Blow by Blow: How Francois Truffaut and His New Wave Contemporaries Deconstructed Filmmaking

As one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut used cinema to capture “truth 24 times per second,” and his desire to do so has been immortalized throughout his entire filmography.

This video essay by Lewis Criswell’s Channel Criswell highlights the French New Wave as a whole, “a personal cinema in which the films professed their director’s life experiences and philosophies.” The goal of this movement—of which Jean Luc-Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut were the originators—was to capture French life in the ’50s and ’60s through cinema because, as was immortalized in Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, “cinema is truth 24 times per second.”

In the video, Truffaut himself states that in the 1950s he “liked cinema as it was but felt it lacked sincerity” and “just wanted to improve it.” The key here is that, in attempting to parse out a new style expressive of a new voice, the filmmakers of this generation did not cast aside all that they loved about film but, rather, built upon it. One of the more revolutionary terms coined in this movement was that of the Auteur Theory, which spoke to the fact that the director was seen as the true author of everything on screen. Truffaut coined this term in a 1954 essay title “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” in which he highlighted Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, Jacques Becker, Abel Gance and many more for their singular visions, having written “their dialogue and even inventing the stories they direct.” Truffaut and his contemporaries would come to embody this lauded term, injecting every minute of their films with their own vibrant personalities.

Truffaut’s very first film, The 400 Blows, can be understood as autobiographical in a much broader sense than just being about its maker’s life. The much-lauded film feels like a way for its director to examine his own values, to look deep inside himself past the facts of his youth, past the aesthetics he hopes to convey and to what matters to him. Truffaut was fascinated with Hitchcock and would come to conduct a famous interview with him for these very same reasons—Hitchcock was a personalized filmmaker, with each new work that he made adding to a broader view of who he was a person, what values he held dear and even what his weaknesses were. To be able to push back against the established guidelines of the filmmaking process, Truffaut spent years and years learning what they were.

Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock. Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Editing is one of the most important attributes that came to set the French New Wave directors apart from both their contemporaries and all who came before them. Before the “breaking of the rules,” as Quentin Tarantino describes, was able to happen, editing’s main purpose was to maintain continuity between shots. An editor’s job is to match up movement, location and dialogue within a cut as to produce a natural flow in a cut. Before 1959, there was a strict formula for editing, as each scene could consist of any number of combinations of long shots, medium shots, two-shots, close-ups and inserts. Editing was always meant to be invisible, as to create the illusion that we were watching two people speaking, not a series of shots and angles spliced together to create the illusion of two people speaking.

The discombobulating nature of the editing techniques of the French New Wave were not concerned with the pre-existing formula, not concerned with naturally leading the viewer from one shot to the next. Instead, each of these directors were interested in provoking the viewer. The shots do not flow; instead, they clash against each other, engaging the audience in a roundabout way by providing constant reminders of film’s constant struggle to present reality. These jarring editing decisions only serve to remind viewers that what they are watching is only a film. Even the ‘unchaining’ of the camera—here described by Criswell as the Camera-stylo—works to create a new expression of movement and the human experience while calling further attention to the border between screen and reality. Cinema is, indeed, as is argued, but it is also a way for us to engage with reality as a concept.

Francois Truffaut on the set of The 400 Blows. Image courtesy of IMDb

Francois Truffaut would often include transitions inside of takes, as noted in the shot from The 400 Blows at 7:48 in Criswell’s video. It’s disorienting and requires one to recalibrate to get their bearings within a scene—without the camera cutting. Other times extensive editing is used in moments that, in any other film, would feature no editing. The real subversiveness here is in the way that the French New Wave directors have flipped the script on what has commonly been accepted. Their goals are to find new ways to achieve the same results that have worked for years. With something like Jules and Jim, Truffaut is attempting to simultaneously destroy the rulebook and uphold it. It is an unconventional romance yet still a romance, an unconventional tragedy yet still a tragedy. The editorial and directorial decisions clash against what is commonly accepted yet the film ultimately attempts to reach a familiar emotional catharsis.

Criswell concludes his video by highlighting the influence that these New Wave directors have had over time, including editing techniques to be used in later films like Taxi Driver, storytelling techniques aped by Tarantino as well as virtuoso camera movement that would come to influence cinematographers like Emmanuel Lubezski. In reacting to the previously established laws of filmmaking, Francois Truffaut and his peers ensured that now, whenever the blueprint of filmmaking is analyzed, the reaction to the blueprint is analyzed as well. MM

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