The French New Wave - an introduction

A Bout De Souffle
Gauloises cigarettes, stylish girls in cafes on the Champs Elysees, three friends running through the Louvre, or over a bridge. These are images that embody a genre of filmmaking that made a considerable impact half a century ago. Its influence continues to resonate today.

The roots of the French new wave - or nouvelle vague - can be found in Paris in the early fifties. A group of young film connoisseurs came together to work on the magazine Cahiers Du Cinema. At the heart of this group were figures such as Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Louis Malle.

The group developed their own philosophy of cinema, rejecting the conventional “cinema de qualite“, which they cited as old fashioned “cinema de papa“, and substituting a concentration on the modern. Costume drama was replaced with social realism and contemporary attitudes and settings. Of equal importance was the role of the director. They promoted the concept of the "auteur", where the director was the creator of the film, which bore his vision and trademark style.

The first new wave films were shorts. Truffaut’s Les Mistons (1957) and Rohmer’s The Girl At The Monceau Bakery (1963) are typical. Filmed in grainy black and white, these are the equivalent of cinematic short stories, with clearly defined characters, neatly devised plots and of course, stylised settings.

Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) is often cited as the first full length nouvelle vague film. Starring Jean-Claude Brialy and Gerard Blain, it was influenced by Hitchcock and covers themes such as guilt and redemption. Shortly after this came Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), starring Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada, which focuses on the lives of two lovers over a 36 hour period and is revolutionary for how it addresses the passage of time.

Then came Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). Starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, its theme is the life of the eleven year old Antoine Doinel, which draws heavily from Truffaut’s own experiences in Paris. It won the Palme d‘Or at Cannes in 1959 and was the first of a sequence of films directed by Truffaut and starring Leaud, in which he played the character of Doinel, taking his story up to adulthood. Others in the series include Antoine And Colette (made for the 1962 anthology Love At Twenty), Stolen Kisses (1968) Bed and Board (1970) and Love On The Run (1979).

Perhaps the film that is most identified with the nouvelle vague is Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (or Breathless). Starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, it follows a chancer and his on-off lover on the run from the police. The settings in Paris are exquisite, the Miles Davis theme is magnificent and the words “New York Herald Tribune” are unforgettable. Why? It is worth watching the film to find out.

Bande A Part
There is not room here to chronicle every nouvelle vague film. But there are some that deserve special mention. Godard's output was spectacular. Bande A Part (1964) tells the story of three outsiders. It stars Godard’s wife Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur. The race through the Louvre is a celebrated cinematic moment, as is The Madison Scene - a dance routine in a cafĂ©. Masculin Feminine (1966) is a semi-documentary, starring Chantal Goya and Jean-Pierre Leaud and exploring the attitudes of what Godard called "the generation of Marx and Coca Cola“. It is interesting to reflect that this was made two years before the May 1968 uprising. Alphaville (1965), starring Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina, follows detective Lemmy Caution and his investigation in a distant space city. It was typical of the nouvelle vague that Godard used contemporary Paris for the setting rather than create a new city.

Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim (1962) may, at first sight, seem an unlikely nouvelle vague film, since its timeframe is not contemporary but the early part of the twentieth century. But the themes of the film tell another story. Truffaut was inspired to make it when he came across, by accident, a book written by Henri-Pierre Roche which recounts a menage a trois involving the author, writer Frank Hessel and his wife Helen Grund. Truffaut made a film of this relationship - with the main characters depicted as Jules (Oskar Werner), Jim (Henri Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) - with the approval of the book’s author. Its themes of free love and open relationships were ahead of their time. And it includes that scene on the bridge.

Other notable new wave films include Malle’s thriller Lift To The Scaffold (1958), starring Jeanne Moreau and with another memorable theme from Miles Davis, Rivette’s Paris Nous Apartment (1958), Alan Resnais’ dreamlike Last Year At Marienbad (1961) and Godard’s Made In The USA (1966). But there are so many great films I am bound to have missed many out.

Jules Et Jim
Of crucial importance to the nouvelle vague was technique. These directors use hand held cameras, with impromptu locations on Paris streets. Jump cuts were used most notably in A Bout De Souffle, which one scene cutting instantly to another, which gave an instantaneous, dramatic effect. Tracking shots - long single takes - were introduced, perhaps the most well-known being in Godard‘s later work, Weekend (1967), which includes a seven minute take of a traffic jam.

Strictly speaking, the nouvelle vague lasted from 1958 to 1964. But many of the films made by these directors stem from after this period. Godard’s work with The Rolling Stones produced the excellent Sympathy For The Devil (1968) documentary. Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is considered one of his greatest works and, as described above, films such as Weekend and Masculin Feminin are from later.

Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales series (which includes early shorts) and Comedies And Proverbs are particularly worthy of mention, tastefully analysing the internal workings of romantic relationships and attracting a devoted, cult fanbase. My personal favourites include My Night At Maud’s (1969), Pauline At The Beach (1983) and La Collectionuse (1967) (look out for a shot of the cover of The Stones’ Aftermath album in the latter). Claire’s Knee (1970) was widely admired and was described by American film critic Vincent Canby as “something close to a perfect film“.

The influence of the nouvelle vague was widespread, almost immediately. Early modernists would watch A Bout De Souffle with the aim of studying how to walk like Jean Paul Belmondo, or copying Jean Seberg’s haircut. Filmmakers have ever since been inspired by the concepts and techniques. For example, The Devil Probably (1977), a later film by new wave fellow traveller Robert Bresson, incorporates the themes of the movement. And the nouvelle vague directly influenced the German new wave of filmmakers such as Wim Wenders.

More recent examples of nouvelle vague influence can be found in Quentin Tarantino‘s dance scene with Uma Therman and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, which is a direct interpretation of the scene in Bande A Part. Set in the student uprising of May 1968, Bernardo Bertolucci‘s The Dreamers (2003) (with a screenplay by Gilbert Adair and starring Michael Pitt, Eva Green and Louis Garrel) is, in part, a tribute to the new wave, with a cameo appearance from Jean-Pierre Doinel and a recreation of the run through the Louvre in Bande A Part. Christophe Honore‘s Dans Paris (2006), also starring Garrel, references the new wave and Michael Haneke‘s masterpiece Hidden (2005) starring Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche, makes use of long takes throughout the whole work.

Overall, the nouvelle vague is all around us, in style, attitude and filmmaking. The auteurs were creators of short stories, which they brought to life on film. There is no better way of getting to the heart of what the movement was all about than going back to the originals. For a start, why not get hold of a copy of A Bout De Souffle and spend an evening in the company Godard, Belmondo and Seberg. It will be an evening that you will not quickly forget.


1 comment:

  1. Great post sir! Now I have a few films I need to seek out.

    ReplyDelete