, Saint Sebastian, who claims he’ll lead them to a ‘promised land’; then a bandit, a sort of low rent Robin Hood (though there’s not much evidence of giving to the poor), Corisco. They are pursued by Antonia das Mortes, employed by the church to kill anyone who threatens the status quo.
I’m afraid that summary makes the narrative seem more coherent than it is. Many of the events are portrayed indirectly, Eisentsteinean montage conveys massacres, but not the way of the Potemkin steps or his later dialectical style; the editing offer an impression of events rather than any political argument. Music, vital in Brazilian culture, structures much of the narrative; a mix of ballads, telling of the events of the film, and Villa-Lobos.
What’s most striking about the film are the compositions where people seem to be randomly standing about but, together, offer a vision of confusion, a land that’s lost its moral compass. The sparseness of the backlands of north eastern Brazil have their bleakness accentuated by the black and white cinematography in the ‘academy’ (4:3) ratio.
Glauber Rocha’s influences are many, not least the French nouvelle vague primarily through co-opting the Gallic attitude of ‘director as author’ rather than through stylistic devices. Like Antoine Doinel, the protagonist finds the sea at the film’s end; the ocean has mythic significance as the ‘saint’ had preached that he would lead the dispossessed to utopia where the ‘land is sea, and sea is land’. As Lucia Nagib puts it:
‘Glauber’s mythic backland-sea formula expresses the harrowing feeling of this utopian country that could have turned out right but was fated not to from the day it was discovered. (Brazil on Screen: Cinema Novo, New Cinema, Utopia, (IB Taurus), p9)
Whilst the French were, initially at least, in love with Hollywood, the Third World filmmakers of Latin America had no love for America as they suffered under US-supported military dictatorships. As Corisco says, directly to camera: ‘The dragon of evil swallows the people to fatten the Republic.’ This emphasis upon the political had its roots in Italian neo realism; and, as noted above, Eistenstein – who worked in Mexico during the 1930s. This link details more of Rocha’s influences and this takes you to his manifesto the aesthetics of hunger’.
Jacques Demy (1931-1990) is the New Wave director who, like Louis Malle, is difficult to categorise. Some link him to the ‘Left Bank Group’, but this is primarily because he married Agnès Varda in 1962. Otherwise he had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker. In some ways he was closer to Truffaut and he certainly knew all the Cahiers gang, presumably via Varda or from his film school contacts. There were several distinctive aspects of Demy’s cinema which made it ‘personal’ and ‘different’.
Demy was fascinated by American Cinema – but by musicals rather than B films noirs. Nearly all of his films present a romance drawing in some way on the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a fan of various aspects of classical French Cinema and French popular music culture. Demy was a native of the West Coast of France in the region around Nantes and this coastline provided the backdrop for his best known films, Lola (1961), Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967. These films draw on various Hollywood sources – On the Town (1949), the Stanley Donen film about sailors on leave in New York is an obvious influence on Lola. The stars of Demy’s New Wave films are the women (and the music of Michel Legrand). In his first four films these are Anouk Aimée, Jean Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve again with her sister Françoise Dorléac. By 1967 he had a full star cast – Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris and Gene Kelly. Demy moved to the US to make Model Shop in 1969 and after this his career foundered. The early quartet of films have survived however and are well worth watching, both for their own specific qualities and because they represent a different side to the New Wave.
Demy’s second film was La baie des anges (Bay of Angels 1963). Jeanne Moreau as a platinum blonde is a bourgeois wife with a gambling habit. The film starts with a typical New Wave tracking shot by Jean Rabier (who had been an assistant to Henri Decaë on Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’énchafaud (1958) before shooting several films for Chabrol and then for Varda and Demy). The camera appears to be mounted on a car or truck which is driven at speed along the deserted promenades of the Riviera. It reminded me of Jean Vigo’s ‘city symphony’ film A propos de Nice (1929) photographed by Boris Kaufman. The action then switches to Paris where a young man in a boring accountancy job is persuaded to visit a casino by a colleague. When he wins a considerable amount on the roulette table, Jean (Claude Mann) decides to change his holiday plans and instead of visiting relatives in the country he finds a hotel in Cannes and starts to visit the casino. Here he meets Jackie (Moreau) who he had briefly seen earlier being thrown out of a Parisian casino.
The main part of the film is a melodrama about sex and money. Jean and Jeanne have a tempestuous and whirlwind affair driven by the thrill of gambling with its intense highs and lows and moments of exhilaration and despair. There is passion and indeed violence in the relationship and the narrative has an ‘open’ ending that is quite abrupt. What this points to is the curious mixture of ‘fantasy romance’ and cold realism that seems to infuse the films I’ve watched.
I enjoyed Baie des anges. At times I thought to myself, “there isn’t much plot”, but at the same time I realised that I was engrossed by the rich texture of the images and the way in which the narrative unfolded. Moreau is a star actor, but I wasn’t completely convinced by Claude Mann. Sometimes he appeared perfect for the role and sometimes out of his depth. Jeanne Moreau’s hair was my main concern. I presume that it was meant to signify ‘artifice’/’brittleness’. I certainly didn’t like it, but it worked in the sense that it somehow enhanced Moreau’s extraordinary ability to look soft and alluring one moment and hard and frankly terrifying at others.
I’m hoping to watch more from Demy soon. In the meantime, there is a clip from Baie des Anges on an earlier posting here.
Ever since Nick posted a short piece on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and its links to the French New Wave, we’ve been inundated with visitors searching for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ – and some days 20-25% of hits on the blog have been associated with the title.
Recently I heard a short item on the radio about a new book on the couple: Go down together: the true, untold story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn. The book further debunks the myth of what were essentially a pair of inept criminals who would not have received any attention without the power of narrative in news reporting. In other words, there was little in what they did, but a great deal in how it was reported. Two of Guinn’s points seem remarkably topical. One was that this was the period (early 1930s) when the wired news photo was becoming the first medium to allow visual communication quickly over national and international networks. In some ways, the parallel today has been the the rapid take-up of mobile phone images as part of ‘citizen journalism’ around the time of 9/11. Guinn uses the example of Bonnie Parker photographed smoking a cigar as an iconic image.
Guinn’s other point in the radio interview was the antipathy of most ordinary people towards a banking system in 1930s America which was collapsing and abandoning savers – sounds familiar? In this context, the two criminals took on the role of folk heroes.
All of this makes me think about the ingredients of the Bonnie and Clyde story and the power of a generic narrative. I was about to suggest that the French New Wave connection is possibly overemphasised in the explanation for the success of the 1967 film. But when I think about it, Jean-Luc Godard was spot on with his line that all you need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”, something that he proved several times over in films ostensibly about a young couple on the run (but often, of course, about a lot more).
As far as Hollywood is concerned the generic line of boy/girl on the run includes:
They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)
Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)
Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974 – from the same novel as They Live by Night)
Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)
and no doubt several more titles, some of which will overlap with other repertoires (e.g. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah, 1972) and some, like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), that transform it completely.
Anyone want to suggest other titles and indicate how they utilise the various genre repertoires?
All praise Godard and Truffaut, but let’s not forget another true auteur in Agnès Varda. To name her position in this celebrated movement, Varda was associated with the (so-called) ‘Left Bank’ sub-group of the New Wave (with Alain Resnais). However, she like the rest of them was an individual and independent filmmaker, who grasped the opportunities to make films as the money arose and imprinted them with her own particular vision and style. Therefore, they demonstrate the same ‘break’ with traditional forms of cinema that characterises the other French New Wave films – the engagement with a freshness both of theme and of cinematic style. Different to the other leading directors, though, is her lack of agenda in her filmmaking – of a deliberate desire to break from the ‘cinéma du papa’. Godard and Truffaut’s work (critically and cinematically) is shot-through with this frustration and rejection of the outmoded style. Varda’s work was a more simple personal focus on telling the stories she wanted to tell, in the way she wanted to tell them.
Varda, therefore, developed her own framework and cinematic, developing her own concept of ‘cinécriture’ – “cinewriting” independently of Astruc’s more famous ‘caméra-stylo‘ to describe the artistic vision of a director. Both emphasised the construction of the film’s narrative during the process of filming and editing – arguing for the audio-visual as a writing medium itself, separate from the more literary form of the screenplay. Varda met the ‘right bank’ boys when she was editing her first film La Pointe-courte (1954) and wrote (in her book Varda par Agnès in 1994): “I was anomalous, I felt small and ignorant, and the only girls among the Cahiers boys.” She did not have the knowledge of the cinephiliacs – whose freshness was a reinvention based on their knowledge of the past. Hers was complete invention, based on blissful ignorance: “If I had seen at the time films made by masters, either male or female, and which I have discovered since, I would perhaps have been intimidated or even inhibited.”
The production context of La Pointe-courte is interesting because it embodies this innocent confidence, the ability to try because she was not constrained by over-knowledge of what was and wasn’t possible. Having trained in photography, she worked at the Théâtre national Populaire as the official stage photographer. Feeling constrained by the ‘silent’ limits of the photographic medium, she spread into filmmaking in order to develop her artistic ideas more fully – to explore ideas about the “passage of time” and “hiatus between subjective and objective description”. She returned to the area of her childhood (Sète in South France – although she was born in Brussels) to shoot the film, set in the small fishing village of La Pointe Courte. To do this, she used money she had inherited on her father’s death and other borrowings. She established a production company (Ciné Tamaris) forming a cooperative with the cast and crew. There is a pioneering spirit about this that links her, spiritually, to someone like the French producer and filmmaker Alice Guy. If you do not know the constraints for filmmakers in general or for women in particular in film, then there are none – just as for Guy who was at the invention of cinema itself. Both women might rightly question their position in the histories of those institutions – another question for another time.
However, Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961) has at least turned up in some of the celebrations of the anniversary of La Nouvelle Vague, particularly in Joe Queenan’s article (see as part of my list below). “Looking back on Varda’s jewel now, one can imagine that moment when releases like this seemed to provide a new baseline for cinema itself, ushering in an era when filmmakers would no longer simply make ‘product’ but would take a crack at producing great art.” Varda is equal in her ambition to Godard or Truffaut and the film itself qualifies as art on several levels. The film occupies the period between five and seven in the evening, when an actress and singing star, Cléo (real name Florence) waits until she can ring her specialist for her cancer test results. The sense of disassociation and isolation from those around her is incredibly tangible, captured by Varda’s expressionistic use of the camera. She is able to be ‘visually emotive’ to help us empathise with Cléo’s state of mind. The sensation is of a real time narrative, and the way Varda has captured Cléo’s reflections (looking at and into herself) guides us to enter her internal world.
This accords with André Bazin’s idea of the ‘documentary’ element in cinema. Godard described À bout de souffle as a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Cinematic language enables this realism to the action – that there is real action taking place between the two characters as well as the telling of the story. The production situation of these films aimed to play up to these possibilities of creating something that was truthful and Varda was no different here.
Cléo de 5 à 7 was shot in chronological order, and often at the time specified by the action. Using natural light to film (enabled by the availability of fast film stock – the film was shot in black and white 35 mm, for cost), shooting at the right time of day recreates the ambient mood of that light. The time of day is thematically relevant – 5 til 7 is the time when French monsieurs traditionally visited their mistresses; it is the hiatus between the two parts of the day when ordinary life is temporarily suspended. Cléo wanders through different ordinary settings, in suspension because her life literally hangs in the balance. The flexibility of using hand-held cameras is obvious on a low budget film, but it also contributes to an identified aesthetic value of Varda – to shoot ordinary subjects such that they appear different and aethereal. As Cléo stops to have a brandy in a bar, the camera, she is reproduced across a number of mirrors within the bar and the fractured sense of her own identity. This relates to Varda’s wish to create a “subjective documentary.” Similarly, the sound recorded on the film could achieve a greater degree of realism because the crew were able to use portable sound recorders, as opposed to having to synchronise sound in post-production. Therefore, there is the documentary effect of the ambient sound recorded as Cléo steps through the streets; where sound is emphasised is to create the character’s own heightened awareness and sensitivity. Hence, the idea of a subjective documentary. Whilst the presence of the diagnosis does create a linear narrative structure, the progress of the story is more in this impressionistic style – of dropping in and out of the different places and people, structured as a literary text with Cléo as its centre of consciousness.
Cléo is a French New Wave film, in exactly the same way as Godard’s films, through its inclusion of a multiplicity of other references. Hers are less allusions to popular culture, but rather, as film analysts have commented, inspiration from literary sources. The poet Rilke and the painter Dürer are referred to by Varda – the latter painted a cycle of pictures depicting a young beautiful woman kissed by Death. The casting of Corinne Marchand in the lead role was a departure from new wave style though – her pneumatic beauty and particularly her blondness were against the ‘naturalness’ in appearance demanded by the other filmmakers. (Even Godard’s muse, Anna Karina, appears in the film – as does Jean-Luc – but Anna’s trademark dark bob is hidden under a blonde wig). Blondeness, for these new filmmakers, is associated with the outmoded, star-driven form of cinema. Without knowing Varda’s intention, there is something vulnerable and fragile about Cléo that her blondeness serves to emphasise. Together with her slim frame, there is a feeling of her being a slight presence – one which could easily disappear out of the frame – signifying visually the death sentence that hangs over this character in the narrative. Varda is not afraid of other non-naturalistic touches – such as the song performance in the middle of the film, dissolving the fourth wall of the cinema screen directly out to the audience in a more theatrical form of emotional engagement.
A final thought, mentioned in the Queenan article, is the prospect of Madonna in an American remake (to be directed by Varda herself). The project fell through (the funding never came through). Watching Marchand’s delicate and sensitive 60s waif-actress, the idea of Madonna suggests how this piece of casting might have unbalanced the indeterminate ambience of Varda’s story. Cléo is a star, but one who is caught, a wisp, between the more definite characters around her. Could Madonna have encapsulated that aethereal being and nothingness quite the same?
The articles I refer to: Joe Queenan: ‘We’ll always have Paris’: Guardian 27 March 2009; Adam Thirlwell: ‘Forever Young’: Guardian 18 April 2009. I also used: Cléo de 5 à 7 by Valerie Orpen (April 2007).
Trailer for Cléo de 5 à 7:
and the trailer for Le bonheur (1964):
(These notes were originally written for an education event in 2001)
Tirez sur le pianiste was Truffaut’s second feature, following on from the critical and commercial success of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). It failed to emulate the success of its predecessor, depressing Truffaut (who cared about commercial success) and pushing him towards the more obvious commercial appeal of Jules et Jim, made in the following year. Yet, from the perspective of 2009, Tirez sur le pianiste was a film ahead of its time. It has aged well and appears now to represent many of the significant innovations of la nouvelle vague – indeed it may be the most representative film of that important movement.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a family of three unlikely brothers. Charlie looks after his younger brother Fido, still a child, and works as a piano player in a bar. One night a second brother, Chico, a petty criminal comes to the bar pursued by two other crooks he has double-crossed. Charlie has a casual relationship with the prostitute who lives across the corridor and he is also the target of the affections of Lena, who works behind the bar. Like all good film noir males, Charlie has a mysterious past.
Truffaut and la nouvelle vague
François Truffaut (1932-84) became a convinced cinéphile in his early adolescence, escaping from his own unhappy family circumstances into the cinemas of Nazi occupied Paris. After the war he became an habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, meeting the other young men with whom he would become identified as first a vigorous critic of the established tradition de qualité in French cinema in the 1950s and later as a ‘new director’. In 1954, at the tender age of 22, Truffaut wrote his famous essay, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma‘, in which he denounced the cinema of ‘old men’, concerned with highly polished and carefully constructed artificial stories, and strove to promote an alternative cinema which gave true expression to the ideas and emotions of the filmmaker. From this developed la politique des auteurs.
The emphasis on the director as auteur or ‘author’ as distinct from metteur en scène (literally the person who films the script) became the effective manifesto of the young, first time, directors who comprised what came to be known as la nouvelle vague towards the end of the 1950s.
Defining la nouvelle vague
One way to conceive of la nouvelle vague from a contemporary perspective is perhaps to think of the ways in which the UK press created the idea of ‘cool Britannia’ or ‘Brit Art’ in the 1990s. In France between 1959 and 1963 over 150 new filmmakers and actors became identified with the new and ‘youthful’ trend in French cinema (and the arts generally). The defining moment (i.e. when the term was first widely used) appears to have been the success at Cannes of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups in 1959.
Film scholars have discerned a number of different groups of filmmakers, each of which challenged the dominant mode of so-called ‘quality cinema’ from the 1950s onwards. The group which gained the highest profile were arguably the quintet of critics turned directors; François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
The group’s ideas were developed through the 1950s in their critical writing. Their filmmaking styles were not identical but they did share a number of commitments so that, at least in the beginning, there were identifiable elements in all their films (and in those of other young directors):
- characters were ‘young and reckless’
- they used new young actors, creating new ‘stars’ – Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran, Anna Karina etc.
- the films were set mostly in Paris or the ‘tourist’ areas of France
- mostly shot on location, using natural light and hand-held cameras – improvised and self-conscious cinematography
- editing ‘rules’ were broken and devices from cinema history re-worked
- rising stars of cinematography, music etc. worked on several new wave films, e.g. Raoul Coutard, Henri Decaë, Michel Legrand
- narratives were either ‘original’ or based on popular fictions; ‘small stories’ were as important as ‘big’ ones
- they often paid hommage to Hollywood and to the European masters (Renoir, Vigo etc.) with direct references in the films
- new producers appeared to back the films, including via co-productions with Italy
- the group helped each other get films started, taking on associate producer roles, providing script ideas or appearing as actors in small parts
- the directors were the product of years of film viewing and criticism rather than film school.
Tirez sur le pianiste as a ‘new wave’ film
- Set on the streets of Paris and the mountains near Grenoble;
- based on a novel (Down There) by the ‘hardest’ of ‘hard-boiled’/‘pulp’ writers, David Goodis;
- mixes American culture and traditional French popular culture, personified by French superstar Aznavour (arguably the most popular singer in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century) in the lead role;
- looks back to the ‘tricks’ and devices of ‘silent’ cinema.
- Although it does refer to ‘genre’ (like the quality films), it is a distinct mixture of generic references, prefiguring the ‘hybrid’ films of postmodern cinema in the 1990s. Ostensibly a ‘gangster/film noir‘, Tirez sur le pianiste is also a comedy and a tragedy about the life and loves of Charlie Kohler. (This particular mixture recalls Alfred Hitchcock – a major influence on all Truffaut’s films.)
- A ‘personal’ film for Truffaut it includes several familiar elements from his other films, including familiar actors, childish, weak men and strong, ‘mysterious’ women. The mixture of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ tones is also a Truffaut trait.
- Photographed with his usual flair by Raoul Coutard, the most innovative of the new cinematographers.
- The film offers a running commentary on cinema itself – the camera is ‘knowing’, almost ‘winking’ at the audience at various moments.
The film was poorly received at the time. Ironically, the ‘faults’ which critics pointed to are now accepted as commonplace – the genre mixing and change of tone. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The famous scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson featuring a discussion about Big Macs (and the talk about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs) is similar in many ways to the inconsequential chat in the car between the two gangsters and their captives – first with Charlie and Léna about women and lingerie and then with Fido about gadgets and foreign clothes.
Truffaut as auteur
Although at first glance very different from the more well-known films that preceded and followed it, Tirez sur le pianiste is immediately recognisable as a ‘Truffaut film’. It is the first of a series of ‘genre explorations’, including three further films based on ‘hard boiled pulp fiction’ – La marieé etait en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (1967) (in which Jeanne Moreau plays Julie Kohler) and La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid) (1969), both based on stories by Cornell Woolrich (best known perhaps as the author of the short story which was adapted for Hitchcock’s Rear Window) and Vivement dimanche! (Finally, Sunday!) (1982), Truffaut’s last film based on a story by Charles Williams.
Charlie is a typical ‘Truffaut male’, seeking the love of a ‘magical and mysterious’ woman, who is far stronger and more confident – not least in the physical sense, since Truffaut males are short and wear a puzzled expression. This also carries over into the quartet of films which follow on from the autobiographical story of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cent coups. The best example is probably Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) (1968) in which Antoine becomes involved in comic attempts to become a private detective in his pursuit of a young woman.
Truffaut’s ‘personal’ style of filmmaking can also be identified in the mix of the comic and the tragic (often abruptly switching between the two), in his love of cinema and all its devices, and in his reverence for masters such as Hitchcock and Renoir.
In the scene in which we meet the bumbling gangsters who ‘kidnap’ Charlie and Lena in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of Chico there is the comic conversation about men and women and an insert (one of several using very traditional cinema ‘effects’) in which Lena identifies the source of the gangsters’ knowledge about her and Charlie. The ‘three screens in one’ use of the DyaliScope frame (a cheap imitation of CinemaScope) is a nod towards the great French cinematic innovator Abel Gance. At the beginning of the sequence, Fido ‘bombs’ the gangsters’ car with milk – a stunt that might have come from Les quatre cents coups or its inspiration, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite.
1. Is Tirez sur le pianiste more accessible now than when first released? Has modern cinema absorbed the ideas that Truffaut thought were experimental (the genre mixing, changes in tone etc.)?
2. What kind of a hero is Charlie? How do we understand his attitude towards women (and that of the other male characters)?
3. Does the film have anything to say about French and American culture in the way it ‘plays’ with American genres like the gangster and the film noir? Is the representation of men and women in the film a reversal of the usual American representation?
Don Allen (1986) Finally Truffaut, London: Paladin
Jill Forbes (1998) ‘The French Nouvelle Vague’ in Hill and Church Gibson op cit
Susan Hayward (2000) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, London: Routledge
John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: OUP
Jim Hillier (ed) (1986) Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Graham Petrie (1970) The Cinema of François Truffaut, London and New York: Zwemmer and Barnes
© Roy Stafford 22/4/01