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Nouvelle Vague

Thursday 12 April 2001, by Vincent Gagneur

The year 1958, with the issue of Le beau Serge , in France, by Claude CHABROL, marked a new age in French cinema: an age of mobility, theory, energy and youth. Claude CHABROL had been part of a group of young "cineman" (quoting Truffaut) critiques for the famous Cahiers du cinéma. Since the beginning of the 50s, GODARD, TRUFFAUT, ROHMER, RIVETTE, DOUCHET and a happy few managed to give enough strength to Jacques DONIOL-VALCROZE’s magazine to tyrannise all French cinema directors of the time. These critiques now working behind the camera were able to calm down the attacks of the professionals they had criticised the precedent years. But past 1960, resentment woke up crying out for mystification and imposture. Rapidly, the formal Nouvelle Vague movement in France imploded as cinema directors emancipated themselves and forwarded from emblems to individual celebrities; with this transition, traditional directors got their revenge. But was this movement - so irritating for these traditional cineasts - effectively dead as the majority of the people believed? Did those individualities not stay faithful to that spirit? Finally can’t we find in nowadays films their contribution?

It is to be noticed that the generation to which they belong, grew up during the German Occupation, also considered as the golden age of French cinema. Their cinematographic background is full of Marcel CARNE’s populist aesthetic and Robert BRESSON’s Jansenist perception of cinema (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1944), rather severe and refined). The Nouvelle Vague’ s first meeting took place at the cursed film festival of Biarritz in 1949. At the beginning of the 50ies, Jacques DONIOL-VALCROZE, a journalist, decided to unite movie-lovers in order to create the Cahiers du Cinema. The first essays are dominated by François TRUFFAUT’s touch, especially his essay known as Une certaine tendance du cinéma français. Young journalists appreciated CARNE-PREVERT’s movies until 1946, but rejected the stylisation of a certain popular Parisian language (especially JEANSON’s screenplay for Hotel du Nord).
TRUFFAUT and GODARD’s virulent attacks aimed at cineasts who go to studios like they’d go to their office. Nevertheless these attacks had been overconsidered by public opinion at the time. As a matter of fact, they were not carried out in Les cahiers, because its philosophy was not to crush down movies they disliked but to defend those they valued. These young rebellious journalists tried to hold up to public recognition authors they believed were unfairly unknown. Among those concerned were American directors. Thus, despite internal conflicts, the dream team called themselves the Hitchcocko-Hawksian. This recognition was mainly due to the Cahier’s energy to organise interviews between directors and journalists. The quality, knowledge, cinematographic wit of these journalists even astonished directors.
Rapidly, Eric ROHMER and Claude CHABROL wrote a retrospective of HITCHCOCK’s English period. A few years later, TRUFFAUT met the master for a powerful interview about his career, his anxiety, his method, his beliefs about cinema.

It’s in this journalist spirit that the cinemans, who aimed at direction, decided to try to work behind camera.

Strong with theories that they had elaborated for 10 years, journalists began searching for funds, writing screenplays, and looking for new actors in order to put their ideas in movies. The first who directed a film was Claude CHABROL; thanks to a legacy he received, he wrote, directed and mounted Le Beau Serge in 1958, that will be followed by Les Cousins. The movement was started: TRUFFAUT directed his first feature film in 1959, Les 400 Coups, Godard made A Bout de Souffle the same year. Thanks to the success of those 4 movies, many other young people, more or less known, more or less gifted, managed to direct their first movies. But let’s focus on those emblematically films warmly welcomed by the critics, that weren’t a priori favourable to those who had trashed nearly all the French cinematographic production for 10 years.
First Les 400 Coups, the autobiographic story of a non desired child living his teenage years with indifferent parents. TRUFFAUT shows here the very difficult period by which a child becomes a man in a very original way. The impossibility to categorise this movie which touches to comedy, to epic, to tragedy through frequent tonality changes reveals the sensitiveness of a very witty and dynamic director which will owe him an enthusiastic reception by the critics.
A bout de souffle, really symbolises the will of young directors to put cinema out of the studios that suffocates it. Jean-Luc GODARD, through the story a young man - a bit gangster, a bit seducer, very nonchalant, driving a convertible - frees himself completely from the heavy cinema production system. JLG considers the film like an adventure; he unites the American actress, Jean SEBERG, and a young actor that will become a symbol of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Paul BELMONDO. The screenplay of 4 pages, written by François TRUFFAUT, gives GODARD maximal freedom for the shooting. This shooting, which is the centre of the film making process, had to be managed by the actors themselves who created their characters, giving to them life, strength, and mainly an immense freedom.

Those movies were welcomed by the critics to the point that they gave TRUFFAUT the award of best director at Cannes in 1959.

By 1960, the Nouvelle Vague directors lost their group unity. With Le signe du lion and Paris nous appartient, Rohmer and Rivette are publicly recognised.
TRUFFAUT realises in 1960 a light dramatic comedy, Tirez sur le pianiste, with Charles AZNAVOUR ( a Music hall singer) in the main role. The film concentrates on the état-d’âmes, flirts and cigarettes of a young pianist virtuoso converted into bar music after his wife’s suicide, who she had deceived in order to gain the sympathy of an impresario. This unclassifiable film, mixing schoolboy humour and tragic love passions gives TRUFFAUT the means to climb levels from popular director to a misunderstood artist. In the mean time, GODARD executes an absurd comedy, Une femme est une femme followed by a series of films getting more and more political, in particular Le petit soldat (1963). According to journalists, the collapse of the Nouvelle Vague occurred as the magnificent Jules et Jim (TRUFFAUT, 1961) came out. TRUFFAUT translated for the film H-P. ROCHE’s autobiography outlining the tragic story of two friends in love with the same woman. The framework of the story brakes up with the regular Nouvelle Vague concept by rejecting the scenario! In fact TRUFFAUT took good care to write a solid scenario capable of describing the strength of this threesome love affair powerful and fallible. Despite a soundtrack by Delerue, the presence of O.Werner, J.Moreau and H.Serre, a rather moderate welcome is given to the film, and with it comes the end of a coalitionned Nouvelle Vague attitude. By 1961, the movement bursts not like a destruction but rather like an explosion of heat and energy. The rise of strong personalities, sensible and bright (like TRUFFAUT, GODARD, CHABROL, ROHMER) excels the Nouvelle Vague Mouvement which was named that way in order to label a wave of energy a priori indescribable. The burst in the French cinematographical scenery of these energy balls really appears a universal renewal of cinema in general. By corrupting the shooting (which must build up a life parallel to the real one), the scenario (extremely flexible), the dialogues ( their maximum simplicity to get closer to the point), the music (which is used like a sound amongst other elements of sound), the characters’ acting (they are forbidden to play like in theatre plays, thus inventing the cruel art of being a cinema actor in the guideline of BRESSON’s ways), we can assert that the Nouvelle Vague, thanks to its efficient theories, is not a trend amongst others but really a will not to continue to make films but to serve cinema (as an art).

But what would have become of these great and tempting ideas if they had been abandoned in 1961? We are compelled to answer that these ideas could not die with the forking off CHABROL took in the 70s towards middle-class drama, or GODARD took towards political film making, or TRUFFAUT took towards language films. The endurance of these ideas through disagreements is real. One is forced to consider that despite self-restraint to academic ways, a certain number of directors were inspired by the lightness of the tone, of the liveliness in order to lead towards a perception of "all truth of life". And this was actually the Nouvelle Vague directors’ obsession : looking for the truth (cinematographically for GODARD and of a human truth for TRUFFAUT.)
We can’t now think that the Danish dogma would have existed without Jacques ROZIER’s theories about documentary, that Maurice PIALAT and B.TAVERNIER would have been so crude without TRUFFAUT and that Mike LEIGH and Ken LOACH would have been so politicisated without GODARD.

Finally, I just think we need to stop thinking of the Nouvelle Vague as an intellectual trend which dissolved itself naturally.

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