The term "New Wave" (Nouvelle Vague) was coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud in a series of articles published in L'Express during 1957, based on surveys conducted by the magazine. The term was taken up again by L'Express in 1959 to describe a new group of directors who showed films at the Cannes Film Festival that year. The epithet "New Wave" was exploited by Unifrance-film, an official arm of the CNC, to popularize and distinguish these new French directors abroad and eventually became permanently associated with a group of young directors who emerged roughly at the end of the 1950s through the beginning of the 1960s. Also known as la Bande des Cahiers, these filmmakers were loosely united around a number of critics turned directors, such as Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), who published in Cahiers du Cinéma .
Though a few directors associated with the French New Wave made films before 1959, such as Roger Leenhardt (1903–1985) and Melville, the first films of 97 of the 192 new French filmmakers cited by Cahiers du Cinéma in the New Wave special issue (1962) appeared between 1958 and 1962. Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups ( The 400 Blows , 1959), often considered the benchmark film of the New Wave, was in fact preceded by films such as Le Beau Serge ( Handsome Serge , 1958) and Les Cousins ( The Cousins , 1959) by Claude Chabrol (b. 1930). The years 1958 and 1959 saw the deaths of a series of great directors who had produced significant work during the previous two decades—Ophüls, Grémillon, and Becker,
leaving a number of studio-trained successors in the wings: Edouard Molinaro (b. 1928), Claude Sautet (1924–2000), and Michel Deville (b. 1931) had solid careers and often migrated to features destined for television in the late 1960s and 1970s. However, the hegemony of the old studio system was drawing to a close.
Popular cinema, le cinéma du sam'di soir (Saturday night movies), remained a significant box-office force, often in the form of star vehicles for actors such as Fernandel (1903–1971) and Gabin. The growing impact of television resulted in lower numbers of ticket sales, but cinema still overshadowed television as the single most popular form of mass entertainment. The big-budget Tradition of Quality films suffered the most, though the genre was kept alive through Italian co-productions and was revived as the heritage film in the 1980s.
The productions, values, and techniques of the French cinema industry changed radically in the years that followed, opening up a new mode of production grounded in the small-budget film that made way for a new generation of directors with a different artistic conception of film. New lightweight equipment and more sensitive film stock permitted young filmmakers who saw themselves as auteurs to begin making films. These new technologies freed filmmakers from the constraints of the large studio-based, heavily unionized film crews that were integral to the film style associated with the Tradition of Quality.
The New Wave filmmakers might be said to share a certain sensibility—one that stood in stark contrast with the controlled mise-en-scène, trained performances, and studio lighting of the Tradition of Quality. By and large, New Wave directors favored improvisation and the use of available light, location shooting, direct sound, and vernacular language. Perhaps more importantly, this sensibility was associated with a mode of production, the small-budget film that gave the director complete artistic control, establishing him or her as the author or auteur of the work. The notion that the director functioned as the artistic creator of the film, with the film serving primarily as a vehicle for his or her vision, had a significant influence not only on film production but also on the way in which films were evaluated—in particular, in the context of a developing academic discourse on film.
New character types emerged with the New Wave, along with a more spontaneous acting style. Although the New Wave directors turned their backs on the established stars, the New Wave developed stars of its own, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo (b. 1933) and Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928), both of whom would go on to have international careers and have a significant impact on French cinema by sponsoring projects and taking a role in decisions about policy. Male stars such as Jean-Pierre Léaud (b. 1944) and Belmondo specialized in playing antiheroes, and together they formed the masculine face of the New Wave. Women stars such as Moreau, Bernadette Lafont (b.1938), Anna Karina (b.1940), and Brigitte Bardot (b.1934) played either gamine embodiments of youthful sensuality, or dark, neurotic intellectuals.
Strategies used by the French New Wave, such as direct sound and location shooting, were also part of the cinéma vérité movement that developed during the same period, associated with figures such as the anthropologist-filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917–2004). Again, the relatively low budgets associated with this genre of filmmaking made it attractive to intellectuals interested in interrogating social norms and circulating anti-establishment political statements. Not since the early days of cinema had it been possible for so many people to make so many films. A new pattern was established: directors no longer necessarily spent years working in the industry and perfecting their craft before embarking on a solo project. A director might make one or two more or less successful films before moving to some other activity. Though in fact New Wave directors worked with small, well-established crews maintained from one film to the next, they were the significant driving force behind the look, structure, and feel of the films.
As a star, a woman, and a national figure, Jeanne Moreau exemplifies the ideal of the French film actress in the post–New Wave era. Though overshadowed in the popular press by such stars as Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve, both of whom served as the model for Marianne, the official statue that represents France, Moreau, through her image as well as her position in the French film industry, embodied French femininity for a generation of film lovers. She personified the intelligent actress whose dark, mature, and potentially dangerous sensuality stood in stark contrast to the blonde sex kitten that dominated Hollywood screens. Moreau was considered un-photogenic, a jolie laide , whose personal magnetism and speaking voice overshadowed her features.
Her early background in theater lent credibility to her career in cinema, which began in 1948 and which includes over one hundred films. Her roles in films associated with the New Wave, such as Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ( Elevator to the Gallows , 1958)and Les Amants ( The Lovers , 1958), both directed by Louis Malle, gave her international prominence. Her portrayal of Catherine in Jules et Jim ( Jules and Jim , 1962), directed by François Truffaut, New Wave director par excellence, solidified her star image. International films, including Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte ( The Night , 1961), Orson Welles's Une Histoire immortelle ( The Immortal Story , 1968), Anthony Asquith's The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964), and Carlo Diegues's Joanna Francesa (1973), also have featured prominently in her career.
Moreau took a substantial risk in choosing to work with young, relatively unknown directors in the late 1950s and the 1960s. Throughout her career, she made choices that reflected her sense of cinema as an art and, as a result, she is universally respected for her professionalism and commitment. In addition to awards for specific roles (Cannes, 1960; Académie du cinéma, 1962; Célsar, 1990), she has received lifetime tributes from the Cannes Film Festival (1992), the Venice Film Festival (Golden Lion, 1992), and the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (1998).
Moreau has been involved in all aspects of French cinema. She was twice Présidente of the Jury at the Cannes Festival, and in 1993, she was appointed Présidente of the Commission d'Avances sur Recettes, a body of experts that advises the Centre National de la Cinématographie. She has also supported Equinox, an organization she created in 1993 that holds annual workshops for new scriptwriters. Moreau has directed two films herself, Lumière (1976), a portrait of four film actresses, and L'Adolescente ( The Adolescent , 1979), the evocation of a visit by a girl to her grandparents in Avignon on the eve of World War II. Moreau was elected a member of the Academy of Beaux Arts in 2001.
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows , 1958), Les Amants (The Lovers , 1958), Les Liaisons dangereuses ( Dangerous Liaisons , 1959), La Notte (The Night , 1961), Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim , 1962), Le Journal d'une femme de chambre ( Diary of a Chambermaid , 1964), La Mariéeétait en noir ( The Bride Wore Black , 1968), Querelle (1982), La Femme Nikita ( Nikita , 1990), L'Absence ( The Absence , 1993)
Vincendeau, Ginette. Stars and Stardom in French Cinema . London: Continuum, 2000.
Hilary Ann Radner
The New Wave philosophy did not mean that big-budget filmmaking was over in France or elsewhere, but it did introduce a parallel tradition that would make filmmaking more accessible to a wide range of individuals who declined to see cinema as mass entertainment, preferring to use film primarily as a form of personal or aesthetic expression. Within the New Wave, two equally important groups contributed to the rise of this new style in filmmaking: the very vocal group emerging out of Cahiers du Cinéma , including Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Jacques Rivette (b. 1928), Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (1920–1989); and the equally productive, if less polemical, filmmakers who espoused a more personal vision, including Franju, Jean-Pierre Mocky (b. 1929), and Claude Lelouch (B. 1937). Un homme et une femme ( A Man and a Woman , Lelouch, 1966) was arguably the most influential French film of the 1960s. Directors whose work was closely aligned with the new directions of current
literature, such as Renais and Buñuel, were sympathetic to the New Wave if not technically among its members and contributed to the aesthetic fecundity of the period. Resnais, though often associated with the New Wave, is distinguished from the typical New Wave directors by his willingness to efface himself through the adaptation of works by other writers, and by his highly intellectualized approach. His major films from the late 1950s and 1960s include Hiroshima mon amour ( Hiroshima, My Love , 1959), with a script by Marguerite Duras (1914–1996), and L'Annéedernière à Marienbad ( Last Year at Marienbad , 1961), produced in collaboration with Alain Robbe-Grillet (b. 1922), starring the cult actress Delphine Seyrig (1932–1990), and with costumes by Coco Chanel.
While the new breed of filmmakers was lionized at festivals, the career directors of established French cinema turned to television. The Buttes-Chaumont Studios, in particular, continued the Tradition of Quality in its productions for television. Directors emerged from the studio tradition, often the same age as the adherents of the New Wave, continued their careers—such as Delannoy, Gilles Grangier (1911–1996), and Denys de La Patellière (b. 1921). At Buttes-Chaumont these directors produced work that maintained the technical standards of the previous decades. Paradoxically, given France's reputation for intellectual fare, the biggest French box-office hit of all time was a popular comedy, La Grande Vadrouille ( Don't Look Now We're Being Shot At , 1966), directed by Gérard Oury (b. 1919) and starring Bourvil (1917–1970) and Louis de Funès (1914–1983).
The strikes and upheavals of May 1968 had an immediate if not necessarily lasting effect on French cinema, when demonstrators disrupted the Cannes Film Festival. Plans to reform the processes of production and distribution were put forward but eventually discarded. Individual reactions were varied: Malle gave up fiction film for two years in order to make documentaries; Godard threw himself into collective productions that were never commercially distributed.