Santosh Sandhu discusses the French New Wave…
French cinema in the post war years consisted mainly of genre movies with high production values. It was often studio bound and formulaic. The Gaullist regime came to power in the late 1950s and wanted to promote a home grown industry to compete against the dominance of Hollywood. A film subsidy called the avance sur recettes was put in place which enabled many new directors to get their first films made. Roger Vadim’s commercially successful Et Dieu créa la femme (And God created Women, 1956) had given production companies faith in young directors working with low budgets.
In this regard, a group of new filmmakers began making their own films. Advancements in technology meant that film and sound equipment was cheaper and lighter making it easier to film on location. Many of these new directors did film on the streets of Paris. Their films were often independently financed without support from a major studio. The technical crews were relatively small and the actors were often non professionals. The actors in these films were young and lifelike often indulging in anti-establishment behaviour. These films had a contemporary setting and were distinctly French despite their sometimes foreign influences.
Some of these new filmmakers had been critics for the French film magazine ‘Les Cahier du Cinéma’ co founded by André Bazin in 1951. Heavily influenced by Hollywood, these filmmakers consisted of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacque Rivette. As critics they had admired American, Japanese and European cinema but felt disgust for indigenous cinema particularly the ‘Tradition de Qualité’ (Tradition of Quality) classical French Cinema from the post war years.
These former critics felt that French cinema conflicted with their preferred concept of ‘politique des auteurs’ (Auteur theory) which promoted the role of director as ‘author’ of the movie. In this instance, the films these former critics made would be known to the public by the directors who made them. These new directors would collectively become known as the ‘La Nouvelle Vague’ (New Wave) together with other filmmakers who would emerge at roughly the same time.
Of the Cahier critics, one of the first to find success would be François Truffaut. Having had a troubled childhood of truancy and delinquency, François Truffaut was given a job by André Bazin writing for Cahier du Cinéma in 1953. In 1954, Truffaut wrote the article ‘Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français’ (A certain tendency of French Cinema) in which he suggested that French cinema needed to be more personal as it had become seriously cynical. The article criticized the technically adept but pessimistic literary adaptations of the tradition of quality French cinema.
Truffaut often had very outspoken views which resulted in him being banned from the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. He would return triumphant a year later however as a director with his first feature length film Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). The title is taken from the French phrase ‘faire les quatres cents coups’ which translates as ‘to raise hell’.
The film was semi-autobiographical and was about Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a troubled twelve year old boy rejected by his parents and sent to a reform school from which he escapes. The film was mainly shot on the streets of Paris in a documentary style using 16mm black and white film. The film’s protagonist was an unknown. The film was dedicated to Truffaut’s mentor André Bazin who died before the film was released. Truffaut took the Best Director award at that years Cannes Film Festival and it signaled the beginning of the French New Wave and a series of aesthetically distinctive French films.
Whilst he had been working as a critic, Truffaut had come across the novel Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim) by Henri-Pierre Roché in 1956. Truffaut’s third film (after Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960)) would be an adaptation of this book. Made in 1962, the film would be a period piece with a decent sized budget. The film begins in 1912 and centers around two writer friends, Jim (Henri Serre) a Frenchman and Jules (Oscar Werner) an Austrian, and their various relationships sometimes even with the same women. They lead relatively carefree lives until they meet the eccentric Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) who initially has a relationship with Jules who she later marries. When the First World War breaks out Jules and Jim fight on opposite sides and constantly worry about killing each other, they do however survive.
After the war, Catherine and Jules have a daughter but their marriage is in trouble as Catherine is unable to stay loyal. Jim and Catherine then get together. When Jim moves in with Jules and Catherine, a bizarre threesome develops. Catherine continues to have affairs however especially with an acquaintance called Albert. After attempting to have a baby with Catherine, Jim leaves and goes back to his long time partner Gilberta. He receives correspondence from Catherine that she is pregnant. When he meets her they discuss why they shouldn’t be together. Jim has also decided to marry Gilberta. Catherine pulls a gun on Jim but he manages to get away. Jim meets Jules and Catherine a few months later in a cinema showing a newsreel of the burning of Jewish literature. Catherine then takes Jim for a drive and goes off a bridge into a river. Jules then has both their bodies cremated.
The film was very skillfully made with Truffaut exercising a firm grasp of directorial techniques. These included freeze frames, stills, documentary footage, narration and subtitles. Despite the film’s subject matter there was never any clear indication of suffering or pain. Catherine is self absorbed and treats Jules and Jim disrespectfully and their reaction to this is still admiration for her. Jules reaction at the breakdown of his marriage and the death of Catherine and Jim was surprisingly reserved and the full horror of war was only hinted at when Jim went looking for his fallen comrades in a cemetery. Catherine again is only thinking of herself when she drives off the bridge as the burning of Jewish literature signals the rise of Nazism and she now realizes she can no longer live a carefree life so she ends it taking Jim with her.
Truffaut would also provide the story for the breakthrough film of one of his Cahier colleagues, Jean-Luc Godard. A Boute de Souffle (Breathless, 1960) is about a criminal Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who kills a motorcycle cop and goes on the run. He meets up with his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg) who later notifies the police of his whereabouts. Michel is then gunned down by the police on the street. This film like Les Quatre Cents Coups made full use of location shooting with Parisian landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe clearly visible. The references to American cinema was also in evidence particularly to film noir as Michel modeled himself on Humphrey Bogart through his attire and stopped to admire a poster of a Bogart film called The Harder they Fall (1956). Patricia sported a very trendy short hairstyle and often wore sunglasses adding to the modernity of the setting. The couple were often smoking and conversing frankly about sex, relationships and sometimes trivial subjects. The pacing of the film was very brisk, notably due to the frequent use of jump cuts accompanied by a very pleasing jazz score. Godard also reminded the audience at times that they were watching a movie as Michel occasionally spoke straight to camera. Whilst the film was innovative in many ways there were also scenes that suggested inexperience. The shooting of the cop at the beginning and Michel’s death at the end were disjointed as the preceding events were not properly depicted. Despite this the film was very modern with an attractive young cast and was a big success.
Godard’s Bande À Part (The Outsiders, 1964) would also feature an attractive young cast heavily influenced by American culture who decide to take part in a robbery. Arthur (Claude Brasseur), Franz (Sami Frey) and Odile (Anna Karina) plan the robbery of the house where Odile lives but the robbery goes awry and Arthur is killed. Franz and Odile then escape together. This film had an imaginative title sequence with the main character’s faces flashing past in quick succession. Like Breathless, this film also featured a nice jazz score and swift editing but also included narration by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard’s narration often reminded the audience that they were watching a movie. When the three protagonists observed a minutes silence the soundtrack cut out completely. Moreover there was a fun sequence in a café where the trio danced. The music was interrupted by the narration but the trio continued dancing making for an interesting effect. There were further references to American culture as Franz and Arthur reenacted the killing of Billy the Kid by Sheriff Pat Garrett and as the three miscreants waited till nightfall to execute their robbery in homage to B- movie tradition. The trio also ran through the Louvre, again Godard making full use of Parisian locations.
New Wave films were often low budget and did well at the box office at home and in art house cinemas abroad. These films did not however need to rely on the box office abroad. By the late 1960s, New Wave directors were acquitting themselves to different styles and genres of filmmaking especially Truffaut. Godard’s aversion towards American involvement in the Vietnam War resulted in a series of politically motivated films which increasingly alienated his audience. Hollywood in the late 1960s was also going through a difficult period. American cinema had become increasingly stale with overblown big budget musicals flopping at the box office. Changing public tastes, the rise of television and the decline of the family audience were factors which contributed to this. Hollywood was governed by old men out of touch with the needs of the public. French New Wave films had grown in popularity in art house cinemas in the States. The writers David Newman and Robert Benton were heavily influenced by A Boute de Souffle and set about writing Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
Although based on an American legend, Bonnie and Clyde incorporated many stylistic elements from the French New Wave such as a young cast, themes of sex and violence, innovative cutting and a sometimes overbearing pessimism. Its most significant incorporation from French cinema however was auteur theory as the role of director grew in significance and popularity. This film appealed to a new audience namely teenagers and young adults. Since the rejuvenation of Hollywood in the 1970s by the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation, the influence of the French New Wave can still be felt today with director Quentin Tarantino often citing Godard as a major influence. Tarantino’s films are often low budget independent affairs with many pop culture references and in-jokes. In Reservoir Dogs (1992), a group of criminals plan to rob a jewellery store called Karina’s named after actress Anna Karina. Tarantino also named his production company Band Apart and reworked the film’s dance sequence in Pulp Fiction (1994). The New Wave’s lasting legacy will be that today films are deliberately targeted towards the lucrative teen market and that directors are now as important as movie stars to the public.
Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.