French critic and auteur François Truffaut’s tone and style have been both successfully and unsuccessfully mined by numerous directors over the years, including the likes of Wes Anderson, Richard Ayoade and Shane Meadows. Never as knowingly hip and revolutionary as others, his cinema belongs to Renoir and Vigo, and is carried on by that doomed depressive Leos Carax. Truffaut claimed that if he walked into a casino, his first instinct would be to master the rules. Godard’s first instinct, Truffaut added, would be to invent new ones. With his second and third films, Shoot the Pianist (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962) – both rereleased this week – we see a true master at work.
Adapted from the American crime writer David Goodis’ novel Down There, Shoot the Pianist concerns titular musician Charlie (played with hangdog magnificence by chanteur Charles Aznavour). Charlie has dropped out from his classical recitals after the suicide of his wife and wiles away his time playing piano in a dive bar. This interlude is interrupted by the arrival of his bruised and battered brother, who demands help as he’s double-crossed a couple of gangsters who now want blood and their money. Tonally, the film surpasses the ruminations of plot to create a film that is at once atmospheric while alerting the audience to the duality of nominal transference. Truffaut is again scorched through this film; he seems to reside within the protagonist of his creations – whether it be Antoine Doinel, Jules or Charlie – and their mutual ‘outsiderdom’, shy arrogance and slowly doomed masculinity that’s portrayed via the wilful masochism.
In assessing Goodis’ novel, Truffaut has been quoted as saying that it “passes at a certain point beyond the usual gangster novel, and becomes a fairytale. My idea was to make a film without a subject, to express all I wanted to say about glory, success, downfall, failure, women and love by means of a detective story.” These subjects are touched upon in a sleight of hand intransigence that belies Truffaut’s youth. It’s a poetic realisation of how we live in and through cinema, a darkened adventure of the interaction of a doomed reality that asks the question: do we try, and invite hurt or stand aside and let life pass us by? Shoot the Pianist is arguably the Nouvelle Vague film de jour, an audacious cineaste amalgamation of prolific peacocking and profound pessimism that has stood the test of time.
Truffaut was approaching his third decade when Henri-Pierre Roché adaptation Jules et Jim was released, and it’s this that is so surprising when you compare it to the earlier works of other Nouvelle Vague directors. It has a modernity that still startles; whether in its displays of sexuality or the unapologetic wants, needs and desires forcibly enacted by Jeanne Moreau as Catherine. Jules et Jim expands over twenty years, focusing on the lives of Jules, Jim and Catherine. Jules and Jim and are young writers, one from France, the other from Austria. Shy Jules ends up marrying Catherine and, after the First World War, they move to Germany where they are soon followed by Jim. Catherine is unpredictable, independent and unrepentant for her restlessness and promiscuity and drifts between both men and a third (their neighbour Albert). For this reason alone, France’s Commission de contrôle des films banned viewers under the age of eighteen from seeing Jules et Jim because of its “immoral character”.
It remains a marvel of a modern ethos, particularly in the behaviour of its principal characters: whether it’s the total lack of jealousy or its cinematic style that encompasses newsreel footage, photographic stills and freeze frames. In fact, while rewatching it you sometimes forget that you’re watching a period piece because it exists in a constant state of kinesis and movement, either by character or processions. Truffaut claimed his aim was to “make a subversive film of total sweetness”. That may well be the masochist in Truffaut talking, as there’s little sweetness in Jules et Jim – only a doomed fatalism that looks back and runs towards the white noise of the coming destruction of WWII and everything that entails. At one point, Jim says he understands Catherine. She replies, “I don’t want to be understood”. That, in effect, is what Truffaut grasps. She’s like cinema: a multifaceted living entity that is at once good and bad, beautiful and ugly.