la nouvelle vague
La Nouvelle Vague; insouciance, exuberance, youth. Journalist Françoise Giroud first used the term to describe the emerging wave of rebellious French youths who were the focus of a public opinion survey polled by L’Express in 1957. Questions included: “Are you happy? Explain your reply”. A new generation calling for a change of political landscape in France, the term ‘la nouvelle vague’ came to mean the insurgence of protocol, the subversion of conventionalities, and the influx of avant-garde practices. More often than not, this term is now associated with the group of experimental cinéastes who radically and permanently altered the cinematic landscape. Post-war France had left many of the original filmmakers in exile – such as René Clair, Jean Renoir and Jacques Feyder – and a gap emerged between the idea of the preceding archetypal French film, and the concepts and innovations of the new group of filmmakers.
Director François Truffaut penned the manifesto of this youthful collective. His 1954 article attacked the classic methods of French cinema, La qualité française – ‘The Tradition of French Quality’ – that was buried in literature, elaborate dialogue and convoluted plots. Referred to by Truffaut as ‘cinéma du papa’ (‘granddad cinema’), the manifesto instead celebrated filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, and reconsidered the cinematic conventions of Hollywood. Truffaut’s essay was published in the progressive journal Cahiers du Cinéma. A reinvention of the basic tenets of film theory and criticism, writers for the influential magazine included Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and Claude Chabrol. This assemblage of young cinephiles, who had grown up watching American films that were unavailable during the occupation period in France, had vast cinematic knowledge and a library of film references to hand. This was in large part thanks to editor of Cahiers, Henry Langlois, who established Cinémathèque française, a film archive that critics of the journal fanatically consumed.
The celebration of directors whose personal creativity could be seen directly in their work meant that this new form of film incorporated an authorial, almost non-fictional element – a style similar to documentary photography. Many of the facets of the French New Wave film included shooting on location, natural lighting, improvised dialogue, and non-naturalistic editing. This assail on the ordinary tropes of storytelling was taken furthest by Jean-Luc Godard, whose much quoted statement, “a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”, has come to represent the key concept behind la nouvelle vague cinema. The director once described his film À bout de souffle as not being a film with actors Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, but as a documentary on Seberg and Belmondo starring in a film by Godard. The cinéaste has said that his main directorial focus is to reveal truth – again, a key aspect of documentary photography. Truth, in Godard’s mind, meant that he wanted to “both show and show myself showing” – he wanted to expose film as film.
This referential aspect of the new wave cinematic movement was key – whether the reference was to the director himself, a scene from another new wave film (the collaboration and mutual support between the Cahiers was ubiquitous), or to Hollywood actors, such as Belmondo’s blatant homage to Humphrey Bogart in À bout de soufflé. Youth was also a leitmotif that shot through nouvelle vague cinema. The movement began with a fresh generation of defiant young people that were unsatisfied with the current state of French government and society. Just as le jeune cinéma français’ formation was born out of youth, their filmmaking too was preoccupied with the subject. In a recorded dialogue between Godard and Fritz Lang – whom the Cahiers adored – Lang says that the art of cinema is not just the art of their century, but “art for young people”. Although Godard was forty when the interview was filmed, his own preoccupation with youth is embedded within his work. The characters in the films of the nouvelle vague are young people who are elusive, complicated, unsure, and ultimately symbols of revolt against adulthood – understandable, considering their contempt for the decisions made by the adults accountable for French politics and society.
For all their innovation and their departure from tradition and archetypes, their obsession with youth is in fact universal. The directors – significantly older than the actors they were filming – were capturing the contemporary spirit of youthfulness; perhaps even romanticising it. And we, the modern day audience, whose goal seems to be to stop the ageing process altogether, romanticise the nouvelle vague. Film stills of actress Anna Karina smouldering around her Parisian apartment, Jean-Claude Brialy in tow, evoke the insouciance and seduction of the 1960s perfectly. Images of À bout de soufflé’s Jean Seberg, all pixie crop and cigarette pant, strolling down a tree-lined avenue alongside Jean Paul Belmondo’s suave criminal indulge our inner Francophile. This fascination with the past – or, more explicitly, the French past – has been played out in recent films such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers.
An invention much the same as the myth of the inimitable French woman, perfectly undone and effortlessly self possessed, our captivation with the French culture is perhaps born out of the nostalgia that it seems to hold. In a society where advertising, brands and products are fighting for our attention and bombarding us with things we just ‘need’ to own, our sense of simplicity and personal creativity seems further away than ever. Looking back to the joyful experimentation of cinema amongst a group of politically aware friends, to the frank dialogue of the actors, and the almost amateur editing of the nouvelle vague films, perhaps we take comfort in the simplicity of it all, in the black and white world of Godard, Truffaut, et al. As a character in Allen’s film asserts, “nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one that one is living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination”. What Truffaut, Godard and la nouvelle vague provides is what all art aims to do: “the artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence”.