Vive la France! Five essential French New Wave films
October 18, 2013
The French New Wave (or La Nouvelle Vague) stands as one of the most productive movements in French cinema history. Characterized by focused, human stories that reveled in innovative film techniques and a narrative that placed emphasis on dialogue and the seeming “little things” in life, the movement was driven by young French directors who embodied a type of rebellion against established rules of film making and societal standards of accepted conduct. As you can imagine, the movement was not embraced by big studios.
Though it flourished in the ’50s and ’60s, the influence of French New Wave cinema remains a touchstone in the contemporary film world, especially with independent filmmakers. In the ’70s, some of America’s most influential filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola cited people like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard as major influences during their early education in cinema. The movement would consistently appear as a reference in many independent film movements in America, from Quentin Tarantino in the early 1990s to Noah Baumbach and his most recent film, Frances Ha (Film Review: ‘Frances Ha’ reveals Noah Baumbach’s luminous lighter touch).
Most significantly, from the viewer’s perspective, French New Wave cinema invites the audience to grasp and experience the underlying principles of an era where social change was coming. We feel the revolution in the doorstep of most of these films.
The list herein represents some of the most influential films of that movement— although it is not meant to be exhaustive— and reflects some of our personal favorites.
The 400 Blows
Personally, this the 400 Blows (1959) stands as one of my all time favorite films. The black and white aesthetics add a layer of grittiness to the already harsh coming-of-age story. Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) grows up in a poor neighborhood of Paris. His parents don’t pay much attention to him, other than to make his life difficult, and at school his situation only seems worse. He gets pushed around and comes up with a plan (that backfires) to escape to the sea.
Antoine’s difficulty with his parents mirrors the situation of young Parisians coming up against the establishment that no longer makes sense for the social reality. The many blows to Doinel endures would make for an incredibly sad movie, instead Truffaut offers many moments of light humor to reveal the blows to Doinel’s spirit as a naive adolescent. In one scene, he devises a plan to raise money by stealing a typewriter to sell on the black market. The montage makes for a funny sequence where he and an accomplice break into his father’s office. They then struggle to carry off the monstrous typewriter that shrinks them further in this world. The adventure also showcases the kids’ mentality and the difficulty with which Doinel has been thrown into a grown-up world.
It all culminates with an off-focus look straight at the camera where we understand Antoine has nowhere else to run, but at the same time has freed himself. The gaze is not that of a troubled child anymore but has more resolute quality behind him and the freedom of looking for his own path.
Last Year at Marienband
For many, Alain Resnais‘ Last Year at Marienband (1961) is a difficult film to explain. But, actually rarely do films achieve so pure a level of cinema. Legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman famously equated films not to reality but to dreams. “No other art medium, neither painting nor poetry, can communicate the specific quality of the dream as well as the film can,” he once said. Dreams do not follow rules of time and space, just as film never does. From cuts in film splices to a warped sense of the passage of time, dreams and films, in their nature, have unmistakable clues that defy reality. Just as waking from dreams alters our sense of awareness, walking out of a movie theater becomes a reality check.
The character of Last Year at Marienband has gone in to inspire lots of art film mockery due to its obtuse narrative and stagey acting with shocking cuts and scenes that practically melt into one another only to crop up and repeat again. The film follows a man and a woman (Giorgio Albertazzi and Delphine Seyrig) during various encounters at a palatial château. He insists he has met her before, she cannot recall. A brilliant series of varied interactions that question reality, memory and identity unfold. This is a film not about people but about the elliptical nature of memories and their slippery, elusive quality. It’s one of the French New Wave’s most decadent films but also one of its purest.
With Breathless (1960), Goddard captured the essence of buoyant youth in revolutionary Paris. With a defiant attitude, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) bursts onto the scene with a devil-may-care attitude that portended the summer of 1968. The brilliance of this film lies in how it called attention to cinematic techniques, most especially a rather obtuse editing style, to express itself beyond traditional moving images. Stylistic choices beyond abrupt cuts and extreme close-ups served as part of the film’s discombobulating narrative. The audience is challenged to see something more than what is presented and by doing so engages with the film and its characters on a deeper level.
The film is about Michel, who sees himself as a gangster and models his persona after Bogart but really is really nothing more than a petty thief, until a chance encounter with a police officer. His girlfriend, Patricia (Jean Seberg in her famed pixie cut), is an American living in Paris infatuated with Michel’s persona. They are both narcissistic and adolescent, have no regard for authority and little social concern of their behavior. On a meta level, the characters embody the rejection of traditional cinema, which had grown so dull to the filmmakers of the French New Wave. A classic and a must for any cinephile or youngsters who may be too enraptured by their own selfies or any other gratuitously self-involved declaration of look-at-me.”
Cleo from 5 to 7
This film stands out because it was directed by a female filmmaker, Agnès Varda who centered on the character of Cleo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), an up and coming singer. The film develops as Cleo awaits for a test result of a biopsy. The brilliant nature of the film comes in an ability to capture time, as Cleo waits we feel with her the heavy burden of time going slow, the images then speed up as if time was going by faster as well. Not only our relationship with time is a matter of perception, but as Cleo reveals not long before the wait is over, our perceptions of ourselves also vary quite dramatically. While she starts frightened and thinking the test results will show that she is dying, she accepts by the end of the film her own mortality and sheds that fear. The film’s images also comment on the feminine experience. Shots of Cleo removing frilly clothing and revealing herself in the mirror portray the different perceptions of feminine constructs. She sheds the clothing associated with a famous singer and reveals herself in the mirror, two different images in one person. As she walks though the streets of Paris she sees poster of her as the famous singer; it looks like Cleo and it is not Cleo. Later, as she browses through the streets of Paris, she sees mannequins and clothing that both offer a look and a critique on the emphasis is placed on physical appearance and the female experience. Although the movie was filmed in 1962, not much has changed. A lot of emphasis is still placed on women’s physique rather than on the contents of their character. Varda’s take on life rings as true today as it forcefully did in 1962.
My Night at Maude’s
The most infamous comment characterizing the work of Eric Rohmer are that his films are the equivalent of watching paint dry. The sad fact is, the mis-characterization came from one of those early new Hollywood pioneers of the late ’60s/early ’70s, Arthur Penn, who was quite influenced by the French New Wave. It was Gene Hackman’s character Harry Moseby in Night Moves reacting to Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maude’s, and it’s far from an insult as explained here.
Rohmer’s films revealed how entrancing and dynamic it is to watch two people talk. The magic of this film is how true dialogue, conversation can inform action, contrary to so many films that use dialogue as a crutch for exposition. So many of Rohmer’s movies have brilliant moments of dialogue but none as sustained and fascinating as the night-long chat between Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Maude (Françoise Fabian). The man, who has reserved himself to propose to a young woman he has eyes for at church, and the divorcee share an enchanting talk that goes beyond their perspectives of marriage while offering revelations of their past that will have echoes in an understated ending that speaks to the slippery illusions that define our lives.
And one extra, for good measure…
Day For Night
Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) provides a whimsical and entertaining look at the world of filmmaking. A self-referential and self-conscious work that commented on the relationship of filmmakers with art as a process rather than a completed product. Truffaut plays the movie director who can barely keep together the many issues that happen on set. The real-time drama between the different characters begins to emerge as the male lead suffers a nervous breakdown from a romantic liaison during the shoot. Another actress also suffers from emotional instability, and the complexities of interpersonal relationships in this imagined ecosystem boil over. As if that was not enough, technical problems arise, complicating life on set even more. It’s a satirical look and perhaps a symbol of the end of the New Wave time period.
More deeply, Truffaut shows us that films are an imperfect illusion. The director’s control is limited and audience engagement may sometimes not be as directors intended it. Therein lies the magic of a good film.
Of course this short list does not cover the many films encapsulated by the French New Wave (Where’s Chabrol or Rivette or Demy or even Marker!?), but these are some of the favorites of the Independent Ethos. Leave us a comment with your personal favorite of this influential period in cinema history or share your journey of discovery through the French New Wave. It has been an exciting ride for us!
Hans Morgenstern will further delve into the French New Wave when he presents Truffaut’s The Last Metro as part of the Miami Jewish Film Festival’s Masterworks of Jewish Cinema series at the Miami Beach Cinematheque on Oct. 24, at 6:30 p.m.