The French New Wave

Cléo from 5 to 7  (1962, Agnès Varda)

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda)

A History of the French New Wave

          After World War II, a group of young French cinephiles - François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, and Éric Rohmer - marveled at the masterpieces of world cinema within the shadowy sanctuary of The Cinémathèque Française. Under the leadership of theorist André Bazin, these aspiring filmmakers advanced film theory and criticism at Cahiers du Cinéma throughout the 1950s. From Bazin's What is Cinema? and Alexandre Astruc's "The Birth of a New Avant Garde: The Camera Stylo" to Truffaut's "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," the critics at Cahiers helped create the theoretical foundation for film studies still used by the Academy today. As the 1950s progressed, the young film journalists decided to put their words into action, starting a film movement that would change cinema forever - The French New Wave. The French New Wave changed cinematic language by emphasizing the audio-visual nature of the medium through discontinuity editing, long takes, extended tracking shots, jump cuts, improvised dialogue, rapid film editing, and a focus on film form over content. In addition to these technical advancements, the performance style was the perfect midpoint between the acting of Old Hollywood and non-professional performances of Italian neorealism, as the actors performed with a cool naturalism in the midst of these self-aware films. In addition to this new style of acting, the New Wave auteurs championed on location shooting above being constricted to a set with the exception of Jacques Demy, who mixed location shooting with fantastical sets to call attention to the cinematic form in films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Speaking of Jacques Demy, although the critics at Cahiers du Cinèma mentioned above led the way for the New Wave, many other filmmakers who did not work for Cahiers formed a group that experimented with the aesthetic foundation of the New Wave known as The Left Bank. The Left Bank group included: Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Jacques Rozier, and many others.

Elevator to the Gallows  (1958, Louis Malle)

Elevator to the Gallows (1958, Louis Malle)

            Although the French New Wave started in the late 1950s, many films from the mid-1950s hinted toward a forthcoming aesthetic shift in French cinema. From the lengthy heist in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) to Jean-Pierre Melville’s self-aware gangster film Bob le Flambeur (1956), these French crime films alluded to the shift in cinematic language that was being formally created by the theorists at Cahiers. Perhaps the most important forerunner to the New Wave is Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Court (1955), a neorealist tale of marital strife with moments of discontinuity editing and an unprecedented focus on film form. Only three years later, Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol would release the first films of the movement, which helped to grow momentum for the artistic shift across France. Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (1958) is equal parts film noir and experimental love letter to American cinema, complete with a star-making performance by Jeanne Moreau and a brilliant score by Miles Davis. Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) and Les Cousins (1959) tested the boundaries of neorealism through discontinuity editing, combining social commentary with frenetic depictions of the French every day. Alain Resnais followed swiftly with Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), an unconventional romance that blurred the lines between documentary and fiction through its interweaving of archival footage and a loose narrative. Unfortunately, the leader of the young New Wave auteurs, André Bazin, died a sudden death as the movement began to find its footing. Faced with the loss of a friend and father figure, François Truffaut persisted to finish his first film to honor his mentor’s legacy. Combining formal experimentation, cinematic self-awareness, and the Paris-set coming-of-age story of Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) proved to be an international success, as it cemented the French New Wave in the public consciousness. In a matter of months, Jean-Luc Godard released Breathless (1960), a film that revolutionized discontinuity editing, expressive sound design, and fast-paced storytelling to change the filmmaking process for decades to come. Both The 400 Blows and Breathless revolutionized the movement’s formal experimentation and created a cinematic language that is still used today.

            Both Godard and Truffaut followed their acclaimed debut features with a string of successful projects. Godard explored gender and film history through loose narratives about complex love triangles in A Woman is a Woman (1961) and Masculin Féminin (1966), while his film Band of Outsiders (1964) fused this “ménage à trois” formula with elements of American film noir that he initially explored through Breathless. Vivre sa vie (1962) used an episodic form to detail the descent of an aspiring actress into prostitution, formally placing the now-iconic Anna Karina within a legacy of timeless French female performance alongside Renée Maria Falconetti’s turn in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). As the decade progressed, Godard slipped further into a realm of formal exploration with self-aware masterpieces like the metacinematic Contempt (1963) and the countercultural road trip tragicomedy Pierrot le Fou (1965). A few months after Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Godard experimented with science fiction and formal innovation through his dizzying Parisian dystopia in Alphaville (1965). Simultaneously, François Truffaut crafted revolutionary love letters to film noir and Alfred Hitchcock through Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and The Soft Skin (1964), respectively. Truffaut also furthered the coming-of-age narrative of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel in the short film Antoine and Colette (1962). Besides The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s other New Wave masterpiece is the complex and carefully crafted romance Jules and Jim (1962), featuring Jeanne Moreau’s best performance of the movement.

Shoot the Piano Player  (1960, François Truffaut)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960, François Truffaut)

            While Godard and Truffaut solidified their legacies in film history, many other New Wave and Left Bank directors created their own masterpieces. Agnès Varda continued the innovation she started in La Pointe Court with Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), a contained cinematic experience detailing a day in Cléo’s life as she awaits an important diagnosis. For her final film of the movement, Varda moved from Paris to Provence to detail a deteriorating marriage in expressive Technicolor with Le Bonheur (1965). Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy released his beautiful tribute to the filmography of Max Ophüls with Lola (1960), the music-driven story of the tumultuous life of Lola, a sweet showgirl brilliantly portrayed by Anouk Aimée. Demy also released his candy-coated yet formally rich musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), which paid tribute to the American musical while creating a cinematic style all their own. After Hiroshima Mon Amour, Alain Resnais experimented with the concepts of time, memory, and mortality through the puzzle-like Last Year at Marienbad (1961), mind-bending Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963), and the post-New Wave experiment Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). Éric Rohmer began his iconic “Moral Tales” series with The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Suzanne’s Career (1963), and La Collectionneuse (1967), three films founded upon neorealism with dashes of New Wave experimentation. Although Louis Malle resisted the mantras and labels of the New Wave more than any other Left Bank filmmaker, his adorable yet surreal Zazie dans le Métro (1960) and creative neo-noir The Fire Within (1963) offer textbook examples of the French New Wave’s exploration of and experimentation with cinematic form and content.

            Unfortunately, both political differences and personal conflicts between the auteurs at the center of the movement disintegrated the French New Wave in 1967. Although a few directors held onto the principles of New Wave experimentation into the next year, the student riots at The Sorbonne in May 1968 solidified the disillusionment of the French counterculture that served as a life blood for the cinematic movement. Nevertheless, the influence of the French New Wave persists into modern cinema, as directors, editors, and cinematographers today use the innovations of these French auteurs. As the French New Wave burned up, The New Hollywood movement rose like a phoenix from its ashes, as films, including Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), would continue the experimentation founded upon the French New Wave.

 

The Films of the French New Wave

 

Film Scenes

Breathless (1960): Opening Scene

This scene introduced the world to the discontinuous editing, naturalistic acting, and experimentation with cinematic form that define the French New Wave.

Pierrot Le Fou (1965): Car Scene

In one of the most self-aware scenes of the French New Wave, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina acknowledge the audience in their dialogue, which leads Karina to look directly into the camera. By breaking the fourth wall, Godard and the actors acknowledge the aesthetic nature of cinema and bring attention to the film's form.

Zazie dans le Métro (1960): Chase Scene

This surreal sequence combines discontinuity editing, freeze frames, jump cuts, and moments of animation to bring attention to the aestheticism and artistry of cinema.

The 400 Blows (1959): Final Scene

By combining a long take and a tracking shot, Truffaut uses Antoine's flight from the observation center to bring attention to the audio-visual medium of film itself. Furthermore, Truffaut solidifies the formal experimentation of the French New Wave with the iconic final freeze frame of Antoine on the shore.

 

Video Essays

Breathless: How World War II Changed Cinema

This video essay uses Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless to show the effect of WWII on cinema, examining the theories of Jacques Lacan alongside the French New Wave.

 
Lola  (1961, Jacques Demy)

Lola (1961, Jacques Demy)

Breaking the Rules - The French New Wave

This video essay defines the rule-breaking work of French New Wave auteurs, as they experimented with film form to create a new cinematic language.

 

Books

  • A Short History of Cahiers Du Cinema (2009, Emilie Bickerton) Buy on Amazon
  • Godard on Godard (1986, Jean-Luc Godard) Buy on Amazon
  • The French New Wave: A New Look (2007, Naomi Greene) Buy on Amazon
  • The French New Wave: An Artistic School (2002, Michel Marie) Buy on Amazon
  • A History of the French New Wave Cinema (2002, Richard J. Neupert) Buy on Amazon
  • The Films in My Life (1994, François Truffaut) Buy on Amazon 

Podcasts

  • The Shifted Cinema Podcast: Episode 4 - Talking French New Wave Cinema with Sara Drabik (Listen Here).
  • In Session Film Podcast: The French New Wave Series (Listen Here)

Other

 

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