French New Wave  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

la Nouvelle Vague) was a blanket term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s, influenced (in part) by Italian Neorealism. Although never a formally organized movement, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of classical cinematic form and their spirit of youthful iconoclasm. Many also engaged in their work with the social and political upheavals of the era, making their radical experiments with editing, visual style, and narrative part of a general break with the conservative paradigm.

Some of the most prominent pioneers among the group, including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, began as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma. Co-founder and theorist André Bazin was a prominent source of influence for the movement. By means of criticism and editorialization, they laid the groundwork for a surge of concepts which was later coined as the auteur theory. It holds that the director is the "author" of his movies, with a personal signature visible from film to film. They praised movies by Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo, and made then-radical cases for the artistic distinction and greatness of Hollywood studio directors such as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. The beginning of the New Wave was to some extent an exercise by the Cahiers writers in applying this philosophy to the world by directing movies themselves. Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (1958) is generally credited as the first New Wave feature. Truffaut, with The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard, with Breathless (1960) had unexpected international successes, both critical and financial, that turned the world's attention to the activities of the New Wave and enabled the movement to flourish. Other directors active in the movement although not necessarily part of the core Cahiers contributors included Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Robert Bresson, and Jacques Demy.


Origins of the movement

When asked where New Wave began, most will point to a famous film journal named Cahiers du cinéma. Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, and others tied closely to the ideas of the movement began as critics for this journal, and used publishing as a lead into what would soon become a wider attack on the classic ‘literary’ style of French Cinema.

French New Wave was “in style” roughly between 1958 and 1964, although popular New Wave work existed as late as 1973. The socio-economic forces at play shortly after World War II strongly influenced the movement. A politically and financially drained France tended to fall back to the old popular traditions before the war. One such tradition was straight narrative cinema, specifically classical French film. The movement has its roots in rebellion against the reliance on past forms (often adapted from traditional novellic structures), criticizing in particular the way these forms could force the audience to submit to a dictatorial plot-line. New Wave critics and directors studied the work of these and other classics. They did not reject them, but rather found a new outlet for the same creative energies. The low-budget approach helped film-makers get at the essential art form and find what, to them, was a much more comfortable and honest form of production. Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and many other forward-thinkng film directors were held up in admiration while standard Hollywood films bound by traditional narrative flow were strongly criticized.

Film techniques

The movies featured unprecedented methods of expression, such as seven-minute tracking shots (like the famous traffic jam sequence in Godard's 1967 film Week End). Also, these movies featured existential themes, such as stressing the individual and the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence.

Lightweight cameras, lights, and sound equipment allowed the New Wave directors to shoot in the streets, rather than in studios. This fluid camera motion became a trademark of the movement, with shots often following characters down Paris streets.

Many of the French New Wave films were produced on small budgets, often shot in a friend's apartment, using the director's friends as the cast and crew. Directors were also forced to improvise with equipment (for example, using a shopping cart for tracking shots). The cost of film was also a major concern; thus, efforts to save film turned into stylistic innovations: for example, in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (À bout de souffle), several scenes feature jump cuts, as they were filmed in one long take: parts that didn't work were simply cut right from the middle of the take, a purposeful stylistic decision.

The cinematic stylings of French New Wave brought a fresh look to cinema with improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and shots that go beyond the common 180º axis. The camera was used not to mesmerize the audience with elaborate narrative and illusory images, but to play with and break past the common expectations of cinema. The techniques used to shock the audience out of submission and awe were so bold and direct that Jean-Luc Godard has been accused of having contempt for his audience. His stylistic approach can be seen as a desperate struggle against the mainstream cinema of the time, or a degrading attack on the viewer’s naivete. Either way, the challenging awareness represented by this movement remains in cinema today. Effects that now seem either trite or commonplace, such as a character stepping out of her role in order to address the audience directly, were radically innovative at the time.

Classic French cinema adhered to the principles of strong narrative, creating what Godard described as an oppressive and deterministic aesthetic of plot. In contrast, New Wave filmmakers made no attempts to suspend the viewer’s disbelief; in fact, they took steps to constantly remind the viewer that a film is just a sequence of moving images, no matter how clever the use of light and shadow. The result is a set of oddly disjointed scenes without attempt at unity; or an actor whose character changes from one scene to the next; or sets in which onlookers accidentally make their way onto camera along with extras, who in fact were hired to do just the same.

At the heart of New Wave technique is the issue of money and production value. In the context of social and economic troubles of a post-WWII France, filmmakers sought low-budget alternatives to the usual production methods. Half necessity and half vision, New Wave directors used all that they had available to channel their artistic visions directly to the theatre.

Lasting effects

As with most art-film movements, the innovations of the New Wavers trickled down to the American cinema. Beginning with the heavily evident stylistic similarities in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the following generation of American young, studio-hired filmmakers known as New Hollywood (e.g. Altman, Coppola, De Palma, Polanski and Scorsese) of the late 1960s and early 1970s all claim and display influence from the French tradition of the previous decade.

Bob Rafelson, a member of the New Hollywood movement (Five Easy Pieces), claimed that the Marx Brothers and the French New Wave influenced his vision for the television series, The Monkees, which he created and oversaw. Rafelson, with Jack Nicholson, went on to direct the Monkees' feature film, the surrealistic Head which displays a strong New Wave influence.

Likewise, the influence of the movement was seen in a number of other national cinemas globally - beginning in the 1960s, and continuing to the present day. Similar movements arose in a number of European countries, and a large nuberu bagu arose in Japan during the early 1960s, which was somewhat different in its origins, but similar in techniques and trajectory.

Many contemporary filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, claim influence from the New Wave. Quentin Tarantino dedicated Reservoir Dogs to Jean-Luc Godard and named his production company A Band Apart, a play on words of the Godard film Bande à part. Wes Anderson's sardonic comedies are known to carry influence from the French New Wave; for example, the opening scenes of The Royal Tenenbaums closely mimic the style and cinematography used in the opening scene of Agnes Varda's Cleo from 5 to 7. Additionally, the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was filmed using techniques borrowed from Godard.

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Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "French New Wave" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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