FRENCH CINEMA AND THE NEW WAVE
In social terms, the 1950s—in France as elsewhere—saw the growth of youth culture and the beginnings of the displacement in politics and culture of the war and post-war generation by a new generation. The term nouvelle vague was coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud in 1958 in the weekly news magazine L'Express for a series of articles about the new generation emerging in France as the Fourth Republic got under way, not just in cinema but in politics and culture in general. The sudden and very visible emergence of the new filmmakers in 1958–1959 meant that what Giroud had noted as a general phenomenon became attached uniquely to cinema.
There were perhaps good reasons why the most striking manifestation of this New Wave should make itself felt in cinema. France had a long tradition of taking popular culture—perhaps especially, cinema—more seriously than did the United States and Britain. This was particularly true of the post–World War II period, with its lively, often polemical, culture of film criticism and reviewing both in specialized journals like Cahiers du Cinéma and its main rival Positif , both founded in the early 1950s, and in the daily and weekly press. At a time when the audience for mainstream cinema was declining, this culture was sustained by—and helped to sustain—a network of ciné-clubs and subsidized art et essai cinemas—art houses—dedicated to showing both repertory cinema and more noncommercial cinema. In Paris, Henri Langlois's Cinémathèque Française regularly screened historical material of all kinds, allowing for the discovery, or rediscovery, of past cinema. Cinémathèque screenings were given a lot of attention in the pages of Cahiers , whose critics regarded it as their equivalent of a film school. When the New Wave broke, there was an audience eager to see these new films and an infrastructure within which they could be seen, discussed, and argued about— Cahiers and Positif were often in sharp disagreement about the worth of the new films.
The state played a role in film production in France through the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), founded in 1946 to help regenerate French cinema, with a role in the financing, distribution, and censorship of films, as well as in professional training, archiving, the selection of films for festivals, and so on. Before 1959 the way in which loans were advanced rewarded established producers and directors, although there was some encouragement of short filmmaking. In the late 1950s, with mainstream French cinema in crisis, there were changes in the way films were subsidized: in 1959 control of the CNC passed from the Ministry for Information to the Ministry for Cultural Affairs, then headed by the literary icon André Malraux (1901–1976), and state subsidy became more varied, including the avance sur recette (interest-free advance against box-office revenue), awarded on the basis of submission of technical details and a synopsis, and a guarantee of profits from foreign distribution. In addition, prizes and grants were awarded: for example, Truffaut's 1958 short Les Mistons ( The Kids ) cost 5 million francs and was awarded 4.5 million francs after completion, while Chabrol's first feature Le Beau Serge , which cost 46 million francs, was awarded 35 million francs. Both directors, having been their own producers, immediately reinvested their awards in new projects—Truffaut in The 400 Blows and Chabrol in Les Cousins . Although these new and varied forms of subsidy helped to generate the New Wave, they still tended to favor a relatively traditional approach to filmmaking, rather than the less script-based, more improvised approach of a director like Godard.
The New Wave filmmakers benefited from what was effectively a new wave of adventurous producers willing to take risks, who either graduated from short films to features with the new filmmakers or got a new lease on life through them. Pierre Braunberger (1905–1990), a veteran producer of Buñuel and Renoir in the 1920s and 1930s, was hardly a newcomer, but he had produced several Resnais shorts in the 1950s and now took risks with films like Jean Rouch's Moi un noir , Truffaut's second feature Tirez sur le pianiste ( Shoot the Piano Player , 1960) and Godard's Vivre sa vie ( My Life to Live , 1962). Godard was equally indebted to producers such as Georges de Beauregard (1920–1984), who enabled him to make À bout de souffle , Le Petit soldat ( The Little Soldier , 1963), Les Carabiniers (1963), Le Mépris ( Contempt , 1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), and other films, and Anatole Dauman (1925–1998), who enabled him to make Masculin, féminin (1966) and 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle ( Two or Three Things I Know About Her , 1967). De Beauregard also produced Demy ( Lola ), Varda
b. Paris, France, 3 December 1930
From the mid-1950s Jean-Luc Godard was a critic (a highly idiosyncratic one) at Cahiers du Cinéma , with André Bazin, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Godard and his Cahiers colleagues made some short films in the 1950s but learned about cinema by watching and writing about cinema. As Godard has said, "All of us at Cahiers thought of ourselves as future directors. Frequenting ciné-clubs and thémathèque was already a way of thinking cinema and thinking about cinema. Writing was already a way of making films."
Godard's first feature, À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), helped announce the definitive arrival of the nouvelle vague , provoking both exhilaration and consternation by its wayward story and its cinematic treatment—fragmented narrative; long, often handheld, mobile takes; jump-cut editing. Godard rapidly became the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, committed to formal experimentation and rejecting script-based filmmaking. He often began a day's shooting with a few notes and ideas and improvised both script and camera work. He was also committed to productivity, making thirteen features from 1960 to 1967. Although some of Godard's films seem lightweight, Vivre sa vie ( My Life to Live , 1962), Les Carabiniers ( The Carabineers , 1963), Bande à part ( Band of Outsiders , 1964), Une femme mariée ( A Married Woman , 1964), and others were major low-budget works reflecting on contemporary society and radically questioning conventions about style and meaning, sound and image. Godard continued to experiment on higher-budget, wide-screen, color productions like Le Mépris ( Contempt , 1963). Pierrot le fou (1965) was a quintessentially Godardian work—reflexive, stylized, lyrical, autobiographical, funny, restless, desperate. 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle ( Two or Three Things I Know About Her , 1967) was an audacious mix of essay, documentary, and fiction.
After the more political La Chinoise and Weekend (both 1967), and the near-revolution of May 1968, Godard abandoned his art-house audience for a militant, deconstructionist "Counter Cinema" attacking bourgeois society and bourgeois cinema with films like Vent d'est Cine ( Wind from the East , co-directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin, under the aegis of the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970), but later tried to reconnect to art-house audiences with the magisterially Brechtian Tout va bien ( All's Well , 1972).
Although Godard has continued to make acclaimed films into his seventies— Sauve qui peut (la vie) ( Every Man for Himself , 1980), Je vous salue, Marie ( Hail Mary , 1985)—his reputation rests primarily on his experimental work from the 1960s and 1970s. The radical inspiration provided by the nouvelle vague is essentially the inspiration provided by Godard, who has generated one of the largest bodies of critical analysis of any filmmaker since the mid-twentieth century.
À bout de souffle ( Breathless , 1960), Vivre sa vie ( My Life to Live , 1962), Les Carabiniers ( The Carabineers , 1963), Le Mépris ( Contempt , 1963), Bande à part ( Band of Outsiders , 1964), Une femme mariée ( A Married Woman , 1964), Pierrot le fou (1965), Masculin, f éminin ( Masculine, Feminine , 1966), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle ( Two or Three Things I Know About Her , 1967), Weekend (1967), Le Vent d'est ( Wind from the East , 1970), Tout va bien ( All's Well , 1972), Sauve qui peut (la vie) ( Every Man for Himself , 1980), Je vous salue, Marie ( Hail Mary , 1985), Éloge de l'amour ( In Praise of Love , 2001)
Brown, Royal S., ed. Focus on Godard . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard . Translated by Tom Milne. Edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. London: Secker and Warburg; New York: Viking, 1972; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1986.
MacCabe, Colin, with Mick Eaton and Laura Mulvey. Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics . London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
Sterritt, David. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible . Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Wollen, Peter. "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d'est." Afterimage , no. 4, autumn 1972. Reprinted in Peter Wollen: Readings and Writings (London: Verso, 1982), and in Movies and Methods: An Anthology , edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.
( Cléode5à 7 ), and Rivette ( La Religieuse [ The Nun ], 1966, and L'Amour fou , 1969), while Dauman was otherwise more involved with the Left Bank group, producing Marker's Lettre de Sibérie and La Jetée ( The Pier , 1962) and Resnais's Muriel .
The New Wave filmmakers could achieve what they did only by seizing the opportunities opening to them and freeing themselves from some of the constraints of the mainstream industry. These constraints had to do with practicalities on the one hand, and ways of thinking on the other. On the practical side, it was recognized that the New Wave films found ways around the obstacles posed by union requirements on minimum technical crews, as well as the obstacles to location shooting and various censorship matters, while rejecting some of the things that had been assumed to be absolute requirements, like established stars and the fetish of technical "quality." In terms of ways of thinking, Truffaut—on the verge of breaking through with The 400 Blows —stated his position in a striking 1958 review of a cheaply made Japanese film, Juvenile Passion : "Youth is in a hurry, it is impatient, it is bursting with all sorts of concrete ideas. Young filmmakers must shoot their films in mad haste, movies in which the characters are in a hurry, in which shots jostle each other to get on screen before 'The End,' films that contain their ideas." He then suggested that the IDHEC should buy a copy of Juvenile Passion and show it to students on the first Monday of every month
to keep them from acquiring the mentality of assistants. And what is the assistant's mentality? It can be summed up: "I am finally going to make my first film; I am terrified of falling on my face; I have allowed a script and actors to be imposed on me, but there is one thing I won't give in on, and that is time; I demand fourteen weeks of shooting, thirteen of them in the studio, because if I can use time and film as much as I want, I will be able, if not to make a good film, at least to prove that I can make a film." Juvenile Passion was shot in seventeen days.
(Truffaut, 1978, pp. 246–247)
This begins to suggest what sort of films the New Wave filmmakers wanted to make and what was new about them; but there were also contemporary developments in filmmaking technology that were having an impact in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The development of lightweight, more mobile, and thus more easily handheld cameras like the Arriflex and the É clair opened up new possibilities for shooting methods, while more sensitive film stocks made it possible to shoot without excessive artificial lighting. At the same time, the miniaturization made possible by transistors led to lightweight sound equipment that could record sync sound on location more simply. There were implications here for the quality of the image as well, as for the cost of feature filmmaking and for the traditional craft specialization of the past. These various liberating developments were exploited by a new generation of brilliant cinematographers, all of whom came to features with the New Wave: most prominently, Raoul Coutard (b. 1924) (who worked extensively with Godard and Truffaut), Henri Decaë (1915–1987) (who worked with Truffaut and Chabrol), and Sacha Vierny (1919–2001) (who worked with Resnais). Coutard had been a still photographer and worked in documentary and newsreel prior to 1959, a background that informs the look of the films he shot. Although the new technology was often associated with the greater professional use of 16mm—with which most of the 1950s short filmmakers had some experience—with a few exceptions (such as the compilation film Paris vu par … [ Six in Paris ], 1965), New Wave features were invariably shot on 35mm but nevertheless benefited from these new possibilities. These developments, though not unique to France, had a significant impact, with more immediate implications for documentary filmmaking than for fiction—for example, they were crucial to the emergence and development of American "direct cinema." But some of the distinctions between fiction and documentary became blurred in both the French New Wave and in some of the other new waves that followed. In France the improvisations/documentaries of Jean Rouch— Moi un noir , La Pyramide humaine , Chronique d'un été —exerted considerable influence on a number of fiction filmmakers, notably Godard, much of whose work fuses or blurs fiction and documentary.