The French New Wave, 50 years later…

November 1, 2009

“I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” – François Truffaut


This Thursday and Friday, BAM will be screening two masterpieces from François Truffaut: Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim. Although both screenings are part of BAM’s excavation of 1962, they’re also apropos in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave, which hit these shores on November 16, 1959 when Truffaut’s The 400 Blows premiered in New York City.

If D.W. Griffith codified filmmaking the way Elvis consolidated rock ‘n’ roll on his Sun 45s, and if Citizen Kane took film language to its complete fruition the way Revolver and Sgt. Pepper elevated studio recording, then the French New Wavers were the punk rockers of their era, revolutionizing cinema the way the Ramones, the Clash and the Sex Pistols redefined pop music 25 years later. Punk wiped away the excesses of its predecessors, going back to three primordial chords. After Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut, there were no more rules in filmmaking, only conventions, and at its earliest peak, the French New Wave was anything but conventional.


Amusingly enough, they started off as film critics – fairly logical, but then again, how many critics have launched a career in film production? Not counting the Left Bank directors often grouped with the New Wave, most of them came out of Cahiers du Cinéma, a film journal co-founded by the late, great André Bazin. He died of leukemia in 1958, before he saw any of his young critics develop into full-fledged artists, but he was a massive influence on all of them. His belief in the director’s personal vision laid the foundation for the New Wave’s auteur theory, and regardless of whether or not you agreed with its ideas, it certainly informed the approach most of them took to filmmaking.

Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and many others went on to become formidable directors, but the best known were Godard and Truffaut – to many, they represented the mind and soul of the movement. As filmmakers, Godard was something like Lennon to Truffaut’s McCartney – the snotty intellectual to the romantic sentimentalist – but as critics, they were both enfant terribles. Truffaut enraged the establishment, inciting the audience to “rise up against French cinema” and to “smash the seats when faced with these revolting films.” He demanded more from motion pictures and he wanted audiences to demand more as well rather than sit back and watch as docile co-conspirators.

They may have been scornful of what had become of French cinema, but they absolutely adored what was coming out of America. Hollywood’s studio system was virtually finished and its productivity was crippled, but directors like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller and many others were still working through creative peaks – to the Cahiers critics, the only thing amiss was how these films were overshadowed in their own country by less worthy ‘Oscar collectors.’

In 1958, Hitchcock created Vertigo, widely celebrated as his greatest work and possibly the best film ever made. The mainstream American press wasn’t moved, and the industry crowned Gigi as ‘best picture.’ That same year, Universal dumped Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil into B-movie purgatory, but overseas at Expo 58 (the Brussels World’s Fair), Truffaut and Godard awarded it the top prize. Now considered a masterpiece, it’s reprehensible that Hollywood would never bankroll another Welles production after Touch of Evil, but there is some measure of karmic justice – after screening it at the fair, Truffaut came out of it determined to make his first picture.


Truffaut at work, 1964

The pressure must’ve been intense – after taking his abuse time and time again, the French film industry saw an opportunity for some considerable schadenfreude. Fortunately for us, Truffaut didn’t indulge them. A year later, Godard stepped in with Breathless and nothing would ever be the same.

It’s fairly common for any artist to mimic their influences on their first time out – sometimes to the point of thievery – but barring the occasional homage, the first French New Wave films had little resemblance to any of their inspirations. They were radical and wholly original, reinventing film language and rejuvenating it in a way that suggested a love-hate relationship with cinema. The 400 Blows came first, but Breathless captured the spirit of the French New Wave better than any of their other films. There would be better pictures, but none were as raw or dynamic as Breathless.

Nothing appeared too amateurish once it was folded into the aesthetic – what was good enough for newsreels was good enough for them. Not even the Italian neo-realists were that crazy – maybe Rosellini out of necessity, but even The Bicycle Thieves was a large scale production employing an army of studio professionals while sticking to the basics of conventional storytelling. Watching Breathless, you felt that Godard never waited for the crew to light a scene to the point of sterility – if film was about capturing a moment, he wasn’t going to let it slip away, professionalism be damned.


And that spirit ran through the film’s characters, often played by amateurs. There was a rush in the way they lived and the way they inhabited their films, even when their situations were bleak and the repercussions were tragic. Truffaut’s surrogate, Antoine Doinel, did his best to outlast childhood in The 400 Blows. Ferdinand and Marianne abandoned modern life in Pierrot le fou for something crazier and more intoxicating than Bonnie & Clyde. Odile, Arthur and Franz found time in Band of Outsiders for a minute of silence…then the Madison…and then a mad dash through the Louvre. And then there’s Catherine, loved by Jules and Jim, refusing to live as anything less than a free spirit.

The New Wave’s influence remains ubiquitous, most notably in filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien recalls Jules et Jim) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation channels Godard), but the rest of the world has fallen backward. Hollywood bares little resemblance to the commercial entity once championed by the New Wave. “I pity the French cinema because it has no money,” Godard says. “I pity the American cinema because it has no ideas.” With every studio cannibalizing its ‘independent’ divisions and filmmakers overseas finding more difficulty in getting seen in their own countries, one hopes for another revolution.



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