French New Wave — the highly influential 1950s French film movement that combined a minimalist production and an artful execution of philosophical themes — crafted a polarizing breed of art film never experienced before. The movement was led by a number of French film critics-turned filmmakers who not only made films that would define the New Wave movement, but would cement themselves as masterpieces of world cinema. This article is an introduction to the inception, the work, and the impact of the French New Wave movement.
On the Origins of the Movement
With the end of WWII came the end of Nazi censorship in France. Foreign films (and banned French films, such as the films of Jean Renoir) were allowed back into French cinemas for the public to view. American filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and John Ford — who were seen as artists who used a camera to paint with — began influencing French filmmakers. This was the birth of auteurship in cinema; that is, watching Vertigo (1958) didn’t feel like a Paramount Studios film, but an Alfred Hitchcock film.
In 1951, the magazine Cahiers du Cinema was founded which would eventually employ François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer as contributing writers; all of whom would become the founders of the French New Wave. These Cahiers created a list of principles regarding auteur theory — the idea that a director has so much artistic control over a film it is as though they are the author of it — and the elements that would define the New Wave. According to the Cahiers, a film should be a conversation between the auteur and his/her audience. Auteur theory was no doubt inspired from the heavily artistic and visionary styles of Hitchcock and Welles.
Influenced by preceding film movements such as French Impressionism, Italian Neo-Realism (a war-wrought kind of cinema focused on the hardships of everyday life), and Cinéma Vérité (a style of cinema concerned with ‘cinematic truth’), French New Wave centered itself around the idea of two things: art, and realism. This veered quite far from German Expressionism — an earlier film movement that focused on subjectively rather than objectively on the world, like French New Wave did.
The philosophical and artistic movement of Existentialism was extremely — if not overbearingly — influential on the French New Wave movement. The idea of human experience being the sole means by which to understand or achieve any meaning or value from life was a theme in almost every new wave film and dominated the philosophical relata in each. This lead to many of the filmmaker’s choosing to focus on either the subjective experience of their characters, or the objective world in which they operate. French New Wave is, in a way, the marriage of existentialism and art film.
Sui Generis // Aestheticism
Cinéma Vérité was a style of filmmaking theorized by Jean Rouch, developed through the work of Dzigo Vertov, and later popularized by American indie film pioneer John Cassavettes. The idea of Cinéma Vérité is a cinema of extreme realism: that is, handheld camera work, natural lighting, no big sound stages or set ups, and often improvised acting from the talent. This idea is what makes film philosophically interesting: that a film can not only elicit some kind of cinematic truth, but can challenge the very nature of truth by parading its supposed “reality” with the fact that film itself is a veil of reality — something very unreal in its making. In this way, Cinéma Vérité can show the problem of truth and reality. French philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin once wrote “there are two ways to conceive cinema of the Real: the first is to pretend that you can present reality to be seen; the second is to pose the problem of reality. There are two ways to conceive cinéma vérité: the first is to pretend you brought the truth, the second, to pose the problem of truth.”
This was one of the major distinctions New Wave filmmakers made: they were not interested in employing a semblance of escapism, but to constantly make the audience keenly aware that they are in fact watching a film, and that film is but a series of still photographs played together at usually 24 frames per second. Recognizing this problem of reality — in which the film is reaching for some kind of cinematic truth while itself being a product of artifice — was the philosophy of the movement.
The New Wave films, with their often heavy subject matter and low-to-no budgets, forced the filmmakers to devise new and creative ways to engage the audience. Arguably the most visually striking feature of French New Wave cinema — found most famously in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless — is the use of editing techniques to distort the passage of time and drew the attention of the audience further away from the story, and close to the filmmaking itself. This was a revolutionary kind of filmmaking that was almost forbidden in cinema, until the New Wave.
Cahiers (Right Bank)
The Cahiers were François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol. They were the kingpins of the movement by writing about its elements — elements which they would eventually show since they would all become renowned filmmakers. These film critics devised certain aspects of film that were solely interested in the artistic capabilities of the medium of film, not the traditional nor entertaining ones.
Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge (1958) is cited as the first product of the French New Wave movement. The film follows a man who returns to his small village hometown to discover that many of his friend’s lives have changed and become more complicated for the worse. The film employs early techniques of experimental editing, handheld camera work, and, of course, real locations. The film was undoubtably inspired by Italian Neo-Realism with its look into the dark and cruel aspects of everyday life. Following and often compared to Le Beau Serge was Chabrol’s next film Les Cousins (1959). Like Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins was a dark narrative driven by personal relationships.
François Truffaut was one of the movements most prominent figures, and began his career by criticizing the Cannes festival for praising films with no artistic vision from the director. Because of this, he was banned from the Festival. In response, he made the cinematic masterpiece The 400 Blows which was the next big step in the New Wave movement. Thematically, the film pushes back again iconoclasm, nationalism, the ‘system,’ and other things that take away from individuality — which was a common New Wave trend. Aesthetically, The 400 Blows popularized the technique of having the actor(s) actually look into the camera, thus breaking the veil of reality within the film and reaching for some kind of cinematic truth. Surprisingly, film won Truffaut Cannes’ Best Director prize in 1959. In 1962, Truffaut would make Jules and Jim — considered to be an ‘encyclopedia of the language of film’ as Truffaut used newsreel footage, still photographs, panning shots, freeze frames, dolly shots, whips, masks, handheld camera work, and voice over narration throughout the film. While Jules and Jim had much more robust production, The 400 Blows would be what really inspired other Cahiers such as Jean-Luc Godard, who made Breathless the following year.
Jean-Luc Godard — one of the fathers of French New Wave and art-film in general — has been hailed by filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese, and many more as a master filmmaker. Throughout Godard’s magnificent filmography, he stylized and challenged every aspect of filmmaking from ‘point of view’, use of color, story-structure, and other visual relata. Godard made three extremely relevant films to French New Wave (and the history of cinema): Breathless (1960), Vivre Sa Vie (1962), and Pierrot le Fou (1965).
Breathless is arguably his magnum opus: his first feature film that also broke him into legendary status. The classic crime-romance drama was where Godard first used his technique of match cutting to distort the viewer’s perception of time. Godard also used next-to-no external lighting, and all real locations — such as apartments and open streets — for the entire film, so it took almost no money to make. Godard’s next film, Vivre Sa Vie is very aesthetically similar to Breathless but is structured with heavy voice over narration and dialogue that controlled the pulse of the film. Much like Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie was a dark philosophical look into the nature of identity and existential strife. Pierrot le Fou, unlike the previous two films, was shot in color and had quite a pallet. The film is famously recognized for its use of color as a means of visual storytelling and representation. The use of harsh primary colors throughout the the narrative was meant to allude to the dominant pop-art movement of the time. While the film is just as dark as Breathless and Vivre Sa Vie, it had a more theatrical aesthetic atop the heavy content.
Jacques Rivette’s famous Paris Belongs To Us (1961), cemented itself as one of the most culturally and aesthetically relevant films in the New Wave. Rivette wanted to solidify the ‘fragmented narrative’ trope while using the film as a sort of meta-poetic commentary on the New Wave movement itself, as the film featured cameos from fellow filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. Rivette’s films, however, received little acclaim at the time of their release causing him to make only two other films during the movement.
Éric Rohmer, a fellow New Wave connoisseur, took the movement in a more ethical direction. His two most notable films include My Night At Maud’s (1969) and Clair’s Knee (1970). The former is the third film in his Six Moral Tales series, and famously discusses the validity of Pascal’s Wager, which is one of its main themes. It was also produced using funds that Truffaut helped raise since he liked the script so much. The latter is the fifth film in his Six Moral Tales series, and follows a career diplomat who becomes infatuated with a young girl’s knee while vacationing. The film is a study of desire, the human condition, and plays around Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative.
While the Cahiers (Right Bank) were off making groundbreaking pieces of cinema, the Left Bank was on the other side of the New Wave movement. Filmmakers of the Left Bank were much more concerned in challenging film form and creating very experimental films.
One of the primary filmmakers of the Left Bank, Anges Varda, was a photographer before making her debut La Pointe Courte in 1955 — which would become one of the great Left Bank films. Varda would later make the more acclaimed Cléo from 5 to 7 which included a cameo from Jean-Luc Godard. Cleo from 5 to 7 centered itself around feminism, war, and existentialism in France. Like many of her other films, Varda would challenge gender roles and the nature of absurdism throughout the film.
Another great figure in the Left Bank was Chris Marker who gained most of his acclaim from one short film called La Jetée (1962). The film was a science fiction narrative about a post-nuclear-war experiment done in time travel. The film itself, is almost entirely a reel of still images. The film makes many references to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, especially his film Vertigo (1958).
Alain Resnais would be known as making arguably the most prominent film in the Left Bank: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). The film used short flashback sequences to craft non-linear storyline — making it highly experimental. The film was originally a documentary about WW2, but eventually morphed into a romance narrative. This kind of interest in realism and WWII from Resnais was part of his auteur-istic interest with his real documentary about the concentration camps from WWII, Night and Fog (1955), was his debut feature.
French New Wave has had a profound impact on modern cinema and media in general. American filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese have made films aesthetically similar to auteurs from the movement. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver are arguably the filmmaker’s magnum opi, as well as their odes to French New Wave. Pulp Fiction employed the hand-held aesthetic, and used jump-cuts throughout the film to compliment its fragmented narrative. Taxi Driver presented a small production and had the feel of a documentary by being set in real locations. The film’s experimental editing also resembled the quick match-cutting of the New Wave.
American Sci-Fi was clearly influence by French New Wave. This can be seen through Terry Gillian’s sci-fi cult classic 12 Monkeys (1995) — inspired in many ways by La Jetée — and Michael Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which was in many ways a homage to The 400 Blows.
Jacques Audiard’s films such as A Prophet (2009) and Dheepan (2015) are examples of many Cahier and Left Bank elements including hand-held camera work, a centre toward realism, and narratives with cultural and, albeit subtle, philosophical relevance. Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2013 Palme d’Or winner Blue Is The Warmest Color is also a modern example of the New Wave (especially Cahiers) influence — shooting in real locations, hand held camera work, primarily natural light, and being dialogue heavy.
In 1995, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars Von Trier created the Dogme95 movement in Denmark which shared many elements the French New Wave did — real locations, often improvised acting, and filmmaking that draws attention to itself. Trier and Vinterberg also, like the Cahiers, would write down certain rules for the Dogme95 films. They would eventually break these rules, but the similarity with French New Wave reigns true throughout their work. Films like Festin (1998) and The Idiots (1998) would define the movement.
Auteur theory itself has influenced countless American filmmakers today such as Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael Haneke, and Terrence Malick — all of whom have a distinct visual style to their work and deal with philosophical themes in their films. French New Wave even influences many “youtubers” today, as it has become a common trend to cut out the space between the words while they speak — a form of match cutting.
French New Wave was one of the most artful, creative, and significant film movements of all time that permanently enhanced the rigorous demand, inventiveness, and philosophical potential of film. The movement proved that quality films didn’t necessarily need money or high production value, but merely the vision of an artist.