An artistic movement whose influence on film has been as profound and enduring as that of surrealism or cubism on painting, the French New Wave (or Le Nouvelle Vague) made its first splashes as a movement shot through with youthful exuberance and a brisk reinvigoration of the filmmaking process. Most agree that the French New Wave was at its peak between 1958 and 1964, but it continued to ripple on afterwards, with many of the tendencies and styles introduced by the movement still in practice today.
Jules et Jim
Immediately after World War II, France, like most of the rest of Europe, was in a major state of flux and upheaval; in film, it was a period of great transition. During the German Occupation (1940-45), many of France's greatest directors (René Clair, Jean Renoir, Jacques Feyder among them) had gone into exile. A new generation of filmmakers emerged - but wait! This isn't the New Wave, relax, we're not there yet - and chief among these was René Clément, who had co-directed the classic surrealist fairy tale Beauty and the Beast with playwright Jean Cocteau, and then in the 1950s, furthered his reputation with Forbidden Games. After the traumatic experience of war, a generation gap of sorts emerged between the more "old school" French classic filmmakers and a younger generation who set out to do things differently.
In the 50s, a collective of intellectual French film critics, led by André Bazin and Jacques Donial-Valcroze, formed the groundbreaking journal of film criticism Cahiers du Cinema. They, in turn, had been influenced by the writings of French film critic Alexandre Astruc, who had argued for breaking away from the "tyranny of narrative" in favor of a new form of film (and sound) language. The Cahiers critics gathered by Bazin and Doniol-Valcroze were all young cinephiles who had grown up in the post-war years watching mostly great American films that had not been available in France during the Occupation.
Cahiers had two guiding principles:
1) A rejection of classical montage-style filmmaking (favored by studios up to that time) in favor of: mise-en-scene, or, literally, "placing in the scene" (favoring the reality of what is filmed over manipulation via editing), the long take, and deep composition; and
2) A conviction that the best films are a personal artistic expression and should bear a stamp of personal authorship, much as great works of literature bear the stamp of the writer. This latter tenet would be dubbed by American film critic Andrew Sarris the "auteur (author) theory."
This philosophy, not surprisingly, led to the rejection of more traditional French commercial cinema (Clair, Clement, Henri-Georges Clouzout, Marc Allegret, among others), and instead embraced directors - both French and American - whose personal signature could be read in their films. The French directors the Cahiers critics endorsed included Jean Vigo, Renoir, Robert Bresson and Marcel Ophüls; while the Americans on their list of favorites included John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles, indisputed masters, all. There were also a few surprising, even head-scratching favorites, including Jerry Lewis (thus beginning the stereotype about France's Lewis obsession) and Roger Corman.
Many of the French New Wave's favorite conventions actually sprang not only from artistic tenets but from necessity and circumstance. These critics-turned-filmmakers knew a great deal about film history and theory but a lot less about film production. In addition, they were, especially at the start, working on low budgets. Thus, they often improvised with what schedules and materials they could afford. Out of all this came a group of conventions that were consistently used in the majority of French New Wave films (similar to, but less encapsulated than, Denmark's Dogme 95 "manifesto"), including:
- Jump cuts: a non-naturalistic edit, usually a section of a continuous shot that is removed unexpectedly, illogically
- Shooting on location
- Natural lighting
- Improvised dialogue and plotting
- Direct sound recording
- Long takes
Many of these conventions are commonplace today, but back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this was all very groundbreaking. Jump cuts were used as much to cover mistakes as they were an artistic convention. Jean-Luc Godard certainly appreciated the dislocating feel a jump cut conveyed, but let's remember - here was a film critic-turned-first-time director who was also using inexperienced actors and crew, and shooting, at least at first, on a shoestring budget. Therefore, as Nixon once said, mistakes were made. Today when jump cuts are used they even feel more like a pretentious artifice.
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