A Brief History of the French New Wave
What is the French New Wave?
The French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, was a film movement that started in the late 1950s in (you guessed it) France.
Of the opinion that cinema had become dated and out of touch, a group of French filmmakers and critics – influenced by Italian Neorealism and directors like Hitchcock and Welles – proposed a new vision for the medium.
Through a series of essays, they laid out their manifesto in influential movie journal, Cahiers du Cinema.
The critics had four main points:
- Cinema must be considered an important and significant artform.
- Filmmakers should experiment, and develop new formal techniques.
- Films must address themes and issues that relate to modern audiences: existentialism, memory, love, childhood and friendship – to name a few.
- A film’s director had full control over all elements of the film, from script to cinematography and everything in between. This is known as auteur theory.
These critiques were revolutionary for their time, and became the foundations for the French New Wave.
Generally speaking, the movement’s directors were split into two collectives: Cahiers Du Cinema or the Left Bank.
The former, which included luminaries like Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, produced several outstanding films that, for many, define the New Wave.
At the time, the Left Bank was less associated with the medium than the cinéastes of Cahiers.
However, this looser relationship had its advantages. Free from the formal constraints and expectations of traditional filmmaking, the Left Bank incorporated other forms – like literature, poetry and documentary – in their movies.
This cross-disciplinary approach led to some of the era’s most unique and interesting films.
Some names you might recognise from this group include Agnès Varda, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais.
These directors used techniques that were bold, new and experimental.
Two famous examples are Jean-Luc Godard’s rapid-fire jump cuts in À bout de souffle, which give it its unpredictable, energetic, “breathless” feel, and Francois Truffaut’s iconic tracking shots in Les 400 Coups:
Others developments include shooting on location, the use of direct sound and natural light, and filming with handheld cameras.
In terms of themes, filmmakers focussed on the personal, philosophical and political concerns of mid-20th century France.
Agnes Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7, for instance, is a powerful look at existence, illness and fame, while Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine capture the anxiety, confusion and liberation of the post-war years.
Another notable feature was the use of ironic and sarcastic humour, rhetorical devices used to great (and often hilarious) effect.
It’s a tough ask listing all of the great New Wave films! There are so many worth watching. Nevertheless, here are some absolute must-sees.
In no particular order:
- Hiroshima Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais)
- Les 400 Coups (dir. Francois Truffaut)
- Jules et Jim (dir. Francois Truffaut)
- Cléo de 5 à 7 (dir. Agnes Varda)
- Claire’s Knee (dir. Eric Rohmer)
- À bout de souffle (dir. Jean-Luc Godard)
- Les Bonnes Femmes (dir. Claude Chabrol)
- Lola (dir. Jacques Demy)
- Paris Nous Appartient (dir. Jacques Rivette)
Take your pick; they’re all fantastic.
In this excellent article, Miss Rosen describes how auteur theory changed cinema forever:
We can see the impact of this on the many stylists (or auteurs) of today.
Tarantino, Scorcese, the Coens and Nolan, for instance, have created bodies of work that are unmistakeably their own; this is a direct influence of the New Wave’s insistence on directorial autonomy.
Also, the movement’s storytelling and filmmaking techniques, so bold and adventurous back then, are now ingrained in cinema.
Take handheld cameras, as just one example. Used in everything from 28 Days Later to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Saving Private Ryan, you can’t imagine contemporary movies without them.
But if I haven’t convinced you, maybe Marty Scorsese himself will. Check out the below vid, where the huge influence the French New Wave had on his work:
Is it a stretch to say that the Nouvelle Vague created modern cinema?
It sounds like hyperbole, but it’s fair to say the likes of Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas arguably wouldn’t exist without it. Or, if they did, would certainly be very different.
Cultural and artistic significance aside, the films still hold up.
The best are funny, smart, profound, exciting and fun. In terms of visuals, style and themes, they don’t feel or look dated; which is quite something when you consider that some are close to seventy years old.
So, there you have it! The French New Wave.
It took the rulebook, ripped it up, wrote a new one, and, in the end, changed cinema forever.
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