The New Wave

The New Wave never formally constituted itself as a movement (the term was coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud), so that 'membership' of it is to a large extent a matter of opinion. The five 'core' directors - Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette - had met at the Paris Cinémathèque in the late 1940s or early 1950s and had graduated to film making by way of the influential journal Cahiers du cinéma. The major intellectual and personal influence on them was the critic André Bazin, a passionate advocate of'realism, mise-en-scène, and deep focus (which he saw in opposition to montage)' (Monaco, 1976: 6), and of the politique des auteurs. European art-house directors, such as Renoir or Rossellini, had traditionally been treated as the 'authors' of their films, in much the same way as Balzac or Baudelaire were of the literary texts they signed. The American low-budget cinema, on the other hand, tended to be thought of as a commercial and studio-based product, to which Godard pays homage in his dedication of A bout de souffle (1959) to Monogram Pictures. Cahiers' innovation was to treat film-makers such as Hawks or Fuller as the authors of their films in much the same way as their more 'respectable' European counterparts.

The New Wave directors, like their Hollywood predecessors, worked individually and creatively within often severe budgetary constraints and the conventions of studio genre. Their films were frequently self-referential (Godard making a brief Hitchcock-like appearance in his own A bout de souffle, Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1959) containing an obvious visual quotation from Vigo's Zéro de conduite), as though to assert the value of film as a form of artistic expression on a par with the novel or the theatre. Allusions to art cinema and Hollywood action film sat side by side in a manner that, nowadays, with the erosion of the barrier between 'high' and 'popular' culture, seems unremarkable, but was extremely innovative at the time. The literary adaptation and the costly studio set-up were anathema to these filmmakers, whose use of hand-held cameras and location filming gave their work a constant charge of the unexpected. They were also greatly helped by the introduction, in 1960, of the avance sur recettes, a system of government loans, granted on the basis of a working script, to enable films to be produced. One in five French films benefits from this funding, though only one in ten of these has been sufficiently successful at the box office to pay off the loan in full (Hayward, 1993: 46). The system thus effectively works as a source of subsidy, another reason for the often-remarked thriving independent and experimental sector (known as art et essai) of the French industry.

Chronologically, the first New Wave film was Chabrol's Le Beau Serge of 1959, followed in the same year by his Les Cousins. The influence of Hitchcock is marked in the exchange of roles between the central characters (in both films played by Gérard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy), the latter of whom represents Parisian would-be sophistication against the provincial benightedness of the other. Chabrol has had a wildly uneven career, often filming neither wisely nor too well, but at his best he is the master denouncer of the hypocrisy and pretentions of the bourgeoisie. Misanthropy and misogyny are other components of his work and both are plain in Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), about the varying fortunes and ambitions of four young women who work in an electrical shop, an emblem of the modernisation of French society. Les Biches (1966) features a bisexual love triangle in Saint-Tropez, probably the first major French film to deal overtly with lesbianism, albeit in a manner that changes in sexual politics have caused to appear dubious.

The year 1959 - annus mirabilis of post-war cinema - also saw the feature debuts of Truffaut and Godard. The former's Les 400 Coups remains among the cinema's most touching evocations of a less-then-happy childhood, modelled in many ways on TrufFaut's own. Film here is the medium at once for autobiographical essay and for formal audacity, as in the celebrated final shot in which the young Antoine Doinel/Jean-Pierre Léaud runs away from reform school and is frozen by the camera, half-fearful and half-exhilarated, as he catches his first glimpse of the sea. Truffaut wisely left Doinel to fend for himself for the best part of a decade, during which he broadened his experimental use of the medium with the bitter-sweet gangster parody Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), starring Charles Aznavour, and the prolonged triangular love story between a Frenchman, a German and the capricious Catherine/Jeanne Moreau, Jules et Jim (1962). This earned an unprecedented standing innovation at the Cannes festival, from which Truffaut had a few years before been banned, and the all-but-envious homage of Renoir. The homoerotic intensity of the relationship between Jules and Jim, mediated it would be possible to argue through their shared passion for Catherine, now gives the film a strikingly modern feel. The theme of tragic or impossible love, and its close linkage with death, recurs in more conventional format with La Peau douce (1964), generally regarded as Truffaut's most Chabrolesque work.

A bout de souffle remains probably the best-loved of New Wave films, its innovative use of jump-cuts, location filming of a non-touristic Paris and mise-en-scène of the love/hate relationship between French and American culture remaining as fresh now as when it was released. The fecundity of Godard's experiments with soundimage relationships and filmic genre is a constant in his work throughout the decade, which spanned the musical ( Une femme est une femme, 1961), science fiction (Alphaville, 1965) and the sociological treatise (Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, 1966). Le Mépris (1963) gives Brigitte Bardot her major serious dramatic role, and stages an eloquent enactment of the contradictory pressures on the film-maker to make money and produce significant art. Much of Godard's work during this decade displays an unnerving prescience. Bande à part (1964) alludes to the genoci-dal conflict in Rwanda 30 years before it came to widespread attention. Masculin féminin (1966) pre-echoes the debates about gender and sex roles that were to achieve such importance in succeeding decades. The cultural and institutional

upheaval of May 1968 has a very good claim to being the most unexpected major event in post-war European history; yet Godard's two 1967 films, La Chinoise and Weekend, are extraordinary straws in the wind, the former foreshadowing the leftist agitation at the University of Nanterre that was to spark the events off, the latter a Surrealist, cartoon-like dramatisation of the consumerism so characteristic of French society in the 1960s and of the 1968 reaction against it.

The political strain in Godard's work becomes evident as early as Pierrot le fou (1965), which features Jean-Paul Belmondo from A bout de souffle in a doomed love affair with Godard's then wife Anna Karina, his inspiration for much of this period. Pierrot le fou suggests much of what was to follow in Godard's subsequent work, with its strikingly poetic use of colour, its use of mockingly didactic, quasi-Brechtian tableaux and its references to the Vietnam War.

Rohmer's work remains, certainly in French and probably in world cinema, unique in that he has never lost money on a film in a 40-year career. His low-budget approach, reliance on highly crafted dialogue and fondness for ironic philosophising make a 'Rohmer film' instantly recognisable, and in these respects he can, even by those not uniformly enthusiastic about his work, be seen as the supreme auteur. Le Signe du lion (1959) is his most savage work, about an over-trusting bohemian's destitute summer in Paris. His work for the remainder of this period took the form of short films, often made for television, a further illustration of the economic awareness that informs his work.

Rivette's love for lengthy, intricate narratives was apparent from his first feature, Paris nous appartient (1961), and has caused him to have a rather chequered career. La Religieuse (1966), his only other feature of the period, was briefly banned by the censor for its supposedly scandalous evocation of convent life, and authorised to be exported only under the distancing title of Suzanne Simonin, la religieuse de Diderot, much as Godard's 1964 La Femme mariée had to be retitled Une femme mariée before it got past the censor.

Other film-makers closely associated with the New Wave, though not with Cahiers du cinéma, were Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy. Resnais, the great cineast of memory, remains unique in his exclusive use of pre-written scripts, the basis for the most extensive formal experimentation with montage among contemporary film-makers. Novelists Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, both themselves to go on to direct films, scripted respectively Hiroshima mon amour (1959) and L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961). Hiroshima intertwines the horrors of the nuclear bomb and its central female character's love affairs with a German during the war and a Japanese afterwards, broaching at once political and ethnic taboos. Nowadays, with a more widespread awareness that 'the personal is political', its 'dime-store novel' plot (as the central character, played by Emmanuelle Riva, herself describes it) appears less audacious than it did at the time, when its sympathetic evocation of a love affair with the enemy was moving into largely uncharted territory. The film, as important a first feature as A bout de souffle, makes vivid, often startling use of subjective visual flashbacks, cutting back and forth between the Hiroshima of 1958 and the French provincial town of Nevers under the Occupation.

L'Année dernière à Marienbad (see Figure 1.2) is a virtuoso essay in the 'eternal present' of the filmic image. It is impossible to tell whether its love story, with Delphine Seyrig as the object of two men's desire, is past, present, future, fantasy, or all or none of these. In this respect the film is analogous to the experiments of the 'new novelists' - including Robbe-Grillet - with subjective, fragmented or even contradictory narration. A strikingly, even flamboyantly, modern work, it is also an evocation of and homage to the golden age of black and white film-making; there is scarcely another film it would be so difficult to imagine in colour. Muriel (1963), also starring Delphine Seyrig, ran into censorship difficulties because of its references to torture in the Algerian war, much as Godard's Le Petit Soldat had done three years earlier. Censorship of film was rife in the Gaullist era - the downside perhaps of the state's interest in the medium. Officially instituted for the first time during the Occupation, it continued in force thereafter, to such an extent that during the eight years of the Algerian War (1954-1962) 'not a single film on the Algerian question was granted a visa' (Hayward, 1993: 40). Not until Giscard d'Estaing became president in 1974 did it all but disappear.

The succès de scandale enjoyed by Louis Malle's second feature, Les Amants (1958), is there to remind us that sexual censorship was scarcely less to be reckoned with (though less specific to France) in this period than its political counterpart. Les Amants stars Jeanne Moreau as a bored bourgeois trophy wife who leaves her family and lover behind after a night of love with a young student she met on the road. The aforementioned succès de scandale pertained to the film's (inevitably) discreet depiction - or evocation - of cunnilingus, but more profoundly shocking than this might be the wife's seeming abandonment of not only her husband, but her young daughter. Malle's role as starmaker was reinforced by Vie privée of 1962, with its barely disguised references to the real life of its star, Brigitte Bardot.

Varda is beyond doubt French cinema's leading woman director. The number of films directed by women in France has increased exponentially over the past decade in particular, but until the post-war period a woman director was a rarity,

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