Tag Archives: New Wave

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold, France 1958)

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

The great star of the polar Lino Ventura is a police officer questioning Jeanne Moreau

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is the latest cinema re-release by the British Film Institute. The film has often been argued to be the first ‘French New Wave’ film or at least an important pre-cursor’ to the New Wave proper which began with Chabrol’s Le beau Serge in the same year. I showed the film as part of an evening class considering ‘A new look at the French New Wave‘ in 2009 and I thought it might be useful to post those notes here.

Outline (no spoilers)

This film has a complex plot with narrative twists. These are concerned with two separate narratives that become intertwined. In the first narrative an adulterous couple set up a serious crime which goes wrong when the man is trapped in a lift. In the second a young couple go on a spree when the boy steals the car of the man in the lift. Once linked the two stories lead to a typical noir conclusion.

Commentary

ScoreLiftAscenseur pour l’échafaud became a commercially successful film offering action, suspense, crime and twisted romance. In some ways traditional in featuring a ‘locked room’ crime, the narrative also embraces the Hitchcockian romance thriller. Because of its inclusion of younger characters, innovative camerawork and direction and a stunning jazz score by Miles Davis, the film also feels much more modern than most 1950s films. However, given its relatively ‘straight’ treatment of its material, it is distinguished from the later New Wave films by Godard (À bout de souffle) and Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste) which utilise similar genre elements, but treat them in a more ‘playful’ way.

Louis Malle early in his career

Louis Malle early in his career

Like the young Cahiers critics, director Louis Malle was obsessed with cinema. But instead of writing about film like his contemporaries who attended the Cinémathèque and wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, he plunged straight into learning about filmmaking. Originally enrolled to study science at the Sorbonne, Malle switched to the French film school IDHEC. He never completed the course because he took up an offer to become an assistant to Jacques Cousteau the underwater explorer. Malle soon proved to be a wonderful underwater photographer. He also learned direction and editing and at the age of 23 he shared a Palme d’Or with Cousteau as co-director at Cannes in 1956 for the documentary film The Silent World. Malle also had experience of observing/assisting director Robert Bresson and in 1957 he began work on his own first feature film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. He thus became one of the youngest of all the ‘young directors’ of la nouvelle vague. After the success of his first film, Malle quickly followed up with the controversial Les Amants (The Lovers), again with Jeanne Moreau. This was a far less likely candidate for the New Wave, but Malle’s third film Zazie dans le métro (1960) placed him back alongside Truffaut with a zany comedy about a small girl whizzing about Paris with her uncle, complete with cinematic references and jokes. Malle went on to make a further twenty-seven features, including several documentaries and films made in the US in English. The American critic Pauline Kael noted that Malle’s refusal to work within a specific genre or any other form of categorisation of style or thematic meant that he was often dismissed as a dilettante. The high quality of many of his films suggests that this was a bad mistake by those critics.

No other French director of the 1960s, outside the Cahiers group, has had such wide international recognition. Is this particular film really New Wave? It seems sensible to classify Ascenseur pour l’échafaud as at least a significant precursor to the New Wave for the following reasons:

  • Louis Malle was undeniably a ‘young first-time (fiction) feature filmmaker and the film narrative includes a young couple who represented the ‘problem youth’ of 1950s European and American culture;
  • the film was shot on the streets of Paris by Henri Decaë who along with Raoul Coutard would introduce the innovative cinematography of the New Wave (like Coutard, Decaë was experienced as a documentary camera operator, having served with the French Army in WW2);
  • the film was based on a ‘Serie Noire’ novel by Noël Calef and is in many ways an amalgam of the American B film noir with the French policier/polar;
  • Malle was already involved with a production company, NEF which had already co-produced Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and would go on to produce all of Malle’s films.

These four features of the production would be echoed in subsequent New Wave films by other directors. It’s also important to note that Ascenseur pour l’échafaud was a traditional genre film in terms of its structure and in Jeanne Moreau it had an actor with real presence who had been performing since the late 1940s both on the stage and in films, including B policiers with the great Jean Gabin. Moreau fought to make the role of Florence bigger than it was in the novel. The male lead, Maurice Ronet was another theatre-trained actor who had started in films in 1949 and was established in French Cinema before Ascenseur pour l’échafaud made him an international star. Moreau and Ronet both appeared in films during the New Wave period and subsequently for New Wave directors. Moreau because of Jules et Jim, is now remembered as a ‘New Wave star’, whereas Ronet is remembered for his work in Malle’s films (especially Le feu follet, 1963) and his lead in René Clair’s Plein soleil (1960). These seem like arbitrary distinctions. A closer look at the credits of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud shows several future ‘players’ in the New Wave. Jean-Claude Brialy has a walk-on part, Jean Rabier, a future cinematographer, is an assistant here alongside Henri Decaë. The Bresson connection is apparent in the scenes in which Julien (Ronet) is trapped in the lift; Bresson was one of the more ‘personal’ directors who was valued by the Cahiers critics. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is a polar (the French term for a crime picture is virtually untranslatable and refers to a broader genre than the policier or police procedural). In his 1997 book on French Cinema in the 1980s, Phil Powrie, looks back on the development of the polar and suggests three key features of the genre:

  • it focuses on a hero who is ‘marginal’ to mainstream society;
  • it carries comments on contemporary society;
  • it indicates the state of French-American cultural exchange.

We could fruitfully look for these three features in many of the films of the New Wave and not just those which are obviously polars based on American pulp fiction sources. The focus on young characters in a changing society is there in most New Wave films and the ‘play’ with American culture at this moment in French post-war history is evident everywhere. It’s apparent in the pinball machines in the cafés, the incursion of American jazz onto the soundtrack, the ubiquity of American cars and the references to Hollywood. (Although in most of the films, and especially in Truffaut’s, it’s mixed with traditional aspects of French popular culture.) Again this wasn’t necessarily ‘new’ and is evident in earlier polars, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956). Also quoted as a precursor of the New Wave, this was the first of Melville’s attempts to use the conventions of American crime films to tell French stories. The importance of the extensive Miles Davis score in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud also links up with the work of another, later, New Wave figure, Jacques Demy with his obsession over American musicals. In one sense though, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud is different. This is in its political references. The marginalised hero of the film, Julien, is an ex-paratrooper who has returned to France after fighting in the colonial wars in Indo-China and North Africa. He transfers his ‘action skills’ to crime, operating in the world of oil industry espionage. Along with the presence of the young couple on the run, this feels like a French parallel of the concerns of American B noirs. The appearance of the German couple as tourists also prompted comments. Louis Malle was often a controversial director and his later films dealt with taboo issues such as the Occupation in France (Lacombe Lucien, 1974 and Au revoir les enfants, 1987). More than most New Wave films (Godard’s Le petit soldat is the exception), Ascenseur pour l’échafaud seems to be aware of the issues of the moment.

Reference

Powrie, Phil (1997) French Cinema in the 1980s: Nostalgia and the Crisis of Masculinity, Oxford: OUP

Nouvelle Vague Directors: Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy and Jeanne Moreau on location on the Riviera for Baie des anges © Raymond CAUCHETIER / 1993 CINE TAMARIS

Jacques Demy (1931-1990) is the New Wave director who, like Louis Malle, is difficult to categorise. Some link him to the ‘Left Bank Group’, but this is primarily because he married Agnès Varda in 1962. Otherwise he had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker. In some ways he was closer to Truffaut and he certainly knew all the Cahiers gang, presumably via Varda or from his film school contacts. There were several distinctive aspects of Demy’s cinema which made it ‘personal’ and ‘different’.

Demy was fascinated by American Cinema – but by musicals rather than B films noirs. Nearly all of his films present a romance drawing in some way on the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. He was also a fan of various aspects of classical French Cinema and French popular music culture. Demy was a native of the West Coast of France in the region around Nantes and this coastline provided the backdrop for his best known films, Lola (1961), Les parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les demoiselles de Rochefort in 1967. These films draw on various Hollywood sources – On the Town (1949), the Stanley Donen film about sailors on leave in New York is an obvious influence on Lola. The stars of Demy’s New Wave films are the women (and the music of Michel Legrand). In his first four films these are Anouk Aimée, Jean Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve again with her sister Françoise Dorléac. By 1967 he had a full star cast – Danielle Darrieux, Michel Piccoli, George Chakiris and Gene Kelly. Demy moved to the US to make Model Shop in 1969 and after this his career foundered. The early quartet of films have survived however and are well worth watching, both for their own specific qualities and because they represent a different side to the New Wave.

Demy’s second film was La baie des anges (Bay of Angels 1963). Jeanne Moreau as a platinum blonde is a bourgeois wife with a gambling habit. The film starts with a typical New Wave tracking shot by Jean Rabier (who had been an assistant to Henri Decaë on Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’énchafaud (1958) before shooting several films for Chabrol and then for Varda and Demy). The camera appears to be mounted on a car or truck which is driven at speed along the deserted promenades of the Riviera. It reminded me of Jean Vigo’s ‘city symphony’ film A propos de Nice (1929) photographed by Boris Kaufman. The action then switches to Paris where a young man in a boring accountancy job is persuaded to visit a casino by a colleague. When he wins a considerable amount on the roulette table, Jean (Claude Mann) decides to change his holiday plans and instead of visiting relatives in the country he finds a hotel in Cannes and starts to visit the casino. Here he meets Jackie (Moreau) who he had briefly seen earlier being thrown out of a Parisian casino.

The main part of the film is a melodrama about sex and money. Jean and Jeanne have a tempestuous and whirlwind affair driven by the thrill of gambling with its intense highs and lows and moments of exhilaration and despair. There is passion and indeed violence in the relationship and the narrative has an ‘open’ ending that is quite abrupt. What this points to is the curious mixture of ‘fantasy romance’ and cold realism that seems to infuse the films I’ve watched.

I enjoyed Baie des anges. At times I thought to myself, “there isn’t much plot”, but at the same time I realised that I was engrossed by the rich texture of the images and the way in which the narrative unfolded. Moreau is a star actor, but I wasn’t completely convinced by Claude Mann. Sometimes he appeared perfect for the role and sometimes out of his depth. Jeanne Moreau’s hair was my main concern. I presume that it was meant to signify ‘artifice’/’brittleness’. I certainly didn’t like it, but it worked in the sense that it somehow enhanced Moreau’s extraordinary ability to look soft and alluring one moment and hard and frankly terrifying at others.

I’m hoping to watch more from Demy soon. In the meantime, there is a clip from Baie des Anges on an earlier posting here

Senses of Cinema article and links.

Bonnie and Clyde 2: Genre and New Wave

Ever since Nick posted a short piece on Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and its links to the French New Wave, we’ve been inundated with visitors searching for ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ – and some days 20-25% of hits on the blog have been associated with the title.

BonnieClyde

Was this a 'wired photo'? (from Wikipedia, public domain).

Recently I heard a short item on the radio about a new book on the couple: Go down together: the true, untold story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn. The book further debunks the myth of what were essentially a pair of inept criminals who would not have received any attention without the power of narrative in news reporting. In other words, there was little in what they did, but a great deal in how it was reported. Two of Guinn’s points seem remarkably topical. One was that this was the period (early 1930s) when the wired news photo was becoming the first medium to allow visual communication quickly over national and international networks. In some ways, the parallel today has been the the rapid take-up of mobile phone images as part of ‘citizen journalism’ around the time of 9/11. Guinn uses the example of Bonnie Parker photographed smoking a cigar as an iconic image.

Guinn’s other point in the radio interview was the antipathy of most ordinary people towards a banking system in 1930s America which was collapsing and abandoning savers – sounds familiar? In this context, the two criminals took on the role of folk heroes.

All of this makes me think about the ingredients of the Bonnie and Clyde story and the power of a generic narrative. I was about to suggest that the French New Wave connection is possibly overemphasised in the explanation for the success of the 1967 film. But when I think about it, Jean-Luc Godard was spot on with his line that all you need to make a movie is “a girl and a gun”, something that he proved several times over in films ostensibly about a young couple on the run (but often, of course, about a lot more).

As far as Hollywood is concerned the generic line of boy/girl on the run includes:

They Live by Night (Nicholas Ray, 1948)

Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)

Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)

A French DVD cover for one of the most underrated films of the late, great Robert Altman (with terrific use of 1930s radio broadcasts)

Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974 – from the same novel as They Live by Night)

Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone, 1994)

and no doubt several more titles, some of which will overlap with other repertoires (e.g. True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993) and The Getaway, Sam Peckinpah, 1972) and some, like Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), that transform it completely.

Anyone want to suggest other titles and indicate how they utilise the various genre repertoires?

Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, France 1960)

Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier)

Charlie (Charles Aznavour) and Clarisse (Michèle Mercier)

Tirez sur le pianiste was Truffaut’s second feature, following on from the critical and commercial success of Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows). It failed to emulate the success of its predecessor, depressing Truffaut (who cared about commercial success) and pushing him towards the more obvious commercial appeal of Jules et Jim, made in the following year. Yet, from the perspective of 2009, Tirez sur le pianiste was a film ahead of its time. It has aged well and appears now to represent many of the significant innovations of la nouvelle vague – indeed it may be the most representative film of that important movement.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a family of three unlikely brothers. Charlie looks after his younger brother Fido, still a child, and works as a piano player in a bar. One night a second brother, Chico, a petty criminal comes to the bar pursued by two other crooks he has double-crossed. Charlie has a casual relationship with the prostitute who lives across the corridor and he is also the target of the affections of Lena, who works behind the bar. Like all good film noir males, Charlie has a mysterious past.

Truffaut and la nouvelle vague

François Truffaut (1932-84) became a convinced cinéphile in his early adolescence, escaping from his own unhappy family circumstances into the cinemas of Nazi occupied Paris. After the war he became an habitué of the Paris Cinémathèque, meeting the other young men with whom he would become identified as first a vigorous critic of the established tradition de qualité in French cinema in the 1950s and later as a ‘new director’. In 1954, at the tender age of 22, Truffaut wrote his famous essay, ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma‘, in which he denounced the cinema of ‘old men’, concerned with highly polished and carefully constructed artificial stories, and strove to promote an alternative cinema which gave true expression to the ideas and emotions of the filmmaker. From this developed la politiques des auteurs.

The emphasis on the director as auteur or ‘author’ as distinct from metteur en scène (literally the person who films the script) became the effective manifesto of the young, first time, directors who comprised what came to be known as la nouvelle vague towards the end of the 1950s.

Defining la nouvelle vague
One way to conceive of la nouvelle vague from a contemporary perspective is perhaps to think of the ways in which the UK press created the idea of ‘cool Britannia’ or ‘Brit Art’ in the 1990s. In France between 1959 and 1963 over 150 new filmmakers and actors became identified with the new and ‘youthful’ trend in French cinema (and the arts generally). The defining moment (i.e. when the term was first widely used) appears to have been the success at Cannes of Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups in 1959.

Film scholars have discerned a number of different groups of filmmakers, each of which challenged the dominant mode of so-called ‘quality cinema’ from the 1950s onwards. The group which gained the highest profile were arguably the quintet of critics turned directors; François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard , Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.

The group’s ideas were developed through the 1950s in their critical writing. Their filmmaking styles were not identical but they did share a number of commitments so that, at least in the beginning, there were identifiable elements in all their films (and in those of other young directors):

  • characters were ‘young and reckless’
  • they used new young actors, creating new ‘stars’ – Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Stéphane Audran, Anna Karina etc.
  • the films were set mostly in Paris or the ‘tourist’ areas of France
  • mostly shot on location, using natural light and hand-held cameras – improvised and self-conscious cinematography
  • editing ‘rules’ were broken and devices from cinema history re-worked
  • rising stars of cinematography, music etc. worked on several new wave films, e.g. Raoul Coutard, Henri Decaë, Michel Legrand
  • narratives were either ‘original’ or based on popular fictions; ‘small stories’ were as important as ‘big’ ones
  • they often paid hommage to Hollywood and to the European masters (Renoir, Vigo etc.) with direct references in the films
  • new producers appeared to back the films, including via co-productions with Italy
  • the group helped each other get films started, taking on associate producer roles, providing script ideas or appearing as actors in small parts
  • the directors were the product of years of film viewing and criticism rather than film school.

Tirez sur le pianiste as a ‘new wave’ film

  • Set on the streets of Paris and the mountains near Grenoble;
  • based on a novel (Down There) by the ‘hardest’ of ‘hard-boiled’/‘pulp’ writers, David Goodis;
  • mixes American culture and traditional French popular culture, personified by French superstar Aznavour (arguably the most popular singer in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century) in the lead role;
  • looks back to the ‘tricks’ and devices of ‘silent’ cinema.
  • Although it does refer to ‘genre’ (like the quality films), it is a distinct mixture of generic references, prefiguring the ‘hybrid’ films of postmodern cinema in the 1990s. Ostensibly a ‘gangster/film noir‘, Tirez sur le pianiste is also a comedy and a tragedy about the life and loves of Charlie Kohler. (This particular mixture recalls Alfred Hitchcock – a major influence on all Truffaut’s films.)
  • A ‘personal’ film for Truffaut it includes several familiar elements from his other films, including familiar actors, childish, weak men and strong, ‘mysterious’ women. The mixture of ‘dark’ and ‘light’ tones is also a Truffaut trait.
  • Photographed with his usual flair by Raoul Coutard, the most innovative of the new cinematographers.
  • The film offers a running commentary on cinema itself – the camera is ‘knowing’, almost ‘winking’ at the audience at various moments.

The critics
The film was poorly received at the time. Ironically, the ‘faults’ which critics pointed to are now accepted as commonplace – the genre mixing and change of tone. Consider Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. The famous scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson featuring a discussion about Big Macs (and the talk about Madonna in Reservoir Dogs) is similar in many ways to the inconsequential chat in the car between the two gangsters and their captives – first with Charlie and Léna about women and lingerie and then with Fido about gadgets and foreign clothes.

Truffaut as auteur
Although at first glance very different from the more well known films that preceded and followed it, Tirez sur le pianiste is immediately recognisable as a ‘Truffaut film’. It is the first of a series of ‘genre explorations’, including three further films based on ‘hard boiled pulp fiction’ – La marieé etait en noir (The Bride Wore Black) (1967) (in which Jeanne Morea plays Julie Kohler) and La Sirène du Mississippi (Mississippi Mermaid) (1969), both based on stories by Cornell Woolrich (best known perhaps as the author of the short story which was adapted for Hotchcock’s Rear Window) and Vivement dimanche! (Finally, Sunday!) (1982), Truffaut’s last film based on a story by Charles Williams.

Charlie is a typical ‘Truffaut male’, seeking the love of a ‘magical and mysterious’ woman, who is far stronger and more confident – not least in the physical sense, since Truffaut males are short and wear a puzzled expression. This also carries over into the quartet of films which follow on from the autobiographical story of Antoine Doinel in Les quatre cent coups. The best example is probably Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses) (1968) in which Antoine becomes involved in comic attempts to become a private detective in his pursuit of a young woman.

Truffaut’s ‘personal’ style of filmmaking can also be identified in the mix of the comic and the tragic (often abruptly switching between the two), in his love of cinema and all its devices, and in his reverence for masters such as Hitchcock and Renoir.

In the clip below we meet the bumbling gangsters who ‘kidnap’ Charlie and Lena in an attempt to find out the whereabouts of Chico. This sequence includes the comic conversation about men and women and an insert (one of several using very traditional cinema ‘effects’) in which Lena identifies the source of the gangsters’ knowledge about her and Charlie. The ‘three screens in one’ use of the DyaliScope frame (a cheap imitation of CinemaScope) is a nod towards the great French cinematic innovator Abel Gance. At the beginning of the sequence, Fido ‘bombs’ the gangsters’ car with milk – a stunt that might have come from Les quatre cents coups or its inspiration, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite.

Discussion questions
1. Is Tirez sur le pianiste more accessible now than when first released? Has modern cinema absorbed the ideas that Truffaut thought were experimental (the genre mixing, changes in tone etc.)?
2. What kind of a hero is Charlie? How do we understand his attitude towards women (and that of the other male characters)?
3. Does the film have anything to say about French and American culture in the way it ‘plays’ with American genres like the gangster and the film noir? Is the representation of men and women in the film a reversal of the usual American representation?

References
Don Allen (1986) Finally Truffaut, London: Paladin
Jill Forbes (1998) ‘The French Nouvelle Vague’ in Hill and Church Gibson op cit
Susan Hayward (2000) Key Concepts in Cinema Studies, London: Routledge
John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (1998) The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, Oxford: OUP
Jim Hillier (ed) (1986) Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1960s, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press
Graham Petrie (1970) The Cinema of François Truffaut, London and New York: Zwemmer and Barnes

© Roy Stafford 22/4/01