In May 1959, Francois Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (400 Blows) was screened at Cannes and went on to become a popular film at the French box office. Although this wasn’t the first film to be recognised as ‘New Wave’, its success perhaps marked the point at which a wider cinemagoing public became aware that something was afoot in France.
Over the next month or so, we’ll attempt to re-view and reconsider the range of films that have been argued to constitute the French New Wave. This celebration is prompted in part by the BFI’s two-part season at BFI Southbank, a source of both inspiration and frustration for those of us so far from London. We are going to be limited to the range of films available on video and DVD from the last twenty years or so.
Given the amount of material already out there, I’m going to restrict myself in these comments to just a few observations that might create some discussion.
1. What was the unique contribution of La nouvelle vague to the history of cinema? Were the films really as radical/different/’new’/’personal’ as we have always been told? Was it about the sheer quantity of films from new directors in France all appearing in a short space of time – or was it about the handful of directors whose work was widely distributed and discussed?
2. What was so wrong with the cinéma du papa that Truffaut so despised? Were la nouvelle vague directors so different?
3. Or was it more that the films ‘caught the moment’ of social change in France and elsewhere in Europe? Was the content and the tone of the films as important as the direction, the camerawork and the editing? Was it that the new stars were simply younger and sexier?
4. Do the films stand the test of time?
I’m going to re-watch several of the films over the next few weeks. Perhaps I’ll change my views. My starting point is a solid support for most of Godard’s early features and for the genuine radical approach in evidence in Chabrol’s Les bonnes femmes. I admire Truffaut’s first two films, but I begin to worry about the direction he will take as early as Jules et Jim, though I can see the audience attractions in the films. I don’t really have any feelings towards Rohmer or Rivette but I’m passionately fond of both Jacques Demy’s Lola and Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 and I’m really looking forward to seeing the Alain Resnais films of the period, having mysteriously failed to watch them before. I’m also a fan of some of Louis Malle’s early films, but find Roger Vadim hard work. I confess that, apart from Adieu Philippine, I don’t really know any of the films by other directors of the period being shown in the BFI season – but I’d like to see them.