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French New Wave
by Craig Phillips

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

Le background

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.

    Many will argue (and rather pointlessly when it comes down to it) which film was the first of the French New Wave; officially, the first work out of this group wasn't a feature at all, but rather, short films produced in 1956 and 57, including Jacques Rivette's Le coup du berger (Fool's Mate) and François Truffaut's Les Mistons (The Mischief Makers). Some point to Claude Chabrol's Le beau Serge (1958) as the first feature success of the New Wave. He shot the low budget film on location and used the money raised from its release to make Les cousins; with its depiction of two student cousins, one good, one bad, it's the first Chabrol film to contain his uniquely sardonic view of the world. Les cousins is particularly interesting when looking at the typical qualities of early French New Wave works, because of its long, memorable party sequence which climaxes in a very cruel joke.

    The Wave Breaks: Truffaut

    But it was in 1959 that the wave really broke: that year featured three seminal films, and with them, three major filmmakers would emerge. In 1959, a Cahiers critic so acerbic he'd been banned the year before from the Cannes Film Festival, returned as a director, bringing with him a film that would stun the world. That film, François Truffaut's first feature, was Les quatre cents coups, or The 400 Blows.

    The 400 Blows

    It would be the first of many semi-autobiographical films Truffaut would make with actor Jean-Pierre Léaud (who bore a fairly close resemblance to the director) playing Antoine Doinel. The 400 Blows was a stunningly unsentimental (especially compared to Truffaut's last few films) but poetic account of a teenage delinquent who runs away from home rather than deal with his uncaring parents and teacher, only to find life on the streets a rough challenge. The film masterfully tells the story from Doinel's point of view, but doesn't flinch away from the raw emotions of the situations, and has surely been an influence on films as distinct as Raising Victor Vargas and Trans. The final shot is one of the most unforgettable in all of modern cinema. Truffaut's next two films in the Doinel saga would be the short featurette Antoine et Collette and the charming Stolen Kisses, which is a fairly episodic but beautifuly observed romantic comedy; in that film, Truffaut depicts Paris in the way that Woody Allen does New York, as a beautiful and whimsical place. Interesting, too, how Stolen Kisses was released in 1968, the same year that the student protest movements were rocking France and the world, while the film remains deceptively serene. The anxiety seems to lie just beneath the surface.

    Truffaut's follow-up film, Shoot the Piano Player, was a box-office dud upon initial release but was given a critical reappraisal soon after. An offbeat crime film that was quiet, romantic, personal and audacious, people weren't sure what to make of it at the time, but its cinematic literacy and cheekiness would inspire future filmmakers (the pulp fiction origins of the story and the inept crooks surely must have inspired Tarantino, among others). The Ray Bradbury adaption Fahrenheit 451 was another underrated film, likely because at the time many people were treating it more like straight science fiction than as a parable, a world not too different than our own. It's a surprisingly moving, rich film that deserves a fresh look. Much of Truffaut's later work seemed to fall into more sentimental or maudlin territory, but there are the occasional gems - Day for Night, his playful ode to filmmaking, chief among them.

    Godard

    Far more politically engaged than Truffaut was Jean-Luc Godard; in fact, the two were known to have been mutually disaffected with each other. Arguably, Godard, for whatever his inconsistencies, is the one who might ultimately have been the most influential and remembered. His Breathless (A bout de souffle), which was remade weakly in America in 1983, is still probably the most often cited film when the topic shifts to the French New Wave, and for good reason: it's a kinetic joy, full of jump cuts, lavish Paris location shooting, with cool jazz on the soundtrack, a noirish mood, and a lovely, literate romance, all adding up to one for the ages. Interestingly, the film is based on a story by Truffaut, the only time the two would come close to collaborating on anything.

    Breathless

    Godard was the most prolific of all the major figures of this movement; he produced roughly two films a year in the 1960s, and amazingly, many of them still hold up today. In Le Petit Soldat and Pierrot le Fou in particular, Godard gave us his protoypical male characters, men who were full of self-doubt; the politics in the former seem a little more naive than what you'd find in Godard's later, more overtly politicized work, while the latter is essentially a mishmosh of every genre the New Wave seemed to have an interest in deconstructing (gangster, romance, musical) while ultimately ending up in tragedy-land. My favorite Godard film is A Band of Outsiders (A band aparte) which has an innate sense of playfulness at work as Godard very loosely adapts a book noir and (his wife at the time) Anna Karina at her most lovely (and naive). It features a memorable pantomime dance with Karina, Claude Brasseur and Sami Frey (who played, in Godard's own words, "the little suburban cousins of [Jean-Paul] Belmondo" in Breathless), and an overall sense of joie de vivre not seen in some of Godard's other films.

    Alphaville, Godard's homage to both science-fiction and American detective stories, is a fascinating, if slightly alienating, production; Godard's frequent collaborator, cameraman Raoul Coutard, shot modern-day Paris as a "dehumanized city of the future." It's one of Godard's more even-keeled and sustained films and an interesting parable about the alienating role technology plays in our lives.

    In fitting with the upheavals of the era, Godard became more overtly politicized in the late 60s and formed a film collective called the Dziga Vertov Group (named after the great Russian filmmaker). His films then started to become increasingly inaccessible (not that he was ever striving for mainstream success, mind you). In that period, he produced a number of shorts outlining his politics, traveled extensively and shot a number of films, most of which remained unfinished or were refused showings. One notable exception is the fascinating, but disturbing Weekend, which contains one of the chillingly great set-pieces in all of cinema, a ten-minute tracking shot of the world's largest traffic jam as well as a cutting portrayal of the bourgeoisie. As Amy Taubin recently wrote in the Village Voice, Weekend is "kinetic and cruel... the film in which Godard really sticks it to narrative. Not only is it devoid of a single character anyone could care about, the fact that I've given away the ending doesn't matter a jot."

    Godard the experimenting Marxist will still occasionally turn out interesting works, but they give the appearance of someone who seems to have gone off the deep end or lost touch with reality as most of us know it in his attempts to show his own. But this is Godard - simultaneously exasperating and brilliant, self-important and important. "I've always chosen to do what others aren't doing," he said in a 2001 interview with the BBC. "No one does that, so it remains to be done, let's try it. If it's already being done, there's no point in me doing it as well." And so it goes. And on goes his legacy, too.

    Resnais

    The last of the three seminal initial films of the French New Wave released in 1959 is Alain Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour, probably the most inventive of all early New Wave works in terms of structure. Resnais's remarkable film unfurls not unlike a poem, an elliptical tracing of memory lost and time regained, the chronology of which makes Memento look straightforward. What separates this work from most of the other French New Wave classics is its strong screenplay (by novelist Marguerite Duras) - whereas many of the other films relied at least in part on improvisation and less on a collaborative process with a separate writer. Resnais is actually a generation older than the Cahiers kids and, if he was "traditional" in any way, it was that he was more inclined to work from an original script than other members of the New Wave. But he was also equally interested in Henri Bergson and the avant-garde and first found acclaim at the height of the New Wave. His Last Year at Marienbad is a complete puzzle (written by Alain Robbe-Grillet), also scrambling the way time unfolds, rendering past, present and future basically meaningless. It's unsettling, to say the least, and either one of the most important films of the period, or pretentious nonsense, depending on your mood. I vote for both.

    Rohmer, Chabrol, and the rest of le gang

    Eric Rohmer was the editor of the Cahiers du Cinema when he tried his hand at feature filmmaking. He shot his first full-length film, The Sign of Leo (which sadly is not available on DVD at this time), in 1959 at the age of 40 with a bit of financial support from the Cahiers crowd. The gloomy tale of a man who believes he's coming into a great inheritance only to wind up homeless and destitute did not fly well with audiences. They would eventually come around to him, though, abandon him and return again. What distinguishes Rohmer from the other New Wave directors, as Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer has pointed out in Senses of Cinema, is that "there is rarely any high drama in his work... He has no cops and robbers, no killers or pimps or thwarted lovers. Even his adulterer in L'Amour l'apres-midi (Chloe in the Afternoon/Love in the Afternoon, 1972) doesn't actually commit adultery - he barely even kisses the woman who tempts him."

    That said, if, as with Resnais and Godard, Rohmer's approach to filmmaking is primarily intellectual, he paints a far more naturalistic and often more sensual canvas. Though each film stands on its own, he's often conceived of them as parts of cycles: Six Moral Tales, Comedies and Proverbs and Tales of the Four Seasons. "In the Rohmer oeuvre," Andrew Sarris wrote a few years ago, "there are no two or three masterpieces that tower over the rest of his efforts. His films, like the novels of Honore de Balzac or Anthony Trollope, are a continuous stream of narrative art with crests and shallows here and there, but no dry gulches anywhere."

    Les Biches

    Truffaut would famously pay homage to one of his auteur idols when he conducted a book-length interview with Alfred Hitchcock, but it was Chabrol whose work would be most often compared to Hitchcock (and he, too, wrote a book, with Eric Rohmer, on Hitch, which is now called Hitchcock: The First 45 Years). The comparison isn't entirely fair. Chabrol's work has focused more on smaller-scale crimes of passion within the framework of a family or community. But there's no doubt for anyone who has seen one of Chabrol's suspense films that he owes a debt to Hitchcock in terms of both genre and style (compare the closing tracking shot of La femme infidele with that of Vertigo, for instance). Chabrol's early work Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) is a perfect example of his carefully crafted filmmaking style, much more so than would be found in some of the early work of his compatriots. Like Godard, Chabrol, in Les bonnes femmes, wittily attacks bourgeois aspirations, but like Hitchcock, he was also fascinated by guilt and obsession, and entirely unsentimental about it. Yet there's a hint of compassion here that keeps the whole from feeling distant.

    About the only woman to be included in this male-dominated group is Agnés Varda, whose husband, Jacques Demy was also a renowned film director in his own right. Varda's most important contribution to the movement is generally considered to be her second film, Cleo from Five to Seven (although those who have seen her first, La Pointe-Courte, from 1955, have raved about it and consider it to be a crucial early work in the New Wave). Cleo took place in real time, tracking the course of two hours (actually 90 minutes) in a day in the life of a pop singer who is waiting to find out whether or not she has cancer. She wanders the streets, meets a soldier, finds renewed reason for hope. The film still holds up today, with a grace to its photography and a joyful humanity in its characterizations. Varda's follow-up works wouldn't quite match Cleo, (although her bold yet poetic Vagabond is worth checking out, mostly for Sandrine Bonnaire's performance) but more recent forays into documentary film have proved quite interesting, most recently with The Gleaners and I. She also made a personal documentary about her late husband's childhood, Jacquot de Nantes, which is a lovely, lyrical tribute.

    Cleo from Five to Seven

    Demy is still most famous for Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, homages to the Hollywood musical. Although arguably not part of the New Wave himself because his films of the era were seemingly lighthearted and fluffy, I'd argue that his tips of the hat to the musical are no less engaging than Godard's or Truffaut's to the gangster film, and that he deserves a place in this canon.

    Sadly, very little of Louis Malle's New Wave work from the 60s is on DVD; we have only Spirits of the Dead, a compilation for which Malle contributed one of the three films, and this is hardly the best example of his work. His first film, Ascenseur pour l'Echefaud (Elevator to the Gallows) was a distinctly moody suspense story in the best American tradition held together by a hypnotic score by cool American jazz musician Miles Davis. Probably Malle's most decidedly New Wave contribution was the unforgettable Zazie dans le Metro, which features many of the movement's favorite conventions - jump cuts, in-jokes and a jarring narrative jumble. A precocious and shockingly (and hilariously) lewd teenage girl named Zazie moves into her drag queen uncle's flat and it all becomes something you might imagine if you combined Madeline with John Waters and pureed with a pint of the French New Wave. The film's often frenetic, comic editing might have influenced Richard Lester (Hard Day's Night, The Knack). Although he had been criticized by some film critics for not being distinctive enough as an auteur, because he tended to lose himself in projects, because his work dared to show range, Malle remained an important director through his later years - most notably with masterful dramas like Au Revoir les enfants and Atlantic City.

    Continue to Part Deux and our recommendations...

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