A Brief History of French New Wave Cinema

                               Black-and-white figures in Parisian cafes, lots of cigarette smokes, charming leading man and beautiful women. The young Jean Pierre Leaud running through the streets of Paris with a stolen typewriter in Truffaut's "400 Blows." Anna Karina and Jean Claude Brialy brushing off their feet before going to sleep in Godard's "A Woman is a Woman." Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre cycling though the countryside in "Jules and Jim." These are some of the themes and excellent images of New Wave era of the French cinema. The list, actually, is endless.

                               These images are some of the things that, I think, represents "New Wave Cinema." Yet, critics, all over the world, continue to argue over its precise meaning. Some confine New Wave to a certain period of time, others to a work of particular directors. Among the directors believed at one time or another to be related to the movement are: Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Charbol, Jacques Rivette, Jacques Demy, Eric Rohmer, Alan Resnais, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, Jean Eustache and Agnes Varda.

The Birth of French New Wave 
                              It is worth remembering that most of principal New Wave directors started their cinematic career as critics. Many continued to write criticism while filming their own works, seeing themselves as both critic and film-maker. They also essentially redesigned the role of the film critic, recognizing the medium as on a par with the other arts and giving detailed analysis to directors who had never before been treated with much respect. The birth of this new form of criticism -- and of the New Wave itself -- owes much to two men: Henri Langlois and Andre Bazin.

Godard and Truffaut
                            At the end of the 1940s there was said to be, a large number of cinema clubs, where young intellectuals could view home-grown and foreign films, then discuss them to their heart's content with like minded people. One of the best was of Henri Langlois' "Cinematheque Francaise."  The Cinematheque was a place for learning, not just watching. The theater was a small one, but Langlois had achieved a wide range of films from around the world to screen to his eager audiences. Many of the films shown at that time were American. This meant that, between 1946 and 1948, the young French critics were given a crash course in roughly ten years of American cinema, including masterpieces by the likes of John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.

                               It was at the Cinematheque that the principal film-makers in the New Wave originally met. One of the key figures, Francois Truffaut, already had an especially intense and involved relationship with the cinema. He had turned to films at an early age, finding them a kind of refuge from his unhappy home life with his mother and stepfather. The cinema managed to give his life some sort of focus. Godard had a similar passionate relationship with movies. He was born in Paris, spent his childhood on Switzerland and then returned to Paris and found himself studying cinema in a far more intensive fashion at the Cinematheque. At one point, Godard alone was said to be watching around 1,000 films a year. But the life of the cinephile involved more than just viewing the films. Stills and posters were collected, credits were studied and lists were compiled of favorites from different countries.

Cahiers du Cinema and Other Influences
                            Godard was intent on setting up a film journal that he could write for. He did so with Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, a former literature teacher. The most important film journal, at that time, was Cahiers du Cinema, which featured reviews and general discussions on cinema theory. The journal was founded in 1950 by Andre Bazin. The first issue was published on 1951. Rohmer, Godard and Rivette joined the journal in 1952. They praised the French directors of an earlier era, such as the great social commentator Jean Renoir (La Grande Illusion, The Rules of the Game) and the poetic realist Jean Vigo (L'Atlante), alongside contemporaries who had successfully made films outside of the studio system, such as Jean-Pierre Melville.

                          Fritz Lang's early German works (M, Metropolis) and his American movies inspired the New Wave critics. A number of distinctive American directors were extremely influential. The critics were never hierarchical when it came to praising film-makers and gave American B-movie directors such as Sam Fuller ("Shock Corridor") and Jacques Tourneur ("Cat People", 1942) a level of respect many found hard to understand at that time. These days, critical studies of Hitchcock may dominate the film section of a bookshop, but Rohmer and Charbol has written a book on Hitchcock in the 1950's.

                        Another influence on New Wave Cinema was Italy's neorealism movement. Directors like Roberto Rossellini ("Rome, Open City") and Vittorio De Sica ("Bicycle Thieves") showed that it was possible to make dramatic and incredibly moving films outside the studio, working on location and using non-professionals who often improvised their lines. The neorealists showed the financial advantages of such a style of film-making, as well as the liberating creative advantages.

                           Not content with watching and writing about films, the Cahiers critics wanted to get to grips with the film industry from a variety of angels. Charbol worked as a publicist at 20th Century Fox, where Godard worked for the same studio as a press agent. Some were lucky enough to learn their craft alongside their cinematic idols. Truffaut worked with Roberto Rossellini and Rivette worked with Jean Renoir. Louis Malle collaborated with Jacques Tati and Robert Bresson.

  Invigorated Young Film-makers 
                        This collection of circumstances signaled record numbers of first time film-makers in France. It was said that, over 15 directors released their first films in 1959 and this number doubled the following year. These figures were considered extraordinary at that time. In the 1950s, most directors made their debut at around the age of 40, after serving a lengthy apprenticeship. Remarkably, not only were these youngsters making their own films, many did extremely well at the box-office. Financial backing was sometime hard to find for these first cinematic ventures and each of the young directors had to devise new ways to gain funding.

                        Film-making was suddenly a fresh and youthful force, as new pictures were made by, for and starring young people. Many New Wave films spoke to young audiences about their lives. They were shot in the present day and applicable to modern issues, unlike the outdated costume dramas. The playfulness, rebelliousness and inventiveness of the first New Wave films reveal the tender age of their directors. The phrase 'new wave' was bandied about to represent a whole generation as well as film-making movement.

  What is it Exactly? 
                          Still there might that be question: How can we exactly define the term "New Wave Cinema"? I don't know the exact definition, but, I will try to infuse some meaning. New Wave films are like reading a novel or short story, where the whole plot is very simple or sometimes dumb but it's very well written. So, for most of the New Wave directors the manner in which the movie's story was told became more important than the story itself. The directors broke with traditional narrative conventions, favoring arresting and stylish techniques such as the jump-cut (a cut that literally jumps from one point in time to another). The directors displayed a pick 'n' mix approach to film-making, audaciously whisking together their films' modern elements with classic silent techniques such as inter-titles (often used by Godard).

Jump Cut in "Breathless" (1960)
                       The New Wave directors were, like all film-makers and like many of the characters in their own movies, primarily interested in telling stories. The principal directors of the movement were critics, to whom expression through words was as important as expression on screen. Eric Rohmer has worked on newspaper and has published a novel before he became interested in films. Alain Resnais was a literature teacher. Claude Charbol had detective stories published before he became a director.

                         The scripts were often written by director themselves, but a startling number were adaptions of novels, ranging from pulp American thrillers to French romances. The diversity of the directors' source material can be seen in a list of the authors whose work they adapted: Henry Miller, Gustave Flaubert, Ray Bradbury, Woolrich and Lionel White.

Influences of French New Wave 
                            The French New Wave has had an immeasurable influence on American film-making. John Cassavetes ("A Woman Under Influence"), a director who also relied on financial assistance from friends to see his projects through to the big screen. With its natural performances, handheld camerawork and liberal use of locations Cassavetes' innovative debut "Shadows" bears remarkable similarities to the works of Godard. The New Wave has also echoed through to the digital revolution and the Dogme95 manifesto, reverberating in the work of a new generation of independents from Scandinavia, such as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. Just as technological advances in the 1950s changed the way that young directors mde films, developments in the digital video have influenced the work of today's film-makers.

                            Stylistically, the modern American director most often linked to the New Wave is Quentin Tarantino, who named his own production company "A Band Apart" after Godard's "Bande a Part" and used part of the film as the basis for the dance scene in "Pulp Fiction." Like Steven Soderbergh ("Out of Sight", "Traffic"), Tarantino shares the New Wave's love for unconventional narrative structure, as well as its tendency towards cinematic self-consciousness. The characters in Tarantino's films spend almost as much time watching movies as those in Godard and Truffaut's.

Octogenarian Auteurs 

                           Truffaut and Malle may be gone but several of the movement's key directors remain bracingly prolific. Chabrol turned in his 50th film in 1997 and directed his last movie "Bellamy" in 2009. Godard (83) and Alain Resnais (91) are still actively directing movies and their movies, Goodbye to Language and Love, Drink and Sing, are in the pre-production stage, to be later released this year. Jacques Rivette (85), although retired from directing movies screened his last film "Around A Small Mountain" at the NY film festival in 2010. Such typically probing, provocative works show that the directors are still far from becoming French cinema's old guard.             

Editing in New Wave Cinema

Directors of the French New Wave 


வருணன் said...

A well researched article written to the point. Congrats pal. Though I wish to actively take part in this, I feel so sad that for a while I got away from cinema. But after reading your article I feel, the pioneers of French New wave were keen in narrating the story visually rather than via dialogues and the then followed conventional methods of story telling. It was with the new wave cinema seems to have reinvented itself basically as a visual medium and got back it's roots.

Their take on the society is straight and unbiased. I suppose that New wave cinema would either directly or indirectly have influenced the 'Student's Revolution in France' in the late 60's. Hope you'll agree with me partly, at least.

ajeethboaz said...

very interesting thanks for sharing...

Puru@ShadowsGalore said...

As I work on my Art House Cinema Project, your blog is a textbook for me. This is such an informative post :)

Arun Kumar said...

@Varunan, Thanks for the comment. Yeah, New Wave established cinema as an visual medium. Before that, there was expressionist era and surrealism. Those movements had also given some wonderful and bizarre visuals, but they were not only unique to cinema.

@ajeethboaz, Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting.

Arun Kumar said...

@ Puru@ShadowsGalore, Thanks for the appreciation and I would like to know more about your 'Project.'