Unveiling French New Wave

In the late 1950s, a groundbreaking cinematic movement, known as the New Wave (or Nouvelle Vague in French), emerged, reshaping the landscape of French art films. This avant-garde movement defied traditional filmmaking norms, opting for experimentation and iconoclasm. Let’s delve into the origins, key figures, and distinctive features that define the French New Wave.

Origin and Rebellion

The term “New Wave” was coined by French film critics and cinephiles associated with Cahiers du cinéma in the late 1950s. Rejecting the mainstream Tradition de qualité, which prioritised craftsmanship over innovation, these critics sought a fresh approach. François Truffaut’s 1954 essay, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” denounced unimaginative adaptations and set the tone for the movement.

Pioneers and Influences

Pivotal figures in the New Wave, including Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol, initially served as critics for Cahiers du cinéma. André Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers, and Henri Langlois, founder of Cinémathèque Française, influenced the movement with auteur theory, emphasising the director’s personal vision.

Birth of the New Avant-Garde

Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 manifesto, “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo,” laid the groundwork for the New Wave’s expressionistic style. The term “caméra-stylo” highlighted cinema as a means of artistic expression akin to painting and novels.

Influential Debuts

Chabrol’s “Le Beau Serge” (1958) and Agnès Varda’s “La Pointe Courte” (1955) are considered early New Wave films. However, Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” (1959) and Godard’s “Breathless” (1960) garnered international acclaim, bringing the movement into the spotlight.

Auteur Theory and Beyond

The auteur theory, asserting the director as the “author” of their films, was central to the New Wave. Filmmakers celebrated Hollywood directors like Orson Welles and John Ford, applying auteurism to their own creations.

Techniques and Innovations

The French New Wave introduced unprecedented cinematic techniques, such as long tracking shots and existential themes. Filmmakers embraced low-budget productions, using friends as cast and crew. Improvisation and innovative use of equipment became hallmarks of the movement.

Godard’s Bold Vision

Jean-Luc Godard, a trailblazer of the New Wave, employed bold and direct filmmaking methods. His films, like the iconic “Breathless,” challenged traditional narrative structures, inviting the audience to question and engage actively.

Left Bank vs. Right Bank

While the Right Bank directors (Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard) were more commercially successful, the Left Bank directors (Marker, Resnais, Varda) embraced cinematic modernism and experimental filmmaking. Both groups, despite differences, contributed significantly to the New Wave’s legacy.

Enduring Legacy

The French New Wave, active from 1958 to 1962, rebelled against post-war cinematic traditions. Influenced by Italian Neorealism and classical Hollywood, it left an indelible mark on global cinema. Many New Wave directors continued their impactful careers into the 21st century.