François Truffaut: Correspondence, 1945–1984
Near the start of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste there is a deft moment of authorial cheek. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) returns from the piano bar to his rented room and climbs wearily into bed, cuddling an ashtray the size of a salad bowl. Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), the jolly tart who lives next door, sidles in with an offer. Charlie says he lacks the money; she offers him credit; he declines; she nonetheless stays. She undresses and sits up in bed, her breasts fully visible, talking about a movie she’s just seen. He interrupts her: “In the cinema, it’s always like this,” he says, pulling the bedclothes up around her into a parody of the starlet-sitting-respectably-up-in-bed shot. It is lightly done, and fits the jokey, tumbling relationship between Charlie and Clarisse. Still, it has its echo. In the cinema, it’s always like this: but it isn’t like this in life, and from now on it won’t be like this in the cinema either.
I first started going properly to movies in Paris during the early Sixties, when the nouvelle vague was a surfer’s paradise. Godard’s A Bout de souffle, with a script by Truffaut, seemed the ultimate modern film: brave, nose-thumbing, hip, stylish, sexy, anti-authoritarian, above all true to the jagged inconsequentiality and moral vacuum of life as Godard and I (plus Truffaut and a few more initiates) perceived it to be. Like Tirez sur le pianiste it thrilled to loucheness and the rough touch of the modern city (“The Underpass in Modern French Film” is a thesis waiting to be written). If the theme of both films was Man on the Run, the technique was Camera on the Run: the lens probed and wandered, scuttled and hopped. Godard and Truffaut were exultantly picking apart the grammar of film and risking new combinations; together they were seeing afresh both life and the possibilities of art, in a joyful collaborative rivalry reminiscent of, well, Braque and Picasso perhaps.
Watching A Bout de souffle again the other week after a gap of twenty or so years, my first reaction was to lament the way things seem unquenchably new at eighteen because of an incapacity to put them in context. In the present case: tone from American film noir, moral stance from L’Etranger (much watered), pretentiousness and fake aperçus from avant-garde café life. Today the shooting of the policeman in the opening minutes no longer seems a moment of liberating, even charming anarchy, but a calculated wasting by both antihero and director/writer (kill a cop to give your film a gallon of plot-gas). What still grips, however, is the panache of Godard’s direction. Here is someone in immediate control of the medium, confident enough to try anything (how long can that sequence of Belmondo and Seberg not going to bed together possibly last? Well, about as long as the parallel sequence in Tirez sur le…
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