The French New Wave Revisited: Today’s Moviemakers Reflect on the Old Guard of Innovators

Some 40-plus years ago a gifted band of moviemakers—celebrated the world over as the French ‘New Wave’—were playfully reinventing the rules of the game.

One-time critics and connoisseurs of the cinema including Eric Rohmer, Jean-Pierre Melville, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Louis Malle and company had been circling the wagons for the good part of a decade.

Now, armed with an all-consuming passion for cinema and a willingness to ‘put up or shut up,’ they took to the streets and cafes of Paris, school dorms, open fields and bachelor flats and began making their movies. Working without established stars or big money, these guys produced-at their best-fresh, innovative cinema becoming, in a very real sense, the founders of the independent film movement. The films of the Novelle Vogue, but more importantly, the spirit with which they were made, continue to inspire moviemakers the world over.

François Truffaut screened his first feature, The 400 Blows, at Cannes in 1959. Shot in 16mm black and white with an unknown boy in the lead, it was an instant hit. Not the first film to break with the traditions of ‘classic’ French cinema (Melville’s Bob le Flambeur and Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine were some of the first to break new ground), The 400 Blows nonetheless became a sort of standard bearer. The same year saw the release of Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le metro
and Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge. Godard released his own landmark picture, Breathless, in 1961. A train of groundbreaking releases followed, including Malle’s A Very Private Affair; Rohmer’s Suzanne’s Career; Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player and Jules and Jim; Melville’s Le Doulos; and Godard’s My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders. All of these movies-made often without support from a major studio-broke with convention in one form or another. Innovations at every level of craft-narrative, sound, setting-were all over the French screen.

“I just enjoyed them so much,” recalls British writer-director Clare Peploe, whose new picture, The Triumph of Love, takes a page out of the New Wave manifesto, with its crafty juxtaposition of handheld camera and a formal 18th century milieu. “It was a way of actually discovering cinema. These were directors who were breaking a lot of rules, and at the same time they adored classic cinema.”

Says fellow Brit Mike Figgis (Timecode, Leaving Las Vegas), “I would say that the French New Wave was the most important group of filmmakers in my life. I find their work so rich and re-visitable that it has become the only group of films that I still respect to the extent of being able to regard as vibrant and avant-garde today. Their influence is everywhere.” Figgis is particularly drawn to the work of Godard, the iconoclast of the group. “I think he is a genius in that his work never seems to come to rest. There is always something new to think about, which leads one to understand the potential in cinema for complex ideas and alternative approaches to narrative. With Godard, his use of sound and music is inspirational.”

“What I found so amazing,” says moviemaker Tom Tykwer (Heaven, Run Lola Run), “was that they were so aware of classical storytelling-they had studied Hitchcock and so on-but then, probably because they just didn’t have the money, they used these different methods. They were creating a sort of liberated style.”

Anna Karina stars in Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live (1962)

Anna Karina stars in Jean-Luc Godard’s My Life to Live (1962)

For Tykwer, finding the films of people like Godard, Melville and Truffaut represented a whole new opening in his understanding of what film could achieve. “I grew up with films that were 75 percent American. I was a horror film fan when I was between 10 and 12, then turned toward directors like Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. It was a big discovery to experience this new way of storytelling and to understand that their way of storytelling had a lot to do with the stories that I loved before, because they were strongly relating to the American films of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s. It’s a kind of natural growth.”

Veterans of local film clubs and the Cinemateque Français, where everything from Charlie Chaplin to the latest Hollywood B movies were screened and discussed, knew the work of the masters. In the words of moviemaker Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Lover, Enemy at the Gates), “They had youth, they had culture and they had the desire to tell stories.”

Annaud’s connection to the New Wave is felt strongest when he talks about François Truffaut, who became a friend. “I must say I liked the way he directed actors. There is a sort of affiliation between François Truffaut and Jean Renoir, who is my big, big star. I know that François used to direct his actors the way Renoir did. They were extremely friendly with their actors, they had a very warm relationship-a very personal relationship-and I enjoy having that kind of relationship and therefore I believe that that kind of spirit influenced me a lot. I enjoy the process of shooting with a very committed unit. In a way I resent the sort of huge machine that Hollywood gives you. Also, for me it’s difficult to imagine that I would just get a script and a check in the mailbox and say: yes! I like the process of making my own thing, devising my own movie, motivating my actors? The concept of the director being the man who wants to make a movie for the reasons in his heart is something that those men, from the Novelle Vogue, had.”

Alfonso Cuarón, whose indie hit Y Tu Mamá También borrows proudly from New Wave cinema (Adieu Philippine in particular) was drawn to the freedom of New Wave moviemaking. After making a couple of films in the studio mold, he was feeling hemmed in by the ‘classical’ approach that had, up to a point, served him well. “I was pretentious enough to be in search of a style, and when you are in search of a style you hit dead ends. Everything becomes very claustrophobic. I really needed to try and connect with the energy that made me love movies in the first place. I think that a lot of what the New Wave is about is love of making films; love of cinema. One of the reasons I always wanted to make films was that when I was a teenager I discovered the New Wave.

“Emmanuel Lubezki, my cinematographer, and I have made many films together in this same search for style. He did Sleepy Hollow, where he used the largest lighting package in film history. Then on Y Tu Mamá También he’s lighting with two light bulbs, not unlike Raoul Coutard (Breathless, Jules and Jim) who was a big New Wave DP. It was this attitude [that inspired us]: Let’s use a wheelchair instead of getting a dolly, or go handheld; let’s use the florescent light as the source light.”

His picture, with its use of lengthy, uninterrupted master shots, objective, third person narrator and improvised, catch-as-you-can settings carries the sort of vitality common to the best New Wave films. “Obviously the energy of those films [was an influence]. And that energy had to do with establishing your own set of rules. Not only in terms of the technique but also in terms of the narrative. This is what was so refreshing about that cinema. If you see Breathless now, it feels as contemporary as it did 40 years ago.”

What the New Wave moviemakers improvised was a much more spontaneous, independent cinema, a cinema that lived in their world and spoke to their generation. It was often rough and unpolished, but seldom uncommitted. There was usually a strong voice behind the camera; a voice that spoke to aspiring artists around the world.

“In Rio in the late 1950s,” recalls Brazilian cinematographer Affonso Beato (Ghost World, The Price of Glory), “the Museum of Modern Art screened the history of American film, the history of French and Italian cinema. The Elysse Francais showed us the short films of people like Alain Resnais before he did his first
features. We saw the works of Claude Chabrol; we saw the first Godards months after the films premiered in Paris. It was a privilege to see those films. What they gave us was the strength—the knowledge-that we could do independent cinema.”

Recent cinema from places like Hong Kong and Iran carries forward that independent ethic. “What’s happening now in Asia,” says cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who frequently collaborates with Asian director Wong Kar-Wai, “is very similar to what happened in that period of cinema in France. They were responding to a world which was changing all around them.” Godard’s My Life to Live was a direct influence on Kar-Wai’s In the Mood For Love. But the link between the two directors is more present in their actual approach to directing, which involves an idiosyncratic combination of craft and spontaneity—they find the film while they’re making it.

Franois TRUFFAUT and Jean-Pierre LEAUD. François Truffaut (r) directs Jean-Pierre Léaud (c) in Two English Girls (1971).

François Truffaut directs Jean-Pierre Léaud in Two English Girls (1971).

That personal brand of authorship is part of the appeal of the New Wave. “The films we get lost in that are influential to me,” continues Tykwer, “are the ones in which there is really an interaction between the subject of the movie itself and the creator. Most filmmakers I admire know that they have to let the film find its own path. The New Wave directors definitely did that; they looked for the moment. It’s in the filmmaking itself; when you don’t build all the sets, use elaborate dolly shots, etc. If you look at what Godard has said about his films—the jump cutting, for example—it was often there because they didn’t have another take, so they cut inside a take just to move the shit forward. It’s less conceptual, but it’s still artistic.”

Forty years ago this low-budget ethic was facilitated by new advances in technology. Today it’s the digital camera, but in the late 1950s it was the Cineflex 16mm camera—then a recent innovation-and new, faster film (TriX). The Cineflex was light and small, making it much more portable than cameras previously available to moviemakers. “That camera,” emphasizes Jean-Jacques Annaud, “helped filmmakers to follow people onto the streets and climb staircases, very much like Steadicam did later. It was a revolution for storytelling. And the invention of a more sensitive stock, by Kodak, had a great influence. It helped to make it easier for people who had something to say to tell a story, because it was cheaper. Instead of putting Brutes on scaffolding through the windows of an apartment that is three stories up, you just go with that camera and that film inside and shoot without extra light. It was like the video revolution.”

Eric Rohmer’s early films, produced by a young Barbet Schroeder (Murder by Numbers), were part of a group of pictures that set the standard for the documentary-like, observational style. During production of Rohmer’s first feature, Schroeder’s bedroom acted as both production office and location. Jacques Rivette shot his 20-minute film Coup de Berger in Claude Chabrol’s apartment. “My one big influence from the New Wave was Eric Rohmer,” recalls Schroeder. “[The main thing he impressed on me was] the idea that a film should be anchored in some kind of reality? It was a kind of documentary approach. Things had to be real physiologically and physically.” It’s one of the basic principles of moviemaking, and Rohmer held to it with extreme dedication. “That’s exactly how we worked on Murder by Numbers. I decided, for example, that we had to establish our location in some sort of town. So we chose San Luis Obispo and we worked with this idea: it couldn’t be just any town, it had to be one specific town. We tried to be more and more specific, so the movie really takes place there.”

Not all of the films made by the New Wave were good, or even worth seeing. Many of the lesser flicks of the period were never released outside of France. Then, as today, moviemakers who could take the new, accessible technologies and use them in service of story are the ones we remember. “I’m always fascinated when I see that usually the engineers precede the artist,” reflects Annaud. “Look at today. No filmmakers were calling for digital cameras. Now they are invented and people are using them and they see great advantages. No writer wanted a computer; a lot of them were almost forced to use them.”Like the best of early Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol or Melville, today’s independent movies-whether shot digitally or on film-feel like they were never meant for anything but the guerrilla approach. Contemporary directors like Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration), Lars von Trier (Dancer In The Dark) and the Dogme crowd have shaken things up by focusing on performance and story, using handheld cameras and simple, usually natural, lighting in service of their ambitions. That same clever marriage of form and content that was so much a part of what made the New Wave shine. “It’s very simple,” feels Barbet Schroeder, “every independent film made around the world is influenced by the New Wave. The New Wave started spreading around the world? and now it’s called independent cinema.” MM

 

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