This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of La Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave which transformed and dominated European cinema in the late 1950’s and 1960’s. Although the majority of French films from this decade are blanketed with the term Nouvelle Vague, the movement encompassed many different styles and approaches to cinema from a wide variety of directors. The New Wave filmmakers were all united by their desire to alter the horizons of cinema, rejecting the formalist traditions of the classical style, although they never formally recognised themselves as being part of one conscious group, more a body of young filmmakers sharing the same iconoclastic mindset. However, despite their wish to rewrite the cinematic rulebook, many of the directors had a great appreciation for classical cinema. In fact, the movement’s origins began with the magazine Cahiers du Cinema, which saw critics and future pioneering directors Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette create anew the doctrine of film theory and criticism. Under the guidance of Cahiers founder Andre Bazin, the critics were instrumental in re-evaluating the importance of classical films both in France (from Renoir, Vigo and Cocteau) and in Hollywood. The Cahiers writers felt that the artistic achievements of certain Hollywood directors were undervalued, as they had always been associated with the restrictive American studio production line. Through these writings, the manifesto for ‘Les Politiques des Auteurs’ emerged, where the critics argued that the stylistic approaches and use of mise-en-scene gave some films greater merit beyond their generic narratives. These theories greatly enhanced the critical value of Hollywood director’s oeuvres, notably Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. Francois Truffaut even conducted lengthy interviews with Hitchcock for a book published in 1967. The Cahiers critics were really the first to celebrate the American films of the 1940’s and 1950’s that are now regarded as classics.
To represent the varied approaches within the Nouvelle Vague, I’ve chosen to briefly discuss four of my favourite films from the movement, all of which represent very different interpretations of the wave’s intentions from four key directors. The 400 Blows (1959) is generally considered the first film of the wave. Directed by Francois Truffaut, it tells the story of troubled teenager Antoine Doinel, as he struggles at home and at school, finally being sent to a detention camp after being misunderstood by his parents and the authorities as an incorrigible trouble maker. The film gives a bleak, realistic presentation of events, an influence from Robert Bresson and also the Italian neo-realist style, but combines it with playful cinematic techniques including jump cuts and freeze frames. In the final sequence, the camera tracks Antoine running along the beach towards the ocean for the first time in his life, followed by a zoom in and a sudden freeze frame, as Antione apparently stares at the audience. It’s undoubtedly one of the most memorable and powerful moments in cinema history. The 400 Blows clearly expresses the New Wave’s unwritten manifesto of rejecting traditionally structured linear narrative, instead presenting an episodic account more interested in the experiences of the character, as well as the film’s stunning black and white photography. This film would become the first episode in an unprecedented twenty-year series of four films and one short, showing the young Antoine (always played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) become an adult, fall in love and start a family in Antoine And Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed And Board (1970) and Love On The Run (1979). A similar romantic story with dark realistic overtones was Truffaut’s 1962 masterpiece Jules et Jim, which gave Truffaut even greater scope for innovative techniques. Similarly, Godard’s Bande A Part (1964) explored a dangerous love triangle with playful exuberance, whilst Jacques Remy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964) presented a romantic liaison as a musical in glorious technicolour, giving Catherine Deneuve her breakthrough role.
Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961) is a film rich with symbolism and vague meaning. Having previously been revered for his acclaimed dramatic-documentary Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Resnais collaborated with writer Alain Robbe-Grillet (later another New Wave director) on his first fictional narrative feature, although the shifting perspectives of Marienbad would make it far removed from other narrative films in the movement. Whilst Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol represented the Cahiers directors, Resnais represented the Rive Gauche or ‘Left Bank’ filmmakers, alongside Chris Marker, Anges Varda and Robbe-Grillet. These distinctively bohemian directors took the approaches of the New Wave to more experimental levels. Resnais imbues Marienbad with a subtle sense of strangeness – in the vivid scenes of the chateau’s garden (pictured), the people walking cast long dark shadows, whilst the numerous pointed trees cast no shadow at all. The film abandons plot and narrative in favour of images, events and the sense of characters caught in a dream-like state of repeated memory. Unsurprisingly, the film divided critics, who either saw it as a beautiful masterpiece or a bewildering exercise in self-indulgence. In truth, Last Year At Marienbad is a hypnotic combination of both these things – it is at once beautiful and bewildering, but I don’t really believe it’s worth analysis beyond mentioning it’s powerfully arresting visuals. The film is an open-book for interpretive meanings and debates, which can be enjoyed as much as it can be alienating. However, it is the major film of the New Wave to fully embrace the movement’s art house leanings, an approach taken to even bolder experimentation in Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating (1974).
Le Doulos (1962), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a stylish gangster movie featuring many plot twists involving theft, murder and deception. Given the Nouvelle Vague touch, this crime thriller takes on an almost surreal aesthetic, artistically exaggerating the chiaroscuro technique associated with film noir. The hyper-reality of the world created by Melville has characters wearing strikingly overstated trench coats, shot in extreme contrasting shadows. Jean-Pierre Melville became a major figure of the New Wave, although he had been directing feature films since 1949, making him a continually strong presence in French cinema who, along with Robert Bresson, bridged the gap between the classical era and the Nouvelle Vague. Influenced by American crime movies, Melville’s noir-style thrillers were hugely influential to other New Wave directors – his 1956 film Bob La Flambeur being the first of it’s kind in France. Truffaut’s second feature, Shoot The Piano Player (1960) owed it an obvious debt, as did Godard’s pulp sci-fi classic Alphaville (1965). These classy thrillers suited the fashionable groove of the sixties and Melville became the most important exponent of the policier genre – gangster films taking their lead from American film noirs but offering a uniquely French perspective. This particular sub-genre reached it’s zenith with Melville’s own The Godson (1967) and The Red Circle (1970). Hip and referential, much of the flashy style of these noir movies had been previously explored in Godard’s seminal Nouvelle Vague masterpiece Breathless (1960), the second film from the Wave. A significant stylistic strand throughout the wave, one of the movement’s final great crime thrillers was Charles Chabrol’s The Butcher in 1970. The French noir really is the ultra-cool division of the Nouvelle Vague.
Weekend (1967), Jean-Luc Godard’s darkest film is a strikingly ambitious black satire on French bourgeois society and moves from the bickering of a middle-class couple and some aggressive road rage through to revolution, violent murder and cannibalism. It’s surrealistic approach and fierce attacks on the complacent middle classes make it comparable to the work of Luis Bunuel, who was also making films in France during this period (the similarly daring Belle de Jour was released the same year). Viscous and shocking in it’s approach, Weekend takes the Nouvelle Vague’s reactionary course to the ultimate extreme, incorporating moments of Brechtian disillusion and scenes of pure fantasy (Lewis Carroll and Emily Bronte wandering in the woods springs to mind!). Admittedly the film is a pretty hard watch and frustratingly incomprehensible in parts (although not nearly as baffling as Godard’s rockumentary-come-political manifesto Sympathy For The Devil in 1968), but that’s really the point – there’s something fantastically daring and exhaustively rewarding about Weekend. For its famous and breathtaking ten-minute tracking shot of an ever-worsening traffic jam alone, the film is a landmark in black comedy. Allowing itself to be completely free of any strictures, the film remains one of the most relentlessly wild and inventive additions to the French New Wave. Weekend ends with two captions – ‘End Of Film’ and ‘End Of Cinema’ – not only pointing to the total collapse of civilisation within the film’s narrative but perhaps acknowledging that Godard had taken the New Wave as far as it could possible go.
The 1960’s was a decade of many shifts and surprises in culture and accordingly many new waves in cinema – in Italy, Britain, Japan, Czechoslovakia – but the most revolutionary and influential was surely the French New Wave, which gave the world many of the greatest films ever made. Bernando Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003) paid explicit tribute to the films of Godard and Truffaut, and the influence of the Nouvelle Vague can still be felt today in the films of Luc Besson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Michel Gondry.
The BFI French New Wave Season begins in April, showcasing a number of films from the movement, including The 400 Blows and Breathless, in London and around the country.
Recommended reading: A History Of The French New Wave Cinema by Richard John Neupert; Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard by Richard Brody; Francois Truffaut: The Complete Films by Robert Ingram.
I was lucky enough to see one of the first performances of Rupert Goold’s acclaimed staging of Macbeth at Chichester in 2007, starring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, and was gripped by what I considered a very cinematic approach to theatre, re-imagining the play as a gory horror film set in the clinical hospitals and kitchens of Stalin’s Russia. Afterwards, buoyed with a new appreciation of the play, I was compelled to revisit the key film versions of Macbeth – three very different approaches, which individually display each director’s unique style.
Orson Welles showed a repeated interest in the play, firstly staging an all-black 1936 stage production set in Haiti. His film of Macbeth (1948) was shot on a low budget in just 23 days, which Welles later admitted was a self-imposed limitation to see if “it might encourage other film-maker’s to tackle difficult subjects at greater speed”. The sets were made from papier-mache and take on an almost surreal grandeur. The lighting is dark and murky, creating a sense of heightened paranoia within the sparse, simple setting. The tone is really that of Macbeth-noir, unsurprising when it came off the back of Welles’ noir classics The Stranger (1945) and The Lady From Shanghai (1947), in many ways a perfect fit – Lady Macbeth’s ice-cool murderess is perfect film noir, as is Macbeth himself, the corrupt and fatally-flawed lead. The film was no exception to Welles’ continued battles with studio executives, who felt that the strong Scottish accents of the cast wouldn’t help the film commercially. The entire soundtrack was re-dubbed, whilst Welles left Hollywood for Europe, although he did later return at the studio’s request to cut 20 minutes from the film in 1950 and add a narration. Like many of his works, the version now available on DVD is restored to Welles’ original vision.
Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (1957) recasts Macbeth as a Samurai epic at the time of the feudal wars in medieval Japan. Like Kurosawa’s other historical films of the 1950’s, Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), this adaptation immerses itself in the natural elements. From the opening scenes of mist shrouding the barren countryside and the fierce winds, to the rain and lightning engulfing the woods, the natural world combines to control proceedings. Characters ride on horseback in and out of the mist as if guided to their ultimate doom by the elements, making the normally evil lead roles appear somewhat more sympathetic. The wood and castle are even given the name Cobweb, suggesting the duplicitous effect of the natural world, and at one point Toshiro Mifune’s Taketori (the Macbeth figure) even fires an arrow up towards the treacherous lightning in the sky. The scene of Taketori encountering the unearthly Spirit in the woods, the old woman bathed in a translucent glow and gently spinning cotton, is surely one of the most beautiful sequences in movie history. Throne Of Blood is an exceptional, visceral film, which perfectly utilizes Kurosawa’s talent for impressive battle scenes. The film concludes not with a duel but with the magnificent image of countless darting arrows pinning the tragic Taketori to the wall of his fortress, having been turned on by his own men. This famous sequence was reportedly filmed using real arrows in order to give Mifune the desired look of terror, although this has been disputed.
Roman Polanski’s The Tragedy Of Macbeth (1971) was his first feature since the brutal murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child at the hands of the Manson family, leading many to view the film as a violent cathartic exercise from the grieving director. It’s certainly the most unflinchingly violent adaptation of the play, even depicting the murder of Duncan in all it’s gory detail for the first time on film, rather than off-stage as written. The slaying of the MacDuff family in particular is almost too brutal to watch, especially given its obvious comparisons with the Tate murders. Certain scenes, such as the meeting with the witches and the apparition in the woods, dip the viewer into the terrifying world of the surreal, a dark hallmark of Polanski’s work as seen in Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976). As well as the horrific style, Polanski took controversial liberties with the play by casting 26-year old Francesca Annis as a much tamer Lady Macbeth and giving her a notorious nude soliloquy (but not so strange when it was revealed the film was being partly funded by Playboy magazine, although Polanski and co-writer Kenneth Tynan maintained the scene was written before Hugh Hefner’s involvement). Jon Finch was also a comparatively young Macbeth at 29 years old. The film’s ending replaces Malcolm’s speech with a scene of Malcolm’s brother returning from exile with possible ambitions to reclaim the throne, suggesting that the evil in man is ever present – something Polanski had experienced all too graphically in the summer of 1969.
The recent BAFTA fellowship awarded to Terry Gilliam reminded me of just how wonderfully imaginative a body of work he has directed, none more so than his loose trilogy from the 1980’s, collectively named the Trilogy Of Imagination, comprising Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985) and The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1988). The films, representing childhood, the middle years and old age respectively, show Gilliam at his most lavishly ambitious, yet also charts the most tumultuous filmmaking chapter in Gilliam’s famously problematic career. Do your senses a favour and dip your mind into these three fantastical masterworks.
Time Bandits is a joyous concoction of childhood fantasies – the terrifying and the beautiful, the hilarious and the heart-breaking. Backed by George Harrison’s Handmade Films and armed with an exceptional cast of acting and comedy talent, (John Cleese, Michael Palin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, Ian Holm, David Warner, Sean Connery, Katherine Helmond, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Jim Broadbent) Time Bandits is the definitive kids movie for adults.
The short film The Crimson Permanent Assurance was a supporting feature to 1983’s Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life and featured a crusty old British assurance firm taken over by The Very Big Corporation Of America. When the white-collar workers rebel against their employers they become pirates, sailing the company building out of the city and off towards the end of the world. Although a brief folly by Gilliam’s standards, the themes of escapism and the unleashing of ones imagination clearly pre-empted his next feature film.
Brazil is widely considered Gilliam’s greatest work (and one of my all-time favourites) and it’s little wonder. A crazy, ambitious, visually stunning take on dystopian sci-fi, appropriately made in 1984 considering the Orwellian overtones, the film had an eventful production. From an original screenplay by Gilliam and Charles McKeown, Tom Stoppard was brought in to give the script some clarity although in fairness he probably added to its complexities. Gilliam had to fight Universal tooth and nail for the final scene he wanted and he won, (a luxury denied to Ridley Scott on Blade Runner’s initial release) but it may have bolstered his reputation as a difficult director (from the studios point of view, not the critics or the audiences). Few films are crammed with as many ideas and, like Orwell’s novel, Brazil will only grow in stature and importance as each new generation discovers it.
The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, again co-written by Gilliam and McKeown, meditates on the fantasies and illusions of old age. Told by the world’s greatest liar, Baron Munchausen, the adventures blur the lines between truth and reality. Life strangely imitated art during the making of the film, with Gilliam spun a yarn by producers who convinced him to film in Italy for 40% of the original cost, which proved to be disastrous. Eric Idle described it as the worst experience of his life and Sean Connery dropped out of playing the King Of The Moon before filming, to be replaced by an uncredited Robin Williams (whose representatives were worried his appearance in the film might damage his reputation!) One production issue after another meant the film wound up costing three times as much as originally planned. Twenty years later, none of this really matters and we are left with an incredible visual feast of a movie. Perhaps Munchausen’s status as a financial flop has prevented it from becoming the fantasy film classic it deserves to be.
Gilliam’s next feature, The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, due for release in June, is his first collaboration with Charles McKeown since the 1980’s, only this time round there’s no sign of studio warfare. However, no Gilliam production is without its problems and the death of Heath Ledger in early 2008 robbed the film of its leading man.
Recommended reading: The Battle Of Brazil by Jack Matthews; Dark Knights And Holy Fools: Art And Films Of Terry Gilliam by Bob McCabe.