Aug 23 2009

The French New Wave

If you have watched a movie from the past fifty years or have been excited for the newest Steven Spielberg film, you have the French New Wave to thank.

To really appreciate the importance of this movement, we must take a look back to the Golden Years of Hollywood and the structure of films.

The 1930’s & 40’s saw the rise of the studio system in Hollywood and traditions of quality. This was a system were the screenwriter was king of the picture and had more influence on a film than the director because the director position was just that: another position to be filled. Few directors, such as John Ford and Howard Hawks, were able to stand out with importance.

Coupled with the screenwriter’s power, many films were adapted from classic literature and featured a formulaic cast of highly publicized actors from the studio’s stables. The studio system also utilized massive production studios that were fantasylands of past, present and future.

At the time of Hollywood domination, French films were not significant to even the French population. Many of these French films were experimental avant-gardes, made by cine-clubs consisting of poets, playwrights and artists, that relied less on the traditional narrative structure, like in Louise Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Dada classic “Un Chien Adalou.” These Dada films usually had no narrative and were experimental, questioning what film is.

In 1951, film critic Andre Bazin published “Cahiers du Cinema,” a film magazine where Bazin and other film critics outlined their criticisms and maxims for film making in one of the most famous film publications.

In the magazine, these theorists called for a break in the traditions of quality that plagued Hollywood films. They called for an end to literary adaptations, calling for more scripts to be written specifically for film. The magazine also introduced the auteur theory, that the director is the author of the film and adds his personal touch. The critics went so far as to rank directors as being the most auteur, with Orson Wells and Alfred Hitchcock topping the list.

In almost 10 years, and with money from the government, these critics began to make films. That’s right. Imagine that you have made a few small experimental film shorts and just finished berating the new G.I Joe movie when the government hands you a lump sum of money and basically says, “You think you can do better? Take a shot.” Now you can appreciate just how crazy this all sounded.

Whether these were the exact sentiments or not, these critics were now going to make the movies they had all talked about over the past decade, with the help of the French government subsidizing their work. In 1959, the first true New Wave director, Francois Truffaut, made his debut with the powerful “The 400 Blows,” which uses a brilliant freeze frame to end the film on a ambiguous note. One year later, Jean-Luc Godard would release what is widely agreed as the truest New Wave film, “Breathless.”

Illustrated in “Breathless,” the New Wave films depict urban life, highlighting fast cars, fashion, the café scene and jazz clubs. The films were shot on location and used on location sounds in the final cut. The stories were heavily influenced by the noir films from America (the term “film noir” was coined by the New Wave artists) and dealt with a lack of trust in authority, romantic commitment and the femme fatal, the idea that women can be fatal to a male protagonist.

The New Wave directors used many intertextual references in their films, referencing other influential films (such as anything with Humphrey Bogart) and their own other films. The narratives, most having a criminal element, had ambiguous ending that defied the cliché Hollywood happy ending.

Above everything else, the New Wave directors shocked the film world by breaking many of the editing conventions.

In “Breathless,” Godard begins the film by breaking up the continuity of the driving scene by interlacing jump cuts, breaking the illusion that the audience is not watching a movie. Many of the scenes that take place in Paris were shot with a hand-held camera, which emphasized the camera-pen of the director.

Of the many important innovations from these New Wave directors, the most important of these, by far, is the auteur mentality. When the New Wave films started gaining popularity in America, the declining studios took note. With out a doubt, American director in the 1970’s, such as Spielberg, would not have received the notoriety and popularity. Spielberg went so far as to invite the legendary Truffaut to act in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” paying homage to the filmmakers that paved the way for others since.

To truly see the changes the French New Wave brought about, watch any pre-1950’s Hollywood movie, and then watch any Hollywood movie made in the past 40 years. Now watch “Breathless,” and keep in mind that all of the editing techniques in the newer movie only came about because some French film snobs would not shut up about how lame musicals were.

Below are a few New Wave films that will get you started:

“The 400 Blows” – Francois Truffaut (also “Jules & Jim”)

“Hiroshima, Mon Amor” – Alain Resnais

“Breathless” – Jean-Luc Godard (really, just watch any of his films)

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