With the end of the Second World War and the relaxation of censorship laws, France saw the resurgence of a more experimental and iconoclastic cinema. Influenced by auteurs like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, French critics like Jean-Luc Godard and André Bazin formulated new theories about the cinematic medium that would revolutionise the art form forever.
Originating in the late 1950s, the French New Wave opened the world’s eyes to films that were bold and different. Masterpieces like Godard’s Breathless used innovative cinematic grammar that subverted the audience’s expectations, challenging them to come to terms with the absence of traditional continuity. The movement would go on to influence new waves of cinema all over the world, urging young filmmakers to break free from any normative schools of thought.
In an interview, Jean-Luc Godard said: “We preferred Samuel Fuller or Budd Boetticher to William Wyler or George Stevens. Our wish, at least Rivette and I, was to be able to make a musical on a big set. It’s still a hope! We said that Hitchcock was a great painter, a great novelist, not just a director of murder stories, so it was more democratic. But it was utopian because we were too young to see what was really going on. I’m saying it today just because I’m probably the only one to ever look like that. I’m using my eyes and ears to study history. Other people use their eyes to read words.”
He added, “I don’t make a distinction between directing and criticism. When I began to look at pictures, that was already part of moviemaking. If I go to see the last Hal Hartley picture, that’s part of making a movie, too. There is no difference. I am part of filmmaking, and I must continue to look at what is going on. [With] American picture[s], more or less one every year is enough: they are more or less all the same. But it’s a part of seeing this is the world we are living in.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we look at ten essential films from the French New Wave to examine the artistic sensibilities behind one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the French New Wave:
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut – 1959)
Truffaut’s directorial debut might just be one of the best coming-of-age films of all time. It marked the creation of the immortal character of Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), an unwanted child who finds himself slipping through the cracks in the system. The 400 Blows is a beautiful exploration of a troubled childhood that depicts a lost boy’s internal conflicts.
Truffaut said, “The advantage of cinema over novels, for example, is that you can’t just drop it. The machine’s in gear, contracts are signed. I like actors a lot, at least some, or those I choose. There are promises to be kept. It’s a motivation to keep your word.
“But once you’re in it, once you start shooting, these types of problems fall away, those doubts of a general nature. Then there are just daily problems, strictly technical, that you can solve amid the noise and laughter, and it’s quite exhilarating. Then, when the filming is over, the doubts come back.”
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard – 1960)
Breathless might not even be Godard’s magnum opus (that might go to his 1967 film Weekend), but it is undoubtedly one of the significant works of the French New Wave. The influence of his debut feature is just too enormous to be ignored. Breathless showed the world how a filmmaker with contempt and disregard for cinematic traditions could make up his own rules.
“Unless you are very good, most first movies are too long, and you lose your rhythm and your audience over two or three hours,” Godard admitted. “In fact, the first cut of Breathless was two and a half hours and the producer said, ‘You have to cut out one hour.’ We decided to do it mathematically. We cut three seconds here, three here, three here, three here, and later I found out I wasn’t the first director to do that.”
Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais – 1961)
Alain Resnais’ dreamlike masterpiece resists traditional interpretations and it polarised critics at the time of its release. Beautifully surreal and set in an ornate baroque hotel, the enigmatic film explores themes of existentialism and destiny.
“I can’t see any reason why a film shouldn’t be stylised and visually beautiful. I don’t think a beautiful set is pretentious. If one were to create a sculpture he would want to make the form of the sculpture as beautiful as possible, and I don’t see how it could possibly be considered wrong to have the same approach in the creation of a film,” Resnais once declared.
Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda – 1962)
Agnès Varda’s 1962 masterpiece is an endlessly charming film about a young singer who experiences extreme anxiety due to questions of mortality and existence. Espousing the values of French feminism and questioning the perception of women in society, Cléo from 5 to 7 is definitely one of the most important works produced by the New Wave in France.
Reacting to the title of ‘The grandmother of the New Wave’, Varda said: “I found it funny, because I was 30 years old! Truffaut made The 400 Blows and Godard made Breathless, but I had done that five years before with [1955’s] La Pointe Courte, my first film. When I was younger, people were inventing a new way of writing – James Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner. And I thought we had to find a structure for cinema. I fought for a radical cinema, and I continued all my life.”
La Jetée (Chris Marker – 1962)
A brilliant sci-film that imagines a post-nuclear war experiment in time travel, La Jetée is one of the best short films ever made. Made almost entirely from still photos, it challenged the definition of cinema. The film is also a direct inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys.
In a 2003 interview, Marker commented: “Under the orders of Jean-Luc, I’ve said for a long time that films should be seen first in theatres, and that television and video are only there to refresh your memory. Now that I no longer have any time at all to go to the cinema, I’ve started seeing films by lowering my eyes, with an ever increasing sense of sinfulness.”
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy – 1964)
A beautiful musical drama that became a seminal addition to the genre, Demy’s 1964 film manages to transform the monotonous drama of regular life into something magical.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and influenced generations of filmmakers, including Damien Chazelle, who cited it as a source of inspiration for his 2016 musical La La Land.
During an interview about the film, Demy was asked why he would have “people singing for no reason.” Did he envision “people singing ‘I’d like the apple pie’ in the restaurant?” The director replied, “Why not? It would make life more pleasant.”
Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville – 1967)
One of the finest neo-noirs ever made, Jean-Pierre Melville constructs a memorable examination of a life of crime that is laced with philosophical subtext. Alain Delon stars as an assassin who is pursued by the police as well as the organisation that hired him.
Melville complained: “I have been tidied away once and for all in a drawer in a sort of filing cabinet under the label ‘American’. This is quite wrong. I’ve put up with it for five years, but now I’ve had enough: I am absolutely not an American director. If by this people mean that I make my films with enormous care leaving nothing to chance, my answer is that the great Japanese directors work the same way. Anyway, I feel much more Japanese than American. Le Samouraï is a Japanese film, as the title suggests.”
My Night at Maud’s (Éric Rohmer – 1969)
The third addition to Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, My Night at Maud’s is an intellectual masterpiece that raises relevant questions of faith, ethics, logic and the human condition. The film earned an Academy Award nominations for Best Foreign Film and Best Original Screenplay.
The director explained: “Every text, it seems to me, allows for two readings: an immediate reading and a reading between the lines, resulting from a deepened reflection, with reference to aesthetic theories. But I don’t think that this simplistic interpretation is worth less than the second. I always thought, even when I was a critic, that the brutal and simplistic reaction of the spectator is a good thing.”
The Butcher (Claude Chabrol – 1970)
A brilliant psychological thriller mixes romance with mental disorder, the film tells the story of a disturbed butcher who falls in love with a school’s head teacher. The violence is almost psychological in nature, invoking a deep sense of anguish within the characters.
In a 2009 interview, Chabrol said: “Luckily the cinema of filmmaking did not stop with La Nouvelle Vague. Of course there are many young directors that are avant-garde nowadays. I think all over the world there are two kinds of filmmakers: those who have the inner need to make films and those who just want to be in the film industry. The second category doesn’t interest me at all, while the first one is always very interesting.”
Céline and Julie Go Boating (Jacques Rivette – 1974)
Rivette translates the mysticism of magic to the cinematic medium in this delightful film, presenting Céline and Julie’s story, who embark on a spiritual journey. It is a playful masterpiece that draws the viewers into the whimsical world of Céline and Julie, making them experience the true power of cinema.
“Contrary to what some critics at Cannes thought, our ambitions weren’t along the lines of parody, but rather a pastiche of an old-fashioned sort of cinema,” Rivette explained. “So we decided that the end would be completely open; it could be very dramatic or whatever we wanted. I wanted to have a slapstick finale because it seemed more amusing.”