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

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Short Films

The young group of writers at Cahiers du Cinéma were not content, however, with merely being critics. They wanted to be filmmakers too. At the time there were two recognized routes to becoming a director. One could go through a long apprenticeship as an assistant director until, after many years, he/she was finally deemed ready to call the shots. This approach was antithetical to the desires of impatient young directors with ideas of their own and a disdain for the conservative material they would have to work on.

Les Sang des Betes [1949]
The other method was to apply for a short-film funding scheme. This government-approved scheme ensured that all films were made to a professional standard. In the end it enabled the candidate to obtain the work card needed to make features. Some of the older members of the New Wave began this way by making critically acclaimed documentaries: Georges Franju (Les Sang des bêtes, Hôtel des Invalides), Alain Resnais (Night and Fog, Toute Le Mémoire du Monde, Le Chant du Styrene), and Chris Marker (Les Satues Meurent Aussi, Dimanche a Pekin, Lettre de Siberie), and Pierre Kast (Les Femmes du Louvre). Others soon followed their example, including Louis Malle (Le Monde du Silence), Agnes Varda (La Pointe-Courte), and Jacques Demy (Le Sabotier du Val de Loire).

The Cahiers group, however, rejected both of these approaches. They knew they would have to bypass the rules of the system if they wanted to break into the industry and make the kind of films they wanted to make. While still writing for the magazine, they gained experience and contacts. Chabrol worked as a publicist at 20th Century-Fox, Godard worked as a press agent, Truffaut worked as an assistant for Max Ophuls and Roberto Rossellini, and Rivette worked with Jean Renoir and Jacques Becker.

Les Mistons [1957]
Sooner or later, though, they realized that if they wanted to direct, they would have to start by making short films, raising money any way they could. Rohmer began in 1950, directing Journal d’un Scélérat, followed by Charlotte et Son Steak. Rivette, working with a script by Chabrol, directed Coup du Berger. In 1952 Godard directed a documentary called Operation Beton about the building of the Grande Dixene dam in Switzerland. He made the film with funds he earned by actually working as a laborer on the dam. After selling this piece, he had the means to make two dramatic shorts: Une Femme Coquette and Tous Les Garcons S’Appellent Patrick. As they gained experience, their films became more sophisticated. Rohmer made Bérénice in 1954, La Sonate a Kreuzer in 1956, and Véronique et son Cancre in 1958, to increasingly high standards.

Meanwhile, Truffaut had set up his own film company, Les Films du Carrosse, with the help of his wealthy new father-in-law, and in the summer of 1957, shot Les Mistons, based on a story by Maurice Pons. Pleased with the success of the film, its financial backer suggested he make another. Truffaut began making a short comedy set against the backdrop of the flooding that had been taking place in and around Paris at the time, but had trouble finding the right tone and handed over the footage he’d shot to Godard. Godard felt no obligation to follow Truffaut’s script, however, and created an unconnected story with an off-the-wall commentary that broke all the conventions followed by traditional filmmaking. This film, Une Histoire d’Eau, was the most original—and most New Wave—of all the short films produced at the time.

Other important shorts made at this time, and in subsequent years, included Le Bel Indifferent (1957) by Jacques Demy, Pourvu Qu’On Ait L’Ivresse (1958) by Jean-Daniel Pollet, and Blue Jeans (1958) by Jacques Rozier. These were followed by first films from Maurice Pialet (Janine, 1961), Jean-Marie Straub (Machorka-Muff, 1963), and Jean Eustache (Du Cote de Robinson, 1964).


New Developments

Truffaut and crew on location
When the New Wave directors graduated from making short films to feature films in the late 1950’s, their ability to do so came about largely as the result of a combination of fortunate coincidences. Up until this time, filmmaking had always been an expensive business, and it was necessary to have the backing of a major studio. Now new circumstances came into play that enabled them to bypass this stumbling block.

After the war the Gaullist government had brought in subsidies to support homegrown culture. A further act, 1958’s "Constitution of the Fifth Republic,” resulted in more money being available for first time filmmakers than ever before. Private investment money became more readily available and distributors were keen to back new directors.

At the same time, technological developments meant filmmaking equipment was becoming cheaper. New, lightweight, hand-held cameras, developed for use in documentaries, were now available, as were faster film stocks, which enabled filmmakers to use portable sound and lighting equipment. These advancements meant filmmakers no longer needed a studio to make a film. They could now go out and shoot on location using smaller crews set against authentic backdrops. Working fast on low budgets encouraged experimentation and improvisation and gave the directors more control over their work than they might have had otherwise.

The First Wave

Et Dieu... Crea La Femme
(And God Created Woman) [1956]
Et Dieu... Crea La Femme (And God Created Woman) (1956) is often cited as the first New-Wave feature film. Directed by a 28 year old writer-director named Roger Vadim, and starring his then wife, 22 year old former model and dancer Brigitte Bardot, it celebrated beauty and youthful rebellion and proved that a low-budget film made by a first- time director could be a success, both at home and abroad. Although it now appears somewhat dated, at the time this film was an inspiration to young directors hoping to make their first film on their own terms.

An even more inspiring figure was Jean-Pierre Melville, whose 1956 crime caper Bob Le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) was a landmark in the French thriller genre. Shot on location on the streets of Paris and in the director’s own homemade studio, its portrayal of the doomed gambler of the title, was both grittily realistic and audaciously stylized. The New- Wave critics quickly recognized that Melville was a force to be reckoned with: a maverick with an authentic cinematic vision all his own.

Worlds away from Melville’s tough gangsters were the strange, haunting films of Georges Franju. Co-founder of the Cinématheque Francais, Franju had graduated from archivist to filmmaker with shorts like Le Sang des Bêtes shot in a Parisian slaughter house. His ability to combine the poetic and the graphic, and to evoke the uncanny in a realistic setting, were seen to full effect in La Tête Contre Les Murs (Head Against the Wall) (1958), and Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1959).

Le Beau Serge [1958]
Louis Malle made his name working with marine scientist Jacques Cousteau on the Palme d’Or-winning underwater documentary Le Monde Du Silence (The Silent World). Coming from a wealthy background, Malle was able to raise the money to make his feature film debut Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) in 1957 when he was still only 25 years old. Featuring a breakthrough performance from Jeanne Moreau in the lead and Miles Davis groundbreaking soundtrack, the picture – a fatalistic film noir – was a success. He followed this up with Les Amants (The Lovers) in 1958, again starring Moreau. The film provoked considerable controversy over its frank treatment of sexuality, and partly as a result of this, became an even bigger success, establishing a reputation for the young director as a rising talent.

Claude Chabrol was the first of the Cahiers critics to make the move into feature films. Using money inherited from his wife’s family, Chabrol wrote, directed, and produced Le Beau Serge (The Beautiful Serge) (1958), featuring Jean-Claude Brialy and Gerard Blain in the lead roles, despite having no previous filmmaking experience. Shot on location in a provincial village, using natural light, the film upset the professional establishment by breaking the rules of what they considered good filmmaking, and it was refused entry to Cannes. However, the director took it to the festival himself where it was well received, earning enough in sales to finance his next feature, Les Cousins (The Cousins) (1959).

Set in Paris, Les Cousins again starred Brialy and Blain, in a plot that effectively reversed the scenario of Le Beau Serge. The film was both a critical (it won the Golden Bear at the 1959 Berlin Film Festival) and commercial success. Having broken through as a director, Chabrol used the production company he had set up to support the debut films of Jacques Rivette (Paris Nous Appartient) and Eric Rohmer (Le Signe du Lion).


Cannes 59: The Wave Breaks

Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) [1959]
The term New Wave first appeared in 1957 in an article in L’Express entitled “Report on Today’s Youth.” The article, by the journalist Francoise Giroud, and the book she published the following year called The New Wave: Portrait of Today’s Youth, had nothing to do with cinema, but was about the need for change in society. However, the term was borrowed by journalists who used it to apply to the young directors creating a storm at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and soon the phrase caught on internationally.

The film most responsible for bringing the attention of the world to this new cinematic movement was Francois Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (1959). It caused a sensation at the festival that year. Its young star, Jean-Pierre Leaud, was carried out of the screening in triumph and Truffaut won the best-director award. Suddenly the world’s media were talking about the New Wave. Ironically, Truffaut had been banned from the festival the previous year because of his uncomplimentary remarks about French cinema in Cahiers. Now he was a star director, and those who had opposed him were rapidly pushed aside.

Also screened at Cannes that year was Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which was awarded the International Critics’ Prize. Resnais had already made a name for himself as a documentary director with Nuit Et Brouillard (Night and Fog) (1955), the first film to focus on the Nazi concentration camps of the Second World War. Like the documentary, his debut feature film employed innovative use of flashback to illuminate themes of time and memory and the horror of war. The film was acclaimed for its originality and became an international hit.

All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” - Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard
In Cannes,Truffaut met Georges de Beauregard, an enterprising producer willing to take a gamble on a young director. Truffaut introduced him to Jean-Luc Godard, who proposed several projects, including an idea Truffaut had come up with based on a story he had seen in a newspaper. Beauregard liked the scenerio and bought the rights from Truffaut for 100,000 francs. Godard was an unknown however, so as an added guarantee, Beauregard insisted that Godard’s friends, who were now well established, appear in the credits. Truffaut was credited with the screenplay and Chabrol as artistic advisor.

A Bout De Souffle (Breathless) [1960]
More than any other film A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1960) exemplified the New Wave movement; serving as a kind of manifesto for the group. While the plot, reminiscent of a thousand Film Noir B movies, is simple, the film itself is stylistically complex and revolutionary in its breaking of traditional Hollywood storytelling conventions. All of the trademarks of the New Wave are evident: jump cuts, hand-held camerawork, a disjointed narrative, an improvised musical score, dialogue spoken directly to camera, frequent changes of pace and mood, and the use of real locations. As Godard said, the film was the result of “a decade’s worth of making movies in my head.”

À Bout de Souffle was a commercial and critical success, playing to packed houses in Paris, and winning the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. Its stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, became fashion icons for the young, and audiences across the world responded to the picture’s iconoclastic spirit. Godard had taken his first step toward reinventing cinema.

Like Godard, Truffaut had a passion for American pulp crime novels and Film Noir. His own unconventional take on the genre began with his second picture which was adapted from a novel by David Goodis called Down There. This was a deliberate move away from what he felt the public expected of him after the autobiographical nature of his first film. Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (Shoot The Pianist) was packed with cinematic references and deliberate subversions of genre conventions. It was a chance for the director to enjoy himself and prove he wouldn’t be easily catagorized.

Although considered a classic now, Tirez Sur Le Pianiste baffled audiences at the time who were used to a more conventional style of storytelling. The film was not a financial success, and Truffaut, who had planned to turn his company Les Films du Carrosse into a kind of New-Wave studio, was forced to lower his expectations. From this time forward he made it a rule only to produce his own films, and any projects sent to him, he referred to other producers.


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