French New Wave – an introduction

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The History
Like many of the most interesting and important movements throughout history, French New Wave cinema grew from a period of great social and creative repression. During the German occupation of France in the Second World War, only 200 French films were allowed to be screened in cinemas; other than these heavily censored productions, the options available were German films that were predominantly pale imitations of Hollywood musical comedies or melodramatic propaganda films. Contrasting heavily with the rich cinematic culture of the ’20s and 30’s, this restricted programme of film led to the generation of cinema-lovers that had experienced life before the war to prize freedom of expression above almost all else. The value placed on creative liberty went on to become the focal point and foundation of New Wave, and is especially evident in the work of film-makers such as Alain Resnais and film critics/theorists like Andre Bazin.

For the younger generations who had experienced little – if anything – of life beyond the war, the cinema became a sanctuary and escape from the horrors outside. A handful of French films made during the occupation that made it through the German censorship were instinctively cherished, such as Lumière d’été (1943) by Jean Gremillon, and the complete reliance of many on the escapist nature of cinema is also a clear thread running through the films created during the New Wave movement.

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In the years following the Liberation in 1944, cinema became more popular than ever. Following American films being banned in France for the duration of the occupation, cinemas were inundated with almost half a decade’s worth of American cinema for film-lovers to delve into and catch up on. Hollywood influences are clear in New Wave film – whether through the satirical way that the characters talk directly to the camera in Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme, or director Eric Rohmer stating: “French cinema doesn’t depict French society, while American cinema… is able to raise society to a level of aesthetic dignity.” Rohmer went on to create a multitude of films in which he closely observed the inner psychological workings of his characters, while maintaining the Hollywood level “aesthetic dignity” that he valued.

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Cinéma de qualité vs New Wave
The film-makers who began and developed the New Wave movement were working in a creative culture in which cinéma de qualité (“cinema of quality”) was the norm. The priority of this form of cinema was to impress, rather than to express. Bound to a studio and centered around a carefully written and revised script, cinéma de qualité generally afforded the directors very little creative freedom and instead catered to the commercial whims of the time. While many New Wave directors who began as film critics praised some films from this era, they seemed to reject their regimented approach to film-making, instead favoring films that would not take the audience by the hand and lead them through the film scene by scene and emotion by emotion.

The New Wave films challenged the viewer and made them consider their own lives and feelings alongside the events of the film. This moves beyond pure escapism – instead, New Wave films often seem to intersperse, challenge and interrupt real life with cinema which makes the viewer question themselves, their thoughts and the world that they are living in. The focus of film began to shift towards the expression of truth – whether this was a truth about society, about the director’s own emotional state, or the underlying truth found within human emotions. Directors no longer saw film as simply a source of entertainment but as an explorative and communicative device.

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The films were often unscripted and rarely had a large budget. Not only did this lead to moments of break-through spoken innovation, but also technical innovation. As a result, French New Wave films have became known for certain recognisable aspects of style such as: jump cuts, rapid editing, shooting outdoors and on location, natural lighting, improvised dialogue and plotting, direct sound recording (as opposed to the dubbing that was popular at the time), mobile cameras, and long takes. While often disconcerting and sometimes even unsettling, this style of editing means that the audience is constantly reminded that they are watching a film and not real life – they are viewing the product of a director’s imagination. This fragmented style seems to prevent the audience from getting completely lost in the plot or going along with the film as a complete entity, instead forcing them to think about where they stand on the action and how they relate to the characters individually.

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Jean-Luc Godard quotes on cinema
Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best-known New Wave directors. His iconic films include Breathless and Une Femme est Une Femme.

“A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not necessarily in that order.”

“Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.”

“To me style is just the outside of content, and content the inside of style, like the outside and the inside of the human body. Both go together, they can’t be separated.”

“Photography is truth. And cinema is truth twenty-four times a second.”

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Published by Rachel Kevern