Take-Home Cinematheque: The French New Wave

Jean Seberg kisses Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (1960).
Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel in the 400 Blows (1959). The Girls of Chabrol's Les Bonnes Femmes (1960). Delphine Seyrig reflected in Last Year at Marienbad (1961).

Like the Cinémathèque Française, where young French filmmakers like, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut received their early cinematic education, the Denver Public Library preserves and makes available a large collection of films from a variety of eras and cultures, as well a number of books and articles on film history and criticism.  Channel the spirit of the nouvelle vague and let DPL turn your living room into a screening room. Vive la France!

Motivated by an intense love of all things cinematic, the core group of directors associated with the New Wave -- Godard, Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer -- transformed themselves from film lovers to film critics, and from film critics to film directors.  Beginning with the release of a remarkable set of films in 1959 and 1960 -- including The 400 Blows (1959), Breatheless (1960), Les Cousins (1959) Hiroshima mon Amour (1959) --  these young filmmakers along with their Left Bank colleagues -- Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy, and Chris Marker -- launched one of the most philosophically and aesthetically influential movements in the history of film.

Ciné-clubs and Auteurs

The booming post-war exhibition (1946 to 1955) of previously banned or edited films, and American or international films in cinémathèques and ciné-clubs, helped to inspire cinephilia in a generation of young movie-goers, including Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rohmer and the young audiences that would eventually flock to their films.  Rohmer founded the Ciné-club du Quartier Latin, to which many of the other New Wave filmmakers belonged.

The Journal Cahiers du cinéma (notebook of cinema) was founded in 1951 by the film critic and theorist André Bazin, who served as a philosophical mentor for the young New Wave directors.  In the pages of Cahiers du cinema, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, along with Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, championed French directors considered somewhat outdated (Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls) or eccentric (Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati) as well as Hollywood Directors like Buster Keaton and John Ford, and the Italian Neorealist filmmakers of the immediate post-war period.

Influenced in part by Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 article “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera Stylo,” and André Bazin’s theories of cinema Truffaut wrote a series of articles that lay the foundation of the "Auteur Theory," the New Wave's signature theoretical contribution. Writing in the journal L'Écran français in 1948, Astruc claimed that individual filmmakers would soon be able to express their ideas and emotions as simply and profoundly as the greatest novelists of past decades.  Astruc felt that directors should be the sole authors of their films and encouraged them to write their own screenplays. He charged filmmakers with the development of a truly cinematic language and to break away from filmed equivalents of literary metaphors – leaves falling to show the passage of time – and try to capture these concepts in a more direct, cinematic manner.

The underlying assumption of the Auteur Theory is the notion that film directors are the driving creative force behind their films. Fundamentally, an auteur is a film professional who is able to communicate and develop a unique personal vision and/or a novel approach to the medium through a series of different film projects.  Each auteur’s body of work can be regarded as expressing a coherent world view, and for the auteur critic it is overarching sensibility, as opposed to each individual film, that is the primary object of interest and investigation. The emblematic auteurs were Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin, Sam Fuller, Vincente Minelli, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock. These directors often did not write their own scripts, but managed nonetheless to stamp their personalities and ideas onto conventional genre and studio products.

 

What is (New Wave) Cinema?

Influenced by the 30s French cinema of Jean Renoir, Italian Neorealism of the 40s, Hollywood Genre Films (Noirs, Westerns, Musicals) of the 1950s, and contemporary documentaries, the New Wave directors produced films for cinephiles by cinephiles. They viewed the process of filmmaking and criticism as fundamentally intertwined – thinking and writing about film shapes the way films are made; making films is a way of experimenting with and analyzing the medium. Dotting their work with references to their favorite films and filmmakers they created a new multi-layered film language in which compositions, cuts, and gestures have one meaning in the context of the film in which they appear and another in the larger context of film history.  French New Wave filmmakers frequently drew attention to their films' status as artificial constructions, rather than fading into the background, editing, camera-movement, and sound are highlighted in such a way as to make viewers aware that they are watching a film.

In general, New Wave films tend to combine the iconography and tone of Hollywood films, the loose plot structure and documentary aesthetic of post-war Italian cinema, and the self-consciousness of modern art and literature.  In his writings, Godard conceived of film as a synthesis of documentary and fiction, Lumière and Méliès, research and spectacle.  He sought to merge documentary and fiction by combining the problems, preoccupations, and desires of everyday people in realistic settings with plot-elements and iconography drawn from Hollywood genre films.  “I have always wanted, basically, to do research in the form of a spectacle.  The documentary side is: a man in a particular situation.  The spectacle comes when one makes this man a gangster or a secret agent.”

The New Wave directors shot their films quickly on location (usually in and around Paris), on short schedules using available light sources, without well known actors. They used portable 16mm cameras that could be hand held and easily maneuvered through crowded urban environments. They created narratives from  sets of loosely structured episodes, whose ambiguous causality and meaning reflects a thematic preoccupation with existential uncertainty.  Many New Wave heroes and heroines struggle to define their identities and to understand their place in the world. More often than not they drift aimlessly, act on the spur of the moment, and spend their time talking and drinking in cafés and, of course, going to the movies.

Recommended Viewing

Les Cousins, Claude Chabrol (1959)

The 400 Blows, François Truffaut (1959)

Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais (1959)

Les Bonnes Femmes, Claude Chabrol (1960)

Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard (1960)

Shoot the Piano Player, François Truffaut (1960)

Cleo From 5 to 7, Agnès Varda (1962)

La Jetée (1962)/ Sans Soleil (1983), Chris Marker

Muriel, Alain Resnais (1963)

Two or Three Things I Know About Her . . ., Jean-Luc Godard (1967)

The Young Girls of Rochefort, Jacques Demy (1967)

My Night at Maud's, Eric Rohmer (1969)

Va Savoir, Jacques Rivette (2001)

Recommended Reading

excerpts from What is Cinema? vol. 1, André Bazin (1967)

Godard on Godard; Critical Writings; edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne (1972)

The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, James Monaco (1976)

A History of the French New Wave Cinema, Richard Neupert (2002)

The French New Wave: An Artistic School, Michel Marie (2003)

 

Comments

Louis Malle has some great proto-New Wave as well: The Lovers, The Fire Within and, of course Elevator to the Gallows.

Thanks, EA! Malle was incredibly important to the development of the New Wave. Elevator to the Gallows is très chic! I also love Zazie dans le Metro.

Thanks, Cathy! I'll be interested to know what you think of the New Wave films. I'll have to get myself on the holds queue for Blancanieves -- it looks gorgeous.

Great blog! I'm starting on your recommended viewing list today. Off topic, but I watched Blancanieves last night and was blown away, totally enchanted ...

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