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, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Last Year at Marienbad, Cléo 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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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.