What Is French New Wave?

What is French New Wave?

French New Wave film, also known in French as the nouvelle vague, was a type of film movement that was highly popular in France during the 1950s and 1960s. But it was not just a simple movement that created a few simple films. On the contrary, the New Wave movement was one of the most influential periods in the history of cinema, and it influenced highly renounced film directors and producers that are familiar to more modern, American audiences such as Martin Scorsese and even Quentin Tarantino. But was was it about the New Wave that was so special?

The New Wave movement had its origins in the Cahier du Cinema which was–and still is–a very prominent magazine for French films and film critiques. If the critics that write in the Cahier du Cinema ever claim a film is good, it must be good, and if they say it’s awful, then it must be true. It was in 1948 that the seed of the New Wave movement was planted when the manifesto of Alexandre Astuc, called The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: The Camera-Stylo, was published in the Cahier du Cinema, outlining very new ideas when it came to filming movies.

The argument of this manifesto was that French film was similar to literature, novels, and paintings and that filmmakers, the artists, ought to be able to put their personal style into their films. This would also require film directors to be their own film producers, which was a radical new idea. Such a practice was called the auteur theory. Through this method of filmmaking, directors would be able to have complete and total control of how to make their films. Interestingly enough, the first moviemakers following the auteur theory were not French. Instead, they were Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Wells, both being highly respected among the French filmmaking scene.

What Is French New Wave?

what is french new wave
Masculin féminin (1966).

The young French directors at the time were gathering together, excited about this new way of making films. Older, French directors on the other hand that were used to the older, but highly renounced style of filmmaking and producing from people like Jean Renoir were against the idea of New Wave films. Even so, the young group of directors pushed on with their auteur theory, rejecting the idea of big studios, and started to make their own films. Because they rejected producers and costly studios, these directors worked with very small budgets which forced them to make some economical changes to lighting, scenery, and sound, usually using natural light and keeping in many natural noises of the surroundings. These simple changes would become staples of French New Wave cinema.

Because of the tight budgets, New Wave directors often shot films on location out in the streets, which is actually very similar to the Italian Neorealism movement of the 1940s and 1950s from which the New Wave did, in fact, take some bits of inspiration. Beyond that, New Wave directors often used handheld cameras, used jump cuts to jar viewers’ expectations and attention, and did not dub the actors, which was a popular practice in the film industry at the time.

If you were to watch a New Wave film right now, the first thing you might notice is that there would not be a strong narrative. This might seem strange to you, but don’t worry–people back then weren’t used to it either. The point was to depart from Old Hollywood films that were highly structured with the beginning setting up the plot, various shenanigans occurring throughout the middle, and finally completing with a happy ending, the story wrapped up in a nice bow.

The Details

Vivre sa vie" movie review
Vivre sa vie (1962).

French New Wave directors wanted to keep viewers on their toes, always looking deeply into the scenes, into the minds of the characters rather than mindlessly watching a film that explained everything for you. Because of this, French directors, also wanted to express their personal ideas, often portrayed complex subjects in their films, the main point being to make viewers think about the film while they’re watching it, and afterwards. Another departure from Old Hollywood is that French New Wave films were not heavily scripted. Instead, a whole lot of improvising was used.

French New Wave films became unexpectedly popular, even on an international scale, and were able to attain critical success. The Nouvelle Vague became all the rage worldwide. Everyone was talking about the fantastic films the French were making, especially between 1958 and 1964 which is when the movement was at its peak. But all good things come to an end, and the New Wave movement was no different, coming to an end in 1973. However, it would be wrong to really say that the movement “ended” as shockwaves from the New Wave cinema still reverberate even in some modern films.

If you’re interested in French New Wave movies, there is a vast collection to choose from. The following are some of my personal favorites:

  1. The 400 Blows (1959), directed by François Truffaut
  2. Hiroshima mon amour (1959), directed by Alain Resnais
  3. Masculin féminin (1966), directed by Jean-Luc Godard
  4. Shoot the Piano Player (1960), directed by François Truffaut
  5. Vivre sa vie (1962), directed by Jean-Luc Godard

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