50 years of La nouvelle vague


Anna Karina in Une femme est une femme (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)

In May 1959, Francois Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (400 Blows) was screened at Cannes and went on to become a popular film at the French box office. Although this wasn’t the first film to be recognised as ‘New Wave’, its success perhaps marked the point at which a wider cinemagoing public became aware that something was afoot in France.

Over the next month or so, we’ll attempt to re-view and reconsider the range of films that have been argued to constitute the French New Wave. This celebration is prompted in part by the BFI’s two-part season at BFI Southbank, a source of both inspiration and frustration for those of us so far from London. We are going to be limited to the range of films available on video and DVD from the last twenty years or so.

Given the amount of material already out there, I’m going to restrict myself in these comments to just a few observations that might create some discussion.

1. What was the unique contribution of La nouvelle vague to the history of cinema? Were the films really as radical/different/’new’/’personal’ as we have always been told? Was it about the sheer quantity of films from new directors in France all appearing in a short space of time – or was it about the handful of directors whose work was widely distributed and discussed?

2. What was so wrong with the cinéma du papa that Truffaut so despised? Were la nouvelle vague directors so different?

3. Or was it more that the films ‘caught the moment’ of social change in France and elsewhere in Europe? Was the content and the tone of the films as important as the direction, the camerawork and the editing? Was it that the new stars were simply younger and sexier?

4. Do the films stand the test of time?

I’m going to re-watch several of the films over the next few weeks. Perhaps I’ll change my views. My starting point is a solid support for most of Godard’s early features and for the genuine radical approach in evidence in Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes. I admire Truffaut’s first two films, but I begin to worry about the direction he will take as early as Jules et Jim, though I can see the audience attractions in the films. I don’t really have any feelings towards Rohmer or Rivette but I’m passionately fond of both Jacques Demy’s Lola and Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 and I’m really looking forward to seeing the Alain Resnais films of the period, having mysteriously failed to watch them before. I’m also a fan of some of Louis Malle’s early films, but find Roger Vadim hard work. I confess that, apart from Adieu Philippine, I don’t really know any of the films by other directors of the period being shown in the BFI season – but I’d like to see them.


  1. Stephen Gott

    Between 1959 and 1963,the Nouvelle Vague changed peoples attitude to Cinema.Before this period,it was mostly seen as an “entertainment”,but after Godard,Truffaut,et al,Cinema became an art form to analyse and study.Of course,the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t all down to the Cahier du cinema group,but they did help to create a new film language.A language which would question social and political beliefs.


    • venicelion

      I think it is undoubtedly true that the impact of the Cahiers group as critics turned filmmakers was important for the foundation of what we now think of as film studies. As with many other critical/creative ‘movements’ Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and Rivette were in the right place at the right time – picked up by critics/scholars in the UK and the US just when they were looking for something like the auteurist approach to cinema – and by filmmakers in Japan, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Italy etc.

      They also found a receptive audience in cinemas because the early 1960s marked the coming of age of a new generation of young people, well-educated in the relative affluence of the 1960s in Western Europe and North America.

      On the other hand, the ‘seriousness’ of the New Wave was perhaps not really noticeable until the ‘second New Wave’ of 1966-8. I suspect that in 1960-2, certainly in the UK and the US, it was the sex appeal and the ‘cool’ qualities of Belmondo, Brialy, Anna Karina and Jeanne Moreau that sold the tickets.


  2. Stephen Gott

    I agree that the coolness and sex appeal of the first New Wave,for a while at least,sold the tickets.However,I think there was serious side of the movement,before the second New Wave.Here I’m thinking of the “Left Bank” group,lead by generally older filmakers,such as Georges Franju,Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda,with films like “Les Yeux Sans Visage”(1959),”Hiroshima Mon Amour”(1959),”L’Annee Derniere A Marienbad”(1961)and “Cleo De 5 a 7” (1962).This group of filmakers were making films for a more art/intellectually orientated audience,several years before the second New Wave.


    • venicelion

      Indeed, we will be looking at the ‘Left Bank’ group in our celebration. Certainly, the films by Varda and Resnais are more like the arthouse films of the 1950s that Godard and co. wrote about in Cahiers and others in Positif. There always was an art cinema audience in Europe and definitely in the 1950s when Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Wajda etc. as well as the Ray, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi were major attractions. What the New Wave did was to attract younger audiences into the arthouses and expand the market.

      I think the real question to ask is how the Left bank group were ‘connected’ to the others?Since the main feature of New Wave directors was their relative youth and the fact that they were more or less first time filmmakers, it does seem odd to include Resnais (first documentary shorts in the 1940s) and Varda (first feature in 1954) alongside the Cahiers group. New Waves are often about being in the right place at the right time. I’m interested in seeing what kinds of idelogical/sociological connections I can find. My knowledge of Resnais and Varda is limited, partly because the films (Varda’s especially) are difficult to see. My initial thought is that the thematic of Cleo 5 to 7 is similar to some other New Wave films in its interest in youth and popular culture, but that it looks very different – because Varda was a skilled documentarist.


  3. Stephen Gott

    Generally speaking,Francois Truffaut’s “Les Quatre Cents Coups”(1959)is regarded as the first film of the “Nouvelle Vague”,but of course there are earlier examples.Recently,I had the opportunity of seeing one of these films,Claude Chabrol’s second film “Les Cousins”(1959).

    On leaving the cinema,I felt stunned,but I didn’t know why.It wasn’t because of its “New wave” traits of location shooting in Paris,its sexy young cast of Jean-Claude Brialy,Gerard Blain and Juliette Mayniel,or its referencing of other film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock(the constant presence of the gun,which we the audience,know in the final scene is loaded)and Luis Bunuel(the parties,with Paul and his bourgeoisie friends,where the rules of civilised society are stripped away).

    After some thinking,I realised it was the perverseness of the story and the way in which the film portrays it,that affected me.Firstly,we have Charles,the naive,hardworking country cousin,who sacrifices everything,even love,to pass his exams and fails.Whilst his “Faustian” city cousin pays his friend,the “Mephistophelean” Clovis for his pleasures and success.Infact,Claude Chabrol at the time of “Les Cousins” release,said that the theme of the film was “the suffocation of purity in the modern world”.

    Chabrol visually portrays Pauls dominance over his cousin,in scenes such as Charles arrival at Pauls flat,to see his cousin looking down at him,from the top of a pair of ladders.Later,after Charles has been stood up by Florence,he returns to the flat to find both Paul and Florence,in the upper storey of the flat,whilst he is in the lower.This latter point also visualizes Florences “unattainableness” to Charles,a fact which is further re-inforced by Chabrol,when he places Florence above Charles,sunbathing in a window behind railings.

    Infact,as the film progress’s,Charles becomes more and more isolated in his room and seperated from Paul and Florence,the parties going on outside his door and the world in general.By the end of the film,Charles has lost all of his illusions about his life in Paris and his future(significantly a friendly bookstore owner offers him a free copy of Balzac’s “Lost Illusions”).He even fails to kill Paul with a gun,the consequences of which are tragic to Charles himself.

    “Les Cousins” was an inverted version of Chabrols first film “Le Beau Serge”(1958) and he would again return to the same theme in “Les Biches”(1967).In the latter film there is a lesbian element to the story and indeed there have been suggestions that in “Les Cousins”,Paul has a love for Charles,which is expressed through the choice of music,especially in the final scene,where Wagner’s “Liebestod” from “Tristan Und Isolde” is played.

    Finally,I think that the pervereseness of Chabrol’s “Les Cousins” had an important effect on the cinema of the 1960’s,especially in Britain.Firstly ,in a satirical way,in films like Richard Lester’s “The Knack …And How To Get It”(1965) and Stanley Donen’s “Bedazzled”(1967).Secondly,in a much darker form,in films like Joseph Losey’s “The Servant”(1963) and ultimately,as the sixties soured,in Donald Cammell’s and Nicholas Roeg’s “Performance”(1970).Interestingly,as a young artist,Cammell had spent some time in Paris on the Left Bank,mixing with fellow artists,intellectuals and filmakers.


    • venicelion

      Thanks for this Stephen. I’ve posted your observations on La fille coupée en deux as a main entry. I’m intrigued to see what your final conclusions on Chabrol will be.


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