The French New Wave was a term coined for a group of young French filmmakers of the 1950s and 1960s who, inspired by Italian neorealism decided to break from the traditions of Hollywood cinema and create films that were vibrant, innovative and bold, experimentally reworking genres such as film noir and musicals. This was an era of many "New Waves" in the film industry, including the British one, but the French has been the most influential.
At the forefront of the movement were directors and critics such as Jean-Luc Goddard, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, all of whom wrote for Cahiers du Cinéma and were therefore regarded with respect as intellectuals.
The New Wave began with the film La Pointe Courte (1954), directed by Agnes Varda. At a time where Hollywood was excited about the possibilities of colour film and blockbuster spectacles with big stars, Varda decided to break from expectations and make a film in black and white. Reasons for this could have been entirely economical as black and white film is cheaper, but this along with the fact the narrative reflects everyday life, and the cast is a combination of French actors and ordinary people from the street, meant it completely contrasted the popular films of the day. This is an example of European art cinema of the 60s, which aimed to reject all the rules of classical cinema; filmmakers of the movement from other countries include Fellini of Italy and Bergman of Sweden.
Many members of the New Wave were inspired by the cinephile and archivist Henri Langlois, who co-founded the Cinémathèque Française in 1938 which screened thousands of films. Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who would often be found at the front row of screenings, would be significantly impacted by this early exposition to obscure films.
An important influence on the realist aspect of the New Wave came from Cahiers co-founder André Bazin. He held a strong, critical view that, at the core, cinema is en eye that reflects reality. It should therefore depict "objective reality"; everything, including the sound, should be naturalistic. Whereas Italian New Wave filmmakers took realism and subverted it by adding fantasy elements, as seen in Fellini's 8½, the French were more concerned with incorporating realism.
The New Wave was driven by it's visuality, not literary values. They were very much inspired by existentialism, particularly the views of philosopher Jean Paul Sarte. Occupied by the Nazis in the 1940s, they lived in fear, their thoughts prescribed by force. Their government was chosen by the Nazis; they had very little free will. So, in the post-war period, the films of the era stressed individualism and experience of the free world; yet often this was all done with a sense of the absurdity of human life, of the absence of any understanding of the universe.
So the New Wave was reacting against classical cinema and the French films of the 1940s; against films that:
- shot in studios
- were set in the past
- were contrived and over-dramatised
- used trickery and special effects
- were generally large productions (la tradition de qualité)
- shot on location
- used lightweight, handheld cameras - camera work was very hands-on, which although we're accustomed to in films nowadays, originated in the New Wave
- used lightweight sound and lighting equipment
- used faster film stocks, which needed less light
- shot quickly and cheaply
- encouraged experimentation and improvisation
- encouraged a casual, natural look
- used available light and sound
- focussed on mise-en-scene
- invented mobile cameras
The editing of French New Wave films was also innovative, with a focus on being free and nonconformist. Edits and cuts would be discontinuous or "jumping", or, on the opposite side, go on for up to five minutes. There could also be sudden shifts in subject matter or mood to the point of being nonsensical, to express a general sentiment of the "world doesn't matter".
The overall goal of this was to bring to the audience's attention the fact that they were watching a film, to bring to the foreground the artificiality of their experience, something which Hollywood filmmakers did all they can do prevent. This attitude has had a lasting influence on later directors such as Woody Allen, who choose to be innovative and challenging with their filming techniques.
I remember watching Godard's Une Femme est une femme (1961) whilst studying A-level film studies, and finding it a surreal and fascinating experience. The plot itself has rather little to it, again reflecting the New Wave's focus on visuals and inventiveness as opposed to narrative. There were the characteristic "absurd" moments, yet between these were peculiarly poignant moments of realism that were, somehow, relatable. It was a strange combination of watching something that has been carefully artistically constructed, yet at the same time felt completely free, which I suppose is just what the New Wave was aiming to achieve.