Modern cinema owes a lot to the French New Wave, the iconic filmmaking period of the 1960’s. The influence of this artistic movement is undeniable, and filmmakers today (Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson among them) still often refer to or pay homage to the styles adopted by this small group of filmmakers who believed that a film was to be ‘authored’ by the director and no one else, and that every one of the director’s films should have their signature style be apparent.
Interestingly, the French New Wave came about not from cocky, youthful, naïve filmmakers just looking to plunge into something new. The New Wave was the brainchild of several thoughtful, passionate – and perhaps cocky – film critics who wrote for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma, and were unhappy with the current state of cinema. These critics became some of the world’s most famous filmmakers, including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer.
There were two principles that the New Wave believed in. First was a rejection of ‘classical’ filmmaking, which placed emphasis on building narrative from montage (the cutting together of shots to tell the story. Instead, the New Wave opted for wide, long takes that would allow the action to take place much more realistically; this was called “mise-en-scene” (placing-in-scene).
The second was the “auteur” (author) theory, which stressed that films were personal, artistic expressions of the director, and that the director was indeed the author of the film. Like literature, films should have the director’s stamp and an instantly recognizable voice and style.
The auteur theory that these young critics pressed was in reaction to a generation gap that occurred in the French film industry. Because of World War II, many of the great older French film directors such as Jean Renoir were living abroad, and the generation that embraced the New Wave found themselves no longer watching innovative films, but straightforward, assembly-line ‘commercial’ films.
Shooting on low budgets, often with inexperience crew members and even non-professional actors, New Wave directors experimented with narrative and came up with several innovation that are still used today. Long tracking shots that travel through a scene or space in one take? Thank the French New Wave. Jump cuts? Thank the New Wave. And that’s not all – on-location (not sets) shooting, the use of natural light, and even improvisation, were major components of New Wave films.
It’s time to see some of these great films again, and see if you recognize its influence on films today.
Some must-see French New Wave Films
- 400 Blows - Francois Truffaut
- Breathless - Jean-Luc Godard
- Les Enfants terribles - Jean-Pierre Melville
- Hiroshima, Mon Amour - Alain Resnais