The French New Wave The French New Wave, also called La Nouvelle Vague in French, refers to the work of a group of French film-makers between the years 1958 and 1964. This core group of directors included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. All of them had been film critics for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema. This group was very critical of the glitzy films made for the studios in France and Hollywood in the 1950's and 1960's; however, they admired the work of earlier French directors such as Vigo and Renoir, and certain Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock. They also praised the work of Italian neo-realists such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica (Nowell-Smith 16).
They called these directors auteurs because of the distinctive themes that could be seen throughout the body of their work. Because of their backgrounds in film theory and criticism, this group of directors was able to change the notion of how a film could be made. The core group of French New Wave directors developed a distinct use of form, style and narrative, which made their work instantly recognizable. First, to fully understand the French New Wave, one must understand what was going on in France at the time. World War II had ended and France had been an occupied country, unlike England or the US. In the years after the war, a distinctive philosophy called "existentialism" developed in France.
This philosophy was a major influence on the French New Wave. Existentialism stressed the individual, free choice, and the absurdity of human life. In his book about Truffaut, Allen says Existentialists acted authentically, took responsibility for their actions, and used their own free will, instead of living the roles dictated to them by society (95). The characters in French New Wave films are often young anti-heroes and loners with no family ties, who behave spontaneously, often act immorally and are frequently seen as anti-authoritarian (Allen 97). A perfect example of a character like this can be found in the film The 400 Blows (1959), in which the protagonist, Antoine, fits almost all of those descriptions. He shows many existential traits as we see his inability to do what is expected of him.
Another common trait of the protagonists in French New Wave films is that they are not goal-oriented. Often times the protagonists will, much like Antoine in Les Quarte Cent Coups, "drift aimlessly, engage in actions on the spur of the moment, spend their time talking and drinking in a caf'e or going to the movies" (Bordwell and Thompson 421). In The 400 Blows, Antoine does all of the above. He takes school very lightly and decides not to go sometimes and usually he neglects his homework. As for "spur of the moment" actions, when Antoine was asked about his work by his teacher, he quickly made up a false story about his mother to momentarily free himself from any responsibilities.
We see Antoine go to the movies with his parents and there are many scenes of him just talking with his family or with his friend who he lives with. French New Wave films have a very natural look due to their location filming. Instead of using a studio, films in the French New Wave were shot on location to capture more of a real-life feeling. Shooting on location was made possible by the lightweight, hand-held camera invented in the late 1950's by the 'Eclair company. Faster film stocks, which required less light, allowed the new wave directors to use available light instead of studio lighting and lightweight sound equipment made it possible to use available sound instead of using studio dubbing. These inventions allowed the directors experiment and improvise during shooting and generally gave the directors more artistic freedom (Nowell-Smith 167).
The natural look of the films made them very distinct. The mise-en-scene of Parisian streets and coffee shops became a defining feature of the films (Cook 68). Because the camera was very mobile, a lot of tracking and panning shots were used. To create that real-life feel, often times the camera would follow a character down a street, into a caf'e or bar, or just look over the character's shoulder to watch life go by. Eric Rohmer begins his film La Boulanger e Du Mon ceau (1962) by establishing the action in Paris and goes on to film nearly the entire movie in the streets, cafes, and shops in that area of Paris.
In A Bout de Souffle (1959), the cinematographer Raoul Costard, who worked on many French New Wave films, was pushed around in a wheelchair while following the characters down the streets and into buildings. In Truffaut's film Les Quarte Cent Coups, a character is filmed on a carousel. These examples show how the innovative use of the portable camera coupled with the natural lighting and sound created a style unique to the French New Wave (Bordwell and Thompson 421). French New Wave films had a free editing style that did not conform to the editing rules of Hollywood films or other made for studio films.
A lot of times, the editing would remind the audience that they were watching a film by purposely making it discontinuous. Jump cuts or inserting non-diabetic material into the film were common methods used to create a slight discontinuity. A jump cut is a cut where "two shots of the same subject are cut together but are not sufficiently different in camera distance and angle... there will be a noticeable jump on screen" (Bordwell and Thompson 281). Godard used a lot of jump cuts and nondiagetic inserts to create an editing effect that was much different from the classical Hollywood form. Hollywood films avoid jump cuts by using shot / reverse shots, or by cutting to a camera in a position more than 30 degrees from the preceding shot.
Long takes were also common in French New Wave films (Bordwell and Thompson 281). Long takes allow the audience to get a better feel for the environment of the film and it gives the film a more natural feel. Many times, a long take would be shot as a long shot so that multiple characters could fit on the screen and the audience could see how they act towards one another. These unorthodox editing techniques created a distinctive style for French New Wave films that would influence many films in the future. The acting in French New Wave films was quite different than what had been seen before. Actors in these films were encouraged to not really "act" at all, but instead just act as normal people would.
This meant that actors would improvise their lines or talk over each other's lines just as it would happen in real-life. In Godard's A Bout de Souffle, there are many "lengthy scenes of inconsequential dialogue, in opposition to the staged speeches of much traditional film acting" (Monaco 107). There aren't many movies made in Hollywood that contain long sections of dialogue that do not pertain to the plot or story in any way. However, it is very realistic for people to have an off-topic discussion even when meeting for a certain purpose. French New Wave films occasionally used monologues or voice-overs to express a character's inner feelings. The actors in these films were not big stars prior to the French New Wave; however, a group of stars soon became associated with the films.
Some of these actors include Jean-Paul Bel mondo, Jean-Pierre Lead, and Jeanne Moreau (Monaco 126). Almost all French New Wave films have an ambiguous ending. Truffaut's Les Quarte Cent Coups has a typical ambiguous ending, with the protagonist, Antoine, on a beach caught in a freeze-frame while staring straight into the camera. This type of ending does not bring closure to the story, instead, it leaves it open to the audience to wonder about. However, the endings fit perfectly with the casual feeling of the films. By leaving the ending open, the audience feels as if they just witnessed a chunk of someone's life.
They know a little bit about the past from the body of the film, and the might have a hint at the future, but they really don't know. An open ending was almost always used by Godard and Truffaut. Between the years 1959 and 1966, the five core French New Wave directors made a total of 32 films. Although these films showed a departure from traditional cinema and were aimed at a more intellectual audience, many of them still achieved a lot of critical and financial success. Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups won the grand prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival and Godard's A Bout de Souffle was a big European box-office hit. These successes contributed to the influence of these directors.
By 1964, many of the elements of the French New Wave were already starting to become used in mainstream cinema (Monaco 149). Bibliography Allen, D. Finally Truffaut. London: Paladin, 1986. Bordwell, D. and Thompson, K.
Film Art: An Introduction. 6 th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001. Cook, P. The Cinema Book. London: BFI, 1985.
Kline, T. Jefferson. Screening The Text: Intertextuality In New Wave French Cinema. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1992.
Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Nowell-Smith, G. The Oxford History of World Cinema.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.