The French New Wave: A Cinematic Revolution

The French New Wave: A Cinematic Revolution

The French new wave gave birth to such ideas as “la politique des auteur,” jump cuts and the unimportance of linear structure, if only to name a few. What the French new wave gave, most importantly, was a radical sense of change in cinema that would trickle throughout the world.

The French nouvelle vague, or “New Wave,” is widely regarded as one of the most influential movements ever to take place in cinema. The effects of the New Wave have been felt since it’s birth as a movement and long after it faded away. The new wave was spearheaded by a small group of critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema, a French film journal. It was a motion against the traditional French cinema, which was more literature than cinema. The French new wave gave birth to such ideas as “la politique des auteur,” jump cuts and the unimportance of linear structure, if only to name a few. What the French new wave gave, most importantly, was a radical sense of change in cinema that would trickle throughout the world.


The most important persons involved in the new wave are undoubtedly those who were connected to Cahiers during the mid-1950s. The editors of the journal were Henry Langlois and Andre Bazin who became mentors to their writers, many of whom were major figures in the new wave movement (Roberts and Wallis 95). These critics for Cahiers included Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette, among others, all of which would play major roles in the beginnings of New Wave cinema (Lanzoni 207). Each of these soon-to-be filmmakers were well-versed in film history and had a passion for film that could define them as cinephiles. This “film lovers” mindset was due largely to the Cinematheque Francaise, a film archive designed to “promote cinema study and cinema culture in France” that Henry Langlois had founded with Georges Franju and had kept open during the occupation (Cook 441). The Cinematheque gave access to a huge library of international films and the critics of Cahiers consumed as much of them as they could.

The ideas of the new wave had been festering for sometime in the minds of the critics and editors of Cahiers, as well as writings of film critic Alexandre Astruc, particularly on his concept of camera-stylo (Cook 441). However, it is said that the New Wave movement exploded in 1959 with the release of three films – Truffaut’s Les Quatre des Coups (The 400 Blows), Alain Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Godard’s A bout de Souffle (Breathless) (Lanzoni 213). Although Renais was of an older generation of directors, his style and influence on the New Wave was apparent enough in Hiroshima, which also won the International Critics Award at Cannes Film Festival in 1959 (Lanzoni 213). Resnais wasn’t the only one to walk away with an award at the ’59 Cannes Festival; Truffaut was awarded Best Director for Les Quatre des Coups (Lanzoni 213).

What audiences saw in these three films was a departure of what Truffaut referred to as “cinema du papa,” or grandad’s cinema (Roberts and Wallis 95). More commonly referred to as the “tradition of quality,” Truffaut was speaking of the post-war French cinema that was buried in literature as well as elaborate dialogue and plots (Cook 442). The French new wave was essentially the opposite of this, stressing the importance of mise-en-scene and “la politique des auteur,” or the policy of the author. It was an idea that sprung out of Astruc’s ideas on camera-stylo, which saw the director using film as means to convey a message or vision, basically “the author ‘writing’ with a camera” (Lanzoni 206).

This style was what propelled the new wave movement forward, however, they also borrowed many techniques from the neo-realists (Roberts and Wallis 95). The new wave filmmakers often used handheld cameras to shoot on location, partly out of practicality and partly out of innovation. The cameras allowed for cheap and quick shoots but also gave a less static and structured feel that was more reminiscent of the “cinema du papa.”

The new wave also saw the invention and use of the jump cut. The jump cut is when a scene is cut forward in time, whether by a split second or many seconds. An example is in Godard’s A bout de Souffle when a character shoots someone, but all the viewer sees is the gun being pointed then there is a jump cut to the other character falling over. Godard was no doubt the most prolific user of the jump cut.

Other innovations in new wave cinema included a large use of close ups and a lack of establishing shots. The filmmakers weren’t as concerned about establishing spatial and contextual relationships as they were about the mise-en-scene. A viewer was supposed to feel the setting, not necessarily see it. Alain Resnais uses this a lot in his two films studied, Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Muriel.

Even though Resnais was a generation older than the Cahiers critics, his breakthrough feature Hiroshima, Mon Amour that premiered at Cannes in 1959 proved to be just as revolutionary as the young autuers rising around him. Though some were frustrated by the avant-garde nature of the film, others praised it as a brilliant cinematic work (Biggs 137). The story’s slight documentary feel and complex structure is what drew the attention to this film “as masterly and revolutionary as Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane” (Armes 183).

The story follows an actress from Paris, played by Emmanuelle Riva, who is filming in Hiroshima years after World War II has ended. While in Hiroshima, she meets a Japanese architecht, played by Eiji Okada, and they fall in love. Intertwined in their relationship are both of their pasts and how the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima affected their respective lives.

The film’s structure was “considered revolutionary for film art” (Weigand 62). The concept of time in Hiroshima isn’t one that is easily grasped with the many layers of time involved; the time since the bombing, the time the young couple has left to be with each other, the concept of the past and memories in the present. One particular scene that stood out is when Emmanuelle Riva’s character tells the story of her past in the French town of Nevers in present tense and if she is talking to her deceased lover. It is the something as small as a tense shift that Resnais is trying to provoke thought on the way memory works and instills.

The opening scene is just as memorable, with a juxtaposition of the two lovers in an embrace and the horrors and destructions of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It is reminiscent of the comparisons between the nature of love and war and the coexistence of past and present that Resnais believed in (Weigand 63). In this opening scene, Resnais’ documentary experience comes to show as he “patrols” a museum about Hiroshima, “picking out museums with [an] unflinching eye” (Weigand 63).

While the story of Hiroshima is based on literature more so than most new wave films, it remains a staple of the beginning of the movement largely for it’s structural approach to moviemaking. No longer was a timeline or linear construction important to cinema. Hiroshima did what Citizen Kane had done before it in terms of structure, in part due to the simultaneous “new novel” movement happening (Weigand 62).

Also important in this first big boom of films in 1959 was Godard’s A bout de Souffle, which is undoubtedly the most famous new wave film. Godard was the most eccentric and radical of the new wave auteurs, described by his peer Truffaut as “a very nervous young man… who consumed lots of books and films” (Roberts and Wallis 97). Godard’s affinity for stories and films is not held back in his own cinematic undertakings; he willingly displays his knowledge and appreciations in his films and A bout de Souffle is no different.

The movie itself is dedicated to Monogram studios and the B-films it would often put out (Cook 444). To summarize the plot would be something that would have bothered Godard who said, “A bout de Souffle is a story, not a theme. A theme is something simple and vast…summed up in twenty seconds. A story takes twenty minutes to sum up” (qtd. in Marie 168). However, to strip the story to it’s bare essentials, the film is about a young destitute thief who goes to Paris to collect money and convince an American girl he decides he is in love with to travel to Italy with him. While this plot may seem overtly simple, it is. For Godard, the lines, plot and story were to take a backseat to his ability manipulate the cinema and the camera. This is no more clear than in the opening scene.

The opening shot is a focus on Michel Poiccard’s newspaper he is holding up, a close up of an ad showing a cartoon woman wearing undergarments that is pulled down to reveal the face of our Bogart-esque main character, however, Godard doesn’t give the viewer an establishing shot. What follows is a series of cuts, mismatches in eyelines, erratic and random sound design, and an overall rejection of traditional continuity editing that all contribute to the confusing spatial relationships in the sequence. As Michel Marie states, “Godard could not have found a more devastating way of reviving the dynamics of Eisensteinian montage” (163).

Visually, A Bout de Souffle is groundbreaking. Godard said that his cameraman hated the images, but he was concerned more with the fact that he was there to film them rather than what they looked like filmed (Marie 162). It is this principle that propels the film forward. Godard had also said he would like to film it as if the camera had just been discovered and that there were no rules to cinema (Marie 162). This is never more apparent then at the end when the 4th wall is broken and one of the characters talks directly to the camera, with seemingly no motivation.

Another major standout in A bout de Souffle is the multitude of references to Hollywood. The main character, Michel, is a tribute to Humphrey Bogart, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t look up to him either. When he comes face to face with the image of him, he merely mumbles “Bogie” and walks away (Marie 168). It’s obvious then that Godard is unsure of how he feels with Hollywood, loving it at times and hating it at others. There is also a movie poster for The Harder They Fall and not to mention the overall homage of the movie itself to American film noir.

Overall, A bout de Souffle set out to break down barriers and start anew with cinema and gain change. Godard achieved this by ignoring the conventions of film and starting a style of his own. His story wasn’t as important to be told as the way it was told. Godard wanted a film that could remain purely cinema and exercise it’s ability to transcend literature.

By the mid-1960’s the French new wave was starting to die down from being a major movement. However, many of the major figures were still making movies using the new wave principles. 1963 saw Alain Resnais’ give way to another masterpiece of cinema in his film Muriel. Muriel is a film about memory and it’s perseverance and relevance through life. It follows a widowed woman who has called upon an ex-lover to meet her in her hometown so they can basically re-hash the past, good and bad. This woman, played by Delphine Seyrig, also lives with her stepson Bernard, played by Jean-Baptiste Thierree. Bernard also has problems with the past, stemming from an act of violence he committed to a young woman during the Algerian war.

Muriel is probably one of the most condemning movies of the Algerian war, subtly hinting at it’s effects on relationships between people and between themselves. It is obvious from the beginning of the film that Bernard is strange and distanced from those around him, most likely due to the psychological effects of the war on him. He won’t return to his old job, he has fallen out of touch with his friends and his relationship with his stepmother is shaky. The war is also shown in bad light between the widow and her ex-lover, Alphonse. They were separated by his service and much of their harping on the past and difficulties in their relationship stem from this wartime separation.

While the sheer psychological and emotional effect on a person can be condemning enough, the titular character, Muriel, is probably the most damning aspect of the movie. Bernard refers to a girl named Muriel as his fiancée who is very sick in the beginning of the film. However, after awhile, Muriel is revealed to have been a girl that Bernard was involved with torturing and killing during the Algerian war. It is this specific memory that haunts Bernard and acts as a psychological roadblock in his path to get past the war.

The main theme in Muriel is obvious: memory. Resnais returns to his obsession with the way memory acts, effects and persists. This is none more apparent than in the stepmother and Bernard, both who are haunted by pasts they can’t seem to move on from. This state of mind then causes the viewer to ask if memory exists in the past or in the present? As Bernard’s memory of the past effects his state in the present. It very much continues the theme of the coexistence of past and present that Resnais explored in Hiroshima.

What stands out visually in Resnais’ film, however, is his editing technique. He brilliantly uses the jump cut to juxtapose a plethora of shots. At some points he edits between shots of a scene at day and the same scene at night or between close ups of random objects in the room. His editing acts just like the memory he is trying to explore; like memory, the visuals, such as day or night, can change in our minds or sometimes we only remember certain objects and actions in a room. There is also a particularly memorable scene in which Resnais edits between four different people talking and having two different conversations. It’s as if it doesn’t matter when or how they all say it, just as it’s all put together and then can be organized later. Much like memory, Resnais expects you to just ingest the information and be able to regurgitate it later when you need it or when the film demands it of you.

Soon after 1963, Godard returned the dime-store crime novel stories that he loved in his 1964 film Bande a part (Band of Outsiders). The film is about two friends who meet a pretty girl who is a maid for an old woman and who has discovered a large amount of cash in the woman’s house. The girl, Odile, tells the two men, Frantz and Arthur about it and they decide to steal it after having grown up on gangster movies and dime novels (Biggs 32). Eventually, the have to scrap their plan when no money is found and Arthur gets shot.

One of the more admirable qualities in Bande a part is Godard’s neutraility towards his characters. All three of the main characters are neither good nor bad. They just are. It sounds simple, yet it’s smart and entirely characteristic of Godard’s auteurism. He depicts them as normal people; an average person isn’t necessarily good nor is he necessarily bad. Frantz and Arthur may be plotting to steal money, but not because they are thieves, only because they stumbled upon the opportunity and want to exploit it. However, this doesn’t excuse them from when they shoot the old woman whose house they rob. All of the characterization is dynamic and Godard never says here are the bad guys, here is whom you should root for. Instead, he presents us with characters to which there is no right or wrong judgment.

Godard is also fond of the satire he creates in this movie of the original gangster movies. His gangsters aren’t overtly evil or crazy, in fact in one scene, he has them dancing. Not to mention, when they get to the house to steal the money, the money isn’t there and one gets shot. It’s as if Godard is laughing at them because he gave them exactly what they didn’t expect. What Godard ultimately was after was a parody of “serie noire” dramas (Biggs 32). The satire in this movie is so strong it can often be overlooked. Godard plays it straight to the point where it becomes depressing (Biggs 32).

By the late-60’s, the new wave had hit American shores in the form of “new Hollywood.” Directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas were all benefactors of the new wave movement. The effect on their work by the new wave is unavoidable upon studying their films. However, because the wave had passed on from France to around the world didn’t mean that some of the original Cahiers critics weren’t still working. Although almost all of them drifted away from the original principles and styles of new wave, save for Godard who delved deeper, they were still making nationally and internationally recognized films.

One of those films is the 1973 motion picture La Nuit Americane (Day for Night) directed by Francois Truffaut. It is one of Truffaut’s most interesting concepts for a film; he tells the story of a director, played by Truffaut himself, who is shooting a movie starring an actor named Alphonse played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. Leaud is easily the most recognizable face of the new wave, having been billed as Antoine Doinel in Les Quatres Des Coups along with the rest of the Doinel series. He is a large reason for Truffaut’s success and so it is no accident that Truffaut cast him as the main star in the movie in the movie.

It can be said that Day for Night was a movie that Truffaut was constantly writing. It’s scenes and plots were inspired by the director’s real experiences on movie sets (Biggs 197). The plot feels loose and largely improvised, although one can never be sure. It’s like watching a behind-the-scenes documentary at some parts and watching a brilliant piece of film at others. While the movie in the movie plot exists, it’s never obvious if some of the scenes arrive from the shooting of Day for Night rather than the fictional Meet Pamela. It leaves the audience wondering where the movie in the movie stopped and how much of the movie their watching leaked in.

The title itself says volumes about the movie. It’s mentioned only once in the movie, and not with any particular importance save to slip in to the unknown viewer the explanation of what “day for night” means. It refers to shooting a night scene during the day with a filter on the camera to simulate the nighttime. It is the perfect metaphor for the movie itself; for if the real movie is day and the fake movie is night, we are never really sure if we are watching the film through filters or not. An example would be the opening scene, which is a long tracking sequence following many characters for a short period of time then moving onto the next. It’s wonderfully shot and beautiful photographed and ends with a flash cut close up of Truffaut yelling “cut!” and we realize the shot wasn’t part of the movie at all; it was part of another movie. Yet, at the same time this opening shot serves as a shot in both movies, the fake and the real. Where does the line get drawn between the movie we are watching and the movie we are watching being filmed? Do they become one and the same? These are the questions that Truffaut raises.

The international crowd also recognized the originality of this movie; it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in the year it was released (Biggs 197). It’s also wonderfully acted. It’s humorous to watch big name actors play big name actors, as well as act like they’re acting. It seems like an easy concept, but is much harder to do. It takes a great actor to show they’re acting yet still make it good acting. The layers to the performances are just as dense as the layers of the nature of film.

Like any film movement, the new wave explored many of the same common themes. These themes included loneliness, a self-awareness of cinema, the nature of memory and the past, and the quick and sometimes violent nature of love. More often than not, characters in the new wave films were ultimately alone by the ends of the movie. For example, in A bout de Souffle, Michel gets shot in the back and is left running and struggling by himself until he dies on the street. Or in Muriel when Bernard leaves his stepmother, or in Bande a part when Frantz is left by himself after demolishing his friendship with Odile and Arthur is shot.

Also common in the new wave films were not just the subtle nods to cinema, but the obvious ones as well. In Hiroshima, one of the two main characters is an actress. In A bout de Souffle, Michel takes after Humphrey Bogart. In Muriel, Bernard spends a good amount of time filming and making amateur movies. In Day For Night, the entire movie is about a movie. The new wave filmmakers stuck to what they knew and had grown up with, which was the love of cinema and they weren’t afraid to pass on their knowledge and passion to their characters.

Another theme that arises often in the movement is the quick and violent nature of love. Characters fall in and out of love with each other easily, most likely to minimize the dialogue of building their love. Almost out of nowhere does Michel claim to love Patricia in A bout de Souffle. However, while the new wave films may claim to have an affinity for quick love affairs, they almost always never answer the history of the characters; to how long have they loved each other, we may never discover.

The effects of the new wave movement are far and wide. The films that sprung out of it gained international fame and young filmmakers around the world had grown up watching them. When the new wave trickled onto the beaches of America, such young minds as Scorsese and Coppola were to pick up on the tricks, innovations and theories of the Cahiers critics and their contemporaries. The new wave in France ultimately gave way to the new Hollywood in America. This new Hollywood also went against the studio based pictures of the Golden age to provide a brand new cinematic experience. Like the new wave filmmakers, the Americans were educated and steeped in cinema history.

The most recent filmmaker to show an extensive study and use of new wave techniques has been Quentin Tarantino (Roberts and Wallis 97). Tarantino is not shy in sharing his opinions about his favorite director, Godard, and the influence the new wave has had on his movies. It can be said that pulp fiction was made in tribute to such Godard films as A bout de Souffle. Tarantino even named his production company “A Band Apart” after the Godard film of similar name.

The nouvelle vague could be argued to be the most important film movement of the 20th century. Without it, film isn’t as open, as free, or as experiemental today. Without the likes of Godard and Truffaut, studios and sets and literature would still limit movies. They freed up cinema to come into it’s own as an art form and differ itself like it never had been before. It is only now, in the newer generations that Truffaut’s famous “cinema du papa” refers to his own.

Works Cited

Armes, Roy. French Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Biggs, Melissa. French Films, 1945 – 1993. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1996.

Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.

Lanzoni, Remi Fournier. French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2002.

Roberts, Graham and Wallis, Heather. Introducing Film. London: Arnold, 2001.

Marie, Michel. “’It Really Makes You Sick!’ Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de soufflé.” French Film: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Wiegand, Chris. French New Wave: The Pocket Essential. Vermont: Trafalgar Square Publishing, 2005.