The French New Wave

Robert B. Ray in A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980.

“Between 1958 and 1963, when the movies everywhere were losing their audience to television, 170 French directors had made their first feature-length films.  The annus mirabilis was 1959, which saw the premieres of Godard’s Breathless, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour.  Confronted by this explosion of energy that ultimately revived (and transformed) world cinema, Françoise Giroud in L’Express dubbed the movement La Nouvelle Vague–The New Wave.

From the start, the most apparent quality of the New Wave films was their youthfulness.  The New Wave directors–Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Resnais, Rozier, Rohmer, Marker, Rivette, and others–seemed to be reinventing cinema with each new move, frequently invoking older Hollywood forms and stories only for the pleasure of exposing the assumptions on which they rested.  ‘What I wanted,’ Godard said of his first movie, Breathless, “was to take a conventional story and remake, but differently, everything the cinema had done.  I also wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of filmmaking had just been discovered  for the first time.’

The playfulness of the early New Wave films belied the movement’s complex origins.  Its most prominent directors were former film critics, sponsored by the Cahiers du Cinéma‘s André Bazin, educated by the superlative film archives of the Cinémathèque Française, a museum often playing six different features a day.  As formulators of the auteur theory, they had praised Hollywood directors (Hawks, Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray) whose fast-paced, unpretentious action movies opposed what Truffault denounced as the French ‘tradition of quality’–stagy, heavy adaptations of classics controlled by littérateurs-turned-script-writers.

In making their own films, the New Wave directors preferred speed or lyricism.  They replaced Balzac and Zola with gangsters and molls, studio-bound costume dramas with genre plots films on location, all the while remaining careful to credit their sources: Godard dedicated Breathless to Monogram Pictures, Hollywood’s principle B-movie producer, and Truffaut offered The Bride Wore Black as an homage to Hitchcock.  Influenced by Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game, however, the New Wave directors refused the implicit limitations of stock subjects, choosing instead to shift moods constantly to unsettle their audiences.  In any New Wave film, slapstick villains had the potential to kill, and comedy always threatened to develop into tragedy.  In Shoot the Piano Player, Truffaut shifted so abruptly from gangsters to Chaplinesque comedy to romantic melodrama that he hardly needed to explain that ‘every film must contain some degree of ‘planned violence’ upon its audience.’

For more, see pp. 270-287.

This entry was posted in Film History, Film Theory, French Cinema and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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