How the French New Wave Changed Cinema: A Video Introduction to the Films of Godard, Truffaut & Their Fellow Rule-Breakers

You could describe every act of film­mak­ing as an act of film crit­i­cism, and for no group of direc­tors has that held truer than those of the French New Wave. In one of the most excit­ing chap­ters of cin­e­ma his­to­ry thus far, the late 1950s and 1960s saw such new­ly emer­gent auteurs as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truf­faut, Agnès Var­da, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Riv­ette, and André Bazin turn away from the estab­lished prac­tices of film­mak­ing and, by a mix­ture of incli­na­tion and neces­si­ty, start a few of their own.

They fol­lowed these new rules to come up with pic­tures like Le Beau Serge, Breath­lessThe 400 Blows, Last Year at Marien­badCléo from 5 to 7, and La Jetée. Those and the oth­er movies of the Nou­velle Vague star­tled view­ers with their bold­ness of form and con­tent, but what of impor­tance do they have to say in film cul­ture today? Lewis Bond of Chan­nel Criswell, source of video essays pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here about film­mak­ers like Andrei Tarkovsky and Aki­ra Kuro­sawa, looks at the last­ing achieve­ments of the move­ment in “Break­ing the Rules.”

The mem­bers of the French New Wave told per­son­al sto­ries that reflect­ed per­son­al philoso­phies, shoot­ing doc­u­men­tary-style with hand­held cam­eras, cut­ting those shots togeth­er with pre­vi­ous­ly unheard of con­spic­u­ous­ness, and using a vari­ety of oth­er visu­al and nar­ra­tive tech­niques to estab­lish a new rela­tion­ship between films and their view­ers. “If you’re still skep­ti­cal as to whether the nou­velle vague inten­tion­al­ly toyed with the audi­ence’s expec­ta­tions,” says Bond over a selec­tion of fourth-wall-break­ing shots, “just look at how many times their movies direct­ly acknowl­edge them. The nou­velle vague want­ed to have the audi­ence test­ed as to what could be a movie and how they could push the bound­aries of sto­ry­telling, not just with their tech­niques but with their con­tent too.”

And what do we jad­ed 21st-cen­tu­ry view­ers and film­mak­ers still have to learn from all this? “Just watch the films. They’re so ahead of their time, it’s not dif­fi­cult to see” the influ­ence of their edit­ing on the Scors­eses of the world, their con­cept of the auteur on the Taran­ti­nos, and their cam­era move­ment on the Luzbekis of today. “The thing that the film­mak­ers of la nou­velle vague did was uti­lize one of the most impor­tant process­es I think there is for an artist: look at what works in your medi­um and think, ‘How can it be done dif­fer­ent­ly?’ Because if you don’t have any­thing new to say, what’s the point of say­ing any­thing?” And, now as in the mid-2oth-cen­tu­ry as in the cen­turies before cin­e­ma itself, if you do have some­thing new to say, you can’t say it by fol­low­ing the old rules.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Jean-Luc Godard’s Inno­v­a­tive Film­mak­ing Through Five Video Essays

How Truf­faut Became Truf­faut: From Pet­ty Thief to Great Auteur

Watch a Video Essay on the Poet­ic Har­mo­ny of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film­mak­ing, Then View His Major Films Free Online

How Aki­ra Kurosawa’s Sev­en Samu­rai Per­fect­ed the Cin­e­mat­ic Action Scene: A New Video Essay

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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