The Effect Of French New Wave on the History of Narrative Film

The Effect Of French New Wave on the History of Narrative Film

By Keegan Priest 

In the mid-1950s, French Film Magazine Cahiers du Cinéma was home to many notorious film critics who were well-known for being outspoken against the horridity they saw in film at the time. They viewed much of French and American film, as Françious Truffaut said it, “unimaginative, oversimplified and usually an immoral adaptation to great literary works.” Although frustrated with the lack of great cinema, notable writers from the magazine praised directors they felt were using the art of film to its fullest potential. Directors like Igmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and the French Jean Renoir were some of the few that Cahiers used to coin the auteur theory. 

Arguably the two most significant contributors to Cahiers, Jean Luc-Godard and Françious Truffaut, took matters in their own hands and created films of their own with French government funding. Although the two didn’t have budgets anywhere near the size of a Hitchcock or Kurasawa film, their love and knowledge of film compensated and their use of radical cinematic and thematic techniques spawned a movement that would later change the history of narrative film: the French New Wave. 


When writing about the importance of the French New Wave in the grander scope of narrative film, Film Historian David A. Cook wrote: 

“Two common notions bound the directors of the French New Wave together and made their films vastly important to the evolution of narrative cinema. First, they believed that film was an art form that could provide an artist with a medium of personal expression as rich, as varied, and as sensitive as any other…Second, they shared the belief that the narrative conventions they had inherited from the 1930s and 1940s were insufficient to achieve these ends, that in fact many of these conventions prevented the audiovisual language of film from approaching its full range of expression…By calling into question the very form and process of narrative cinema, the filmmakers of the New Wave ensured that the cinema could never again rely on the easy narrative assumptions of its first fifty years.”

And I think that this quote is really good in the way that it perfectly addresses three of the most important aspects of the French New Wave: Auteurism, Rule-Breaking, And Influence.  


Roshomon by Akira Kurasawa


Auteurism is a term developed by early German film theorist Walter Julius Bloem in the 1940s, that explored the idea that a film is a device for the self-expression of the director. As a painter is to painting, a director is to their film. The director uses things like cameras, actors, and film crews merely as their paintbrush to construct the landscape we know as the movie, or as the French called it, caméra-stylo (camera-pen.) And this approach to viewing cinema was very important to the writers on the Cahiers and helped influence how they would go on to craft works of their own. 

When looking at auteur theory, there are three major concepts that appear in a director’s filmography that can demonstrate auteurism. Style: how the director uses the medium of film to tell the story at hand. Theme: what narratives the director chose to portray through film.  And Consistency: How a director constructs their body of work to develop stylistic and thematic signatures that work off of one another to help completely understand a director’s artistry.  Without one of these aspects, a film or filmography becomes less of an example of auteurism and more of an incomplete artistic endeavor. 



When you ask someone who may know little about the French New Wave, they’re going to point out the importance of style and cinematography throughout the movement. And many of the stylistic signatures that we attribute to the movement were spawned by the directors that Cahiers identified as auteurs and masters of “true cinema.” 

Even with their frustration with the absence of quality American cinema, Cahiers often praised Alfred Hitchcock for his utilization of visual storytelling in a way that very few at the time were doing. Godard and Truffaut said that Hitchcock had an uncanny ability to tell a story with the visuals alone. The dialogue and music, as essential as they are to experience movies like Psycho and Rear Window, are mere additions to add nuance and complexity to the narrative. His symbolic use of color, complex cinematography and camera movement, and ability to create a layer of suspense in each of his films, makes Hitchcock such a significant contributor and influencer to a lot of the French New Wave. 

Son of French impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir was commonly regarded as one of the only French auteurs. Many Left Bank French filmmakers attribute Renoir as a primary influence. Renoir is very important in the technical and stylistic sense of auteurism because of how unorthodox his camera techniques were. Whereas a lot of movies in the 1930s were practically theatre-plays filmed by a stationary camera, movies like Renoir’s Rules of The Game and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane were revolutionary in the way that they treated the camera as less of a thing to record the actors performing, but rather more of a tool to tell the story. In Rules of The Game, through Renoir’s cinematography and mise-en-scene, the camera begins to feel like a God-like observer through a load of sinful chaos. 

Godard wore his stylistic influences on his sleeve entirely throughout his career. The use of color in Week-end and Pierre Le Fou both symbolically and aesthetically resemble the look of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. But Godard was innovative in his own right. His use of jump cuts long takes, hand-held shots in Breathless defined many of the technical products of the French New Wave.



The more underlying idea of auteurism is presented in the narrative or story a director chooses to explore in their piece of work. Truffaut especially tried to push the concept that film was just like any medium of art, as a form of self-expression. A good film must say something either about the director or about the things that they believe and want to project to their audience. 

Igmar Bergman was one of the most significant exemplars of auteurism by using film as a tool for personal reflection and he most notably explored themes of existentialism, death, and religion throughout his career. With Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal both being about periods before one’s death, Igmar Bergman illustrates his own ideas or fears about how humans struggle on their journey towards the end of their lives. 

François Truffaut took a more autobiographical approach when constructing the stories in his film. In his five-part series, following the fictional representational of himself, Antoine (played by Truffaut’s look-a-like Jean-Paul Léaud), Truffaut uses events and experiences throughout his own life to tell the story throughout the series. The 400 Blows follows Antoine as a troubled child by himself in Paris, breaking into movie theatres and smoking cigarettes with his school friends. The following films, Antoine and Colette and Stolen Kisses are stories of Antoine entering adulthood and encountering situations full of uncomfortable love and romance. Whether or not these were the actual events in Truffaut’s life, he projected his own experience through young adulthood and young love through the Antoine character. Truffaut crafted two films to illustrate his frustrations with monogamy as well. Jules et Jim and Two English Girls seem to be an artistic response to his famous quote: “monogamy is impossible, but anything else is worse.” 

While Jean-Luc Godard’s early work focused on more crime and noir themes and narratives, like in Breathless, as he created more films, he began to transform the message he wanted to get across. Pierre Le Fou and Vivre sa Vie show hints of Godard’s frustration with the war in Vietnam and society, but they still contain semi-traditional and digestible storylines. But the political ideas become increasingly more radical and apparent towards the late ‘60s as he creates films like Masculin/Féminin and Weekend, which sacrifice coherent linear narratives for five-minute didactic monologues. 



While this aspect may seem redundant to talk about because it may feel implied, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of repetition, motifs, and consistency throughout a director’s filmography when looking at their work through an auteurist lens. What made directors like Kurasawa, Bergman, Varda, and others such great artists was their ability to not only make one film of artistic significance but to also continually release pieces that reinforce each other thematically and stylistically. 

In the same way a viewer can look at Pollock painting and identify it as his, even if they had not seen that specific painting before, an auteur like Hitchcock can have such meticulous detail in establishing their signature style that it evokes the same phenomenon. Hitchcock even said himself, “Self-plagiarism is style.” And this idea pushed directors in the French New Wave to attempt to develop their own signatures that separate them from their contemporaries. 



À bout de souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard


Breaking The Rules 

While many of the New Wave French directors went into detail about what film inspired them, the mentality of the French movement in the first place was to break the established rules of cinema. Whether it was in the technical, stylistic or thematic side of the film, the French were always constructing an innovative way of doing things. 


Low On Money 

Even though a lot of the early films of the New Wave were funded by the French government, they did not receive anywhere near the amount of money the average Hollywood movie was budgeting at that time. This was very limiting for the directors because without a lot of money, sets had to be limited, actors couldn’t be very popular, and re-shooting was rarely an option. But with inspiration from the Italian Neorealist movement, where directors would shoot in the middle of a public area with non-actors as backgrounds, Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s 400 Blows were both filmed with an open set that not only saved them a significant amount of money but also used the busy streets of Paris as a character and sometimes an enemy in the narrative.  This fusion of reality and fiction became a big pull factor for many watching the French at this time. While films like Bicycle Thieves and Rome Open City in Italy masterfully used neorealism, French movies like Hiroshima mon Amour by Alan Renais and Cleo from 5-7 by Agnes Varda synthesized the two mediums in an exponentially more complex fashion that demonstrated the amount of innovation to come out of the movement.  

Because the film was outrageously expensive and many of the directors were dealing with non-professional actors in early films, re-shooting was rarely an option. In Breathless you can see what seem to be out of place jump cuts, but in reality, these were to shorten clips and to cut mistakes out. Even if it was an editing bandaid, Godard influenced many to use the jump cut as a legitimate stylistic editing technique. Shoot The Piano Player uses jump cuts as well, to mimic the sound of a gunshot. Shoot The Piano Player and a lot of other Godard and Truffaut films also utilized frame modification, where only specific shapes or aspects of the frame became visible, drastically emphasizing the subject at hand. 



Everyone Dies in The End 

A lot of the Cashier’s frustration with the ‘40s and ‘50s cinema was how bland and predictable the films were. The couple would always fall in love, or the bad guy would always get shot while the hero was rewarded. But The New Wave attempted to apply a more human and realistic touch to cinema. Cleo from 5-7 is a painful real-time journey of a woman as she waits for test results to determine whether or not she is terminally ill, and Hiroshima Mon Amour is an exploration of how our past, grief, and love can unintentionally intertwine. These two films are examples of how French directors humanized the narratives of their films and told stories that make unique commentary on the human condition. But Godard, Truffaut and others made American-esque movies with the same mentality. Lë Samurai, Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, and Shoot the Piano Player are all noir and crime-influenced film that all end with the protagonists being bloodily murdered on without much climax or narrative curve. While it is not to say that the French New Wave was only significant because it always ended with the main characters being shot, this concept of breaking traditional, digestible norms is the pinnacle of what the movement was attempting to do. 



2001: A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick


Changing The History of Narrative Film 

Film forever was transformed completely after the French New Wave, spawning global cinema reformations. In Italy, directors like Michelangelo with films like L’Aventura and Antonioni with 81/2 and The Passenger constructed pieces that pushed the boundaries of what many expected from film, with its lack of storyline, little emphasis on characters, and importance of confusion and surrealism. 

The United States and Hollywood had its own reformation as well. With many in film school during the time of the French New Wave, the California giants like Goerge Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, Steven Speilberg, and Stanley Kubrick all were drastically affected by the developments in France. While some films in New Hollywood seem to pull directly stylistically or thematically from the French New Wave, like the color and aesthetic of The Graduate or  The Long Goodbye or the “everybody dies in the end” endings in Bonnie & Clyde or Cool Hand Luke, the French influence was not always completely clear or linear. Where the French New Wave influenced and changed the history of narrative film is its philosophy of changing and reinventing. Stanley Kubrick may not have attributed his artistic influence to Godard, Truffaut or any other left or right bank filmmakers, movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Shining would be practically impossible if The French New Wave hadn’t shaken up the rules and norms of cinema before it. The French New Wave established a precedent for the future of film, and still to this day it leaves not only a stylistic, thematic, and technical mark, but also the mentality of innovation and finding a new wave of doing things seeps its way into all aspects of contemporary film.  


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