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A guide to French New Wave: The revolutionaries of cinema

Photography is truth. The cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.” – Jean-Luc Godard

What do we talk about when we discuss cinema? Over the course of its remarkable journey towards becoming a major art form, cinema has established itself as an integral part of our culture. It has changed how we process art, creating a much more immersive experience for the modern audience who belong to “the society of the spectacle”. Like all other artistic disciplines, cinema has been consistently evolving from its conception and it is still evolving to this day and it will continue to do so. However, very few moments in the history of cinema have been as influential as the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague).

After the second World War, France found itself liberated from Nazi censorship and foreign films as well as previously banned French films like those of Jean Renoir were easily accessible to the public once again. Hollywood greats like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Orson Welles were intensively studied by French critics who idolised the manifestation of their unique artistic visions in the films they made. This also gave birth to a new film theory called the caméra-stylo (camera-pen), introduced by Alexandre Astruc in his 1948 manifesto. Astruc argued that the director is just like the author of a novel and that the camera was the filmmaker’s pen. Describing this new phenomenon as “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel,” Astruc’s essay was pivotal in the formation of the well-known auteur theory that would revolutionise cinema forever.

The distinction between a film made by a studio and one which is the product of a director’s imagination defined the artistic sensibilities that have become so characteristic of the French New Wave. It was around this time that Cahiers du cinéma, an iconic film magazine which was co-founded by the famous film theorist André Bazin, employed some of the most prominent future filmmakers of the New Wave as film critics. The illustrious group includes the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, critics who later became directors with their own interpretations of what cinema should but united by a common obsession: unabashed cinephilia. Perhaps it was their vast knowledge regarding the tradition of filmmaking that helped these young innovators identify what was so wrong about contemporary mainstream cinema and why using the word “tradition” to talk about filmmaking meant limiting the possibilities of cinema.

When Godard and Truffaut were writing for Cahiers du cinéma, there existed a strict and definite language of cinema that films had to blindly follow. Especially when it came to film editing and narrative styles, it was essential that new filmmakers followed the tried and tested formulae championed by their predecessors. From camera movements to sound designs, the prevalent theory was to make the audience forget that they were watching a film but the French New Wave directors disagreed. They studied these “conventions” only to realise that they could just as easily come up with their own rules and that’s exactly what they did. So what were the tenets of the French New Wave’s understanding of the cinematic medium?

The most obvious deviation from the Hollywood norms was how the camera functioned. It had agency of its own and consequently developed its own voice, adding a much-needed dimension to what visual narrative in cinema meant. Tripods were replaced by handheld cameras, liberating the camera from the tyranny of logic. Breaking the common rule of 180° axis of camera movement, New Wave filmmakers used bold editing and frequent jump cuts to emphasise that cinema does not have to reflect reality only through the strict rules of realism. It can achieve much more by subverting voyeuristic expectations and experimenting with the divisions between fact and fiction. At the centre of this rebellion against mainstream filmmaking was Jean-Luc Godard. In his films like Breathless (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), Godard challenged conventional editing by pioneering his own brand of realism: employing not-so-subtle jump cuts to critique the deception of film editing, breaking the fourth wall (which influenced New Hollywood directors like Woody Allen) and the use of long takes and deep focus.

Plot took a backseat in the works of French New Wave auteurs because they felt that literary narrative was of little importance in the visual medium of cinema. Through their editing, they sought to constantly remind the audience that film a sequence of images floating around in their consciousness. This spirit of improvisation was also visible in the disjointed dialogues and the organisation of extras or mise-en-scène, the latter vastly differed from the realism offered by German Expressionism. French New Wave directors preferred shooting on location which helped them film on relatively low budgets without being controlled by film studios. Like Godard, Truffaut was also critical of the mainstream films of that period which were largely film adaptations of famous novels. In 1958, he famously condemned the Cannes Film Festival for “rewarding uninspired mediocrity” and was swiftly banned from the festival. A year later, he returned and won the prize for Best Director with his masterpiece The 400 Blows (1959).

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Parallel to the Cahiers du cinéma group, France also saw the rise of another movement known as the ‘Left Bank’. These two groups were not in opposition but their sensibilities were not really compatible. The Left Bank directors, including Agnès Varda, Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, were older than their contemporaries and were not as concerned with the distinction between cinema and other art forms. They drew inspiration from literature and elements from the nouveau roman movement can often be found in their films. The starting sequence from Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) also uses a stream of images to startle the viewer but in a different way, not subverting the conventions of filmmaking but rather assaulting the viewer’s ethical biases. Godard praised the Left Bank directors and even appeared in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) but maintained that they represented “their own fund of culture” and were separate from the New Wave.

It is almost impossible to completely trace the French New Wave’s overwhelming influence on contemporary cinema because their language of cinema has become widely appreciated, revered for their trademark irreverence. From Martin Scorsese to Quentin Tarantino, some of the most acclaimed filmmakers have continuously asserted that watching the works of the French New Wave showed them how liberating the process of filmmaking can be. While speaking about Godard, Tarantino explained how the French director shaped his early postmodern aesthetic sensibilities, “His complete lack of any kind of film style, just wanting to make movies for the love of it. Godard is the one who taught me the fun and the freedom and the joy of breaking rules. Just fucking around with the entire medium.”

What’s absolutely astonishing is that the French New Wave is still going on! Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, came out in 2018 and it is just as experimental (if not more) as his works from the ’60s. Maybe we can’t call it the French New Wave anymore because a movement cannot remain new for more than half a century but it is definitely worth paying attention to. 60 years after Breathless, is Godard still ahead of his time or are we mistaking the onanistic for the avant-garde? I strongly believe it’s the former.

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