What Was So New About the French New Wave?
A CultureMap®
by Sid Rosenzweig
Published on 8/21/14

In the early 1950s, five cinema-starved French kids watched as many movies as they could—especially American films denied them during the Nazi occupation—and wrote about them in the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. They praised filmmakers they loved (Alfred Hitchcock) and pounded those they hated (practically everyone else). When the Cahiers quintet started making their own films, the New Wave was born, and in its wake cinema would never be the same.

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The 400 Blows  (François Truffaut (dir.) | film | 1959)
to  Breathless  (Jean-Luc Godard (dir.) | film | 1960)

In the early 1950s, if you loved movies and knew French, Cahiers du Cinéma was the magazine to read. Its top five critics—Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette—excoriated contemporary French films, exalted Hollywood faves and eventually formed the core of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Truffaut wasn’t the first of them to make a feature (Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge appeared in 1958), but his triumph at 1959’s Cannes Film Festival, where The 400 Blows was nominated for the top prize and where he won best director, encouraged producers to invest in other young directors.

That’s how Godard got Breathless made. Truffaut had given Godard a script outline loosely based on the true story of a young cop killer (Truffaut even got screenplay credit because the producers demanded his name be on the film). But Breathless is distinctly Godard’s. The film’s revolutionary style (jump cuts, long takes on location, disjointed narrative) and compelling characters (confused, spontaneous, romantic, willful) resonated with young audiences, and it became one of Godard’s few commercial hits. Two years later the Wave had become a flood. A special issue of Cahiers listed 162 new French filmmakers, many now forgotten.

The 400 Blows  (François Truffaut (dir.) | film | 1959)
to  Hiroshima Mon Amour  (Alain Resnais (dir.) | film | 1959)

François Truffaut’s semiautobiographical 400 Blows stunned audiences at 1959’s Cannes Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or. A deeply moving, painfully honest study of troubled early adolescence, The 400 Blows became famous for its final freeze-frame of young Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s alter ego), his dash to freedom stopped by the sea, staring straight at the camera as if asking us what’s to become of him.

Another New Wave sensation, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, was also nominated for that year’s grand prize at Cannes. Ten years older than Truffaut, Resnais had already made nearly two dozen documentaries, including the shattering Night and Fog, one of the first French films to confront the Holocaust. The producers of Night and Fog asked Resnais to make a documentary about the A-bomb. Unable to deal with the subject in that form, Resnais morphed it into his debut fiction feature. Slipping imperceptibly between past and present and mixing lyrical imagery with disturbing documentary footage, the film’s mesmerizing style and complex treatment of time, memory, sexuality and subjectivity announced Resnais as a director to watch. Hiroshima Mon Amour shared Cannes’s 1959 French Cinema Critics Best Film award with The 400 Blows.

Bonnie and Clyde  (Arthur Penn (dir.) | film | 1967)
to  Breathless  (Jean-Luc Godard (dir.) | film | 1960)

David Newman and Robert Benton were unknowns when they sent their Bonnie and Clyde script to François Truffaut. They admired the stylistic daring and unexpected shifts in tone from farce to tragedy and back again in his and Jean-Luc Godard’s work and wanted to shake up Hollywood with that same rebellious energy and rule-breaking originality. Truffaut admired the script but instead chose to work on Fahrenheit 451. He sent the script to Godard, who was initially interested in making Bonnie and Clyde until creative differences with the film’s original producer put him off. Finally Warren Beatty bought the rights, cast himself as Clyde and asked Arthur Penn, with whom he’d worked on 1965’s surreal Mickey One, to direct.

Godard’s Breathless and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde share an unexpectedly old-fashioned Romanticism. Breathless’s impulsive cop-killing punk, Michel, mugs and steals his way through the film, but we can’t help warming to him when he ruefully realizes he loves the enigmatic American, Patricia (Jean Seberg). By the same token, Clyde is an impotent, self-deluded dim bulb, but sex-starved Bonnie sticks with him anyway. Bonnie and Clyde’s intense violence, staccato editing and supremely attractive but deadly outlaw-couple-on-the-run became iconic.

Alfred Hitchcock  (1899–1980 | British American filmmaker)
to  The 400 Blows  (François Truffaut (dir.) | film | 1959)

In his infamous 1954 article “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” published in Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut eviscerated postwar French filmmaking, attacking it for favoring safe, static, studio-bound, scriptwriter-dependent literary adaptations and period pieces that meant nothing to youthful audiences. In place of the smooth, bland, dialogue-heavy “Tradition of Quality,” Truffaut called for films that used innovative visual and narrative techniques to reflect life’s messy unpredictability.

He also articulated the politique des auteurs, usually mistranslated as “auteur theory.” For Truffaut, it wasn’t a theory, it was a policy—a critical position that promoted directors whose consistent themes and stylistic signatures earned them the rank of author. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock.

In 1962 Truffaut spent several long days interviewing Hitchcock about every aspect of his career. Four years later the edited conversations became Hitchcock/Truffaut, unquestionably one of the most fascinating film books in print. Hitchcock/Truffaut gave the American director the New Wave’s imprimatur. For filmmakers, however, the ultimate homage is imitation. Truffaut’s most Hitchcockian films include the romantic thrillers The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). Some would add The Soft Skin (1964); Truffaut himself added Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Claude Chabrol  (1930–2010 | French filmmaker and critic)
to  Alfred Hitchcock  (1899–1980 | British American filmmaker)

Alfred Hitchcock spent his career pursuing a difficult double goal. To ensure funding for his films, he had to prove himself a successful entertainer. To this end, he self-consciously created a public image, courted publicity and made himself the world’s most famous director. But he also craved recognition as a serious artist. He got it in 1957 with Claude Chabrol and Éric Rohmer’s pioneering study Hitchcock, which explores the director’s obsessions with crime and punishment, sin and redemption, his Catholicism and the “transference of guilt” theme, in which the villain enacts the hero’s unacknowledged dark desires.

When they started making their own films, Chabrol and Rohmer channeled Hitch’s influence in different ways. The underappreciated Rohmer’s greatest works (including his first film cycle, Six Moral Tales) are ironic romances centered on their characters’ skill at self-deception: Hyperarticulate, they think they know what’s best for themselves. They don’t. When on rare occasions the romances actually work out, it seems like a result of divine grace. Chabrol deals more directly with sin. Long called the French Hitchcock, Chabrol set his thrillers among the French upper classes, who reveal their wickedness in plots abounding in betrayal, blackmail, murder and general perversity.

Claude Chabrol  (1930–2010 | French filmmaker and critic)
to  Jean-Louis Trintignant  (b. 1930 | French actor)

The French New Wave was not just about directors and movies; a group of iconic actors also emerged from the foam. Among them, the prolific Jean-Louis Trintignant, who may have the distinction of starring in the first New Wave feature—if that honor indeed belongs to Roger Vadim’s 1956 debut, …And God Created Woman. (No doubt in 50 years film historians will still be arguing the point.) Vadim’s film may be stylistically slick and traditional, but it shudders with the Wave’s sullen, sexy, spit-in-your-bourgeois-eye spirit.

Trintignant starred in other Vadim films and also appeared in such signature Wave works as Claude Chabrol’s Les Biches (1968), Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969) and François Truffaut’s final film, Confidentially Yours (1983). Chabrol’s films typically probe the smelly underside of the glamorous French haute bourgeoisie and find frightening layers of selfish indifference, jealousy and sheer evil. In Les Biches Trintignant plays a handsome young architect who disrupts the lesbian love affair between a beautiful, wealthy idler and her poor but gorgeous pickup. This tale of an omnisexual triangle revived Chabrol’s then-foundering career and became the first in his string of late 1960s and early ’70s romantic thrillers today considered his masterpieces.

Hiroshima Mon Amour  (Alain Resnais (dir.) | film | 1959)
to  Jean-Louis Trintignant  (b. 1930 | French actor)

Let us praise triumphant elders. Hiroshima Mon Amour’s director, Alain Resnais, turned 90 in 2012, the same year he released the defiantly (and, with luck, prophetically) titled You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! Nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes, it was hailed for its stylistically innovative treatment of memory, loss, love and theater—themes native to Resnais’s oeuvre.

The film that won 2012’s Golden Palm, Amour, was directed by a mere stripling of 70, Michael Haneke. An emotionally devastating portrait of aging, Amour stars Emmanuelle Riva, 85, as a brilliant woman slipping into senility. Riva found fame more than half a century earlier in Hiroshima Mon Amour. For her performance in Amour (even its title is an homage to the earlier film), she became the oldest person ever nominated for a best actress Oscar. Opposite Riva, Haneke cast Jean-Louis Trintignant, 81.

Haneke is an heir to the New Wave. His fondness for tricky narrative structures, sadistic representations of violence and concern with the complex connections between cinema and reality may well be called Godardian. Indeed, his statement that film is “24 lies per second” deliberately reverses Jean-Luc Godard’s famous declaration, “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second.”