The French New Wave
The decades immediately following World War II saw a rise in innovations in film and the studies thereof. European film circles had been introduced to the American film noir movement, as well as John Ford westerns, Alfred Hitchcock thrillers, Nicholas Ray dramas, and Howard Hawks’ films in general, which had provided a whole new generation of filmmakers with inspiration. Not only had the youth of Europe been exposed to the magic of the American movie after the war, but, during and after the war, they had also witnessed the atrocities of war and the vain attempts at picking up the pieces once it had ended. Thus, various new film movements in Europe, like Italian neorealism and the Czechoslovak new wave, responded to the pandemonium of postwar Europe. Several countries in Europe had new wave movements, including England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia as was previously mentioned; however, no new wave movement has had the lasting impact and relevance of the French new wave.
In comparison to the other heavyweights in the cinematic arena the United States and England, France was occupied by the Nazis and their film industry came under the control of the Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels. This meant that not only were American films banned from distribution in France, but also that any films made under the Vichy regime were to comply with the standards of German filmmaking: they could promote the ideals of the Vichy and Nazi governments through propagandistic means, or they could attempt to quell any resistance. The occupation and the Vichy government’s collaboration with the occupying forces caused great strife amongst the French people, dividing them into those who resisted and those who collaborated with the Germans. From this division and the shambles in which the country was left after the war came the existential philosophical movement.
A great influence on the nouvelle vague, the philosophy of existentialism placed emphasis on the individual over the collective, freedom of choice and the absurdity of human life. The new, indifferent world in which many young people found themselves living made intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus more aware of themselves and their actions, causing them to take responsibility for themselves. Living in an unforgiving world looking out for number one was a common theme running through the films of the new wave. Disillusioned by and cynical about the worlds in which they are living, the protagonists of the new wave reflected the characters in such works as Camus’s L’Etranger. In this novel, the protagonist kills an Arab on the beach and shows no remorse for his crime. Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) begins with the murder of a police officer in cold blood, and continues with the remorseless activities of a criminal on the lam. Characters such as these and those who choose to live lives authentically and for themselves are integral parts of the philosophy of the new wave, and the philosophy of existentialism.
Existentialism and the new wave movement stressed the importance of authenticity. Telling stories of real people living real lives and dealing with real situations, the new wave directors made it their goal to show the daily struggles of life as art. François Truffaut’s premiere film The 400 Blows (1959) revolves around the 12 year old Antoine Doinel and his struggles growing up with misunderstanding parents and enduring torment from his teacher. A semi-autobiographical film, it not only represents the new wave movement in style and themes, but also embodies its philosophy of realism and authenticity. Antoine, in his attempts to make a better life for himself away from his neglectful parents, and in so doing becomes a criminal. Whether by the institution of his family, his school, or the correctional facility in which he ends up at the end of the film, Antoine is trapped in this life he does not want to live, perfectly and poignantly captured in the freeze-frame image at the end of the film. As he runs away from the youth camp, he runs toward the ocean with no plan but for escape, when suddenly the camera captures the expression on his face in a still. The still, in my opinion, not only encapsulates Antoine’s vain escape attempts, but also speak to the existentialism that inspired the film movement in which this film is placed. Like the title of Sartre’s masterpiece, there is no exit from life’s harsh punishments, and Antoine as well as many of the other nouvelle vague protagonists must find a way to live for themselves.
Aside from the stark narratives, the new wave directors created a visual style all their own, which reflected the desolation of their stories and characters. Shot mainly in black and white under very tight budgetary constraints, the style of the French new wave involved a great deal of natural lighting; ambient, natural noise; mobile cameras; location shooting, particularly around the streets of Paris; free editing; and long takes. The actors, too, became integral parts of the style of filmmaking. Rather than scripted and rehearsed lines, the actors were often asked to ad lib their lines, making for a more naturalistic rapport between characters. Women, as well, were given much meatier, more important roles than were usual. All of the stylistic conventions employed by the new wave directors—including Chabrol, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette, and Truffaut—were meant to defy the conventions of Hollywood, whose productions at this time were still put out through the studio system. In addition, unlike the classical Hollywood pantheon of directors, the new wave artists included a woman, Agnés Varda, whose film Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962) is a vital part of the French new wave canon. Simultaneously utilizing and defying classical Hollywood styles of aesthetics and narratives, the new wave filmmakers told stories of car thieves, ailing singers, delinquent students, and the like in a documentary style that was as much about budget constraints as it was about conscious style choices.
The new wave in France would not have existed were it not for Cahiers du cinema. Its five main filmmakers all came out of the Cahiers school under the tutelage of André Bazin. Not only did they learn a great deal about the cinema itself as a medium and the wonders thereof, but they also learned how to use the cinema as a teaching tool and to make films and film criticisms with a humanist angle. Their training under Bazin gave them the focus on the truth, while their own studies of the auteur filmmakers they had come to admire influenced their visual and narrative styles. That Truffaut studied and admired Hitchcock so ardently, and that Godard was a big fan of Nicholas Ray’s films comes out in their uses of techniques and their attention to all aspects of their films. They were, after all, emulating their masters and attempting to follow their example as auteurs. As much as the new wave style was inspired by the plights of the French population after the war, the existential philosophy resulting from them, and their attempts to break the conventions of Hollywood, the new wave directors wanted nothing more than to be held in a similar regard as they held their idols, and to create films that were truly authentic, and truly theirs. Considering that the Cahiers auteurs made 32 films between 1959 and 1966, most of which were met with glowing praise and audience recognition, they achieved what they set out to accomplish.