It is with a gleeful irony that I have titled this entry “On Having Something To Say” as it has taken me quite a long while stumbling about, attempting to figure out what and how I wanted to begin discussing this immensely important cinematic movement. It appears to me that this arises from the difficulty of a locus of beginnings: where does one start? With the young French critic’s cinephilia—their adoration for Welles, Cocteau, Renoir, Hitchcock, Ford, etc? Does one start with the post-war French history—the 50’s socio-political “nouvelle vague” (New Wave)? Does one start with the Cahiers du Cinema critics and their theoretical innovations—Bazin’s important writing on Realism or the polemical and controversial auteur theory? Or do I start with the New Wave’s technical innovations—such as Godard’s jump cuts, their playful use of handheld cameras, their giddy flirtation with genre and intertextual references to film history? Does one begin by highlighting the economic and filmmaking aspects they championed—such as low budget filmmaking, shooting on location with natural lighting away from the studio, or the anti-blockbuster, self-produced method which prioritizes the artist over the mainstream studio system?
Though all of this is certainly of interest, through the search for a ‘beginning’ I ended up finding something of a thesis that I slowly became aware both of what I did and what I did not wish to express through this retrospective: I do not wish for this to turn into a highly condensed, pedantic, pale imitation of a freshman Film Studies course for the sake of one’s mental filing cabinet. Instead, when touching on the contexts, innovations, and theories, it shall be my focus to address them solely in relation to the film(s) in discussion. Thus, for example, not auteur theory for the arbitrary and circular sake of the auteur theory. Instead, I shall seek to explore questions such as: how did the fact that Francois Truffaut was a leading proponent of the auteur theory influence the way in which he made and shot Jules and Jim?
As this is inherently an attempt to help others ‘read’ films—partially the act of asking certain questions throughout the interpretation process—there is a secondary, though no less important, aim of this series: taking seriously the techniques a filmmaker utilizes to express an idea (via mise-en-scene). Through their writing and roundtable discussions during the 50’s publications of Cahiers du Cinema, the French critics constantly stressed the importance of not just what was said, but the how it is said. Andre Bazin once stated: “Every technique relates to a metaphysic.” This is of course implicit within Jean-Luc Godard’s famous claim that, “Tracking shots are a question of morality.” This intentional foregrounding of cinematic strategies, whether based in or actively opposing conventions, is essential to the aesthetic and ideological importance and influence of these French New Wave filmmakers.
As with all movements and ideas, however, it is important to realize that the New Wave was not born out of a vacuum—there was no pretension of or preconceived tabula rasa. It was their love of film, their cinephilia which allowed them to obsessively study the history of cinema—or as Dudley Andrew notes: “they studied it and decided to intervene in it”. In the same way that contemporary cinema would look entirely different without them, they themselves would not have existed had it not been for the American genre films of John Ford and Howard Hawks, or the Neorealist films of Italian masters Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, or other European arthouse filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir, and Fritz Lang. The importance of the Nouvelle Vague comes not from a Romantic idea of artistic genius, but instead as a brilliantly constructed perspective concerning the power of film as an artistic medium and the role that they played in relation to and in response to its complex history.
On Having Something To Say
Francis Ford Coppola. Robert Altman. Milos Forman. Roman Polanski. Bernardo Bertolucci. Wim Wenders. Werner Herzog. Olivier Assayas. Vera Chytilova. Martin Scorsese. Steven Soderbergh. Leos Carax. Quentin Tarantino. Wes Anderson. These are just a handful of names who have been massively influenced by the work of the French New Wave—this band of revolutionary artists from the 50’s and 60’s. Scorsese himself expressed this when he stated that “the French New Wave has influenced all filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not. It submerged cinema like a tidal wave.” Viewed through contemporary eyes, many of these films do not necessarily retain the revolutionary power that once defined them. This does not simply mean that they were not as successful as they have been hyped up to be, in fact it is quite the opposite: this is the very evidence that they have been massively important. Whether one looks at the post-New wave films of Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat, or Leos Carax; the Dogme ‘95 group (which included Lars Von Trier); or the early films of American filmmaker Richard Linklater; one quickly realizes that none of them (or their peers) would be the same without the success of these French films from the mid 20th century.
Read today, it is striking how much of the writing by Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette and company from the 50’s still rings true to our contemporary cinema. Many of their complaints are due to a tired, uninspired studio system, that prioritized safe, star based literary adaptations and sequels. In the age of the expanded Hollywood superhero universe, of long-form dramatic Television shows, and the ever conventional genre films which obviously retain staying power, it is intriguing—albeit fairly disheartening—to see such continuity over a period of roughly 70 years.
In 1957, both filmmaker and critic, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, lamented:
We’ve reached a point where the cinema is a medium of expression for saying something. And the staggering thing is that the cinema in France has nothing to say, and that French film says nothing.
Doniol-Valcroze was not alone. The same year, Pierre Kast, a fellow critic turned filmmaker complained:
The only thing that one can be sure of is that the state of French cinema is one of total mediocrity. It amounts to the manufacture of a product that is always the same. The distributors really control production and they display a complete lack of imagination. They do the same thing over and over again using an absolutely arbitrary and uniform interpretation of public taste as the pretext.
Moreover, in what is now a legendary essay written by Francois Truffaut in 1954 entitled ‘A Certain Tendency in French Cinema’, he goes so far as to call out by name two screenwriters who he assigns the blame as the heart of the problem. One of which is that it is the screenwriter who has taken a primary role over and above the director. This is important, he notes, because:
I cannot conceive of a valid adaptation that was not written by a film-maker. Aurenche and Bost are basically men of letters, and my criticism of them here is that they look down on the cinema because they undervalue it….One of the major failings of those who attempt to explain what the cinema is about is that they believe they are doing it a service by using literary jargon.
This is, of course, the polemicism of a young man, as Truffaut himself later confessed. Despite this, to these ‘young Turks’ (as they were somewhat affectionately nicknamed by their mentor Andre Bazin) it was necessary at the time. It was time for a revolution against the ‘Tradition of Quality’ which was ruled by uninspiring studio heads and ‘men of letters’ condescendingly stooping down from the “high-art” of literature into the “low-art” of movies; it was time, for the cinema d’auteur.
If this idea may stand for a moment, each film speaks endlessly of the person making the film. After watching films from the movement, one speaks of the differences between the filmmakers, not simply the differences in subject matter. The Cahiers critics often spoke of mise-en-scene as being the key ‘tool’ of the director—it is here that the director becomes auteur. The adapted source material, the scriptwriter, the production company all previously dominated the material until the director sets up the scene, blocks it, stages it, and decides how to shoot it. This is the camera-stylo that critic Alexandre Astruc spoke of in the early 50’s that was so influential: the director wrote in an analogous way that a painter paints, or a writer writes. Insofar as the director understands this, the camera then not only becomes a tool that expresses his view of the world, it impresses meaning on the thematic material itself: as opposed to baroque, flowery, or excessive garnish, it becomes the content itself.
Auteur theory need for the moment only be seen as a general foundation that these critics-turned-filmmakers set up for themselves to explore cinema. Regardless of one’s thoughts on auteur theory, it is important when viewing the work of Truffaut, Godard, and others, they started making films as a consequence of their understanding of what an auteur was: they had something they wanted to say, and cinema, by means of their understanding of the camera, and their mise-en-scene, was to be their pen.
It is not an uncommon critique to hear someone claim that arthouse films are ‘style over substance’. The response to this claim can of course follow Bazinian and Godardian thought: style is substance. If every “technique relates to a metaphysic” then everything about how one represents anything within a scene—the use of black and white, color, composition, framing, performance, playing with or using conventional shot-reverse shot, long takes, tracking shots, etc.—expresses an idea, an interpretation reality. One need not simply look to narrative elements, or themes related to the psychology of a character, but to look at form, style, and structure is, they would argue, necessarily important. To look at the how and why and not just the what is absolutely essential to an effective interaction with these filmmakers.
However, it should be noted that though referred to as a movement (or even in some cases a full-fledged artistic school, a la critic Michel Marie), the New Wave filmmakers represent no monolith. It is common to refer to the two ‘Banks’ of the new wave: the Right Bank and the Left Bank. The former, consists of those previously mentioned, the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers. The latter was chiefly comprised of Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker. As Richard Neupert explains that typical distinctions tend to “stress their deeper involvement in aesthetic experimentation, their connections to documentary practice, overt political themes, and increased interest in other arts beyond cinema.”
Compared to the cinephilia of the Right Bank filmmakers, their counterparts tended to be a bit more eclectic in their interests. Agnes Varda was a professional photographer and apparently not overly interested in cinema before her first film, La Pointe Courte, in 1954. And Alain Resnais was heavily influenced by the evolving literary world at the time collaborating with Marguerite Duras on Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Alain Robbe-Grillet on Last Year in Marienbad (1962).
However, despite some ideological and aesthetic differences, many are convinced they can be placed together to embody a cohesive movement. One of the more interesting and innovative ways this can be seen is the way in which they collaborated with each other. Despite their differences, many of them were close friends who they constantly worked with, produced, and referenced in each other’s films. Claude Chabrol (another of the Cahiers filmmakers) notes:
To make films, we came up with a sort of cooperative. It was understood that Resnais, who was one of our friends and whose short films we had praised, would direct his first feature with Rivette as his assistant director. Next, Rivette would direct his own first film with Truffaut as assistant. Truffaut would take his turn, assisted by Charles Bitsch. When Bitsch got his turn to direct, I would be his assistant, etc.
Apart from just working with each other, these friends and partners were constantly referencing each other’s films. In The 400 Blows (1959), Antoine Doinel’s family goes to see Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us (1961); in Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), Cleo watches a short film starring Jean-Luc Godard, Anna Karina, and Jean-Claude Brialy; Jeanne Moreau appears in a small cameo as herself in Godard’s film A Woman Is A Woman (1962) where she is asked by Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character about Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1961). There are many more examples of such intertextual references, however more instances of frequent collaborations can be found in the crew of these films: composer Georges Delerue worked with Varda, Truffaut, Resnais, Kast, Godard, and Robbe-Grillet; cinematographer Raoul Coutard worked on most of Godard’s films of the 60’s as well as with Truffaut and Demy; composer Michel Legrand worked with Varda, Godard, and Demy; and producers Georges de Beauregard and Pierre Braunberger funded much of the early New Wave films including working with Jean-Pierre Melville, Eric Rohmer, Resnais, Rivette, Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Doniol-Valcroze, and Varda.
As we have briefly scoped out the space which the New Wave filmmakers attempted to fill within French cinematic culture, we can now turn specifically to this series of films we here at Cinema-Worcester have chosen. Structurally, we will explore both ‘Banks’ beginning with two major Right Bank works: Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (Contempt, 1963) and Francois Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962). We will continue with Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962), only to conclude with Alain Resnais’ labyrinthine Last Year in Marienbad (1961).
As is perhaps quite clear at the point, the breadth of the French New Wave is quite vast. And of course, implicit within the concept of a ‘series’ of screenings is being fettered with limitations. As it stands, however, when evaluating our mission to find films that are both representatives of their filmmakers and the filmmakers to their movement, we have chosen these four films for their representative value to the history of their time and to cinema. Each of these four films vary greatly in terms of their style, their goals, and their underlying theories of cinema, however, each represent something of a created ‘essence‘ or core identity to these filmmakers, and as a consequence, the movement history has remembered. Though aspects of each of these films may prove challenging to certain audiences, they are each beautifully crafted masterpieces which deserve the space to interact with them. These are films by filmmakers who have made available to us cinematic worlds which engage with formal, cinematographic ideas; films that invite us to ask questions of the realities we are being shown—to ask why use handheld cameras before we decide whether or not we like it or why focus on this protagonist instead of simply wondering whether we like them or not.
These filmmakers (and their companions and collaborators) sought to express through the cinematographic image. In direct and revolutionary opposition to their mute culture: they had something to say. And so they said it.