Looking Back at the French New Wave

First posted in The Cine-files  (May 28, 2012)

At a time when movies seem more mass-produced than ever, we have every reason to wax nostalgic about the French New Wave. Rarely have so many divergent but pathfinding talents emerged at the same time and place. The New Wave was essentially the product of a single decade, from 1959 to 1969, set in motion by a handful of directors who had sharpened their teeth as film critics in the 1950s. Their gift for offbeat storytelling, propelled by an invigorating spontaneity, ran parallel to the social upheavals of that era.. Yet each had his own personality, and their most characteristic films are surprisingly unlike each other. What they had in common needs no rehearsing here: their dislike of the upholstered, screenplay- and star-driven French cinema of their day; their preference for underrated Hollywood directors ranging from Hitchcock, Hawks, and Welles to hard-boiled outliers like Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray; their warm affinity for the European humanistic cinema of independent spirits like Vigo and Renoir, Cocteau and Melville, Bresson and Becker. With Melville they shared a love of the unsentimental brooding fatalism of American gangster films and pulp fiction, which were part of the heritage of postwar existentialism. But they were also caught between the buoyant, life-affirming legacy of Renoir, who showed them how to improvise and sympathize, and the plot-driven aesthetics of the more macabre Hitchcock, whose darker humor demanded iron control.

Though most of the New Wave directors enjoyed long careers, their best films came early on. Truffaut never equaled his first three breathtaking features, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim. These are the films I’ve invariably used in courses, and they still play beautifully, each in its own way. In his next feature, The Soft Skin, the Hitchcock influence weighs heavily on him, even as it kindles the imagination of Claude Chabrol who after his first features, such as the superb Les Bonnes Femmes, evolved his own style of bourgeois thriller over five productive decades. Yet his work too crested early, at the end of the 1960s with La Femme Infidle, This Man Must Die, and Le Boucher, all introduced here at the New York Film Festival under the Francophile direction of its devoted founder, Richard Roud. Godard is a special case since he produced so many varied films in the decade that followed the release of Breathless in 1960 – perhaps the film that most defines the New Wave and one that holds up astonishingly well on repeated viewings.

In Breathless Godard’s jump cuts, improvisational camera work, casual location shooting, and often tongue-in-cheek dialogue created perhaps the archetype of the New Wave film, and it continues to exert its influence over both indie and mainstream filmmaking today. But the more disjunctive films he made afterward, full of Brechtian alienation effects, can now be seen as period pieces, though everything he made through Weekend in 1967 is worth seeing. The other defining feature of early New Wave films are certain iconic performances: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim, Jean-Pierre Léaud in The 400 Blows, Anna Karina in several early Godard films. Yet how disparate these performances are. Belmondo’s punk imitation of Bogart is cool and ironic yet projects an undertone of fatal arbitrary attraction. Where Karina comes across as waif-like, passive, and playful, Moreau is willful, infinitely alluring, yet ultimately inaccessible, a baroque period turn on the femme fatale. Léaud, Truffaut’s autobiographical stand-in, resonates with the director’s memories and a sense of entrapment that echoes American youth films of the 1950s such as Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause.

The ultimate importance of the New Wave, besides the enduring films and exceptional artists it gave us, was to break down the pattern of the classic Hollywood cinema that been dominant from the thirties through the fifties, the well-made story with impeccable production values directed at a broad audience. There were many other influences that contributed to this opening: the example of postwar Italian neorealism, with it documentary aesthetic and powerful, heartbreaking immediacy, but also the subsequent work of Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Bunuel, and others, which arrived on the American film scene along with the New Wave, just as the sixties broke out. Their work represented a modernist, experimental turn in filmmaking, yet the New Wave movies were not really art films as these were. They emerged from a dialogue with American genre films, which they deepened and interrogated in highly personal ways. The first American film influenced by the New Wave was probably Bonnie and Clyde; its screenwriters tried to convince Truffaut to direct it, but that job fell instead to Arthur Penn. Its combination of crime, love, period detail, comedy, and graphic violence mystified and outraged traditional reviewers like Bosley Crowther but proved decisive for American filmmakers who came into their own in the 1970s, beginning with Robert Altman. The techniques and sensibility of the New Wave also helped inspire the New German Cinema of Fassbinder, Wenders, Herzog, and Schlöndorff.

The New Wave directors themselves each went their own way. The work of Godard and Rivette grew more personal and intransigent, though Rivette occasionally emerged with perfectly accessible films like La Belle Noiseuse (1991) and Va Savoir (2001), both cut down from much longer versions. Truffaut and Chabrol, on the other hand, made their piece with commercial cinema, which enabled them to work regularly, still exercising their craft in inimitable ways. Between these two poles their colleague Eric Rohmer produced delicious movies over some four decades, at once sensuous and intellectual, baked in rich sunlight yet leavened with civilized conversation, carrying the legacy of the New Wave into the twenty-first century.