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French New Wave

Continued from Part One.

Gangster riffs

Owing a large debt of inspiration to American gangster films of the 30s and 40s, the French wave of crime melodramas were unique hybrids of American-style loner-ism and French ennui. It is Jean-Pierre Melville who, while not generally considered a part of this movement, was undoubtedly influential upon its players. His Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) was a favorite of two young filmgoers named Truffaut and Godard; it was a hip rendering of the previously tired-out gangster genre which employed location shooting to give it an immediacy.

Bob le Flambeur

And we shouldn't overlook Jules Dassin's Rififi, which, like Bob le Flambeur, is probably more a New Wave influence than an actual product of the movement. With the look of a Hollywood film noir but far more existential than anything you'd find coming out of the US, Rififi influenced a host of botched crime caper movies in the decades that would follow.

Godard's Breathless was dedicated to Monogram Pictures, an American b-movie studio that turned out a slew of fine little movies on a tight schedule and a low budget, and Breathless seemed to be both inspired by and a parody of that studio's gangster pictures. Truffaut's own foray into this arena, Shoot the Piano Player, could just as easily have used the same dedication.


I don't want to give short shrift to all the important documentary work going on in France during this time period, the makers of which overlapped closely with the feature directors. In fact, quite a few of these filmmakers were influenced by and worked in documentary. Alain Resnais made documentary shorts for the first eleven years of his career, starting with films about artists - Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso (Guernica) - in the late 40s and early 50s, and peaking with Night and Fog (1955), the disturbing, brilliant meditation on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. The influence of documentary style becomes obvious when watching some of Resnais's feature film work. As mentioned before, Agnés Varda, who began her creative life as a photographer, would dabble in documentary, and Chris Marker, a long-time cult favorite who received fame very belatedly after his La Jetée was cited as the inspiration for Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys, also created documentaries, or more appropriately, film essays, such as the stunning Sans Soleil, Cuba si!, Le joli mai, and others, in the 1960s and 70s. And Marcel Ophüls (son of director Max) would make the renowned, epic masterpiece about the Nazi occupation of France, The Sorrow and the Pity (1971), which was nominated for an Oscar (and makes several an amusing cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

Les acteurs

It's hard to think of the French New Wave without also thinking of some of the memorable faces that have lit up the screen: Jean-Paul Belmondo's sad-eyed face, the eyes that eventually shut, in Breathless; Jean Seberg, in the same film, forever entrenched in our memories with her beret and newspapers; French cinema institution Charles Aznavour, in Shoot the Piano Player (and later, serenading our lover protagonists in Jonathan Demme's erratic ode to the French New Wave, The Truth About Charlie); Brigitte Bardot (va-va-voom) in Godard's filmmaking fable Contempt; Jean-Pierre Léaud, growing up and sowing his oats right before our eyes; Anna Karina, smart and feisty yet darkly seductive and, dare I say it, quintessentially French.

Le recap

The filmmakers of the French New Wave are unique and distinctive enough to stand out on their own but they collectively comprised one of the most influential movements in cinema history. Some of the films have aged better than others but many remain firmly entrenched in our memory banks. Even though they weren't aiming at mainstream success, many of these films became popular and critically acclaimed worldwide, the subject of much debate, and, ultimately, the inspiration to filmmakers everywhere. The five filmmakers who came from the Cahiers du cinema (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette and Rohmer) were incredibly prolific: in the years between 1959 and 1966, the peak of the New Wave, they made 32 films. When you throw in the other talented auteurs intertwined with this group, you have a broad coalition of artists who made some of the most groundbreaking films of the second half of the 20th century. Their contribution to the film art cannot be underestimated.

The Next Wave

Some of the directors who reached prominence as part of the French New Wave are still working today (including Chabrol and Rivette, whose Va Savoir was one of the better films from France over the last couple of years). Meanwhile, the influence lives on. In our recommendation box below you will see a sampling of some contemporary filmmakers who can trace some of their stylistic roots back to the French New Wave.

French New Wave Bits of Trivia

  • Truffaut might be more remembered by younger generations for his acting appearance in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  • The French spelling of A Band of Outsiders - A band aparte - inspired the name for Quentin Tarantino's production company.
  • GreenCine Recommends...

    New Wave Origins:

  • Bob le Flambeur: Jean Pierre Melville's classic crime study.
  • Grand Illusion: Jean Renoir was certainly an influence on Truffaut, among others.
  • And God Created Woman: Roger Vadim showed the stagnant French film industry that a young lion could make a commercially successful film.
  • Max Ophüls's work in general was a major influence on the New Wave; the only title currently available on DVD is Lola Montes, generally considered his masterpiece, but some of the other melodramas he made in Hollywood were equally influential.
  • Robert Bresson's Ladies of the Bois de Bologne.

    French New Wave Classics:

  • The 400 Blows launched both the filmmaking career of FrançoisTruffaut and the Antoine Doinel series.
  • Alphaville (Criterion Edition): Eddie Constantine talks to an electric fan in this sci-fi gangster noir. It works.
  • Band of Outsiders (Bande à part) is one of Jean-Luc Godard's most poetic and accessible films.
  • Breathless (A bout de soufflé): Imitating Bogart's cool, Belmondo created one all his own.
  • The Bride Wore Black (1967): Truffaut's most overt homage to Hitchcock is quite an entertaining diversion.
  • Contempt features a fascinating, self-reflective performance from Fritz Lang.
  • Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a haunting collaboration between Marquerite Duras and Alain Resnais.
  • Jules and Jim, Truffaut's fast-paced yet touching, often-imitated story of the cinema's most famous ménage à trois.
  • Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais's visually thrilling, narratively challenging meditation on, among other things, cinema itself.

    Best of the Rest:

  • Antoine Doinel Series: Stolen Kisses, Love on the Run, Bed & Board, Les Salades de l'amour.
  • Small Change, Truffaut's anecdote to The 400 Blows; a delightful celebration of childhood.
  • Cleo from 5 to 7. Agnes Varda depicts a pop singer slapped with news of her mortality.
  • Day for Night. Seems every director has a movie about the movies in him. This is Truffaut's.
  • Fahrenheit 451, the adaptation of the always-relevant Bradbury novel.
  • La Guerre est Finie. Speaking of relevance, Yves Montand portrays a revolutionary here struggling to keep the flame alive, even if only in spirit.
  • Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen): Godard's fairly extreme expose on the stupidity of war, is one of his (and this is saying a lot) strangest movies; archival footage is mixed with the story of two idiots who become soldiers. It's dark, cold, and worthy of study for Godard fans.
  • Mon Oncle d'Amérique. To call it a film about determinism (which, admittedly, it is) would make it sound dull, when, in fact, this is the most popular film in Resnais's oeuvre.
  • My Life to Live. There's a story here, but there is also Anna Karina and the camera's enigmatic affair with her face.
  • Night and Fog. Jonathan Rosenbaum calls it "the greatest film ever made about the concentration camps."
  • Pierrot Le Fou, your basic "bourgeois businessman cuts loose" story but with intriguing interruptions and juxtapositions.
  • Shoot the Piano Player. The story's fine, but here's where you get to really soak in all that pulpy Parisian atmo, the jazz, the smoke, the booze, the straight-legged pants.
  • The Soft Skin. Adultery à la français. Is there any better way?
  • A Woman Is a Woman, Godard's first color, first widescreen film is also unique for its song and dance numbers. No, really.

    French New Wave Sleepers

  • Nada. A bit violent by Claude Chabrol's standards, but then, so were the times.
  • Le Petit Soldat, in which Godard unflinchingly pokes at France's greatest sore spot, the Algerian War.
  • Mississippi Mermaid. Truffaut takes Belmondo and Deneuve on a ride through Vertigo.

    Offspring of the French New Wave

    The French New Wave has inspired a horde of new, brash filmmakers who, whether they will cop to it or not, have undoubtedly been influenced by their predecessors. Some of these progeny include:

  • Don't Look Now: Nicolas Roeg began his career working as a cinematographer with Truffaut (see Fahrenheit 451 as a highlight) before branching out on his own as a director.
  • More recently, Jim Jarmusch, whose long takes seemed like a revelation in his first feature, the deadpan comedy Strangers in Paradise, could be traced back to the New Wave.
  • What Time is it There? This Taiwanese film is a bit of an homage to the French New Wave and even features Jean-Pierre Léaud in a cameo.
  • Another American independent filmmaker, Hal Hartley has paid homage to Godard on many occasions, including the wonderful dance-to-Sonic Youth sequence in Simple Men, which is skillfully lifted from Godard's Band of Outsiders.
  • Nagisa Oshima answered the traditional Japanese cinema much in the same way his French counterparts did a few years prior.
  • Wong Kar-Wai: Just watch his Chungking Express without thinking of Godard.
  • Before he forged his own unique style, Rainer Werner Fassbinder began his career quite openly mimicking his French New Wave favorites. Love is Colder than Death, for example, is dedicated to Chabrol and Rohmer and features a character named "Erica Rohmer."
  • And, yes, Quentin Tarantino, who wears (or wipes) his many influences on his sleeve.

    Best French New Wave Films Currently Unavailable on DVD:

  • L'Amour Fou
  • La Pointe-Courte
  • The Silence of the Sea
  • Paris Vu Par: Six FNW directors short films set in a single Parisian neighborhood.
  • Zazie dans le Metro: Saw this in film school and still remember it vividly today; someday it will be available in the States, I'm sure.

    Suggestions for further clicking:

    My French New Wave list here on GreenCine.

    Art and Culture Network on the French New Wave.

    Moviemaker Magazine on the influence of the French New Wave on contemporary independent filmmakers.

    And finally, just for kicks, La Nouvelle Vague according to Jacques Chirac.

    Go back to Part One.

    Go back to Primers index.

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