The phenomenon of the nouvelle vague is rooted in the fact that between 1958 and 1962 some one hundred filmmakers, mostly a little under or over thirty years of age, made and brought out their first feature films. Such a sudden influx of young, new directors was unprecedented in any national cinema. Most French directors in the mid-1950s had established themselves and a style of "quality" cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. New directors found it hard to enter the industry; those who did often attended the official French film school, L'Institut des Hautes-Etudes du Cinéma (IDHEC) and then served long apprenticeships as assistants. Along with established actors and screenwriters, well-equipped studios and experienced technicians, art directors and directors of photography, this typical path encouraged a safe, studio-bound, script-heavy, often literary cinema—the kind of cinema that François Truffaut (1932–1984) subjected to blistering attack in a polemical 1954 essay in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (no. 31, January 1954). In "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," Truffaut branded such cinema la tradition de qualité (quality tradition) and le cinéma de papa (Daddy's cinema), while praising the auteurs , or authors, whose vision and style were personal and individual. The politique des auteurs —the auteur polemic or policy—singled out for praise French directors like Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, Jacques Becker, Jean Cocteau (as well as Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti and other European filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Luis Buñuel, and, more controversially, American directors like Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and the British Alfred Hitchcock).
Truffaut and several of his critic colleagues from Cahiers du Cinéma —Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), and Jacques Rivette (b. 1928)—consciously set out to oust the cinéma de papa with their own youthful cinema and establish themselves as auteurs , using their critical writing as preparation for filmmaking. At the Cannes Film Festival in May 1959 the nouvelle vague was officially recognized as having arrived: Truffaut's debut feature Les 400 coups ( The 400 Blows ) won the Prize for Direction and Alain Resnais's (b. 1922) first feature, Hiroshima mon amour , though not in official competition (for
Many have argued that this group of Cahiers critics turned filmmakers (though they had all made—sometimes not very good—short films during the 1950s) were the nouvelle vague . Indeed, when these films were shown widely on big screens, and with commercial success, they had a disorienting effect on the mainstream French film industry. But it is unlikely that, on their own, this handful of directors making their first features, albeit in a tight time frame, would have had such an impact. The Cahiers group of filmmakers also became known as the "Right Bank" (of the river Seine) group, in contradistinction to the loosely designated "Left Bank" group, generally slightly older, associated with Resnais and Agnès Varda (b. 1928), Chris Marker (b. 1921), and perhaps Georges Franju (1912–1987). Before Resnais's success with Hiroshima mon amour , in some cases since the 1940s, these filmmakers had won admiration for their short and more political films ("Left" and "Right" also had these connotations). Notable among these were Resnais and Marker's study of colonialism and art, Les Statues meurent aussi ( Statues Also Die , 1953), Resnais's study of the concentration camps, Nuit et brouillard ( Night and Fog , 1955), Franju's striking films about animal slaughter ( Le Sang des bêtes [ Blood of the Beasts ], 1949) and the Paris military hospital ( Hôtel des Invalides , 1952), and Marker's critical travelogues Dimanche à Pékin ( Sunday in Peking , 1956) and Lettre de Sibérie ( Letter from Siberia , 1957). Making short films of this kind, along with the changing atmosphere of French cinema from 1958 to 1962, opened up possibilities for these directors to make their first features: Franju's La Tête contre les murs ( The Keepers , also known as Head Against the Wall , 1959) and Les Yeux sans visage ( Eyes Without a Face , 1959); Varda's Cléode5à 7 ( Cleo from 5 to 7 , 1961); and Marker's !Cuba Sí! (Cuba Yes, 1961) and Le Joli mai (Pretty May, 1963). Resnais was able to continue making controversial features like L'Année dernière à Marienbad ( Last Year at Marienbad , 1961) and Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour ( Muriel, or the Time of Return , 1963).
Needless to say, other filmmakers graduated to features at this time who could not be said to belong in either group or camp—directors such as Jean Rouch (1917–2004), whose background was in anthropological filmmaking, with Moi un noir ( I, a Negro , 1958), La Pyramide humaine ( The Human Pyramid , 1961) and Chronique d'un été ( Chronicle of a Summer , 1961, co-directed with Edgar Morin); Jacques Demy (1931–1990), with Lola (1961) and La Baie des Anges ( Bay of Angels , 1963); and Jacques Rozier (b. 1926), who followed short films, including the striking 1958 film about young people on the Côte d'Azur Blue Jeans , with his first feature Adieu Philippine (1962). And caught up, as it were, in the nouvelle vague were a number of more conventional directors who had served their time as assistants and fortuitously found themselves making their first features at this time and benefiting from the general buzz being generated—directors like Philippe de Broca (1933–2004), Michel Deville (b. 1931), Claude Sautet (1924–2000), and Edouard Molinaro (b. 1928).
These bare facts about who made what when, and what the filmmakers' backgrounds were, are easy to record, but they do not begin to touch on a crucial question: How was it that an established industry could be upset so decisively—and was that industry in fact decisively upset? A related question concerns the conditions and circumstances that enabled these new filmmakers to make their films. Moreover, what was new about the nouvelle vague , insofar as it is possible to talk generally about a diverse group of films and filmmakers who nevertheless have something in common?