Cinema of Spontaneity:
Riding the French New Wave
Written by Hannah Safter
Photographed by Hanna Tveite
“Just as one recognizes the vintage of a great wine by its body, color, and scent, one recognizes a nouvelle-vague film by its style,” wrote the French film critic Claire Clouzot. That style, ushered in by young directors such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer in the late 1950s, is one of immediacy and exuberance: a willingness to experiment that energized and ultimately transformed filmmaking inside and outside France.
After the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, a distinct desire for personal expression and artistic thought flourished. In 1948, writers and film theorists André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc issued a call to action in the pages of the burgeoning newspaper L’Écran Francais. Outlining a break from tradition—the historical reconstructions and literary adaptations in which French cinema was then mired—they set forth the intent and purpose of La Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave, in “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo.”
The manifesto proposed that the camera become to the director as the pen is to the writer. The turn of phrase stuck and galvanized New Wave directors, who sought to capture la vérite de la vie in their films. For Astruc, it was nothing short of a new language. “By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsession exactly as he does in a contemporary essay or novel,” he noted. This proved to be a revolutionary schism from the refined and scripted contemporaneous movies of the 1950s and 1960s. In a rejection of the polished Hollywood glamour fueled by vast production budgets and studio big-wigs, this unofficial group of French auteurs forged a path for modern documentary-style films.
A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.Jean-Luc Godard
“The New Wave is precisely a wave of productions, some very successful, some now forgotten, and some demonstrating the risk of failure that always faces new, youthful experiments in narrative film,” writes Richard Neupert in the 2007 edition of his authoritative History of the French New Wave Cinema. “But what finally makes the New Wave’s significance so enduring is that it has marked all French film production ever since.”
United by a common dislike of the stifling cinematic tradition that preceded them, the dynamic directors of the New Wave had faith in film itself, and that moving images can be more than the sum of their parts. “Photography is truth,” said Godard. “The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.”
La Nouvelle Vague: Classics from the Cahiers du Cinema Directors
Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959)
Directed by François Truffaut
A touching recreation of Truffaut’s own adolescent travails, this coming-of-age story is that of rebellious young Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who shuffles between the oppressive regimes of home and school and careens from ignorance to knowledge. Elegant yet relaxed in style, it demonstrates the ability of film to capture the poetry of daily life.
À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
An audacious Parisian homage to American gangster films, Breathless charms with its deliberately loose performances and fragmented story. Small-time thief Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) alternates between seducing American student Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) and seeking the cash he needs to flee the authorities.
Les Bonnes Femmes (The Good Girls, 1960)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Objectivity is the revelation of this drama, in which Chabrol turns his dissective directorial gaze to the lives and loves of four Parisian shopgirls. The young women are observed from a distance that brings their gestures, habits, mannerisms, and choices into stunningly—even disturbingly—sharp focus.
Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs to Us, 1961)
Directed by Jacques Rivette
Obsessively assembled of short, packed shots that suggest conspiracies brewing in every arrondissement, Rivette’s debut feature is fascinating in its elusiveness. The film follows a young student (Betty Schneider) as she makes suspicious new friends, joins an acting troupe, and discovers the dark side of the City of Light.
La Boulangère de Monceau (The Girl at the Monceau Bakery, 1963)
Directed by Éric Rohmer
The first in Rohmer’s cycle of Six Moral Tales, this 23-minute film is guided by a voiceover that gives the viewer a window into the voracious law-student protagonist (Barbet Schroeder)’s mind as well as his romantic antics. Flirting and pastries abound.
Styling Gabrielle Marceca
Makeup Kaija Mistral
Model Achok Majak
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