Nouvelle Vague

Nouvelle Vague
New Wave
   The term "New Wave" or "Nouvelle Vague" in French refers to films made by a group of French directors during the 1960s and early 1970s. Typically included in the category of New Wave directors are Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, François Truffaut, and Agnès Varda. Louis Malle is associated with the group and sometimes cited as a New Wave director. This group, particularly Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, and Truffaut, cultivated ideas about the cinema that were heavily influenced by French critic André Bazin and their work with him on the French film journal Les Cahiers du cinéma. Specifically, they inherited from Bazin and their time at the Cahiers du cinéma a disdain for films produced in France during the 1940s and 1950s — a cinéma that they termed the "cinéma de papa" a derogatory term for the tradition de qualité they considered stale, formulaic, tied to high production values, overly glossy, and downright dull.
   For the New Wave directors, the filmmaker was an "auteur" or an author who created the film from nothing, and they believed that the work of individual filmmakers ought to display strong, distinctive characteristics that labeled their films as their own. They held up the films of earlier French film directors such as Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir, the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, and the British director Alfred Hitchcock as examples of auteurs.
   In the beginning, the New Wave critics (as they were then) expressed their ideas about film in writing; however, in the late 1950s, as a result of new film subsidies offered by the French government, they turned to cinema as a means of demonstrating their vision of a new French cinema, and the New Wave of French cinema was born. Typically, the first films cited as New Wave are Claude Chabrol's Le Beau Serge and François Truffaut's Les Quatre Cent Coups, both in 1959, and Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de souffle (1960). Some critics also point to Agnès Varda's La Pointe Courte (1956; shot in 1954) as an important precursor to the New Wave. These were closely followed by films from the other New Wave directors, as well as new films by Truffaut and Godard.
   There are certain shared narrative characteristics among the films considered New Wave. One is the influence of French existentialist philosophy. Nearly all of the New Wave films are character centered and feature a character most properly described as an antihero. These films focus on the alienation and marginalization experienced by the protagonist as he (or she) moves through a dysfunctional world in which he or she has no place. These films often end with the death of the protagonist, or at least with an ambiguous reference to that death. The films also share certain production characteristics. In keeping with their dislike of studio-produced films, the New Wave directors typically shot on location, quite often outside and frequently in locales that would not be considered worthy of filming in an industry dominated by high production values. The streets of working-class neighborhoods in Paris were a common choice for these directors. In this respect, the New Wave reflects the influence of a filmmaking practice that dates back to the silent films of Louis Feuillade, extends to Le Réalisme poétique or poetic realism, and is continued after the New Wave in the cinéma de banlieue. In addition to the interest in filming the city, there is also a tendency to avoid the seamless narration and invisible editing practices common to a more traditional narrative cinema.
   Because the New Wave directors often relied on handheld cameras, they were able to draw attention to the presence of the camera by filming with a free camera that produced shaky, destabilized images. They also used unusual cuts and tracking shots that also point back to the presence of the camera. Quite often the actors and actresses played on the screen in such a way as to seem uncomfortable, often as though they were acting, or else they would improvise scenes not directly included in the film's screenplay. In Godard's work in particular such characteristics are evident, and he encouraged them often by not allowing the actors to know how the plot unfolded, or by not giving them a script at all.
   Together, the New Wave directors made some forty to fifty films in a period of about five years. Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, and Rohmer alone made thirty-two films between 1959 and 1966. By 1966, which typically marks the end of the New Wave, the experimental filmmaking techniques of the New Wave had so permeated French cinema that most French film production at the time reflected some or all of the New Wave characteristics. At about the same time, many of the New Wave directors themselves began to move in different directions, and their films, therefore, became more different than alike. In this respect, the New Wave cannot really be said to have ended or disappeared in 1966. It is rather that the theory and technique behind the New Wave became absorbed into dominant film-making practice and therefore ceased to be new.
   Apart from the technical and stylistic innovations attributed to the New Wave, the movement also made several other contributions to the development of French cinema. It has been convincingly argued, for example, that the New Wave films were very strongly influenced by a deep sense of political engagement during a period when censorship prevented direct political criticism (particularly about the on-going Algerian War). Many have seen veiled references to that conflict and to the violence it engendered in the works of directors such as Godard. In this respect, the New Wave reinitiated the politically engaged cinema that had been abandoned by many French directors of the late 1940s and 1950s. What is more, the New Wave directors created a much more intellectually engaged cinema that removed film from the realm of popular entertainment and elevated it to the level of social and political debate, and most important art. In that respect, these directors are in many ways responsible for the privileged status film still enjoys in French culture.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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