The French New Wave: Revolutionizing Cinema

The French New Wave movement came from some of the biggest events of the 20th century. In the Post World War II era, France found themselves in a space of rebuilding, rejuvenation, and with a need to reestablish themselves as a world leader instead of the victim they played during the war. Beyond just the after effects of WWII, new technologies burst onto the scene and streets of the film world. Smaller camera, none stationary camera and recording devices, and the advent of TV saw a world steeped in new technologies.

During the 50’s, the birth of youth culture changed how things were marketed as well as a general shift in audience makeup. From this point on the youth became a marketable and highly profitable group that worked to shrink the size of audiences. Films stopped being a general event and began to narrow down to specific groups. In France this new audience was called the ‘nouvelle vague‘ and the label would be applied to the new wave of filmmaking that was more personal, focused on everyday life, and beyond simple entertainment.

Most of these new movers and shakers of cinema came from two places. The first was a film magazine Cahiers du cinema, which consisted of critics who would write regularly on films and film theory in the late 1950’s. From the writings of Jean-Luc Goddard, Francoise Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette came forth a new theory of film. They demanded a diversion from the usual and impersonal set-up of films to a new auteur driven system. The language of film, its narrative construction, the set-up and presentation of idea, the symbolic nature of scenes and objects could no longer be standard from film to film, but instead find its significance from the director and the director’s interpretation of the film.

Goddard’s film A Bout be Souffle (Breathless 1960) is often considered the “manifesto” for the French New Wave. It exemplified the movement, its style, and its break from the traditional film conventions. Many of the of the other influencial figures of this group were also creating classic pieces for the French New Wave. Truffaut’s film Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960) for example, was one such film that spearheaded this movement. At the time Truffaut’s film was not received very well because of its diversion from the classical style of storytelling. Now however it is upheld as one of the great pieces of French New Wave cinema.

Another 1960’s film that became the precursor to a trend was Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes. The trend this film spoke of would be the use of female characters who became the center of these New Wave films. On the heels of Les Bonne Femmes came Jacques Demy’s first film Lola (1961), which held many of the characteristics that would show up time and again in his films. Truffaut also premiered a film in 1961 called Jules et Jim. A love triangle that spans decades, using a lot of documentary film work, newsreel footage, photographic stills, and voice over narration and even with controversial actions from the characters, the film was successful and still is considered one of the classics from this movement.

The second place from which came great theory and films, was the Rive Gauche or The Left Bank. This group was more of a collection of directors that were retro-actively grouped together. Their joining factors come from the conventions they used in filmmaking. Most of their backgrounds came from literature and documentary filmmaking, which influenced their style as they experimented with storytelling and the integration of their own left-wing politics into their films.

The main directors from this group were Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, and Chris Marker. Resnais began making films in the late 40’s many of which were precursors to the New Wave movement where he found his stride as a director. His documentary on Nazi concentration camps Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) is one of his greatest works. His style turned the camera into an observant wanderer who was lead along through the narrative via montage, voice over, and music that would draw the viewer into the film. From here his style took him into the French New Wave as his next film Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959, firmly established him as a part of the movement.

Agnes Varda was the most prominent female figure of the New Wave. She started in photography in 1954, but as the French New Wave took over she found herself involved more and more with cinema and documentary. Her films became fiction shorts and finally her first feature fiction film Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962) solidified her place as one of the great directors of this era.

Cleo From 5 to 7 Film Still

With so many influential filmmakers actively engaging in their film experiments, France became a hot bed for theory and the exploration of film. As the likes of Henri Langlois opened cinematheque and others attended Parisian cineclubs to discuss and dissect the films of the time as well as earlier classics. Such films from the Italian Neo-realists and even a few from classic Hollywood would not only be the subject of their discussions, but also where certain New Wave tenants would stem from. Film entered the realm of ‘high art’ the more it was discussed and critiqued. So new high art films needed to fill in the gaps.

Florence Jacobowitz and Richard Lippe in their article “French New Wave 40th Anniversary” for Cineaction in 1998 outline some of the inspirations for this new “camera style” as well as provide a solid outline for the general concepts. For starters French New Wave, like many post war film movements, are classified by their infusion of documentary style with fiction storytelling. The combination of a fictional narrative with the conventions of documentary style and aesthetics to project everyday life as it is lived. The creators of these films rethought the way narrative stories are told to accommodate this mixture of fiction and real life. Films like Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s Little Fugitive (1953) and Otto Preminger’s Bojour Tristesse (1958) were pivotal to the blending of documentary, photojournalism, and Cinescope into the New Wave.

From 1930 to 1960, France produced some of the most famous films ever made, such as Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite and Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. In The Classic French Cinema Colin Crisp investigates this critical period and details the extraordinary ingenuity of French filmmakers, who worked under economic and technological constraints that affected both the production and the consumption of films.

Not only were the filmmakers rethinking narrative, their use of these tactics allowed their audiences to rethink them as well. Instead of just watching the events unfold, the viewers were asked to frame everything with a lens of their current culture. Things that happened were to be seen as if happening in the current time; events that affected the characters also affected the viewer. The creation of the film’s world became of the upmost importance and at the center of this importance stood a new emphasis on mise-en-scene. If the diegetic world looked and felt real, then the problems and drama within them became real as well. This realistic aesthetic truly redefined what realism meant.

Most state that the French New Wave lasted between 1959 (sometimes 1958) until the mid to late 1960’s, but many of these famous directors continued to make films that perpetuated the techniques established by the New Wave well into the early 70’s. Such films as Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970) and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) were films that came about much later than the initial moment, but nonetheless found themselves still in line with the distinguishing factors of the French New Wave.

The French New Wave had everything a great film movement needed. It had a turn from the standard or traditional way of filmmaking. It would influence generation after generation with its films; the way it was influenced by older films from other places in the world. The movement had some great filmmakers leading the charge: Goddard, Truffaut, Resnais, and many others. The tenants they followed only loosely joined these filmmakers as they created and reciprocated their culture of film tuning it towards a station of “high art” with a purpose that both entertained and encouraged. It was the quintessential movement that still encourages filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderberg, and Wes Anderson.

The French New Wave also has a massive body of films by a large group of filmmakers to appeal to multiple film tastes. It is arguably one of the greatest film movements of all time.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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