It’s 1946, World War II has ended and so has Nazi censorship in France. Foreign films once again flood French cinemas, but not only that, previously banned French films—like the films of Jean Renoir— are now available to the public.
The French public is now finally able to watch movies by the Hollywood greats. Filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Orson Welles were inspiring French cinephiles again.
Join me as I take a look at the origins of the French New Wave…
French cinema magazines started to become infatuated with the idea that filmmakers like these Hollywood greats were artists and they just happened to complete their works on the canvas of film rather than a film just being a product churned out by the studios. A Hitchcock film is a Hitchcock film and not, let’s say, a Paramount Pictures film.
One of the first essays calling for films to be the vision of a single artist was an essay titled The Birth of a New Avant-Garde by film critic Alexandre Astruc. In it, he mentions a “camera pen” as if the camera is a tool used by a single artist like a paintbrush or typewriter (Martin 34).
In 1951, film critic and theorist André Bazin co-founded a magazine named Cahiers du cinema (or Notebooks on Cinema) that would eventually employ François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard as essayists for the magazine. Soon Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and Claude Chabrol were also writing for Cahiers.
The Cahiers writers came up with a list of principles of auteur theory— called politique des auteurs—that eventually made up the major tenets of the French New Wave.
Tenets such as an overarching emphasis on the realism of the mise-en-scéne. Unlike German Expressionism, the films of the French New Wave would give the viewers an objective view of the world, which would be a substantial help in working with extremely low budgets as no sets would have to be constructed. Bazin wrote an essay called The Evolution of Film Language, which, as Sean Martin writes in his book titled New Waves in Cinema, “argued for a realism that employed long takes and deep focus… [because] it made the viewer more active and enabled them to better interpret what they were seeing” (Martin 35).
But above all else, a film is and should be “a conversation between the auteur and his or her audience” (Martin 36).
Truffaut: “La politique des auteurs was the idea that films are not – Of course, films are made by a whole team of people, but either someone has something to say, or someone has certain ideas about life, or cinema or the world. So everything he does is interesting, even if some films more so than others. Or it’s someone who works anonymously, and it’s of little interest.”
That’s François Truffaut—he was a writer for Cahiers and he wrote an essay in 1954 titled A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema, in which he denounced the industry’s “tradition of quality” where the “ten to twelve” prestige pictures that France released each year were ultimately hollow adaptations of famous novels, lacking in any kind of vision on the part of the director (New Wave Film).
In ’58, Truffaut condemned the Cannes film festival for their part in rewarding uninspired mediocrity, which resulted in a ban from him attending the festival. However, Truffaut put his ideology into practice and made a film of his own titled The 400 Blows— about a troubled youth. It shocked everyone when, not only did The 400 Blows make it to Cannes (at the request of the new minister of cultural affairs), but Truffaut won the festival’s Best Director prize.
The success of The 400 Blows paved the way for other Cahiers writers to make their own films—most notably Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless the following year. Breathless allowed Godard to explore his own philosophies on film including his famous use of jump-cuts where a single shot would appear to skip forward in time. Godard’s use of jump-cuts aimed at purposefully distancing the viewer from the story and highlighting the fact that they are watching a film—a practice almost forbidden in traditional filmmaking. This idea originated in theater and Godard applied it to his films to force the viewer to consider the film from an analytical standpoint rather than an emotional one (Breathless commentary).
Around the same time the Cahiers writers were starting to make films, there was another group of filmmakers that were experimenting with film form. This group, albeit older and less tightly linked than the Cahiers directors, were known as the Left Bank—the Cahiers directors were the Right Bank (Wiki).
One of the major filmmakers of the Left Bank is Agnes Varda who was originally a photographer before making her first film. Chris Marker was arguably the most visibly experimental and received international fame with a short film made out of still images called La jetée. Alain Resnais gained attention with a short documentary in 1955 titled Night and Fog about the holocaust. Instead of using archival footage, he opted to look at the holocaust from the mid 50s by filming the abandoned concentration camps.
In 1959—the same year that The 400 Blows was released—Resnais made a film titled Hiroshima mon amour that started as a documentary about the bombing of Hiroshima and ended up becoming a hybrid of documentary and a fictional love story between a French woman and a Japanese man. The script was written by novelist Marguerite Duras who would eventually become a director herself.
The Left and Right Banks were friendly and would often praise each other’s films. Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina both appeared in Agnes Varda’s second film titled Cleo From 5 to 7.
The French New Wave reinvigorated cinema and gave a voice to the voiceless. The movement proved that great films can be made outside of the studio system with extremely low budgets. The experiments being done with film form influenced filmmaking outside of France inspiring, most famously, the American New Wave of the 60s and 70s. These pioneers showed filmmakers everywhere that you don’t need elaborate sets and expensive equipment to make a great film—all you really need to make a great film is a vision.