An Interpretive Analysis on François Truffaut ‘s ‘Tirez sur le Pianiste’ In Relation to André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein
François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is a French New Wave film which demonstrates representations of both André Bazin’s ‘realist’ approach to cinema and Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘imagist’ innovations with his practices in Soviet montage. Truffaut’s film uses both the theories and the practices of these cinematic masters in means of achieving equilibrium through the equally transforming content his film portrays ranging from the light hearted subject matter of a dimwitted brother to the kidnapping and murder of our protagonist’s, the former world-renounced pianist Charlie Kohler/Edouard Saroyan, loved ones. Though Truffaut relies much more heavily upon Bazin’s theories on filmmaking, a clear example of both practices may be shown in this work. Therefore, exploring the concepts behind Bazin’s ‘Evolution of Film Language’ and the practices behind Eisenstein’s Soviet montage will prove in being extremely beneficial in analyzing Shoot the Piano Player.
André Bazin’s ‘Evolution of Film Language’ exposes the critic’s theories behind his favored ‘realist’ approach to filmmaking. He distinguishes between “those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality” (Bazin, p. 88). The realism he favors is generally achieved through an objective perspective using long-shots, camera movement, and on-set locations. This is done mostly to attain a more active relationship with the audience. Bazin suggests the use of depth of field and deep space shots gives the viewer more liberty to play with the image. Every individual spectator chooses what to see or what not to see. It requires more intellectual involvement, as opposed to the analytical editing in the Soviet montage. The latter theory instructs the audience member in what to see and how to see it. Bazin proposes that editing, in general, works against ambiguity, always in favor of giving clues to the viewers, walking them down the street as if they were mere children. However, the realist approach is as ambiguous as anything in cinema. Deep space shots work in accordance with mise-en-scène and long-lasting camera movements in means of showing reality without any trickery. Thus, François Truffaut uses a profound dependence on elements such as mise-en-scène and deep space camera movements in Shoot the Piano Player with the intention of accomplishing a realist’s depiction of the story he is attempting in capturing.
François Truffaut applies this realist technique through two specific shots, amongst others, of which Bazinian style is portrayed in its purest form. After Edouard stabs Plyne with the kitchen knife (59’29”), the shot plays out as a metaphorical funeral procession as its long-tracking camera movement reveals several elements of the environment to the audience. The spectators can draw out many factors from this scene due to the long-tracking shot. For example, as Plyne is carried out, the musician following behind is carrying an extremely large double-base. This instrument, almost as large as the dead body itself, could be interpreted in metaphorically representing Plyne’s coffin. As the dead body passes near the camera, the knife stabbed deep into his corpse is made evident. This subtle glance at such a violent death not only serves in achieving a more authentic realism, but also in accomplishing a more effective reaction from the audience. Using Soviet montage with accelerated cuts and dramatic close-ups would only mock the spectator’s intelligence in directing their attention to the central prop of the scene. However, Truffaut makes a conscious decision to be as minimalistic as possible as the characters walk down the alley-way. Similarly, when Edouard and Lena walk down a street at night in a shallow depth of field shot while the camera movement tracks in front of them (16’05”), they seem to be the only essential components of the shot, which explains their isolation from the rest of the environment. However, the shot is not segmented into smaller components. By keeping the fluidity of this shot, Truffaut keeps the pace and rhythm of the scene in tact as he observes the facial reactions of both Lena and Edouard as delicately as possible. By doing this, he corresponds with Bazin’s implication of not betraying time and space, but rather letting moments of life spill out on to the screen in means of revealing “the hidden meaning of beings and things without breaking up their natural unity” (Bazin, p. 104). Directly opposing this theory, Sergei Eisenstein’s Soviet montage is also demonstrated in Shoot the Piano Player as it serves in achieving different affects which, although not used as dominantly as the former theory, also provides ways in which Truffaut captures the reality of his story through two widely different techniques.
Sergei Eisenstein is a filmmaker who is usually characterized as an ‘imagist’ director. An imagist filmmaker is usually noted by his use of stylization, expressionism, subjectivism, studio sets, close-ups and fast-paced cuts to correspond with their typical analytical editing. Being one of the pioneers of the soviet montage theory, Eisenstein believes in several distinct types of montage editing. Of the five he finds most prevalent, the two mostly used in Truffaut’s film are intellectual montage and rhythmic montage (Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, 1949). Intellectual montage serves in representing a certain meaning only attained through the combination of a sequence of shots, rather than individual shots giving meaning by themselves. With rhythmic montage, Eisenstein follows more of a traditionally based editing system; one which follows continuity editing as one action from the previous shot implies the progression of the next shot in completing that specific action (Eisenstein, The Film Sense, 1942). To Bazin’s dismay, segmenting the world into smaller fragments only lessens the quality of each image as there is no meaning in one specific frame, but rather in the combination of several shots or sequences. He continues by explaining how the “camera cannot see everything at once, but it at least strives to lose nothing of what it chooses to look at,” for even as montage uses editing to display a shift in time, using the realist approach merely demonstrates the wait (Bazin, p. 91). Eisenstein, being a propaganda-based filmmaker, is naturally inclined to implement messages into his films of which all are engineered in a technical format. Thus, the easiest way to do so is through rather aggressive and altogether obvious implications of a sequence of images that, joined together, derive a specific meaning. The realist approach would not work for any of the Soviet montage filmmakers as it would require more mise-en-scène in less space, rather than simply combining a plethora of images and meanings into a montage sequence. Clearly not as belligerent as Eisenstein’s ‘imagist’ approach, Truffaut still finds a way to use his Soviet montage in a rather restrained and minimalistic way through a number of shots in his film.
When Edouard first enters into Lena’s apartment, he is confronted by a poster of himself from his famed piano days (31’00”). The next few shots play out into a montage recalling his concert days along with images of the restaurant in which he met his first love and the manager who ended up signing him to an important contract-deal. Using intellectual montage, Truffaut juxtaposes these shots together to arrive at a specific implication or meaning of which the audience must understand about our protagonist. Firstly, Edouard is caught off guard, viewing the poster, staring into it endlessly as the next shot of him playing the piano in an elegant tuxedo dissolves onto the screen as the camera pans left, concentrating only on the poster of his former days. However, another shot slowly dissolves on top of the previous two as it merely shows Edouard staring shockingly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall. This suggests that our protagonist is looking deep into his subconscious as he brings out memories of his past. The next dissolving shot is that of the restaurant L’Arbots as the manager slowly appears on screen shortly after. This combination of images into a short montage sequence garners a specific meaning otherwise impossible to achieve in one single shot. By combining it into Eisenstein’s intellectual montage, Truffaut manages to convince the audience of Edouard’s reflective state back into his own past. Lastly, Truffaut also used Eisenstein’s rhythmic montage as Edouard and Lena walk down an empty street at night (15’35”-16’04”). By using this type of montage, the first part of this scene plays out in fragmented segments as is shows Edouard’s hesitancy, or Lena’s resitance, in communicating emotionally with one another. The sequence of shots display the pianist’s hands urging to make contact with Lena’s delicate fingers as Truffaut uses eye-line matches to demonstrate Edouard’s timidity in viewing his adored prospect, and actually failing to make contact with her. Truffaut cuts back and forth from close-ups of Edouard’s hands attempting to grab either Lena’s hand or the back of her waist. He juxtaposes these images with shots of Edouard’s face merely trying to compose himself from acting desperate in front of her. This rhythmic montage establishes a visual connection from cut to cut as Truffaut manages to portray a clear and simple character trait of Edouard’s as he shows him to be a shy and lonely character merely trying to establish any miniscule human contact possibly within his reach.
In conclusion, François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player can be clearly shown as being a film which exhibits representations of both André Bazin’s ‘realist’ approach to cinema and Sergei Eisenstein’s ‘imagist’ innovations with his practices in Soviet montage. Through this analysis, Truffaut’s film has been shown to display much more of a dependence on André Bazin’s theories than on Sergei Eisenstein’s practices. However, both influences play a crucial role in telling Truffaut’s story. Without the realist approach, Truffaut would not have been able to capture the absolute raw emotions displayed on screen by Charles Aznavour’s character Edouard Saroyan. This style completely portrayed the film as a minimalistic emotional rollercoaster which played with the spectator’s emotions as it switched on and off from romantic scenes to comedy and even to murderous ones. However, without Sergei Eisenstein’s theories on montage and his imagist approach to cinema, Truffaut would have never been able to show the complexities of this famed pianist as he explores his subconscious from his past to his present, displaying all his anxieties and imperfections from the origins tracing back to his piano days up to the present day. Thus, François Truffaut uses a multitude of theories and practices to make his film, Shoot the Piano Player, a concoction of different styles and theories which blend together into a seamlessly perfect film of respect and homage to both André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein.
Thank you for reading,
Omar Antonio Iturriaga
Bazin, A. (n.d.). The Evolution of Film Language. Film Aesthetics Coursepack , 87-106.
Eisenstein, S. (1949). Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. (J. Leyda, Ed., & J. Leyda, Trans.) San Diego: Brace Harcourt.
Eisenstein, S. (1942). The Film Sense. (J. Leyda, Ed., & J. Leyda, Trans.) Harcourt Brace and Company.
Braunberger, P. (Producer), Moussy, F. T. (Writer), & Truffaut, F. (Director). (1960). Tirez sur le pianiste [Motion Picture]. The Criterion Collection.