Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, France, 1960)

Playing the audience

Despite being over 20 years since his debut film, Quentin Tarantino still dazzles some students. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it does, along with the supposition that film history began with Star Wars in 1977, severely limit understanding of cinema. Similarly, the inability of hundreds of critics to find more than two 21st century films in the top 50 of the decennial Sight & Sound poll threatens to turn film into an exercise in nostalgia. Tarantino himself is entrely open about his debt to the French nouvelle vague and named his company after a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

Tirez sur le pianiste may not be a great film but it still feels thoroughly modern with its mix of irreverence in plot, its take on the gangster genre and the style in which it is shot. Truffaut uses the source material, an American ‘pulp’ novel by David Goodis, and inflects it with a modernist sensibility that keeps its heart intact. Much of this is to do with Charles Aznavour’s moody performance, encapsulating a ‘would be’ existentialist hero but who is a prisoner of his class. The close-ups of his faltering hand that is too shy to touch the woman he loves are extremely effective in representing his wounded character.

I always preferred Godard to Truffaut, however this, and Jules and Jim (1963), are superb films.

A Simple Life (Tao jie, Hong Kong, 2011)

Life is other people

Andy Lau, a big action star in East Asia, stars with Deannie Yip with this very effective melodrama. She plays Ah Tao, who’s been a family maid since a teenager and played a role in bringing up Lau’s character. Early in the film she suffers a stroke and insists in being put into a ‘home’ as she can no longer serve the family. Such family maids are, apparently, relatively common in Hong Kong.

Lau plays Roger, a film producer (many of the glitterati of the HK film industry appear as themselves) but finds himself mistaken for an air conditioning engineer and taxi driver. The film suggests that the ‘celebs’ are just the same as everyone else and Roger finds himself increasingly drawn into a friendship with Ah Tao and the previous master-servant dichotomy increasingly blurs. An interesting extra-textual detail is that Yip has often played Lau’s mother.

Ann Hui, a rare female from Hong Kong’s ‘new wave’, direction emphasises the ‘slices of life’ of Ah Tao’s retirement and fleshes out the various characters who inhabit the home. The aging population need care, both physical and social.

I watched the film with a Taiwanese and it was interesting to discuss cultural references. For example, Roger discusses, with his sister, paying for Ah Tao’s funeral before she dies and, later, in western terms, acts in a callous manner. For ‘eastern’ audiences, of course, this behaviour is entirely normal and the only puzzle is westerner’s reaction.

Lau, against type, is great but the film belongs to Deannie Yip’s brilliant performance.