La Nouvelle Vague. Demythologising The French New Wave.

There has long been much debate as to precisely who qualifies to be deemed worthy of being considered a bona-fide part of the Nouvelle Vague. Some take a freewheeling approach, and are accepting of any number of individuals, from Louis Malle and Agnes Varda, to Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean Rouch and Roger Vadim. In the period roughly defined as that of the New Wave, which is in itself debatable, with some arguing for any number of combinations of dates between 1958 and 1968, over 120 films were made in France befitting the manner that many would closely associate with the New Wave; innovative methods of funding, location shoots, non-professional actors, light camera rigs and naturalistic lighting. Militancy rules in our own definition though, with the core handful the only “true” members of the movement: the Cahiers du Cinéma film critics turned filmmakers. The focus on the ‘Cahiers Five’ is itself problematic, in so much as though the ‘Cahiers Five’ are limited to that very number. What of the seemingly ignored Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, a founding editor of Cahiers du Cinéma before working as a filmmaker, only to be forgotten by large sections of the critical and historical community of the 21st Century? Or other figures in a similar position? The nature of legacy is an unusual phenomenon. For the purposes of this article we’ll be referring to the films of five filmmakers; Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and François Truffaut.

In their criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma, the ciné-journal founded in 1951 by André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca a group of writers upon whom the nickname the “Young Turks” was bestowed brought to the fore the notion that a filmmaker could be considered a great artist, and an author of a work (an auteur). While it was the writers of the Cahier du Cinéma were the ones to overtly celebrate it, the notion of the cinema as art was one which stretched back far within the French cinema itself. From the early days of the country’s film industry there existed an artist/writer/filmmaker fusion. See, for example, the work of Jean Cocteau, the writer-turned-formidable-figure-of-the-cinema, or Salvador Dali’s work with Luis Buñuel in the early 1930s. The stage was accepting of cross-arts collaboration, and, perhaps most importantly (and arguably separating it from the American film industry) encouraged such merging. Ricciotto Canudo declared the cinema to be “The Seventh Art”, while Jean-Luc Godard would write some 30 years later that “Robert Bresson is to French film what Dostoevsky is to the Russian novel” and “what Mozart is to German music” (This moment would later be echoed in comments made by Susan Sontag in which Godard was compared to Picasso).


The traditional path to filmmaking in the French movie industry involved a person serving an apprenticeship for a production company. Over a period of time they would climb the ladder of the profession, with a lucky few deemed worthy of being a bona-fide filmmaker. Instead of following this order, the filmmakers of the Cahiers du Cinéma went in an altogether different direction, although one that is in many ways as much of an “apprenticeship” as the traditional route. The very nature of the film criticism being produced by the Cahiers group makes for as apt a primer as any number of days on an old-fashioned film set. As Truffaut once joked, in a way it was almost as though they had worked on a number of films even before cameras spun on their debut shorts, through their criticism and analysis, which sought to put things right, even when it was too late to do so on any literal level.

The Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC) ensured that only those permitted to do so could make films that would receive any kind of real exposure. A movie could only be exported with their permission, and a filmmaker had to apply to the board for a director’s card. The relaxing of the CNC was one of the major hurdles for the young aspiring filmmakers of the age, and was almost as big a plight as the more abstract, creative debate that too stood in their way. The French tradition of a cinema of perceived quality was the preferred option of the industry, with films largely based upon classic literature, albeit by filmmakers deemed to be creatively uninteresting by many of the contemporary audiences of the early-1950s. The influence of the international cinema, and specifically that of the United States had begun to really take hold in the years following the German Occupation of the Second World War, which had seen a bottleneck of American movies build up. When Hitler moved on, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles stepped in, and inspired a generation of Gallic moviegoers in to seeking something different from their own national cinema. This troubled the CNC, albeit not as much as the young film critics for whom a resentment of their national cinema was reaching tipping point.


The whole debate is encapsulated in François Truffaut’s 1954 essay, Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français (A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema). Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français was a passionate, unrelenting diatribe on the state of the mainstream French cinema. Truffaut takes no prisoners as he criticises the “Tradition de qualité” school of filmmaking, singling out filmmakers like Claude Autant-Lara for what those involved with the Cahiers du Cinéma deemed to be an unethical approach to cinema. Truffaut and his colleagues at Cahiers would regularly expose the French film industry for the crimes they perceived to have been committed, and strove to overthrow the old guard in the most fitting way possible; from the inside. They strove to make their own films, works that set out to deconstruct and understand the filmic medium in as brilliant and affecting way possible.

In many ways François Truffaut’s Les Mistons is the L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat of the Nouvelle Vague. As with the Lumiere film, Truffaut’s 1957 short is a relatively unassuming feature, but one which the impact of would be felt across the whole spectrum of the medium. While not the first production by the Cahiers critics (Truffaut had already shot a short with Jean-Luc Godard, while both Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette had already made shorts themselves), Les Mistons is the first to bear the hallmarks of the works that would follow. An unreal, anatomically-obsessed camera traces the outlines of Truffaut’s richly sketched characters, while the form of the picture itself is addressed, with overt, diegetic over-dubbing and the tangible film itself manipulated, with it played at different speeds (and in different directions) to emphasise specific moments of incident. The structurally playful tone anticipates the shape of Truffaut’s later The 400 Blowsclearly, and sets the scene for the form shifting sensibilities of Godard’s À bout de souffleand Rohmer’s The Bakery Girl Of Monceau. The hyper-personal motif for which Truffaut would become to be associated with is first glimpsed here too, with Les Mistons playing like a fond memory being recalled.

While this no doubt serves to further demythologise the immediate landscape of the New Wave, it might be suggested that in many ways Jacques Rivette, Éric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol produced their most important and interesting work outside of the period. While Chabrol may have been the first of the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd to produce a fully fledged feature film, stylistically and tonally his early work is only loosely recognisable as a product of the actual movement. In much the same way that Jean-Pierre Melville and Agnès Varda helped to redefine the financial route and methods of production Chabrol drew the two elements together in a further development of the film industry. Aware of the eagerness of the CNC for the French cinema to rise again on the international landscape, in the wake of a post-World War Two lull next to concentrated efforts from the Italian and Japanese cinema, Chabrol sought to exploit tax loopholes and other related CNC rulings (revolving around unions etc). The resulting popularity of the early films, Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, and the response abroad dictated that the CNC were ecstatic with the results, which the organization essentially saw to be France’s burgeoning international reputation. Alongside exploiting tax allowances, Chabrol also sought funding via other innovative means, including an inheritance bestowed upon his wife and from going to subject appropriate charities: Le Beau Serge deals with a protagonist with an alcohol problem so, naturally, Chabrol sought financial support from alcoholism charities. It was a method that paid off, quite literally, as both Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins were vastly profitable before even reaching audiences. Chabrol’s approach paved the way for other aspiring filmmakers to make films; in challenging the CNC’s strict rules he set a precedence that could be exploited by others (for example, in the number of union-connected technicians one must employ on a set, immediately, and vastly, reducing the costs of a production).


The films themselves are solid affairs, if not a tad uninspiring. The Vigo award-winning Le Beau Serge plays like a straight Nicholas Ray film, with it’s emphasis on the fatalistic, it’s most noteworthy element, while the second of the films introduces the playful tone that would come to be considered one of the core ingredients of the Nouvelle Vague. It’s intertextually rich, with the two headline performances from Le Beau Serge inverted so that that naïve figure of the earlier film becomes the hardy one in the second, and vice-versa. Such intertextualisation hints at things to come with the New Wave, in which many of the same people appeared across films and directors, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to how the repertoire’s of Hollywood old would play.

Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the stars of the two Chabrol features, actually makes for the perfect case study of an actor whose presence can be spotted throughout the New Wave, and the wider French cinema of the period. An anchor of intertextuality, if you will. Brialy appeared in works by all five of the core Cahiers filmmakers, in films such as Rivette’s Paris Belongs To Us, Godard’s A Woman Is A Woman and Éric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee, while he also collaborated with the likes of Agnès Varda, Louis Malle, Roger Vadim, Luis Buñuel, Bertrand Tavernier and Julien Duvivier. Brialy also appears in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, albeit in a cameo performance, Truffaut’s feature debut and the call to arms for a generation.

Truffaut and co. saw the success of The 400 Blows at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival as nothing less than a victory for the revolution on the home ground of the establishment. Truffaut the filmmaker won the Best Director award at Cannes, just 12 months after Truffaut the film critic had been banned from attending the festival. The film amounts to being a dramatised retelling of the director’s own youth, with the stark similarities between the two as emotionally distressing as they are creatively neat. Opening with a declaration to André Bazin, the grandmaster of the movement who passed away from leukemia prior to the completion of The 400 Blows, and featuring a path that forms a literal spiral around that most famous of Parisian landscapes the Eiffel Tower, Truffaut’s movie takes the familiar and presents it in a different manner to how it had been done so before.


While Truffaut would continue the adventures of his on-screen analogue Antoine Doinel long after the glow of the Nouvelle Vague had faded, in the years following The 400 Blows he continued to push the discourse forward with Shoot The Piano Player, a film which in many ways encapsulates the mood of the time, with it’s jazz riffing, post-modern gangster-subverting tale of a wrong man (a narrative hook borrowed from his beloved Hitchcock), and the intimate epic of Jules et Jim.

If Chabrol is the letter of intent, and Truffaut delivered the battle cry, then Jean-Luc Godard sealed the fate of the French cinema.

Godard was Truffaut’s greatest companion during this period. In many ways, companion might be an overstatement, with competitor perhaps maybe more appropriate. The two were great friends in the years leading up to the first shots of the New Wave, but as the revolution developed the pair soon drifted apart from one another. The whole situation came to a head with a letter. One might be tempted to declare such a thing as “unassuming”, but when one understands that the letter in question ran to 20 pages and several thousand words the weight of the situation gains perspective. In the wake of the release of Truffaut’s 1973 film Day For Night Godard declared the film to be a “lie”. His outburst provoked the aforementioned letter, from a Truffaut fed up of dealing with what he deemed to be Godard’s post-radicalisation hypocrisy. The two would never speak to one another again. In typical fashion, Godard has always maintained the stance that he merely wished to produce a cinematic response to contextualise the accusations he was directing at his former colleague, such was the nature of the man and his relationship with the cinema process.


Where Truffaut drew from the cinema for inspiration and hope, and cited his own life as source material, Godard’s own relationship is far more intricate. To Godard everything was the cinema. It is fused to the psyche of the man. It’s how he thinks, and how he works. It’s this distinction between the pair that explains the divergent paths that the two would take; Truffaut towards a more traditional form of cinema, derided as “bourgeois” by Godard, and the alienating, more experimental and polemical route taken by the latter as the 1960s drew to a close.

Godard’s films are visceral, emotional experiences. An increasing emphasis on the cerebral can be plotted should one follow the filmmaker’s path chronologically, from the relatively traditional À bout de souffle (within the director’s oeuvre) through to his latter-day output, which has proven as divisive and as controversial as any picture produced during the New Wave period.

His À bout de souffle came a year after Truffaut’s first strike. Godard’s film is an inverted take on the Hollywood gangster film, inspired in equal parts by the movie studios of old (Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel constantly refers to Humphrey Bogart) and the philosophical questions ensnaring France at the time of production. Jean Seberg, the first of Godard’s strong female characters is as great an icon of the era as any other figure, with her Patricia’s touting of the “New York Herald Tribune” on the Champs-Élysées perhaps challenged only by Truffaut’s final freeze-frame for the title of the Nouvelle Vague’s most memorable moment. Over the course of the seven years that would follow Godard would produce no less than 15 remarkable feature films, each one as impressive as the last. With 1967’s Weekend Godard would close out this period of his career (and in turn, the wider movement of the Nouvelle Vague itself) with a title-card declaring “Fin de cinéma”, the end of cinema. It’s a poignant and note perfect final frame of a most important stage of cinematic (r)evolution.

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