New Wave


However, this might suggest that the films were naturalistic, observational studies of contemporary French life. Although this was an important component— The 400 Blows , for example, seems a clear descendant of the Italian neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, though more personal and autobiographical in tone—other elements, potentially at odds with naturalism, combined with it. For example, the Cahiers critics' love of American cinema did not mean that they made films remotely like American ones, but American cinema—and cinema in general—served as a point of reference both for the films and their characters. Thus, Truffaut's second feature, Shoot the Piano Player , combined an evocative sense of contemporary place, time, and character with elements of the gangster film, melodrama, and comedy—a veritable "explosion of genre," as Truffaut put it; Breathless uses Humphrey Bogart and the American crime film (dedicated as it is to the B-movie studio, Monogram) as a point of reference, but from the point of view of a thoroughly French and contemporary (anti-)hero.

Having reproached the cinéma de papa for losing any sense of what was cinematic about the cinema, New Wave directors were also concerned that audiences should experience their films, in a variety of ways, as cinema . This could mean a variety of things. The directors expressed their passion for, and pleasure in, cinema through the exuberant and often flamboyant ways they embraced the possibilities of the medium, as well as through references to scenes and characters in films they loved. Godard said that he wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of filmmaking were being just discovered for the first time. Breathless jettisons much conventional narrative continuity, with jump cuts and narrative elisions, random actions, long takes, and the like, while Shoot the Piano Player introduces an array of cinematic devices, such as sudden big close-ups, subtitles, and irises, borrowed freely from film history. Such strategies gave the early New Wave films a modernity and lightness of touch, and an improvised or spontaneous feeling, very different from the rather literary, ponderous, studio-bound films that typified mainstream French cinema in the 1950s. Truffaut's style soon became more conventional, and Rohmer and Chabrol did not really abandon or continue to question narrative conventions; but Godard remained consistently iconoclastic and experimental beyond the main period of the nouvelle vague . My Life to Live is both a fiction about the life of a prostitute—in a series of Brechtian tableaux—and at the same time a systematic exploration of the function and meaning of camera movement, editing, narrative, and sound. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is both a fiction and a documentary essay about the reorganization of Paris as well as a rigorous examination of film form and the director's decision-making process. Rivette later placed himself well beyond the mainstream with long-form improvisations like L'Amour fou (1968, over four hours long), Out One: Spectre (1973, in four -hour-plus- and twelve-hour versions) and the more commercial but still experimental Céline et Julie vont en bateau ( Celine and Julie Go Boating , 1974, over three hours), often using theater as a metaphor for cinema. Effectively, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, having helped to put the cat among the pigeons, integrated into mainstream French production, making bourgeois films for bourgeois audiences; only Godard and Rivette continued to fly the flag of radical experimentation. Godard in particular responded to the political turmoil of May 1968 and its aftermath with highly politicized and theoretical as well as formally radical films like Le Vent d'est ( Wind from the East , 1970), before trying to regain a wider audience with Tout va bien ( All's Well , 1972).

In Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour the Cahiers group recognized a different kind of modernity and modernism than they claimed for their own work—though Godard and Rivette very soon represented different versions of modernism in cinema. Rohmer acclaimed it a "totally new film" and Resnais as "the first modern film-maker of the sound era" (Hillier, 1985, p. 61). Resnais's strategies of montage and parallelism made him appear the successor to Sergei Eisenstein and other 1920s Soviet modernists, while the equivalent to—and even advance on—then current strains of modernism in the French novel. This was not surprising, given that Resnais directed scripts by leading writers of the nouveau roman ("new novel"; a literary movement of disparate styles but concerned above all with time and the effects of modern technology) writers like Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) ( Hiroshima mon amour ), Alain Robbe-Grillet (b. 1922) ( Last Year at Marienbad ), and Jean Cayrol (1911–2005) ( Muriel , Night and Fog ). At the same time, Resnais's stylized use of ambiguity, subjectivity, poetic voice-over, flash inserts, camera movement, and sound marked his work as far removed from naturalism; his subject matter—much more obviously "weighty" and philosophical, with themes like war and the nuclear age, time and memory—made his work more recognizably "art" cinema than seemed at first the case with the work of the Cahiers group. Accordingly, Resnais's work and that of other Left Bank directors—despite the intense controversy generated by Hiroshima mon amour because of its subject and the demands it made on its spectators—was more readily accepted as art cinema both in France and elsewhere. Many critics who had problems working out what kind of "art" Godard was making had no such difficulties with Resnais, even if—as happened most notably with

b. Vannes, France, 3 June 1922

An amateur 8mm filmmaker in his teens, Resnais studied briefly at film school and in the 1940s worked as a cameraman and editor. His first 35mm short film, Van Gogh (1948), was followed by other films about art: Guernica (1950), Gauguin (1951), and Les Statues meurent aussi ( Statues Also Die , co-directed with Chris Marker, 1953). Resnais, usually his own editor, edited Agnès Varda's 1954 innovative medium-length first feature La Pointe-courte , often considered a forerunner of the French nouvelle vague (New Wave). Resnais gained significant recognition for two later short films centered on memory: Nuit et brouillard ( Night and Fog , 1955) juxtaposes contemporary color footage of an overgrown Auschwitz with black-and-white historical footage, while the commentary meditates on time, memory, and responsibility; and Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory in the World, 1956) explores the French national library.

Resnais's first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (script by Marguerite Duras), was shown out of competition at the 1959 Cannes festival. Both its story—a Frenchwoman's brief liaison with a Japanese man in Hiroshima in the present juxtaposed with her memories of a love affair with a German soldier in occupied France during World War II—and its form caused controversy. Resnais's film rethinks narrative time, inter-cutting present and past, with stylized camera work and a poetic, stream-of-consciousness voice-over. With Marker and Varda, Resnais formed the core of the Leftist and more modernist "Left Bank" group of the New Wave (the "Right Bank" group being formed by the former Cahiers du Cinéma critics).

Hiroshima mon amour was central to establishing the artistic credentials and commercial viability of the New Wave worldwide. Resnais's second feature, L'Année dernière à Marienbad ( Last Year at Marienbad , 1961, from a script by Alain Robbe-Grillet), proved even more controversial, with its subjective and opaque construction of time and narrative—critics argued endlessly about what it all meant. Resnais continued his thematic interest in memory and time with Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour ( Muriel, or The Time of Return , 1963, script by Jean Cayrol) and La Guerre est finie ( The War Is Over , 1966, script by Jorge Semprun). Some critics have found the systematic ambiguity and formalism of Resnais and the nouveau roman (new novel) writers he chose to work with too intellectual and lacking in passion.

Many of Resnais's later films, usually also collaborations with writers—for example, with David Mercer on Providence (1977) and Alan Ayckbourn on Smoking/No Smoking (1993)—have been admired, some critics arguing that his work after the 1980s has become more personal. Resnais has continued to make interesting films into his eighties, but his reputation rests primarily on his uncompromisingly modernist works under the nouvelle vague umbrella in the period from 1959 to 1966.


Nuit et brouillard ( Night and Fog , 1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), L'Année dernière à Marienbad ( Last Year at Marienbad , 1961), Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour ( Muriel, or The Time of Return , 1963), La Guerre est finie ( The War Is Over , 1966), Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968), Providence (1977), Mélo (1986), Smoking/No Smoking (1993), On connaît la chanson ( Same Old Song , 1997)


Armes, Roy. The Cinema of Alain Resnais . London: Zwemmer; New York: A. S. Barnes, 1968.

Kreidl, John Francis. Alain Resnais . Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Monaco, James. Alain Resnais: The Role of Imagination . London: Secker and Warburg; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Sweet, Freddy. The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais . Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Ward, John. Alain Resnais, or the Theme of Time . London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Jim Hillier

Alain Resnais.

Last Year at Marienbad —no one seemed quite sure what it all meant or what it was all about.

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