Nouvelle Vague: 1959-1969

Nouvelle Vague: 1959-1969

"In France during the late 1950s, the idealism and political movements of the immediate postwar years gave way to a more apolitical culture of consumption and leisure. The rising generation was dubbed the Nouvelle Vague, the "New Wave" that would soon govern France. Many of these young people read film journals and attended screenings at ciné-clubs and art et essai ("art and experiment") cinemas. The film industry had not fully tapped these new consumers. In 1958, film attendance started to decline sharply, and several big-budget films failed. At the same time, government aid fostered risk taking. In 1953, the Centre National du Cinema established the prime de la qualite ("subsidy for quality"), which allowed new directors to make short films." [2] A 1959 law created the avance sur recettes ("advance on receipts"), "a system of government loans, granted on the basis of a working script, to enable films to be produced. One in five French films benefit from this funding, though only one in ten of these has been sufficiently successful at the box office to pay off the loan in full. The system thus effectively worked as a source of subsidy, another reason for the often remarked thriving independent and experimental sector (known as art et essai) of the French industry." [3] "Between 1958 and 1961, dozens of directors made their first fulllength films. Such a broad development naturally included quite different trends, but two major ones are crucial. One centers on the Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave, group. The other trend, often identified with the Left Bank group, involves a slightly older generation who now moved into feature production.

The French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) is largely responsible for the romantic image of the young director fighting to make personal films that defy the conventional industry. Ironically, most directors associated with the New Wave quickly became mainstream, even ordinary, filmmakers. But certain members of the group not only popularized a new conception of personal cinema but also provided innovations in film form and style." [2]

Film critic and film theorist André Bazin (1918-1958)

"The New Wave never formally constituted itself as a movement (the term was coined by the journalist Franchise Giroud), so that 'membership' of it is to a large extent a matter of opinion. The five 'core' directors - Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette - had met at the Paris Cinematheque in the late 1940s or early 1950s and had graduated to film-making by way of the influential journal Cahiers du cinema. The major intellectual and personal influence on them was the critic Andre Bazin, a passionate advocate of "realism, mise-en-scene, and deep focus" (which he saw in opposition to montage), and of the politique des auteurs." [3] "For the New Wave directors, the filmmaker was an "auteur" or an author who created the film from nothing, and they believed that the work of individual filmmakers ought to display strong, distinctive characteristics that labeled their films as their own. Specifically, they inherited from Bazin and their time at the Cahiers du cinéma a disdain for films produced in France during the 1940s and 1950s - a cinéma that they termed the "cinéma de papa," a derogatory term for the tradition de qualité they considered stale, formulaic, tied to high production values, overly glossy, and downright dull." [1]

Jean Renoir (1894-1979)

"European art-house directors, such as Jean Renoir or Roberto Rossellini, had traditionally been treated as the 'authors' of their films, in much the same way as Balzac or Baudelaire were of the literary texts they signed. The American low-budget cinema, on the other hand, tended to be thought of as a commercial and studio-based product, to which Godard pays homage in his dedication of À bout de souffle (1960) to Monogram Pictures. Cahiers' innovation was to treat film-makers such as Hawks or Fuller as the authors of their films in much the same way as their more 'respectable' European counterparts." [3]

"In the beginning, the New Wave critics (as they were then) expressed their ideas about film in writing; however, in the late 1950s, as a result of new film subsidies offered by the French government, they turned to cinema as a means of demonstrating their vision of a new French cinema, and the New Wave of French cinema was born." [1] Their personal vision of the world would appear not only in the film's script but also in its style. Most of the Cahiers group started by directing short films but, by the end of the decade, most turned to features. They helped each other by financing projects and sharing the services of two outstanding cinematographers, Henri Decae and Raoul Coutard.

"The New Wave directors, like their Hollywood predecessors, worked individually and creatively within often severe budgetary constraints and the conventions of studio genre. Their films were frequently self-referential (Godard making a brief Hitchcock-like appearance in his own À bout de souffle, Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (1959) containing an obvious visual quotation from Vigo's Zéro de conduite), as though to assert the value of film as a form of artistic expression on a par with the novel or the theatre. Allusions to art cinema and Hollywood action film sat side by side in a manner that, nowadays, with the erosion of the barrier between 'high' and 'popular' culture, seems unremarkable, but was extremely innovative at the time. The literary adaptation and the costly studio set-up were anathema to these filmmakers, whose use of hand-held cameras and location filming gave their work a constant charge of the unexpected." [3]


À bout de souffle (1960)

"There are certain shared narrative characteristics among the films considered New Wave. One is the influence of French existentialist philosophy. Nearly all of the New Wave films are character centered and feature a character most properly described as an antihero. These films focus on the alienation and marginalization experienced by the protagonist as he (or she) moves through a dysfunctional world in which he or she has no place. These films often end with the death of the protagonist, or at least with an ambiguous reference to that death. The films also share certain production characteristics. In keeping with their dislike of studio-produced films, the New Wave directors typically shot on location, quite often outside and frequently in locales that would not be considered worthy of filming in an industry dominated by high production values. The streets of working-class neighborhoods in Paris were a common choice for these directors. In this respect, the New Wave reflects the influence of a film making practice that dates back to the silent films of Louis Feuillade, extends to le réalisme poétique or poetic realism, and is continued after the New Wave in the cinéma de banlieue. In addition to the interest in filming the city, there is also a tendency to avoid the seamless narration and invisible editing practices common to a more traditional narrative cinema.

Because the New Wave directors often relied on handheld cameras, they were able to draw attention to the presence of the camera by filming with a free camera that produced shaky, destabilized images. They also used unusual cuts and tracking shots that also point back to the presence of the camera. Quite often the actors and actresses played on the screen in such a way as to seem uncomfortable, often as though they were acting, or else they would improvise scenes not directly included in the film’s screenplay. In Godard’s work in particular such characteristics are evident, and he encouraged them often by not allowing the actors to know how the plot unfolded, or by not giving them a script at all." [1]

Les quatre cents coups (1959)

"As the very name New Wave indicates, much of the group's success can be attributed to the filmmakers' rapport with their youthful audience. Most of the directors were born around 1930 and were based in Paris. By concentrating on urban professional life with its chic fashions and sports cars, all-night parties, bars and jazz clubs, this cinema suggested that the café scene was being captured with the immediacy of Direct Cinema. The films also have thematic affinities. Authority is to be distrusted; political and romantic commitment is suspect. The characters' gratuitous actions bear traces of pop existentialism. And in an echo of Poetic Realism, the Tradition of Quality, and American crime movies, the films often center on a femme fatale. The New Wave directors also share some basic narrative assumptions. Like Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, these filmmakers often build their plots around chance events and digressive episodes. They also intensify the art-cinema convention of the open-ended narrative; the famous ending of Les quatre cents coups (1959) made the freeze-frame technique a favored device for expressing an unresolved situation. At the same time, the mixture of tone characteristic of Italian Neorealism gets pushed to the limit. In the films of Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol, farcical comedy is often only an instant away from anxiety, pain, and death.

Further, the Nouvelle Vague was the first group of directors to refer systematically to prior film traditions. For these former critics, film history was a living presence. In À bout de souffle (1960), the hero imitates Humphrey Bogart, while the heroine comes from Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse (1958). Partygoers in Paris nous appartient (1961) screen Metropolis, while in Les quatre cents coups (1959) the boy steals a production still from Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika. Celebrating their own notoriety, the directors cited each other or their friends at Cahiers du cinema. Such awareness of a film's debt to history helped usher in the reflexive filmmaking of the 1960s." [2]

Influential Filmmakers and Works

"Together, the New Wave directors made some forty to fifty films in a period of about five years. The New Wave's initial impact came from four films released in 1959 and 1960. Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins explored the disparity between rural and urban life in the new France. The first film almost became the French entry at Cannes; the second won a major prize at the Berlin festival. Francois Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), a sensitive tale of a boy becoming a thief and a runaway, won the director's prize at Cannes and gave the New Wave great international prestige. The most innovative early New Wave film was Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle (Breathless,1960), a portrait of a petty criminal's last days." [2]

Claude Chabrol (1930-2010)

"Chronologically, the first New Wave film was Chabrol's Le Beau Serge of 1959, followed in the same year by his Les Cousins. The influence of Hitchcock is marked in the exchange of roles between the central characters (in both films played by Gerard Blain and Jean-Claude Brialy), the latter of whom represents Parisian would-be sophistication against the provincial benightedness of the other. Chabrol has had a wildly uneven career, often filming neither wisely nor too well, but at his best he is the master denouncer of the hypocrisy and pretentions of the bourgeoisie. Misanthropy and misogyny are other components of his work and both are plain in Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), about the varying fortunes and ambitions of four young women who work in an electrical shop, an emblem of the modernisation of French society. Les Biches (1968) features a bisexual love triangle in Saint-Tropez, probably the first major French film to deal overtly with lesbianism, albeit in a manner that changes in sexual politics have caused to appear dubious." [3] "Chabrol churned out lurid espionage pictures before embarking on a series of psychological thrillers: La femme infidèle (The Unfaithful Wife , 1969), Que la bête meure (This Man Must Die, 1969), Le boucher (The Butcher, 1970), and others. Like Hitchcock, Chabrol traces how the tensions of middle-class life explode into madness and violence. By 2001, Chabrol had made over fifty features and several television episodes, remaining the most commercially flexible and pragmatic of the directors to emerge from Cahiers." [2]

François Truffaut (1932-1984)

The year 1959 -annus mirabilis of post-war cinema - also saw the feature debuts of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The former's Les quatre cents coups remains among the cinema's most touching evocations of a less-then-happy childhood, modelled in many ways on Truffaut's own. Film here is the medium at once for autobiographical essay and for formal audacity, as in the celebrated final shot in which the young Antoine Doinel/Jean-Pierre Leaud runs away from reform school and is frozen by the camera, half-fearful and half-exhilarated, as he catches his first glimpse of the sea. Truffaut wisely left Doinel to fend for himself for the best part of a decade, during which he broadened his experimental use of the medium with the bitter-sweet gangster parody Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), starring Charles Aznavour, and the prolonged triangular love story between a Frenchman, a German and the capricious Catherine/Jeanne Moreau, Jules et Jim (1962). This earned an unprecedented standing innovation at the Cannes festival, from which Truffaut had a few years before been banned, and the all-but-envious homage of Jean Renoir. The homoerotic intensity of the relationship between Jules and Jim, mediated it would be possible to argue through their shared passion for Catherine, now gives the film a strikingly modern feel. The theme of tragic or impossible love, and its close linkage with death, recurs in more conventional format with La peau douce (1964), generally regarded as Truffaut's most Chabrolesque work." [3]

"Truffaut remained true to the Cahiers legacy by inserting into each film references to his favorite periods of film history and his admired directors (Lubitsch, Hitchcock, Renoir). Jules and Jim, set in the early days of cinema, provided an occasion to incorporate silent footage and to employ old-fashioned irises. Truffaut sought not to destroy traditional cinema but to renew it. In the Cahiers spirit he aimed to enrich commercial filmmaking by balancing personal expression with a concern for his audience: "I have to feel I am producing a piece of entertainment." Over two decades he made eighteen more films." [2]

Jean-Luc Godard (1930-)

"À bout de souffle (1960) remains probably the best-loved of New Wave films, its innovative use of jump-cuts, location filming of a non-touristic Paris and mise-en-scene of the love/hate relationship between French and American culture remaining as fresh now as when it was released. The fecundity of Jean-Luc Godard's experiments with sound/image relationships and filmic genre is a constant in his work throughout the decade, which spanned the musical (Une femme est une femme, 1961), science fiction (Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution, 1965) and the sociological treatise (2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle, 1967). Le mépris (1963) gives Brigitte Bardot her major serious dramatic role, and stages an eloquent enactment of the contradictory pressures on the film-maker to make money and produce significant art. Much of Godard's work during this decade displays an unnerving prescience. Bande à part (1964) alludes to the genocidal conflict in Rwanda 30 years before it came to widespread attention. Masculin féminin (1966) pre-echoes the debates about gender and sex roles that were to achieve such importance in succeeding decades. The cultural and institutional upheaval of May 1968 has a very good claim to being the most unexpected major event in post-war European history; yet Godard's two 1967 films, La chinoise and Weekend, are extraordinary straws in the wind, the former foreshadowing the leftist agitation at the University of Nanterre that was to spark the events off, the latter a Surrealist, cartoon-like dramatisation of the consumerism so characteristic of French society in the 1960s and of the 1968 reaction against it.

The political strain in Godard's work becomes evident as early as Pierrot le fou (1965), which features Jean-Paul Belmondo from Bout de souffle in a doomed love affair with Godard's then wife Anna Karina, his inspiration for much of this period. Pierrot le fou suggests much of what was to follow in Godard's subsequent work, with its strikingly poetic use of colour, its use of mockingly didactic, quasi-Brechtian tableaux and its references to the Vietnam War." [2]

"Over the next decade, Godard made at least two features per year, and it became clear that he, more than any other Cahiers director, was redefining film structure and style. Godard's work poses fundamental questions about narrative. While his first films, such as Breathless and A Woman Is a Woman, have fairly straightforward plots, he gradually moved toward a more fragmentary, collage structure. A story is still apparent, but it is deflected into unpredictable paths. Godard juxtaposes staged scenes with documentary material (advertisements, comic strips, crowds passing in the street), often with little connection to the narrative. Far more than his New Wave contemporaries, Godard mixes conventions drawn from popular culture, such as detective novels or Hollywood movies, with references to philosophy or avant-garde art. The inconsistencies, digressions, and disunities of Godard's work make most New Wave films seem quite traditional by comparison. With characteristic generosity Truffaut remarked, 'There is the cinema before Godard and the cinema after Godard.' " [2]

Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)

Although Eric Rohmer was nearly ten years older than most of his Cahiers friends, his renown came somewhat later. A reflective aesthete, Rohmer adhered closely to Andre Bazin's teachings. Rohmer's work remains, certainly in French and probably in world cinema, unique in that he has never lost money on a film in a 40-year career. His low-budget approach, reliance on highly crafted dialogue and fondness for ironic philosophising make a 'Rohmer film' instantly recognisable, and in these respects he can, even by those not uniformly enthusiastic about his work, be seen as the supreme auteur. Le signe du lion (1959) is his most savage work, about an over-trusting bohemian's destitute summer in Paris. After this work, Rohmer embarked on his Six Moral Tales, wry studies of men and women struggling to balance intelligence with emotional and erotic impulses. His work for the remainder of this period took the form of short films, often made for television, a further illustration of the economic awareness that informs his work. Deflating his characters' pretensions while still sympathizing with their efforts to find happiness, Rohmer's cinema has the flavor of the novel of manners or of Renoir's films.

Jacques Rivette (1928-)

"Whereas Rohmer favors the concise, neatly ironic tale, the films of Jacques Rivette, another Cahiers critic, struggle to capture the endlessness of life itself. L'amour fou (1969) runs over four hours, Out 1, noli me tangere (1971) twelve. Such abnormal lengths allow Rivette gradually to unfold a daily rhythm behind which intricate, half-concealed conspiracies are felt to lurk. Rivette's love for lengthy, intricate narratives was apparent from his first feature, Paris nous appartient (1961), and has caused him to have a rather chequered career. La religieuse (1966), his only other feature of the period, was briefly banned by the censor for its supposedly scandalous evocation of convent life, and authorised to be exported only under the distancing title of Suzanne Simonin, La religieuse de Diderot, much as Godard's 1964 La femme mariée had to be retitled Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964 before it got past the censor. Considered marginal in the prime Nouvelle Vague period, Rivette's work strongly influenced the French cinema of the 1970s." [3]


"By 1969, which typically marks the end of the New Wave, the experimental filmmaking techniques of the New Wave had so permeated French cinema that most French film production at the time reflected some or all of the New Wave characteristics. At about the same time, many of the New Wave directors themselves began to move in different directions, and their films, therefore, became more different than alike. In this respect, the New Wave cannot really be said to have ended or disappeared in 1969. It is rather that the theory and technique behind the New Wave became absorbed into dominant filmmaking practice and therefore ceased to be new.

Apart from the technical and stylistic innovations attributed to the New Wave, the movement also made several other contributions to the development of French cinema. It has been convincingly argued, for example, that the New Wave films were very strongly influenced by a deep sense of political engagement during a period when censorship prevented direct political criticism (particularly about the ongoing Algerian War). Many have seen veiled references to that conflict and to the violence it engendered in the works of directors such as Godard. In this respect, the New Wave reinitiated the politically engaged cinema that had been abandoned by many French directors of the late 1940s and 1950s. What is more, the New Wave directors created a much more intellectually engaged cinema that removed film from the realm of popular entertainment and elevated it to the level of social and political debate, and most important art. In that respect, these directors are in many ways responsible for the privileged status film still enjoys in French culture." [1]


  • Bonjour tristesse (1958)
  • Le Beau Serge (1958)
  • Les cousins (1959)
  • Les quatre cents coups (1959)
  • Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
  • Le signe du lion (1959)
  • À bout de souffle (1960)
  • Les bonnes femmes (1960)
  • Tirez sur le pianiste (1960)
  • Zazie dans le métro (1960)
  • L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961)
  • Lola (1961)
  • Paris nous appartient (1961)
  • Une femme est une femme (1961)
  • Adieu Philippine (1962)
  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)
  • Jules et Jim (1962)
  • La jetée (1962)
  • Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (1962)
  • Le feu follet (1963)
  • Le mépris (1963)
  • Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (1963)
  • Bande à part (1964)
  • La peau douce (1964)
  • Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964 (1964)
  • Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965)
  • Pierrot le fou (1965)
  • La guerre est finie (1966)
  • La religieuse (1966)
  • Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966)
  • Un homme et une femme (1966)
  • 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (1967)
  • La chinoise (1967)
  • Le samouraï (1967)
  • Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)
  • Week End (1967)
  • Les biches (1968)
  • La femme infidèle (1969)
  • Que la bête meure (1969)
  • Le boucher (1970)
  • Out 1, noli me tangere (1971)