The New Wave Postscript Realism And Comedy

The May 1968 events - a student protest leading to a general strike on a massive scale and briefly seeming to menace the whole institutional structure of French society - appear in retrospect as the moment when culture assumed a major importance in the political arena. The Langlois affair, as we have seen, was a préfiguration of this, and the 'Estates-General of the Cinema', set up during the events by the film technicians' union, discussed various possibilities for the restructuring of the cinema industry in the revolutionary perspective dominant at the time.

For all this involvement, however, May 1968's effect on film-making was in the end slight. More significant for the industry, though not necessarily for film as an art form, was Giscard's abolition of censorship, spearheaded by his Culture Minister, Michel Guy. This led to a burgeoning of pornographic films, which were more heavily taxed than other films and thus cross-subsidised the 'legitimate' industry. They to some extent helped to stem a decline in cinema attendance which nevertheless, as everywhere else, proved to be inexorable, owing above all to the pervasiveness of television. Even so, the French industry was to prove, as it has done ever since, the envy of many others in its ability, thanks to state intervention, to keep its head above water, instanced during this period by the continuing success of the major directors from earlier years and the coming to the fore of new film-makers.

The major impact of May 1968 on film-making practice is undoubtedly to be found in the work of Godard. We have seen that La Chinoise and Weekend, made the year before the events, were a striking préfiguration of them. Godard became heavily involved in far-Left politics, working with Maoist groups and plunging himself into the making of ciné-tracts - revolutionary propagandist collages - before disowning his earlier work, 'claiming that it functioned only at the level of theoretical experiment rather than of social and political struggle' (Williams in Hughes and Reader, 1998: 273-4). His work in the rest of this period was marked by a politically inflected investigation of the image/sound relationship, across a variety of genres -from political shorts, via a subversive return to the 'commercial' cinema with 1972's Tout va bien (starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda), to experimentation with video in Numéro deux (1975), which returns to the theme of gender relationships he had adumbrated as early as Masculin-féminin in 1966.

Godard also worked for television, unsurprisingly encountering problems with its state-dominated apparatus, before returning to his country of citizenship, Switzerland, in the late 1970s. Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1979) was his most 'mainstream' film for some considerable time, situating its political involvement at the level of interpersonal and particularly gender relations rather than of the class struggle. In its diversity of institutional contexts, its engagement with video and television, its passage through a vehemently committed Marxism to a more diffuse and labile view of what constituted the political, Godard's work of this period serves as a remarkable crystallisation of the wider cultural and ideological evolution of the France of these years. That evolution, we shall see, was to culminate in the election of a Socialist president - François Mitterrand - in 1981 and the dwindling of May's revolutionary optimism into diverse movements for other forms, notably ethnic-and gender-based, of social change.

Among New Wave figures, Truffaut rejoined Doinel/Léaud for three autobiographical features: Baisers volés (1968), Domicile conjugal (1970) and L'Amour en fuite (1979). He won an Oscar for La Nuit américaine (1973), a comedy about the making of a film, and enjoyed his major commercial success with the Occupation-set theatre drama, Le Dernier Métro ( 1980), giving starring roles to Catherine Deneuve and the mountainously extravagant Gérard Depardieu. There was a tendency, in this period characterised by arduous political commitment and formal experimentation, to dismiss his films as lightweight, especially in the light of Cahiers du cinéma's Marxist position of the 1970s (see the section on 'ideology and suture' in Chapter 2

of this volume). Yet the exploration - ambiguously complicit or critical - of 'Donjuanism' and gender relations in L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (1977), and the death-haunted central character of La Chambre verte (1978), played by Truffaut himself, in different ways give the lie to this view. La Chambre verte appears particularly poignant in the light of Truffaut's tragically early death from a brain tumour in 1984.

Chabrol went at the provincial bourgeoisie with a will in Le Boucher (1970) and Les Noces rouges (1973), among more ephemeral ventures. Le Boucher shows the influence of Hitchcock in its metaphysical echoes, notably the possible transference of guilt for the village butcher's murders on to the school teacher Hélène (played by Chabrol's then wife Stéphane Audran), who has rejected, or at least refused to confront her love for, him. The previous year's Que la bête meure! likewise suggests a disturbing transference, here between the father seeking to avenge his son's death and the monstrous hit-and-run driver - played by Jean Yanne in a préfiguration of his title role in Le Boucher - responsible for it. Rivette enjoyed the biggest success of his career with the screwball-influenced Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), while making almost certainly the longest French feature film ever, Out One of the same year, which ran for 12 hours and 40 minutes and was understandably only ever screened once in the full-length version.

Rohmer's Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), one of his 'Six Moral Tales' series, is probably his defining work, in its use of intellectualised irony (here rooted in a reading of the seventeenth-century philosopher Pascal) and investment in talk as alternative rather than preliminary to sex. Le Genou de Claire (1970) and L'Amour l'après-midi (1972), part of the same series, likewise deal with temptations to infidelity or sexual transgression that are resolved through language rather than action. At a time when Lacanian psychoanalysis, with its stress on the inextricable interplay of language and desire, was carrying all before it in French intellectual life, it is perhaps not fanciful to suggest that Rohmer's films, for all their evocation of the early Enlightenment world of Marivaux's comedies, were more in tune with their own period than might at first appear. Resnais enjoyed less success in this period than previously, though Mon oncle d'Amérique (1980) is a masterly mise-en-scène of the technocratic modernisation of France in the 1970s. The social transformations of the Giscard years, fuelled by growing Américanisation and issuing in measures ranging from the abolition of censorship to the 1975 legalisation of abortion, have tended to be somewhat overshadowed by the earlier hegemony of Gaullism and the (largely unrealised) hopes invested in the Socialist victory of 1981. Yet they were considerable, and Resnais's chronicle of the changing and intertwined fortunes of his three main characters traces them in fascinating detail.

Bresson used colour for the first time in the Dostoevsky adaptation Une femme douce (1969), though many find his colour work less starkly challenging than the black and white films. In Lancelot du lac (1974), he constructs a bleak and pitiless Middle Ages from which any sense of faith or purpose has been evacuated, and the same is true for his evocation of suicidal contemporary youth in Le Diable, probablement (1977). The redemptive possibilities of Journal d'un curé de campagne or Pickpocket seem definitively banished from an increasingly pessimistic body of work.

All in all, then, the New Wave's reputation for innovation did not long survive its first half-dozen or so years. Its swansong - by one not even considered a New Wave director - has to be Jean Eustache's La Maman et la putain (1973), three and a half hours of sexual and philosophical agonising, which take apart the aesthetic, emotional and political hopes of the 1959-1968 generation (see Figure 1.3). The film stars Jean-Pierre Léaud in probably his greatest role, as a posturing (pseudo?-)intellec-tual dandy caught between the 'mother' and the 'whore' of the title - respectively, Bernadette Lafont (an early muse of Chabrol's) as the fashion shop owner with whom he lives and Françoise Lebrun as the unhappily promiscuous nurse with whom he begins an affair. The disillusionment that followed the extravagant hopes aroused by the events of May 1968 is matched and paralleled by the film's drawing out of New Wave stylistic trademarks - black and white location filming, dialogues that sound improvised (though they were not), the use of iconic actors -to something like a point of no return.

The 'New Wave generation' had been reared on first the myth of, then (in 1968) the reaction against, Gaullism - a cycle that only really came to an end in 1974 with the death of de Gaulle's dauphin and successor, Georges Pompidou. That also enabled the calling into question of the myth of omnipresent and heroic resistance to the Occupation on which Gaullism had been founded. Marcel Ophiils's documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié (1971) suggested the first stirrings of this. Commissioned by the state broadcasting system (the ORTF), it was not shown on television for more than a decade, its revelations of the extent of collaboration in Clermont-Ferrand, which could have been virtually any other French city, proving far too uncomfortable. The can of worms opened by the film was still alive and writhing in the 1990s, as illustrated by the 1994 revelations about President Mitterrand's collaborationist past and the imprisonment of former Giscard minister Maurice Papon for his part in the deportation of Paris Jews.

Where the documentary film had led the way, the feature was soon to follow. Louis Malle's Lacombe Lucien (1973) gave the first (moderately) sympathetic portrayal of a collaborator, in the person of its central character who joins the Milice only when

Figure 1.3 La Maman et la putain

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