All About the French New Wave (compiled from the work of Simon Hitchman) 1940 1944: The Occupation

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Film Clubs

Henri Langlois
The same enthusiasts who avidly read the film journals now began setting up film clubs, not just in Paris, but all over France. The most famous of these was Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque Française, which first opened its doors in 1948. The cinema, which he co-founded with Georges Franju, was small; in fact, it accommodated only 50 seats, but the program of films shown was both comprehensive and eclectic, and it soon became a quite popular among serious film enthusiasts.

Langlois believed the Cinematheque was a place for learning, not just watching, and he truly wanted his audience to understand what they were seeing. It became his practice to screen in a single evening several films that were different in style, genre, and country of origin. Sometimes he would show foreign films without translation or silent films without musical accompaniment. This approach, he hoped, would focus the audience’s attention on the techniques behind what they were watching. He hoped to bring to light the links connecting films that might otherwise appear very different.

It was here, at the Cinematheque, that many of the important figures of the New Wave first met. Francois Truffaut, only sixteen, was already an accomplished film student. From a young age, the cinemas of Paris had been his refuge from an unhappy home life. He had even set up his own cine-club, Le Cercle Cinemane, although it only lasted for one session. Jean-Luc Godard was another who immersed himself in the cine-clubs. He was studying ethnology at the Sorbonne when he first started going to the Cinematheque. For him too, cinema became something of a refuge. He later wrote that the cinema screen was “the wall we had to scale to escape from our lives.”

Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Roger Vadim, Pierre Kast, and several others who would later become directors, received much of their film education at film clubs like the Cinematheque and The Cine-Club du Quartier Latin. For true film lovers like these, watching films was only part of the experience. They would also collect stills and posters, read and discuss the latest film articles, and make lists of favorite directors. It was all a way of putting what they were watching into some kind of perspective and developing their own critical viewpoints.

Another avid member of the cine-club audience was Eric Rohmer. He had already published articles in other film journals, and now, with his two friends Rivette and Godard, he set up his own review called La Gazette Du Cinema. Although the paper had only a small circulation, it was a means whereby they could express their views on some of the films they were watching. Others like Truffaut and Resnais soon followed, writing articles for magazines like Arts and Les Amis du Cinema.

Cahiers du Cinema

The most important and popular film journal of all first appeared in 1951. Set up by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Andre Bazin out of the ashes of the La Revue du Cinema, which had closed down the previous year, it was called Les Cahiers du Cinema. The first issues of the review, with its distinctive yellow cover, featured the best critics of the time writing scholarly articles about film. However, it was with the arrival of a younger generation of critics, including Rohmer, Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, and Truffaut that the paper really began to “make waves,” so to speak.


Bazin had become something of a father figure to these young critics. He was especially close to Truffaut, helping to secure his release from the young-offenders institute, where he was sent as a teenager, and later from the army prison where he was locked up for desertion. At first, Bazin and Doniol-Valcroze allowed these young folks a small amount of column space to air their often combative opinions, but in time their articles gained more and more attention and their status rose accordingly.

One conviction that these young writers shared was a disdain for the mainstream "tradition de qualite,” which dominated French cinema at the time. In 1953 Truffaut wrote an essay for Cahiers entitled "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” in which he vehemently denounced this tradition of adapting safe literary works and filming them in an old fashioned and unimaginative way. He argued that this style of cinema wasn’t visual enough and relied too much on the screenwriter. He and the others labelled it “cinema de papa,” and compared it unfavorably with the work of filmmakers from elsewhere in the world.

Bazin delayed the article’s release for a year, fearing that they would lose readers and anger the filmmakers who were being attacked. When it was eventually published, it did cause offence, but there was also considerable agreement. The passionate and irreverent style of Truffaut’s writing, like that of the other young critics, was a shift away from the hitherto austere tone of Cahiers. It brought the journal both a notoriety and popularity it hadn’t had before. Now he, Rohmer, Godaard, Rivette, and Chabrol were given the opportunity to promote their favorite directors within the review and develop their theories.


Favourite Directors

Fritz Lang
Henri Langlois always believed that watching silent films was the best way to learn the art of cinema, and he frequently included films from this period in the Cinematheque Français program. As a result, the New Wave group had a great respect for directors like D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Erich von Stroheim, who had pioneered the techniques of filmmaking in its early years. When they began making their own films, silent movies would continue to be a source of inspiration for the New Wave directors.

Three German directors—Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau—were held in high esteem by the New Wave. Lubitsch’s sophisticated comedies were held up for their exemplary screenwriting and perfect dramatic construction. Lang, whose later American films were generally felt by most critics at the time to be inferior to his early masterpieces like Metropolis and M, was defended by the Cahiers critics who pointed out that the expressive mise-en-scene of his German films had been interiorized in the intense Film Noir dramas he was now making in Hollywood. They argued that these later films, such as Clash By Night and The Big Heat, were every bit as complex as his earlier works. Murnau, the director of masterpieces like Nosferatu and Sunrise, although largely forgotten by contemporary critics, epitomized for the New Wave an artist who used every technique at his disposal to express himself filmically. They sang his praises in the pages of Cahiers and helped to re-establish his reputation as a cinematic visionary.

Roberto Rossellini
Another European influence on the New Wave was the Italian Neo-Realism movement. Directors like Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City) and Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thieves) were going direct to the street for their inspiration, often using unprofessional actors in real locations. They cut the costs of filmmaking by using lighter, hand-held cameras, and post-synching sound. This approach enabled them to avoid studio interference and the demands of producers. Their tendency to “cut corners” resulted in more personal pictures. These lessons learned from the Neo-Realists would prove to be a major factor in the success of the Nouvelle Vague ten years later.

A number of American directors were also acclaimed in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema including not only well known directors like Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Barefoot Contessa) and Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause), but also lesser known B movie directors like Samuel Fuller (Shock Corridor) and Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past). The Cahiers critics broke new ground when they wrote about these directors, as they had really never been taken so seriously before. They ignored the established hierarchy, focusing instead on the distinctive personal style and emotional truth they saw in these films.

Rebel Without A Cause [1955]
By contrast, contemporary French cinema was a major disappointment to the New-Wave group. The year that followed the Liberation of France saw the release of some outstanding films including Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradise, Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, and Jacques Becker’s Falbalas. However, since then, complacency had set in. There was none of the frank honesty of Italian Neo-Realism. Instead, most of the films that dealt with the war and the Resistance seemed to be sentimentalized versions of what had really occurred. It was clear that the majority of people, including most French filmmakers, were not yet ready to confront the shame of the Vichy government and the many who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war.

In their articles, the young critics showed their disdain for the tradition de qualite prevalent at the time. Even directors whom they had once admired, like Henri-Georges Clouzot and Marcel Carne, seemed now to have lost their ambition; content to play the studio game. Other directors with a more realistic style, such as Julien Duvivier, Henri Decoin and Jacques Sigurd, were equally disappointing; portraying a cynical view of contemporary society that was stylistically static and uninspired. For the New-Wave intelligensia, who had expected so much after the war, it felt like a betrayal; and it explains why their attacks in print were often so vitriolic.

However, there were some contemporary directors who made personal films outside the studio system like Jean Cocteau (Orphee), Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle), Robert Bresson (Journal d’un cure de campagne), and Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Silence De La Mer), who were much admired. Melville was a real maverick who worked in his own small studio and played by his own rules. His example would influence all of the New Wave; in fact, he is frequently cited as a part of the movement himself. At the same time, the Cahiers critics praised certain French directors of an earlier era like Jean Vigo (L’Atalante), Sacha Guitry (Quadrille), and most of all Jean Renoir (La Regle du Jeu), who was held up as the greatest of French auteurs.

Auteur Theory

Alfred Hitchcock
For the New-Wave critics, the “concept of the auteur” was the key theoretical idea underlying their aesthetic viewpoint. Although Andre Bazin and others had been arguing for some time that a film should reflect the director’s personal vision, it was Truffaut who first coined the phrase la politique des auteurs in his article "Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français". He maintained that the best directors have a distinctive style, as well as consistent themes running through their films, and it is this individual creative vision that makes the director the true “author” of the film.

Howard Hawks
At the time auteur theory was considered a radical new approach to cinema. Before, it had been the screenwriter, or the producer, or the Hollywood studio, who was seen as the principle creator of a picture. The Cahiers critics applied the theory to directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, who had previously been seen as merely excellent craftsmen, but had never been taken seriously as artists. By uncovering the complex depths in the work of directors like these, the young writers broke new ground, not only in the way a film was understood, but also in how cinema itself was perceived.

Mainly as a result of this radical new way of looking at cinema, the reputation of Cahiers du Cinéma began to grow. In Hollywood the review became essential reading, and directors like Fritz Lang, Joseph Mankiewicz and Nicholas Ray were photographed with a copy of the magazine in their hands. Filmmakers like these weren’t used to people discussing their work with such accuracy and depth. They were deeply impressed by these young enthusiasts with their strong opinions and perceptive insights into the art of cinema.

Inevitably, as the ideas and writing of the Cahiers critics became better known, there was a backlash. The aggressiveness of the review was felt to be too extreme by some. It brought about a feeling of resentment, and even hatred, in those who were “targeted.” As a result a kind of warfare raged between the young radicals and the old guard of French cinema.

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