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(Credit: Rafael Kellermann Streit / Alamy / Philippe R Doumic)

Film

Travelling France in the footsteps of the French New Wave

@SamWKemp

La Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave, was an explosion of innovative, provocative, and undeniably stylish films thagnesat came from France in the late 1950s and early ’60s. With a new age before them, a collection of auteur directors decided to challenge the dominance of Hollywood and went about creating a uniquely French form of cinema. 

The films of the new wave were designed to stand in stark contrast to the meticulously organised productions of Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Ford. Directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Claude Chabrol abandoned the studio system and made many of their greatest films on a shoestring budget, taking their cameras to where they mattered: the street.

Using portable camera equipment that required little to no set-up time, the new wave directors pioneered an experimental style of filmmaking that embraced a range of avant-garde techniques such as jump cuts, continuous editing, and improvisation. Motivated by the spirit of iconoclasm that lay at the heart of La Cahiers Du Cinema film journal, the new wave auteurs explored new and uncharted thematic territory, engaging with the social and political upheavals that dominated France in the post-war period.

With its expressive, vibrant, and self-conscious style, the new wave captured the French nation in the midst of radical social change. In many films of the period, location becomes a character in itself, with cities such as Paris and Nantes taking on a powerful spectral presence. Below, we’ll be travelling to some of the most beautiful locations as depicted in new wave cinema.

The list covers the breadth of what is a remarkably diverse country, from sleepy northern villages to the Mediterranean waters of the Cote d’Azur. We explore the influence these locations had on the directors that chose them, and we’ll give you some tips for capturing the spirit of La Nouvelle Vague when you arrive. 

Whatever way you decide to travel these essential locations of the French New Wave, you should do so with at least three cups of coffee in your system. Oh, and, for the first stop on our travels, I’d suggest you pack an umbrella.

Paris

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Paris was used as the central location for many of the most pioneering films of the period, including Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and Agnes Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7. 

With its distinctive culture, neoclassical architecture, and unique history, it is one of the most fascinating and vital cities in Europe. For the new wave directors, Paris was a character in itself. In Truffaut’s films especially, it is portrayed as a ghost of sorts, one that haunts its inhabitants with a rich political, cultural and intellectual history. When Anna Karina walks along the Seine, she seems to be walking in the steps of Satre, Diderot and Camus.

What to explore

The new wave directors re-moulded Paris, bestowing it with many of the characteristics it is known for today. In the eyes of those filmmakers, Paris was the city of jazz, protest, and fashion. Today, it has calmed down a little bit, but much of what the new wave directors celebrated about Paris can still be found with a bit of digging. The city’s distinctive cafe culture, for example, should be embraced with open arms. After all, it was these cafes that acted as the intellectual workshops of the new wave, and many of them, including Coutume Café One, are still open today.

The best way to see the Paris of La Nouvelle Vague is to walk it end to end. On foot, Paris seems to ooze its complex cultural and political history from every pore. To the inquisitive traveller, the city still rings with the jazz sound that defined the new wave, and when you take a stroll towards Montmartre or Montparnasse, it’s quite possible you’ll hear the sound of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong mingling with the sultry evening air. Walking around the city’s Latin quarter will allow you to absorb the Bohemian spirit of the left bank, whilst a trip around the Louvre will enable you to recreate the famous running scene in Band Of Outsiders. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg in Breathless. (Credit: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie)

Autun, Saône-et-Loire

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Although the majority of Alain Resnais’ masterpiece, Hiroshima Mon Amour, was filmed in (surprise surprise) Hiroshima, there are a few scenes the director decided to film in the beautiful town of Autun in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region of central-eastern France. The town is nestled in a deeply forested area and is surrounded by rolling farmland, imbuing it with the idyllic charm for which it is so famous.

What to explore…

It was founded during the reign of Emperor Augustus in the early days of the Roman empire. As a result, the town boasts many monuments from the Gallo-Roman period. The ruins of its 20,000 seat amphitheatre (the largest in the Roman world) and the temple of Janus are just two magnificent testaments to that period. Autun also has a rich artistic history, having been a centre for religious artists throughout the medieval period. The stunning Saint-Lazare cathedral, for example, contains some absolutely sublime depictions of the last testament. 

Perhaps it was Autun’s pervasive historical and religious atmosphere that attracted both Varda and the novelist James Salter to the sleepy town in the 1960s. The weight of history is a prominent theme in Hiroshima Mon Amour and, in Autun, history is pretty much inescapable. For Salter, however, the town held within its winding streets a quiet sensuality that convinced the novelist to use Autun as the setting for his 1967 erotic novel A Sport And A Pastime.

Eiji Okada and Emmanuelle Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour. (Credit: Alamy)

Île de Porquerolles, Cote d’Azur

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Used as one of the locations for Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot La Fou starring John Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, the island of Porquerolles lies off France’s Cote d’Azur.

With its neat cerulean coves and thick forest, you’d be forgiven for thinking Porquerolles an island in French Polynesia. It is one of the most isolated and mesmerising locations in the south of France and provided the perfect backdrop for Godard’s story of a couple’s escape from bourgeois Parisian society. 

The decision to film Pierrot La Fou on Porquerolles could have something to do with the fact that Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon set two of his novels on the island, one of which, My Friend Maigret, evokes the same noir-thriller atmosphere that Godard was attempting to capture in his film.

What to explore…

With very little infrastructure to speak of, the best way to travel around Porquerolles is by pedal power. Taking a bike around the island will allow you to see everything from Fort Sainte Agathe – a fort built in the 14th century – to the Eglise Sainte Anne and the Cap d’Arme lighthouse. 

The sapphire waters to the north and south of the island will provide you with perfect swimming conditions, while the eucalyptus lined walkways in the centre of this paradise offer welcome shade.

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Pierrot La Fou. (Credit: SNC)

Nantes, Brittany

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Located on the Atlantic coast, The city of Nantes is central to Jacques Demy’s dreamlike 1961 film Lola. It follows the story of the titular cabaret dancer Lola and the two men who fight for her affection. 

Nantes was to Demy what Paris had been to François Truffaut. In Lola, Nantes takes on an unreal quality, in which even the mist everyday locations drip with a strange, indefinable magic.

What to explore:

Two locations in Nantes are, even to this day, firmly associated with Lola. Those are the brasserie La Cigale, where the film’s cabaret scenes were shot, and the Passage Pommeraye. The former is still one of the most famous spots in Nantes, an opulent fine-dining establishment that serves some of the best cuisines in Brittany. Its high ceilings and ornamental tiles make it the perfect object of Lola and her dancer’s idealisation of Nantes.

Far from the seedy hangouts of provincial France, Nantes comes to represent the glamour and success of the group of dancers and takes on a faintly fantastical ambience as a result. Walking around the port city of Nantes certainly induces a dreamlike feeling. With its largely in-tact medieval ruins, neoclassical architecture, and unique light, it is a city that sometimes appears to be made more of honey than bricks and mortar. 

Demy himself celebrated the city’s stunning luminosity when he decided to film several scenes inside the Passage Pommeraye. The beautifully decorated arcade serves as the backdrop to two significant encounters between Lola and the be-smitten Roland, and it’s no accident either. The space has attracted countless artists, including many surrealists, reinforcing Lola’s identity as a muse and the unreal object of Roland’s desire.

(Credit: YouTube still)

Girolata, Corsica

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The stunning Corsican landscape provides the backdrop to Jacques Rozier’s 1965 film Adieu Philippine. The story follows Michel, a bored and frustrated young man from Paris who is about to be sent to Algeria for army service. 

While working as a cameraman, he meets two teenage girls, Juliette and Liliane, and begins separate affairs with both of them. After Michel gets himself fired from his job, he travels to Corsica for a final holiday before leaving for Algeria. There, the girl’s relationship begins to deteriorate.

What to explore: 

At times, Adieu Philippine seems more like a documentary than a film. Rozier’s erratic camera movements capture a Corsica as seen through the eyes of the young, wild, and carefree. Girolata itself is one of the jewels of Corsica, although it is perhaps even more inaccessible than Porquerolles.

Located south of the Scandola nature reserve in western Corsica, it lies about 35km northwest of Porto. The village itself sits on a rocky peninsular surrounded by ocean, its red-brick houses giving it the appearance of some sun-soaked passionflower clambering up the mountainside. 

With its boat-speckled harbour and looming lighthouse, Girolata couldn’t be further from the foggy streets of Paris. Beyond the obvious swimming and sunbathing, you’ll find a wealth of natural wonders in Girolata. The nature reserve is home to numerous ospreys, peregrine falcons, crested cormorants, ash puffins and golden eagles. It also boasts some 450 species of algae and nearly 200 species of fish, many of which are incredibly rare.

(Credit: Raymond Cauchetier)