WHEN WAS THE NEW WAVE?
Of course, many New Wave filmmakers had their own individual styles—Demy's intensely romantic, enclosed fictional worlds and lyrical camera movements and use of music, Franju's strain of surrealism, Rouch's improvised documentaries. In a sense, that was the point: these were individual filmmakers with their own visions and styles rather than a group with unified aims and ideas, other than to be different from and more personal than the earlier mainstream. Just as it is difficult to characterize the nouvelle vague as a movement, it is very difficult to identify when the nouvelle vague came to an end. Most of the most important filmmakers who emerged at the time simply continued to make films and develop and change: Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Resnais, for example, continued to work into their seventies and eighties. It can probably be said, however, that the period in which so many young filmmakers were able to make their first features ended in 1962–1963, in this sense making the nouvelle vague period, or its most intense manifestation, quite short at four or five years. But then it is equally difficult to locate precisely when the nouvelle vague began. If it is dated from Chabrol's Le Beau Serge in 1958, or Cannes in 1959, what about Louis Malle's (1932–1995) Ascenseur pour l'échafaud ( Elevator to the Gallows ), made in 1957 (though not released until 1958), and his controversial Les Amants ( The Lovers , 1958), both distinctly New Wave in both subject matter—contemporary sexual mores—and in look? Malle, formerly an IDHEC student and then an assistant, does not quite fit the New Wave profile (insofar as there is one—though having been assistant to both Jacques Cousteau and Bresson, his experience as an assistant was hardly conventional). But both films were photographed by Henri Decaë, cinematographer on four of Chabrol's early films and on Truffaut's The 400 Blows , and starred Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928), who was strongly associated with the New Wave (though she had acted in French films since 1949). Moreover, The Lovers was designed by Bernard Evein (b. 1929), later the art director for Chabrol, Demy, Godard, and Truffaut and someone who helped to define the New Wave film's look. But if Malle's first features are to be considered part of the New Wave, then why not also Roger Vadim's (1928–2000) early films, including his first, Et Dieu … créa la femme ( … And God Created Woman , 1956)? Vadim had served a more conventional apprenticeship as assistant in the postwar period. The career of Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934), kickstarted by Vadim's film though she had already appeared in several others, only occasionally intersected with the New Wave, and the career of its cinematographer, Armand Thirard (1899–1973), had begun in the 1930s. All the same, when the film appeared the Cahiers critics saw in it something of the looser, unpolished style and the contemporary sexual mores that they found lacking in most French cinema of the time. Looking even farther back, Varda's first (medium-length) feature, La Pointe-courte (1956), made outside the structures of the industry (and therefore never properly distributed), was low-budget, shot on location, audaciously paralleled fiction and documentary, and was edited by Resnais; and Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–1973), a kind of spiritual father to the nouvelle vague —Godard gives him a cameo role as a film director in Breathless —had made films like Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) and Bob le flambeur ( Bob the Gambler , 1955) independently, on location, on low budgets.
By 1962–1963 Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, Varda, Marker, Demy, Rouch, and Malle all had established themselves as major directors of international reputation, though in several cases their most important work was still to come. But from that point they are discussed, increasingly, as individual filmmakers rather than as members of a group or movement. Their work owed a considerable debt not only to a new generation of producers and cinematographers, as noted, but also to a new generation of actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo [b. 1933], Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy [b. 1933], Bernadette Lafont [b. 1938], Emmanuelle Riva [b. 1927], Anna Karina [b. 1940], and others), who, even when, like Moreau, they had been actors before the New Wave, became very much the faces of the new films; new composers like Michel Legrand and Georges Delerue; and new art directors like Bernard Evein, all of whom also helped give the New Wave a distinctive look and sound. Although the New Wave and the turnabout in French cinema it sparked remains a potent legend today, as a phenomenon it was clearly mostly over, its "victory" achieved. At the same time, the way the New Wave came about and some of the "liberation" from old cinema it represented continued to exert considerable influence both within France and beyond.