Did World War II help create the French New Wave? In a roundabout way, yes, according to this video essay by Nerdwriter. Although Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (aka Breathless) was not technically the first Nouvelle Vague film, it was the film’s revolutionary look and feel, and Godard’s exquisite sense of how to work the promotional machine, that caused it to reverberate around the world. A few years later, many other countries would be launching their own New Waves: Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Iran, and America. Each were particular to their own countries, but all sought to create an alternative to the dominant film culture, either Hollywood or their own country’s Hollywood-influenced film industries.
That decision did not come about in a vacuum, as the video points out. After the war, France was left with $2 billion in debt. Former Interim Prime Minister and then Ambassador Leon Blum signed an agreement with America’s Secretary of State James F. Byrnes to cancel debt and to start a new line of credit. One of the provisions of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreement was opening France up to American cultural product, in particular Hollywood films.
In French cinemas, four weeks out of every thirteen weeks would be devoted to French films. The other nine were reserved for foreign (i.e. mostly American) films. But the trade off included a tax on movie tickets, so the increased audience helped fund the French film industry.
Certain results came about that were not planned. A young cinephile generation was born, and its main journal was Cahiers du Cinema, edited by writer and theorist André Bazin. The French could not lay claim to an industry like Hollywood’s, but they could point to inventing movies as we now know them (Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers were French), and for treating film as an art form (by the Surrealists, by the Dadaists) before anybody else, and not just as entertainment.
The young critics who wrote for Cahiers du Cinema certainly loved the influx of American films, which they devoured daily in a city like Paris, especially at the Cinémathèque Française. Curated by Henri Langlois, this cinema/museum screened both new and old films, so much so that those critics began to see the artist behind the entertainment. The rise of the auteur theory, coined by Bazin among others, placed the director at the center of not just their one film, but demonstrated certain techniques and interests threading through all films that they directed.
Although there wasn’t a lot of money floating around, there was still enough to make short films and those critics—Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and others—would start to put into practice the theory that they had been writing.
After a few shorts, Godard directed A Bout de Souffle, and the world wasn’t really the same after it.
The film was shot on a handheld camera, by Raoul Cotard, who had used such a camera in the war for newsreels. They used available light. And the two actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, improvised around a script that Godard would write the night before. Godard turned his brain inside-out, like emptying a bag across a table: all his cultural obsessions, not just in cinema, but in writers, philosophers, music, and more, all came out. If Godard was going to be an auteur, then this was how to do it. And yes, the jump-cut editing, as Nerdwriter points out, was shocking for the time. But so was seeing the actors walking around the actual streets of Paris. And so was hearing two people talk (and talk and talk) just like they do in real life. Even if a lot of those things have become common place these days, when everybody carries a movie camera in their pocket, Breathless still brims with life.
Over the course of the ‘60s Godard and his contemporaries would both honor, indulge, and then break away from Hollywood influences. The dominance of Hollywood product began to feel like imperialism, and America’s involvement in Vietnam and its overwhelming influence on consumer culture would lead to the events of 1968, and Godard’s outright rejection of Hollywood. He would end up killing his masters, so to speak. But that was still to come. There’s still Breathless, and there’s still 1960 in Paris.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.