Updated: Jan 10, 2019
When he wasn't storming the stage, Charles Aznavour was lighting up the screen for generations of cinephiles.
In the obituaries this week, we learned of the passing of Charles Aznavour — the French-Armenian singer who catapulted to fame with such hit songs as “Hier Encore,” and “She,” among thousands he wrote. As of his death at the age of 94, “France’s Frank Sinatra,” and CNN’s Entertainer of the Century had cemented his place in the pantheon of music. But the lesser known aspect of his work — the prolific body of work he achieved in film — is an equal part of the extraordinary legacy he leaves behind. Here are just a few glimpses into the more than 60 films Aznavour brought to life.
1. Shoot the Piano Player | 1960 | by François Truffaut
After the international success of his 400 Blows, the French New Wave filmmaker François Truffaut had the urge to make a more suspenseful and classically structured movie - something not “too French.” What resulted was Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player), a noir-ish American-influenced film which, nonetheless, ended up being pure Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). The heart of the film is, of course, Charles Aznavour, starring as a mild-mannered and naive pianist who falls into the pit of the criminal world and gets tangled up in a complicated love story. “His slim figure makes him look like St. Francis of Assisi,” said Truffaut. He had actually created the pianist character for Aznavour himself. Naturally, Charles walked into the part with ease, and he knocked over his audiences with his deadpan. “It gave me a marvelous sense of security to have you on the set in front of me,” Truffaut wrote to Aznavour decades later. “Attentive and open-minded, meticulous and flexible…nervous and poetic…. You’re a marvelous actor.”
2. Head Against the Wall | 1959 | by Georges Franju
With his subtle and perfectly moderated pathos, with the lifeful wrinkles of his face, Charles was destined for film. Even before Truffaut, the French documentary filmmaker Georges Franju had called on Charles in the making of his first feature. La Tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall), tells the story of an aimlessly rebellious young man, who is eventually locked up in a mental institution. It’s in the institution that he meets another patient, played by Charles Aznavour, with whom he plots an escape. The film unfolds in surrealist sequences, and in them we find le petit Charles, almost as though are seeing him in a dream.
3. Le Passage du Rhin | 1960 | by André Cayatte
“I always go forward,” Aznavour said. “There is no backwards step for me.” So his next step was a collaboration with award-winning director André Cayatte. The 1960 drama film Le Passage du Rhin (Tomorrow is My Turn) is a story of war and love. The film notably presented World War II not only from the French perspective, but also the German. This was startling in its time, and Nouvelle Vague critics were quick to condemn the picture. But you can judge for yourself.
4. Le Père Goriot | 2004 | Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe
One of the last great roles played by Aznavour was in Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe’s Le Père Goriot (Father Goriot). Here he played the title role — the merchant Goriot who spends all his fortune on his daughters' marriages. Charles embodies the role perfectly, portraying all the agonies and regrets of an old man abused by his daughters. Aznavour was cast by the producer Jacques Dercure, who had his eyes on Aznavour for years.
5. Ararat | 2002 | by Atom Egoyan
In 2002 the Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan directed Ararat — a film within a film, a history within a story, and an endlessly reflected and refracted exploration of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Christopher Plummer, Arsinée Khanjian, Eric Bogosian, and David Alpay were among many celebrated actors who took part in this film-experiment. But it was Charles Aznavour, playing the director Edward Saroyan, who lit up the movie and — when the film stirred controversy in real life — rose to defend it. “I never felt hatred because I was never raised in hatred,” Aznavour said at a press event in Cannes, where the film premiered. “I have no hatred because I was never taught to hate.”
Of course it’s that final sentiment that brings into focus Aznavour’s true legacy. Beneath the art and craft of this master of music and film —and the key to his success in both - was the undeniable humanity, sincerity, and love of Charles Aznavour.
Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.