This piece about the “French New Wave” represents the third part of the series “Film Movements 101”. To understand the connection between these historical cinematic sensibilities, you should start with the first article in the series, which is about German Expressionism.
The French New Wave refers to a collective of filmmakers which dominated the 60s in France. These cineastes were avid cinephiles and were reacting against mainstream French cinema at the time, while also experimenting with the form. This movement is considered to be an essential milestone for the medium, as its revolutionary techniques would become common practices even for mainstream filmmakers.
The years before the start of the movement were dominated by what would come to be known as the “Cinema of Quality”. This somewhat loose movement relied on novel adaptations, which would often produce lavish, romanticized stories. These types of films emphasized the craft of the screenwriter, which became “the creative equal or even the superior of the director” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 375). As film attendances started to decline in the 50s, the future New Wave filmmakers would write about the lack of originality in mainstream film in their now-famous magazine, Cahiers du Cinema. However, in 1959, the Centre National du Cinema established a system, “which financed first features on the basis of a script” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 443). This newcomer-friendly law acted as an incentive and inspired the young critics to develop their own films. While having little to no resources, their youthfulness and determination to produce a new style of cinema were catalysts for the creation of their groundbreaking films. Additionally, they financed each other’s projects and shared “the services of two outstanding cinematographers, Henri Decae and Raoul Coutard” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 443).
Both in writing and filmmaking, these cineastes strongly subscribed to the auteur theory, which highlighted the fact that a “director should express a personal vision of the world” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 443). Fundamentally, this theory treats the filmmaker’s input as essential for the making of a film and likens their sensibility to that of a novelist or playwright. However, due to the movement’s insistence on a director’s personal vision, the stylistic preference seems less unified than in the case of sensibilities such as German Expressionism. Nevertheless, there are some common technical and conceptual aspects which have been identified by critics and cineastes at the time and over the years. The experimental nature of the movement prompted these filmmakers to treat camera movement and editing in a very discontinuous way. Sometimes, they handled a scene in a single shot, because “light-weight cameras proved ideal for making long takes” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 441). In other situations, they would chop “off a graceful long take with sudden close-ups” (Thompson & Bordell, 2002, p. 441). This unexpected cut, that fragments the scene and the narrative, is now used even in mainstream films and it is called the jump cut.
When it comes to themes, these young filmmakers often tackled themes of distrust and political tension, which would generally develop simultaneously with a romantic tension. Additionally, the characters would frequently break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience and their actions would often “bear traces of pop existentialism” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 445). This playful, yet uncertain approach to life was also reflected in the narrative structure of the films, which usually had loose plots or open endings.
A characteristic that sets these French cineastes apart from those before them, is the fact that they regularly and purposefully made references to directors and films from the past. They helped create the modern cinephile sensibility by referencing works that inspired them, from Neorealist films to Alfred Hitchcock movies. For these young directors, “film history was a living presence” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 445).
Probably the most influential example of French New Wave cinema, Breathless (1960) is an unconventional film, which pioneered the jump cut and captured the attention with eccentric characters and constant cinematic references. Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film tells the story of Michel, a wandering criminal, and Patricia, an American student who gets involved with him. At first, this plot seems somewhat classic, but the improvised dialogue, the use of wordplay, and the strange relationship between the two characters set it apart from many films before it. Additionally, the jittery filming and editing style reflects the state of mind of the characters, while also presenting a hectic image of Paris. While Godard became known for constant experimentation over the years, his first feature acted as the embodiment of the New Wave he was at the start of.
As the name suggests, Claude Chabrol’s The Cousins (1959) presents the story of two cousins of two different temperaments and origins. Inspired by the “Cinema of Quality” and Hitchcock’s movies, the film’s strength lies in the acting of the two protagonists and the director’s detached eye.
The theatrical acting and the claustrophobic spaces almost act as parodies of murder plays. However, Chabrol’s project is not a regular thriller, as it explores the common New Wave themes of youth and dread. Moreover, it is the tension between the two main characters which offers the real thrill. As one critic highlighted: “Les cousins slowly rises and charges on the underlying contrast between the grotesque Paul and the angelic Charles” (Frajman, 2019).
Francois Truffaut is another essential figure of the movement and his directorial debut, The 400 Blows (1959) is to this day considered one the best French films in history. It tells the story of Antoine, a misunderstood teenager in Paris whose rebellious nature causes problems at home and school. A deeply personal film, Truffaut presents an honest look at troublesome adolescence. As in the case of Breathless, the style reflects the agitated state of mind of the protagonist. Truffaut is using “zoom shots, choppy editing, casual compositions and burst of quirky humor or sudden violence” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002, p. 446). However, the director is not so detached as his fellow filmmakers, managing to experiment with the form, while also telling a sympathetic story.
The French New Wave is one of the most unconventional and influential film movements in history. These young filmmakers were determined to undermine an old style of cinema with a bold, fresh take on narrative, characters, and filming techniques. More importantly, they “placed the power with the director, who would stamp their personal signature on the work” (Rossen, 2019). Their contribution is not only relevant for the form itself, but it also advanced cinema’s status as an art form.
Thompson, K., & Bordwell, D. (2002). Film History: An Introduction (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.
Frajman, A. (2019, March). Les cousins (Claude Chabrol, 1959). Senses of Cinema. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2019/cteq/les-cousins-claude-chabrol-1959/
Rossen, M. (2019, December 3). How the French New Wave revolutionised visual culture. Huck Magazine. https://www.huckmag.com/art-and-culture/film-2/how-the-french-new-wave-revolutionised-visual-culture/