The French New Wave at 60

Not so New Anymore, but Still Really Influential

Sixty years ago, a group of young filmmakers proved that you don’t necessarily have to buy into the studio system of Hollywood in order to make a movie. You could shoot on the fly without permits and record the sound after and still have a coherent film, and you could do all of this while also working day jobs as film critics for a highly-influential magazine founded on movie reviews. And they did it all in a foreign language.

The French New Wave is marking 60 years of influence this year. It was never a concerted effort on the part of its main participants, but rather an organic outgrowth of their simultaneous move from the pages of “Cahier Du Cinema” to the movie screens of Paris and the world. When Francois Truffaut’s debut The 400 Blows debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, it signaled the end of the “cinema of quality” then dominating the French film industry, and helped to usher in the eventual collapse of the studio system here in America, which had been taking hits anyway because of the rise of television.

Filmgoers raised on the cookie-cutter, studio-orchestrated “light entertainment” of Hollywood were already turning to overseas fare for their fill of something more risqué and true to life. The French New Wave came along to help push cinema worldwide into new and exciting directions. The actual “movement” itself petered out sometime in the mid-Sixties, but there would have been no “New Hollywood” of the Sixties and Seventies without the efforts of Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others. The French New Wave, to borrow the words of Ron Burgundy, is kind of a big deal.

Quality, it is, How Shall I Say it, Bourgeois
Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Breathless’.

The New Wave was not about art-house snobbery. It was actually the opposite. The filmmakers wanted to open up French cinema to more voices, even if they were primarily male. Truffaut’s essay attacking the French “tradition of quality” sounds like a document made for championing by the most earnest of campus radicals, even if one did not have any idea what the “tradition of quality” cinema actually looked like. My sense from reading the essay was that it was costume dramas with big budgets and lavish design. You know, movies for regular folks.

French film criticism helped establish the idea that criticism itself was a serious pursuit, that it wasn’t just about a film’s box office tally, but also its artistic merits. Other film critics tried to argue that cinema was an art before them, but the New Wave writers helped codify the notion.

The writers of “Cahier” were more into the sort of B- and lower-level pictures that the industry eventually tagged as “film noir.” They celebrated films that, in retrospect, deserved bigger audiences than they got during their initial release. The war had something to do with that; during German occupation, American films were on the long list of things the Nazis banned in France, so the studios didn’t release movies like Citizen Kane and Casablanca in France until after the war. Alfred Hitchcock, respectable in Hollywood but not yet a “master of suspense” in terms of his reputation, was a god to the young men who became prominent New Wavers.

The New Wave’s Legacy
Agnes Varda’s ‘Cleo from 5 to 7’.

After the New Wave’s immediate burst of popularity, its filmmakers thrived and succeeded not just in France but around the world. Film schools began to crop up in America in the Fifties and Sixties, and there the New Wave had its most profound influence. Hollywood  originally tapped Truffaut to do Bonnie and Clyde, but the French directors served primarily as influencers, not collaborators. All the important filmmakers of the Seventies took lessons from the French in how to make movies different from what had been coming out of Hollywood before. Steven Spielberg even cast Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Jack Palance had a memorable turn as a slimy movie producer in Godard’s Contempt.

Foreign film has often been held up as “better” than American film if only because it seemingly lacks restrictions. There was never a Hays Code for foreign films, though they did have to contend with production codes at home. The fact is, there are good foreign films and there are bad ones. Because they’re in foreign languages, they may seem “exotic” to American ears, but their quality depends on their own merits. After coming down from my initial enthusiasm for all things French, I found myself enjoying Truffaut more than Godard, and Akira Kurosawa more than all the other French directors in the New Wave.

Film itself benefitted immensely from the French New Wave. Revisiting every film from that era from France is a good way to honor the legacy, though I’d argue that you can still see its influence in modern movies. But if you must have a list of French New Wave or related films to see, allow me to suggest the following:

Truffaut: The Antoine Doinel Cycle, Day for Night, The Last Metro

Godard: Breathless, Band of Outsiders, Masculine Feminine

Robert Bresson: Pickpocket

Agnes Varda: Vagabond, Cleo From 5 to 7

Trevor Seigler

Trevor Seigler is currently a substitute teacher (one of the cool ones) in his home state of South Carolina. He also spends a lot of time reading, hence his pursuit of English as a major in college. He's been going broke ever since.

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