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A Bout de Souffle
Culture

Do you need a bluffer’s guide to the Nouvelle Vague?

By No author
20/04/2010

The French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague is going to be a hot topic in the coming months. Indeed, we are currently celebrating its 50th birthday and films of that period are simply everywhere. It is impossible to ignore. The Seasons at the BFI and Ciné Lumière (films and conferences), a nationwide re-release of the film that started the movement, François Truffaut’s « Les 400 Coups » (“The 400 Blows"), a wide Nouvelle Vague programme on the new French TV Channel Cinemoi… But are you perfectly at ease with the subject? Would you be able to sparkle amongst friends over dinner if the subject were raised? Do you need a bluffer’s guide to the Nouvelle Vague?   

As far as I am concerned, a few weeks ago I was the kind of person who looked that their shoes every time someone mentioned the Nouvelle Vague… If truth be told, like many other people my age, I had only seen some of these films and I felt I had nothing to say other than “Anna Karina is really beautiful”. Well, in other words, I should just keep my mouth shut. I had a very limited understanding of what the New Wave was about but would have found it impossible to explain. ‘Je connaissais la musique mais pas les paroles’, to use a nice French phrase. How could I decently ask someone to explain what the Nouvelle Vague phenomenon was without making a complete fool of myself. I decided to do my homework, going religiously to Ciné Lumière and the BFI, listening to the panel of experts and try to fill in all the gaps. I am sure I am not the only Nouvelle Vague ‘Dummy’ and have therefore decided to share my newly acquired knowledge with you.

 

First and foremost, the Nouvelle Vague was not only a wave, it was a real tsunami reaching the coasts of  France around 1959, submerging everything in its path and making waves all over the world right up to the present day. The term ‘Nouvelle Vague’ was invented by Françoise Giroud in L’Express in October 1957 (Françoise Giroud later became a government minister) to describe the society phenomenon of this new generation. What a great way also to describe this violent turn in the cinematic industry that took place later. Young directors, mostly coming from a small group of Parisian critiques called “Les Cahiers du Cinema” decided to revamp the way of film-making: Their aim was to make films appear real but not in a classic realistic sense. The director is no longer trying to recreate a reality via a movie, it is the intention of the director to show the audience that he is filming. He becomes part of his film. The idea behind it is to show the reality of film-making itself. The more one sees the director’s stamp the better.

The Cannes Film Festival of 1959 marks the start of the Nouvelle Vague when Truffaut presents  “Les 400 Coups”, Alain Resnais’s “Hiroshima mon Amour” and Marcel Camus his “Orpheu Negro”.  It’s hard to date precisely the phenomenon but most agree its peak was between 1959 and 1964 with directors such as Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, Vadim, Rohmer and so many others.

 

Jean Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut at Cannes 1959
Jean Pierre Léaud and François Truffaut (Cannes 1959)

Backgrounds


Numerous theories are possible to explain the outbreak of this movement and its sudden rupture in cinematic traditions. First of all, we could point out a sociological explanation. World War II left a whole changed world giving way to a new generation of film-makers willing to do things differently. The best example is René Clément and Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” but we could also mention Renoir, Jean Vigo, Robert Bresson... On the other hand, commercial cinema (the so called "qualité française") also flourished creating a real generational and artistic gap between the two.

Hitchcock
Hitchcock

Abroad, a wind of freedom was also blowing. American films are the most evident example and influence of the French New Wave. Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford, Jerry Lewis or Fritz Lang were all worshipped by the future directors of the movement for their freedom and the stamp they always left on their films. For the very first time, images were considered more important than stories. This connection was explicitly recognised and Truffaut even said about a US independent film called “Little Fugitive” in an interview with the New Yorker “Our New Wave would have never happened if the young American Morris Engel hadn’t shown us the way of independent production with his beautiful movie Little Fugitive”. This 1953 film, sadly forgotten, deals with the story of a little boy running away after being persuaded he killed his brother and enjoying the absolute freedom. The parallel with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel is tempting but it is not to be forgotten that Antoine Doinel was part autobiographical whereas Morris Engel’s Joey was purely a creation. Still the tempestuous youth, the passion for freedom and the insolence of both make for interesting comparison. And yet, the influence of this film is not so much in the story as in the artistic and aesthetical bias. Morris Engel’s film was shot in New York but not in the New York usually shown in movies. Neither idealised nor parodied, the city is filmed as a character, natural and lively. Before doing this film, former photograph Morris Engel ordered a new type of camera, an invisible one which was able to follow the little boy in his wanderings showing him lost and alone in the indifferent crowd. It’s exactly like a hidden camera. Jean Luc Godard was so blown away that he wrote Morris Engel a letter to get the same one. 
 

Morris Engel's Little Fugitive
Morris Engel's Little Fugitive


The outbreak of the French New Wave is also partly due to technological improvements. Hand-held cameras able to shoot outdoors and capture the natural light enabled directors to come out of studios and, for the first time, get the naturalistic effects they were looking for. Without them, it simply would not have been possible.

Les Cahiers du Cinema


During the 50s, a new generation of critics broke out led by André Bazin and its new “Les Cahiers du Cinéma”. These young cinema enthusiasts did not share the same cultural references as their predecessors since they were mostly influenced by American films which were not available during the Occupation. These "young Turks" paved the way for the French New Wave developing theories such as the “author theory” meaning that films should reflect a director's personal vision using cameras in the same way as  writers use their pens. Most of all they debunked the “Cinema de Papa”.

 

François Truffaut
François Truffaut

The leader François Truffaut wrote a virulent article in 1958 called “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” in which he violently attacked the so called “Qualité Française” (“French quality”). These were high budget films, extremely formulaic,  based on iconic actors of the 40s, looking to generate box office returns and compete with American films. This was the fashionable genre of the post war: shot in studios, directors were especially keen on literary adaptations. For Truffaut it was not cinema but simply flimsy lies made by engineers with no preoccupation for art. However, his intentions were not simply to destroy for the sake of destroying, he built up a new theory. “There are no bad films, there are only mediocre directors”. Cinema is an art of its own and the art of one artist: the “metteur en scène”.  What should cinema be? That is what Truffaut answered brilliantly: “Tomorrow’s film will not be made by camera engineers but by artists who will consider making a movie a great and exalting adventure. Tomorrow’s film will resemble the one who shot it and its box-office success will depend only on how many friends the ‘metteur en scene’  has. Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love.” All these theories were about to make waves… the New Wave. 

Jean Luc Godard
Jean Luc Godard

And yet they did not only change the theory because one day these critics decided to make films of their own. François Truffaut was one of the first to take up the challenge. In 1959, the abstract ideas of the Nouvelle Vague were put in practice and were about to explode upon the world. At the Cannes Film Festival this revolution was sprung on the unprepared world with three major works in competition: Truffaut’s “Les 400 coups”, Alian Resnais’ “Hiroshima mon Amour” and Marcel Camus’ “Orpheus Negro” which actually won the Palme d’Or. French cinema will never be the same again.

However it would be false to believe that the New Wave was only the work of the Cahiers du Cinema. It is true that many of the greatest directors within the movement came from this magazine. In addition to the likes of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette  and Chabrol there were also film makers who were not critics. 

The Left bank group


New Wave film makers can be divided in two categories. The first is the crew of Les Cahiers du Cinema, right-wing oriented (at least at the beginning given that most of them moved towards the left during the Algerian war) and living on the Right Bank of Paris and the second one, the so called “Left Bank group”. You got it, they were aligned to the left and lived on the Left Bank of Paris: they were Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy and his wife Agnès Varda, Louis Malle and of course Marcel Camus.

Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7
Agnès Varda's Cléo from 5 to 7
 

Principles and characteristics

The New Wave implied a rejection of classical filmmaking shot in studios which do not reflect the reality of life. The point is not to make a film anymore but to “mettre en scène” (literally to stage). 

Resnais' Hiroshima mon Amour
Resnais's Hiroshima mon Amour


The main characteristics are:

-    shooting on location with natural lighting
-    improvised dialogue and plotting
-    long takes
-    unexpectedly jump cuts and disordering in the storytelling process
-    direct sound recording
-    direct addresses to the audience, direct looks to the camera
-    rejection of psychological stereotypes

The 400 Blows
Les 400 coups

This was totally innovative and the aim was simply to be more realistic in the New Wave sense. Long takes with direct sound recording produce a bizarre effect since sometimes it is impossible to hear the dialogues clearly and the sound changes whether the actor is in the same room as the camera or not. But, is it not the same in real life?
More surprising are the jump cuts. These are extremely frequent, especially in Godard’s films and appear totally illogical. For instance in “Breathless” the blanks of one conversation are simply erased. Why? It is not only about provocation it is to make the audience feel something strong and realistic.  Memories are not complete, they never fit with time and are always expressed in any order or more precisely in a subjective order. As a film is supposed to stick to one point of view, time line becomes subjective. However some argue it was not only an artistic statement but also a way to correct mistakes. Let’s remember that New Wave directors and actors were most of the time novices and had to work with low budgets… Whatever the secret might be, it transformed cinema.

 

Acting and actors

The New Wave is also about faces. Some actors are associated to the movement. Here is a small and subjective selection:

Jean Paul Belmondo
Jean Paul Belmondo

Jean Paul Belmondo


Starring in “Breathless”, “A Woman is a Woman” or “Pierrot Le Fou”, Jean Paul Belmondo turned out to be the masculine icon of the New Wave and yet his beauty was not exactly common. His accent, his pronunciation and his spontaneity created an appealing figure, close from the ordinary people of the 60s and perfectly attuned to the New Wave atmosphere. 

Anna Karina

Anna Karina
Anna Karina

Expressive eyes, radiant presence and mischievous look, Anna Karina and her charming accent become stars in Godard’s films. But not only: her role in “Suzanne Simonin, la Religieuse de Diderot” (1967) directed by Jacques Rivette is considered by some as her best performance.

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot


New Wave sex-symbol who can forget her mambo dance in “And God created Woman” or the opening scene of “The Contempt”?

 

Jean-Pierre Leaud

Jean-Pierre Leaud
Jean-Pierre Leaud

His role as Antoine Doinel and his embarrassed, off-beat style of acting still influence actors.

Jean Seberg
Jean Seberg

Jean Seberg


Playing opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in “Breathless”, this young girl selling the New York Herald Tribune in Paris got her place in French history books. Her « Qu’est-ce que c’est dégueulasse ? » left its mark on the French culture.


The funny thing is that, most of the time, these actors were complete novice. For instance, Jean-Pierre Leaud was only 14 whilst shooting “The 400 Blows” and Anna Karina was spotted by Jean-Luc Godard in a shower gel ad.

The New Wave and the UK


What kind of impact did the French New Wave have on British cinema? And what kind of impact does it still have?
As pointed out in a brilliant lecture at the Cine Lumière, most of the times British people have only a nebulous idea of what the New Wave is. For instance, a few months ago comparisons could be read in the press between Victoria Beckham in the new Emporio Armani ads and Brigitte Bardot in "And God created Woman"…
 
And yet in the mid 50s British cinema went through the same type of film-making revolution with “Free Cinema”. True this movement was mostly about short documentaries but similarities between the two artistic styles can be shown:

-    rejection of consumerist cinema
-    no artificial lighting
-    direct sound recording
-    importance of National Cinematheque and development of a new type of cinephilia.

Looking at the manifesto drawn up by founder Lindsay Anderson and Lorenza Mazzetti, the parallel is even more relevant: “As filmmakers we believe that no film can be too personal. The image speaks. Sound amplifies and comments. Size is irrelevant. Perfection is not an aim. An attitude means a style. A style means an attitude.” By the way, Lindsay Anderson and François Truffaut exchanged a few letters. True, Free Cinema was not as challenging as New Wave and did not influence it directly since French directors were more turned toward Hollywood but  it nonetheless paved the way and prepared the British audience to react favourably to these films.

Lindsay Anderson
Lindsay Anderson
 

As a consequence of the impact of the New Wave, French Cinema is still viewed in the UK as arty and challenging.

The New Wave as an heritage

The French New Wave represents a massive legacy for French cinema and it sometimes appears as an embarrassing grandfather. It now has its place in history books and it is not rare to see Jean Seberg standing besides Charles de Gaulle in school books. Well, it is true that its influence was so far reaching that it can still be felt nowadays and all over the globe. Jean Eustache, Philippe Garrel, François Ozon, Christophe Honoré in France but also Quentin Tarantino or Won Kar Wai… only to mention some of them. So, for better or for worse?

Philippe Garrel's Les Amants Réguliers
Philippe Garrel's Les Amants Réguliers
 

The French New Wave was at the beginning a movement of opposition against the established cinema and its codes. Its aim was clearly to shatter the lines. The problem is that today the films of this movement have become the absolute point of reference. This means it has become what it was rebelling against…An irony of fate! Whatever it might be, French cinema is still waiting for a “new New Wave” and has difficulties killing its mythical father. The New Wave appears to have become such a sacred monument that we can wonder: can we really criticise it?

Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une Femme
Claude Lelouch's Un Homme et une Femme

Maybe, if nobody can deny its contributions and its influences, we can at least point out some controversial aspects. The proximity between critic and filmmaking is questionable. And the Cahiers du Cinema gang was not always as objective as they pretended to be. Directors and critics congratulated each other in a systematic way… And the scandal was more obvious with “Passion” in 1982. Jean Luc Godard and Les Cahiers du Cinema agreed to make a special magazine for Godard’s new feature, he even paid for it. Too bad, the film was not finished on time… but the magazine still came out with 18 pages for “Passion”. The partnership critic/director was embarrassing but when it is even decided before the film is seen, it is clearly shocking and unacceptable. Besides, it would be false to believe that the entirety of French cinema in the 60s was associated to the New Wave. Some directors, such as Claude Lelouch squarely refused to be affiliated to it. He claimed that it was only a technical revolution and reproached the movement for being too exclusive and intellectual, whereas cinema is also meant to be entertaining and fun. Most of all, Claude Lelouch blamed them for having systematically rejected the work of their predecessors. After the huge success of “A Man and a Woman”, François Truffaut tried to integrate him into the movement but in vain…

 

Love them or hate them but watch them!

COMMENTS:

01/06/2009 - magnificent_moosettina said :

While la Nouvelle Vague was a great shock and overthrow of traditional cinema, surely in terms of artistic durability and customer satisfaction, the Lelouch revolution of mixing black & white and colour,( he could not afford to make the whole film in colour he said recently) intergrating great musical scores ( a la David Lean Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, etc- who was first?), and sending the filmgoer away with a modern feel good factor, actually influenced and freshed Hollywood. the three Mousquetaires - Richard Lester follow in the line of Phillipe de Broca and Christian- Jacque (Fanfan la Tulipe).
Incidentally no hommage to Roger Planchon, the great theatre director from Lyon? Shame on you FranceIn London!

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