All 5 entries tagged French New Wave
October 23, 2007
The French New Wave: A New Look: Naomi Greene 2007 Wallflower Press: A Critical Review
About two weeks ago one of my intellectually inquisitive sixth-formers commented that she didn’t think that much of Godard’s iconic New Wave film: A bout de soufflé (Breathless). Last week she handed back to me City of God with the words “it nearly made me cry at the end”. New Waves are primarily understood about cinema and youth, about trying to create new cinematic forms and represent the World in new ways. I shall be examining the possibility that the notion of the 'unexpected' is an historiographical concept that can be applied to cinematic new waves. I shall also be noting some of the areas where the films remain unavailable and there is a certain amount of critical underwriting proffering new opportunities for research.
Both City of God and Breathless are films which are part of their respective cinematic New Waves with the former being a part of the current Latin American New Wave. Serendiptiously on returning home I found a copy of Naomi Greene’s newly published The French New Wave: A New Look from Wallflower Press waiting for review. This provides an opportunity to reflect upon what has changed so much and what might be different within the disparate New Waves which had elicited very different responses from a smart 18 year old.
Although I shall make some opening sceptical comments which indicate that the notion of the French New Wave could usefully be deconstructed, I found the book a clear and insightful summary written by an academic very at ease with her ideas and well able to communicate them to the chosen target audience. As I read through it stimulated me to follow up some ideas and strands of thought as I scoured the Web for cheap versions of a book on Henri Langlois and also ordered Jaques Rivette’s Paris nous appartient which I hadn’t noticed that the BFI had released over a year ago:a film which, says the blurb: brilliantly captured the mood of paranoia and uncertainty of that Cold War period. Rivette's rarely seen debut is one of the most important and far-reaching of the early New Wave films. After reading Greene’s analysis it became a ‘must see’. Indeed it is this analysis which forms a part of her ‘New Look’ for it is a film which has received little critical analysis in the mainstream accounts of the New Wave.
The book is ideal for undergraduates and much of it is accessible to A2 students who may be studying new waves for their World Cinema Unit. It will also act as a good companion for those who are new to this area of cinema. In this it is in keeping with the tradition and standards established by the Wallflower Press Short Cuts series. It is certainly a useful book for film and media studies lecturers and teachers and for libraries.
Melville's Le Silence de la mer 1949 was an important precursor to the French New Wave.
Cinematography was by Henri Decae
What might a "New Wave" be?
This is a rather harder question to answer than appears at first sight. My own perspective is that one must apply SPECT (Social Political Economic Cultural Textual) methodology to the analysis. Greene is quite specific about this too and adds ‘Historical’ to the methodological equation although I must admit I was taking that for granted and certain historiographical issues which arise will be considered:
…using a lens that is at once social economic ,cultural and historical (Greene 2007 p 3), Greene sets out to examine the nature and influences of the Nouvelle Vague for whatever one thinks of the films it has exerted an enormous influence within cinema for as Greene points out:
…up until now at least, there has been relatively little disagreement about the importance of the New Wave, but critics are not always in accord when it comes to the precise contours or its internal coherence.” (Greene 2007, p3).
The usual idea is that younger people (usually male cinephiles) were interested in filmmaking across a post-war Europe in which countries had been more or less bankrupted by the war and were trying to develop new identities which incorporated space,place and form. They valued difference between countries but respected them. to some extent there were generational differences. Neorealists had many who were involved in filmmaking before the war and in France Melville and the Left Bank generation were older than the Cahiers group. As such they had a different perspective on the world. Younger critics and filmmakers also raise a range of different challenges to the previous generations who had led them into the European 30 Years war of the 20th century (1914-45). Italian Neorealism was undoubtedly the leading element however groundbreaking films had emerged in Britain and Poland as well as France well before the Cannes festival of 1959 brought Truffaut into the limelight. Those groups of films which now become categorised as new waves tend to work within these parameters but often fall short of serious political critique.
Historiographical interpretation is a difficult game and I have concerns that European cinema is often represented as one of movements which are largely autonomous and often entirely separate to other developments. It is also a methodology which focuses upon National cinema often at the expense of considering an international cross-cultural artistic reality which is harder to measure. In Britain for example, running in parallel to the work of Free Cinema there was a lot of social realism in mainstream feature films and this has tended to put Free cinema into the critical shade compared to the French ‘New Wave’ which is represented as markedly different from mainstream French cinema. The fact that British Free Cinema showed large numbers of Polish and French films as part of its series of 6 programmes points to a lot of international collaboration amongst the film-makers and cross fertilisation of ideas. One of the issues raised in this review is the importance of surrealism as a subterreanean strand of representation which in cross-national and transhistorical inter-ruptions are largely underwritten in academic circles.
Alain Delon in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil (1960)
Delon came to the fore at the time of the New Wave. The cinematography of Plein Soleil was again by Henri Decae. Decae was not above working with somebody castigated by Truffaut as part of cinema du papa! Decae had already been the highest paid person on 400 Blows and was in demand. This was Delon's most important film at the time. He went on to be a leading actor in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963) as well as being in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962).
Arguably cross fertilisation and changing ideas were already present in mainstream French cinema at the time of the Nouvelle Vague when one notes the date of Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil (1960) and its use of Nouvelle Vague favourite cameraman Henri Decae by this representative of Cinema du papa. Perhaps the reality on the ground is not always quite so clear cut. Decae had already cut his teeth on the thriller genre by filming Melville’s Bob le flambeur [Bob the Gambler] (1955) and then Malle’s 1958 release Lift to the Scaffold.
Jeanne Moreu in Louis Malle's 1958 Lift to the Scaffold
Cinematography by Henri Decae
It might well be that a unifying theme amongst the avante-gardists of European post-war cinema was the representation of space and place which was far more celebratory and far reaching than the mainstream. Space and place are inherently imbricated with the construction of identity and one might usefully compare the Rome of Rossellini (Roma citta aperta), De Sica’s Umberto D, Visconti’s Bellissima and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as bearing witness to a changing Italian identity all of which relied to a large extent on location shooting. Core differences between Plein Soleil and the French Nouvelle Vague films is that it was relatively high budget and was decidedly international in its scope dealing with Americans in Italy and creating more of a tourist's gaze than a local's gaze. The surreality of Truffaut and Godard's cinematic visions and the play with a knowing audience were also absent.
The Precursors of the Nouvelle Vague
Greene sets out her stall very clearly although a little disappointingly she doesn’t challenge the concept of the French New Wave as a critical construction. Historiographically there is some case to be made for challenging the dominant discourse which surrounds this ‘cultural moment’ to the exclusion of other tendencies emerging in parallel, perhaps some revision is overdue. Examples include the British Free cinema movement while arguably the great Italian directors moving into their post-neorealist phase were making far more interesting and challenging films than either tendency. The Polish cinema of the time also needs to be considered although I'm personally unfamiliar with the content. What can be said is that European filmmaking in the 1950s was in a state of change far beyond the borders of France.
This gripe aside Greene's book is perfectly pitched for its lay / undergraduate audience: it is written clearly by a leading scholar of French cinema and is very well informed. It places the Nouvelle Vague in its French cinematic context and there is some reference – not enough in my opinion – to the wider history of postwar France - and it clearly summarises the range of critical opinions in the discourse of the French New Wave. Greene’s book Landscapes of Loss really teases out the problems of post-war French identity and the ways in which this is represented within the cinematic culture of France. In her introduction to this latter book she notes the entry of L’histoire de France au cinema which comments that “cinema is, in fact, a more sensitive barometer than literature or school curricula”,(my emphasis). She proceeds to note the film maker Bertrand Tavernier’s comment that:
filmmakers are seismographs of their epoch. They bear witness, even unconsciously, to everything that surrounds them”. (Greene 200, p 5).
Bearing in mind Tavernier’s comment it is clear that that moment of 1959 when Truffaut gains recognition at Cannes for 400 Blows is when youthful French cinema comes to the notice of both the French nation and the world at large. Arguably this ‘new wave’ as cinema was already in existence but its widespread cultural recognition was as a result of hype from the French Media combining with the desire of many who were dissatisfied with the postwar republic and the failures of France to reassert its place in the World and it is this aspect which Greene underplays. Furthermore there was a growing concern with American ‘cultural imperialism’. A re-establishing of a French cultural identity for the modern period was sorely needed.
The independent auteurs which the Nouvelle Vague places on the map bringing the notion of auteurism as a critical concept to the fore were already in existence. Primarily they were the left bank, left wing documentarists such as Chris Marker and Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda. Greene has written particularly well about Resnais in her Landscapes of Loss and in a short book she does manage to include a lot about the Left Bank filmmakers which is good because even now getting hold of the documentary work of Resnais in the UK is pretty much impossible. Availability of films is partially down to critical discourse because the early work of Truffaut and Godard is readily available whilst the availability of the work from the Left Bank directors and even the early Rivette and Chabrol as well as Franju is not. The importance of reviewing critical discourse at a time when new technologies make the ‘Long Tail’ of cultural output far more accessible than ever before should not be underestimated.
The work of Louis Malle is sidelined in this book to some extent; he is seen as peripheral to the New Wave yet the content and methods of film making of his early films were fundamental to the changing ‘structure of feeling’ – to call upon Raymond William’s useful concept - which was running through French society at the time. Lift to the Scaffold is an excellent film which in the guise of a thriller brings in a critique of French society as the murdered husband is an arms dealer, which can be read as a thinly veiled reference to French colonial struggles the growing crisis in Algeria, the failed attempt to control the Suez Canal and the debacle in Vietnam which the Dennis Grunes blog discussing Malle’s film is at pains to mention, unlike some of the academic books:
Don’t laugh at wars. You live off wars. . . . Indo-China; now Algeria. Respect wars; they’re your family heirlooms.” Julien is killing Carala because he is in love with the old man’s young wife, Florence; but his political remarks add to our understanding of the disgust with which Carala fills him. Because Tavernier is Carala’s employee, his disgust includes a measure of self-disgust…” (http://grunes.wordpress.com/2007/02/23/elevator-to-the-gallows-louis-malle-1957/)
The methods of film making anticipate and perhaps better the work of Truffaut and Godard’s early work as well. The following quotation about the musical collaboration between Malle and Miles Davis says a lot about the way in which the spirit in which the film was made:
The connection between Miles Davis and Louis Malle is one of general artistic integrity, for each creator is a master of their medium before the specific ideas that they are representing is even considered. This is where the idea of “jazz” as a mode of creativity is most clearly seen. Forget the meaning of “jazz” as a musical genre for one moment and try to see the interconnectedness between all artists of all mediums. It seems that once an artist has been working in their field for long enough to learn all of the necessary elements of their trade that it is only their individual ability to improvise that makes their work different from others and either a master or another artist. It is a sensation that is obvious to those who have begun the search for this divine level of creation. Malle and Davis certainly can see the respective vision of the other’s work and in their collaboration on Elevator to the Gallows the direct relationship between the scene and the music is a finely balanced expression of both artists. There is a definite freedom that Malle entrusts in Davis to create at his own will, which is undoubtedly a result of Davis’s success and mastery of his art. The connections are distinct and calculated, but this is not a dynamic that can be created by any two artists. Collaborations can fail even when it seems evident that a relationship or similarity is present between artist’s modes of representation. (My emphasis, http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/music270/projects/s2005/ebb32/Frantic.html)
This blog is especially useful to check out because there are some useful video extracts of the film which show how effectively Malle has filmed the street using all the outdoor location techniques associated with the New Wave.
Critical focus has been on the Cahiers critics turned filmmakers – a sceptic might conclude that inside every critic there is a director trying to get out! But this was nothing new, many of the Neorealists were involved on the same critical magazine and after them Lindsay Anderson and Karel Riesz were involved with Sequence in Britain.
Perhaps undue attention has been paid to Truffaut’s infamous slating of the “Tradition of Quality” especially the scriptwriters Aurenche and Bost in “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema” written in 1954. Critics offer no real evidence of how seriously this article was taken by either audiences or those in the cinematic establishment at the time. One wonders how seriously the article would have been taken by cinematic critics if Truffaut hadn’t made 400 Blows. This is clear evidence that there was a rapidly changing ‘structure of feeling’ (Raymond Williams) within France which Cahiers critics were a part of. Their elevation to world view could be seen as a political sleight of hand for in many ways 400 Blows was less challenging to French traditional identity than Lift to the Gallows which would seem outrageous to the Catholic right and its family values as well as promoting Miles Davis a black American jazz musician - hardly the epitome of French cultural values.
Malle’s next film ‘Les Amants’ was also a huge challenge to the mores of society. De Gaulle would hardly like to be associated with a film which challenged family and Catholic values even more than Escalator to the Scaffold. Both De Gaulle and a renewed French identity based partially upon a cultural Renaissance could safely focus upon the critics and emerging new directors of Cahiers du Cinema who with the exception of Pierre Kast were largely apolitical. They were clearly opposed to the Stalinist left who were in cosy collusion with the industrial leadership of cinema creating the cinema du papa of which Cahiers had been so critical. By comparison 400 Blows challenges older stuffy attitudes particularly in relation to the state and education which seemed more Victorian than anything else. In this it chimed with the popular Existentialist concepts of ‘Freedom’. Its autobiographical nature meant that the film was one which had an audience who could readily identify with the values represented in the film. It was the right film for the right time.
Luis Malle's Les amants (1958)
The Origins of the term Nouvelle Vague
Greene does pay attention to the origins of the expression Nouvelle Vague which are embedded in the journal L’Express. Greene notes that prior to this the journal La Nef had a special edition in 1955 which started to carry investigations into the growing influence of the post-war generation of youth a decade after the Second World War just as the long boom starts to take effect and post-war reconstruction is beginning to turn towards a consumer society. L’Express founded in 1954 and modelled on American News Magazines was itself very much a child of its time. Inevitably it was going to play a part in the emerging discourses linked to disappointment and a need for a clearer post-war identity for France which had failed to rediscover the Grandeur beloved of De Gaulle, was on the back foot in all its colonies, was deeply divided once one scratched the surface over the “Dark Years” of the War which was pretty much a three way split between communist Left / Catholic loyalists in the resistance and collaborators in the Vichy regime.
The Wave breaks with Truffaut's Les 400 coups (1959)
Hope for the future was seemingly being placed increasingly upon the young. The New Wave was an expression which developed from a large poll into this new generation organised by L’Express in 1957. By the following June (1958) notes Greene: “The term had gained such currency that L’Express began referring to itself as le journal de la nouvelle vague”. (Greene p 12). In this section it is possible to conclude that the French ‘New Wave Cinema’ can be defined as representative of the changing ‘structure of feeling’ as France adapted to post-war modernity which created a cultural moment allowing the youthful generation to identify with a newly emergent France under the leadership of the recently appointed Charles de Gaulle. It was of course a very limited representation of the French film industry which privileged the directors and critical discourses around Cahiers du Cinema above other tendencies within non mainstream cinema as it was a much safer cinema both politically and socially.
I would suggest that this is why A bout de soufflé compared with City of God fails to bring a contemporary 17 year old to the brink of tears. City of God explores the political and socio-cultural spaces of a Brazilian city in a way which no French New Wave film even dreams of attempting. Anyone who visited the recent Tate Modern exhibition on Global Cities and saw the juxtaposition of the mega rich and the totally impoverished will be familiar with the realism in terms of underlying social truths which City of God takes on. It is a long way from the notions of ‘truth’ which were promulgated at the time by the iconic director / thinkers of Cahiers du Cinema. Where the French New Wave is largely associated with form, City of God seems more concerned to combine form with content.
City of God by Mireilles. Part of the recent Latin American 'New Wave' its form combined a surrealistic mode with MTV style camerwork linked to a brutalised content that makes some viewers tearful. A tourists gaze of Paris it is not!
The Structure of Greene’s Book
Whilst Greene’s book falls short of reconfiguring the critical space of French New Wave discourse it will be extremely helpful in allowing readers to get to grips with the main strands of critical discourse surrounding the French New Wave for whatever my criticisms there is no doubt at all that what is commonly understood as the French New Wave and the critical discourses surrounding it have exercised enormous influence within cinematic culture as a whole.
Greene’s first chapter defines the traits of the New Wave, further chapters proceed to “What is Cinema: reflections upon film”, discuss the experiments of the 1950s and then in turn discuss the “Euphoria” of the moment and the “Aftershocks”.
The chapter on “Defining Traits” usefully examines the historical and critical discourses and provides the reader with a series of critical possibilities in terms of defining the New Wave from an extreme at one end of the critical spectrum embodied in the work of Marie who argues that the New Wave can be defined as a “School”, to the much looser definition of Williams in his synoptic history of French cinema “Republic of Images” where he describes the New Wave as a “brief period of upheaval and innovation”. There is a general acceptance that it is a cinema of youth and that it broke down the entry barriers and reshaped the French film industry. Certainly there was a considerable outpouring of film making in the years immediately following 1959 with double the number of films being made. However this also coincides with slumping box office takings and following 400 Blows and Breathless the films of Truffaut and Godard respectively didn’t achieve box office success. Their films emulated those of Rossellini one of their inspirations for after his war trilogy box office success also eluded him. For Rossellini and the other Neorealists the political shift to the right and the domination of US films were the issues. By the time the New Wavers had gained wider cinema across the US and Europe was already declining as a mass entertainment medium as TV combined with increasing disposable income led to other more expensive leisure pursuits being followed.
In her second chapter What is Cinema, clearly titled after the work of the leading French Critic Andre Bazin, Greene usefully examines the theoretical and critical backdrop to French cinema since the end of the Second World War. There is a section on Henri Langlois and the importance of the Cinematheque as a pedagogical inspiration to young cinephiles helping to groom the next generation of filmmakers. Although a relatively short section the emphasis on the deliberate pedagogical nature of Langlois’ project was made very clear which it often isn’t.
Musee du Cinema Henri Langlois
The current Cinematheque in a building designed by Frank Gehry
The importance and role of Andre Bazin is then considered, and the relationship of both Bazin and the “Young Turks” of the New Wave to Italian neorealism is explored. Whilst Bazin considered de Sica as well as Rossellini to be very important those such as Truffaut and Godard privileged Rossellini. I have yet to discover anything which might be understood by the Cahiers group as inspirational from the work of Visconti, Antonioni or Fellini. The Catholic liberalism and possibly the private life of Rossellini which challenged the moralists had enough radical appeal without going near the more overtly political work of Visconti for example despite the fact that he had clear links back to Renoir who was a favourite of the New Wavers.
Next comes a summary of the importance of Alexander Astruc and the ideas behind the camera-stylo or cinema as a form of writing which combined with ideas of the director as an auteur as camera-stylo meant that the director was ‘writing’ cinema by playing with cinematic form and visual modes of communication.
The next critical influence Greene deals with is Eric Rohmer who writing under his original name (Maurice Scherer) in the magazine La revue du cinema in 1948 discusses the role and importance of cinematic space. The article is a careful critique of the 'Tradition of Quality' whose reliance upon the script has led to films being constructed without due attention to modes of seeing thus failing to utilise and develop a truly cinematic language related to space and the construction and role of mise en scene. Jacques Rivette as early as 1954 also writes about mise en scene as:
‘a precise complex of people and decors, a network of relations, a moving architecture of relationships somehow suspended in space’ (Rivette cited Greene 2007 p 25).
Greene then moves on to the well known grouping around Bazin’s Cahier du Cinema placing some of the critical ideas such as Truffaut’s “A Certain Tendency” into context thus completing the critical backdrop to the ideas of the future New Wave Directors.
Film Experiments of the 1950s & Thoughts on Historiography
In her chapter Film Experiments of the 1950s Greene usefully covers a range of important filmmakers including Melville, Jean Rouch, the Left Bank film makers with sections on Agnes Varda and Chris Marker and then moving onto Roger Vadim and Louis Malle. Greene notes how much Truffaut liked Les Amants linking it to the spontaneity of Renoir. Of course this (deserved) appreciation of Renoir links back into the issue of French identity for Renoir’s films from the Popular Front period represent an assertion of national solidarity is ways which Neorealism functioned for Italy. Even in Britain this more spontaneous type of filmmaking had a route through Humphrey Jennings to Lindsay Anderson and Free Cinema which again links into national identity which cuts across class divides whilst at the same time being part of an internationalist tendency:
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith has argued that Jennings' work is better situated in the context of experimental film and the European avant-garde than within the documentary movement.
Jennings' own films, like those of European documentarists Joris Ivens, Henri Storck and Jean Rouch, discover the surreal in the everyday as opposed to the artistically contrived. (http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/453623/)
Greene spends quite a lot of time covering Jean Rouch who gets little mention in Williams (1992). This ethnographic approach with a clearly identified link to Jennings points to a pan-European cienamatic cultural movement which emerges unevenly. I must confess I haven't seen any of his work however a quick search of the web shows that there seems to be nothing available on DVD currently. This points to the need for a more co-ordinated European approach to its cinematic heritage. Greene's scholarship here should help to raise a greater awareness of this filmmaker. I did discover that there have been a couple of academic conferences on him in the UK in recent years sadly this hasn't raised an interest in republishing his work.
The New Wave had a marked distance from the powerful continental communist parties of the 1950s who had a strong influence within French cinema. All three national film trajectories were wary of right-wing nationalism on the one hand and strong Stalinist influences on the other nevertheless the trajectory of the cinema of all the countries was markedly different. Rather than just looking to the influence of French films of the 1950s with nods to Rossellini and Renoir it might be better to place the French New Wave as another eruption of European modernist avant-gardism in the duree of the 20th century. The seemingly inevitable disjunctions between art and politics have been noted by Ellis in relation to the British Free Cinema as well:
The politics behind this commitment were not particularly radical, perhaps best expressed again by Lindsay Anderson: "But one thing is certain: in the values of humanism, and in their determined application to our society lies the future. All we have to do is to believe in them." It led, however, to a brief association by the Free Cinema with the New Left, and with Universities and Left Review which ended in disillusion when it became clear that their interests in the cinema were fundamentally different. Uninterested in making propaganda films for Right or Left, the Free Cinema group wanted films which were not only socially committed but were also art. (Ellis 1977).
Here cultural historiography needs to balance the straight jacketed methods emanating from a 19th century style of teleological history to one which takes on board the fragments and ruptures which critics such as Walter Benjamin espoused where there is more emphasis on the concept of the unexpected which will be discussed briefly below.
This chapter is useful as it chooses some of the classics of the New Wave to make small case studies including: Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins by Chabrol, 400 Blows by Truffaut, Hiroshima mon amour by Resnais, and A bout de soufflé by Godard. What is strange in this chapter is that Greene flags up Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus shown at the 1959 Cannes festival and understood as a part of the New Wave it then disappears from view and remains one of the underwritten films of the period as the focus still remains primarily on the Cahiers group. It is nonetheless a useful chapter to those new to the period and provides a useful stepping stone for further investigation.
Greene’s last chapter focuses upon the longer term influences of the French Nouvelle Vague and cites directors as seemingly distanced as Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami as being strongly influenced by this movement or tendency. Kiarostami notes that the willingness to ‘break the rules’ was an important influence upon him but when one follows the hypothesis suggested here that there are stronger links with European Surrealism than is usually thought about, this ‘breaking of the rules’ can be understood as more embedded in a subversive tradition of seeing things differently.
Cultural Historiography: Tafuri's Recerca
As the French Nouvelle Vague becomes history rather than a contemporary cultural movement it becomes more important to place it within a wider historical framework whilst recognising that history itself is necessarily an interpretive act concerning the past. Here it is useful to borrow from the work of architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri. I have recently come across the recent translation of his important last work Ricerca del Rinascimento with an English title of Interpreting the Renaissance. Of course there is a loss through translation of the meaning of the term Ricerca which Hays his translator goes to some trouble to explain more fully. The term has several connotations:
- Constant revision of hypotheses in the light of new evidence
- An understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods
If we apply this term to the French New Wave I argue that it is best to place it within a wider history of European cinema, itself related to the cultural twists and turns of a tumultuous period of global history. Perhaps what is needed for a reassessment is a cinematic history which is modelled on Tafuri’s openly revisionist (in a positive sense of the term) of Italian Renaissance Architecture which has as its objective explains Hays:
…providing a comprehensive reassessment of Italian Renaissance architecture…Rejecting the conventions of the exhaustive survey, Tafuri’s book is instead a series of in-depth, interconnected studies that present the architecture of the period not only as a manifestation of its cultural circumstances, but also in terms of its artistic practices designed to reinforce, challenge, and transform dominant ideologies, thereby changing the context of its reception.” (Tafuri 2006: p XVII)
So far in my cross-national comparisons I have discovered not only a lack of Jean Rouch aqnd early Rivette but an underwriting of the British Free Cinema movement programmes. This is important to raise here because of its commitment to showing French films from directors who presumably were to become stalwarts of the French New Wave. This is a serious flaw in writing European cinema from a perspective dominated by notions of national cinema for it can provide an unwelcome straitjacket. The blurb on the BFI DVD notes that Free Cinema 5 was on French Renewal and included Chabrol and Truffaut but it goes no further. It notes that Free Cinema 2 screened the work of Franju amongst other French filmmakers. Fortunately I discovered some intersting work on the web:
Cinema 4 introduced to Britain for the first time two directors of the French New Wave - Claude Chabrol (with Le Beau Serge) and François Truffaut (with Les Mistons)( Lindsay Anderson Programme notes: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/anderson-77prognotes.html
This article by John Ellis makes a useful series of links between Free Cinema and continental and American art tendendencies:
The second, fourth and fifth programmes contained films which the group felt were madealong the kind of lines it was pursuing. Included were two American documentaries, LeSang des Bêtes by Georges Franju, a series of Polish films including ones made by Borowczyk, Lenica and Polanski, and a programme called 'French Renewal' with films by Frangois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol. Even with the British-made films there were many differences; they were made over six years between 1953 and 1959. The films were not made in collaboration but rather emerged as a group following their inclusion in the Free Cinema programme. (Ellis 1977 see link below).
Greene tends to downplay the importance of Franju who was involved with both documentary and fictional film making yet Anderson et al would have been attracted to Franju because his surrealistic links which would have placed him on a par with Humphrey Jennings. That Franju was intimately involved with the establishment of the Cinematheque along with Langlois is important and Williams covers Franju in reasonable detail in his Republic of Images.
Henri Langlois & George Franju cofounders of the Cinematheque
Overall this opportunity for critical reflection has helped to identify several aspects of French and European film culture which need to be unearthed and made more publicly available. Greene has written up Jean Rouch and created a greater focus on Rivette but perhaps underwritten Marcel Camus and George Franju but in a short book there will necessarily be gaps. It would be unreasonable to review Green’s necessarily brief summary of a movement in this way however there is always a danger that publishing becomes an essential support of a pre-established discourse often linked to increasingly highly structured aspects of educational curricula. Green’s book clearly is in accordance with a very specific target market and achieves its end very effectively.
Hopefully the enthusiastic filmgoer will take it as a useful first step upon a wider cultural and intellectual journey rather than a tick box “done the French New Wave”! As time passes I suspect that more will be made of the underwritten links with European cinematic surrealism and that what is known as the Nouvelle Vague will be understood as a surrealistic inter-ruption which would support the sort of historical methods espoused by Tafuri and Benjamin amongst others. It is strange that Greene specifically draws upon the surrealists in interwar France as an example of “…an intertwined flowering of French film and film criticism” repeated by the Cahiers group of film makers as well as others in the French cultural avant-garde of the 1950s.
Youthful joie de vivre in Bertolucci's France 1968 revisited film The Dreamers. Remind you of Jules et Jim anybody?
Return of the Repressed?
Perhaps we should leave our thoughts with Bertolucci whose film The Dreamers in some sense links an artistic politics to a material politics yet recognises the ultimate disjunction between them for the film notes the importance of Godard and Truffaut in defence of Henri Langlois and his position in the Cinematheque. It was March 1968 when the government tried to remove Langlois that the Cahiers cavalry came to the rescue. It was a surrealistic prelude to the uprising and strife of May 1968. Bertolucci was himself strongly influenced by Godard and was also in Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Lacan was very interested in surrealism. With the 40th anniversary of this we can reflect upon an “understanding of historical time as a fractured continuum, a dialectic of sudden events and long periods.”
Greene, Landscapes of Loss: The National Past in French Postwar Cinema. New Jersey: Princeton University Press
Greene, Naomi. 2007. The French New Wave. London: Wallflower Press. ISBN 978-1-905674-12-1
Tafuri, Manfredo. 2006. Interpreting the Renaissance: Princes, Cities, Architects. New Haven: Yale University Press
Williams, Alan. 1992. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge
BBC guide to George Franju http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A893441
Senses of Cinema on Georges Franju’s remake of Judex providing a strong link into European Surrealism: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/05/35/feuillade_franju_dvd.html
Taken from Ellis John (ed.), 1951-1976: British Film Institute Productions, London: British Film Institute, 1977: https://secure.bfi.org.uk/features/freecinema/archive/ellis-freecinema.html
August 23, 2007
This is entry is still being developed however the links may be helpful. They will be added to gradually. Unfortunately some writing got lost in a hard drive crash and will have to be redone.
Women Stars of the French New Wave
Jeanne Moreau, Bridgitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Catherine Deneuve
French Postwar Cultural and Film Policy Overview
This article provides a brief overview of French Post Second World War Film Policy. It is a small section of my overall project which is to provide a synoptic overview of the history of European cinema in the major European industrial countries. It skims over the background political developments of this period as well. As this blog develops there will be the capacity to zoom into to resources and articles on individual films / movements / directors and to zoom out to gain an overview of developments at a synoptic level.
After the liberation of France in 1944 Charles de Gaulle (above) the leader of the Free French becomes leader of the provisional government. This is replaced by the Fourth Republic in 1946.
Finally, in October 1944, Roosevelt and Churchill recognised the French Committee of National Liberation as the provisional government of France and de Gaulle as its leader. De Gaulle curtly responded, 'The French government is happy to be called by its name'. De Gaulle had won and, in the process, inflicted on the American President his greatest personal defeat of the Second World War. (BBC The Allies at War)
French Cultural and Film Policy
French cultural policy has historically been strongly centralised and interventionist. From 1960-1993 France has been Europe’s leading film-making country which Graham[i] attributes to three interrelated factors; the cultural policy environment[ii], interacting with a large pool of talent and a receptive public[iii]. The argument here is that the latter conditions are dependent upon the cultural policy framework for without this structuring feature local talent would be attracted either abroad or to other industries such as television which would provide a more secure income.
The construction of a receptive audience is more complex requiring considerable sociological research to provide more substantial reasons for the existence of particular audiences. The Cannes film festival was founded in 1946 primarily as a showcase for French films functioning as the tip of a lively film festival culture. The role of cultural policy and planning initiatives in ensuring that these festivals are financially sound is beyond the brief of this work. When Cannes was started Venice was the prime festival venue in Venice, but, over a period of years Cannes managed to reach the position it still holds today has as the premier European film festival.
An important aspect of the development of French cinema is in the highly ambiguous relationship which exists betwen France and the USA. In hindsight it can be seen that French cinema has acted synechdocally, as a part signifying the greater whole, for this relationship which is also coming to terms with their own post-colonial past and issues of modernisation. While it is hard to evaluate there is also the issue of French national identity and repairing national pride. France’s international reputation regarding cinema had come to be built on what has developed as an 'auteurist-industrial' mode of production.
Film as an Assertion of National Identity
The cultural strands of auterism existed before the war, however Nazi and Vichy controls had limited this aspect of French cinema which was an important source of cultural pride amongst the intellectual elites. In the wider cultural sphere the Second World War saw the global pre-eminence of France in the field of fine arts almost entirelydisappear . Modern art and modern artists moved to the USA,
France's Position in a Changing World
French troops in Algeria 1954
The French relationship with America was not just in the realm of arts and cinema. The history of the 20th century itself is the story of America coming to reach hegemony as a power with a global reach which has never been seen before. This was at the expense of the European empires of which France was one. France had always been been behind in the empire-building stakes. Prior to the rise of America Britain had held pride of place. During the 20th century France has been invaded twice and rescued largely by the Americans. It had failed to modernise prior to WW II which can be seen as partially being responsible for its defeat. This was taken on board as a primary task by de Gaulle’s provisional government 1944-45 and then the post-war Fourth Republic[iv]. Women - whose position in society is a powerful indicator of the rate of progress of a state - didn’t have the vote until after the war for example.
Vietnamese soldiers hoist a victory flag at the battle of Dien Bien Phu 1954
France had been largely marginalised in the establishment of post-war Europe, primarily conducted between Stalin and Roosevelt then Truman with Churchill having some say. The French empire started collapsing around it immediately afterwards. The huge defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese nationalists at DienBien Phu in 1954 led to the establishing of an independent Vietnam organised into northern and southern zones. Morocco and Tunisia were also awarded their autonomy by 1956. This was the year in which the 1954 revolt in Algeria had turned into war. 1956 was also the year in which both Britain and France had become involved in the Suez crisis, an incident which politically sealed their fates as leading players on the world geo-political scene and effectively marked the end of European imperial ambitions. The hostility of the United States towards this adventurist action led to ignominious withdrawal and governmental crisies in both countries. The routes taken by France and Britain were quite different. France eventually installed General de Gaulle (08 / 01 / 59) as an archetypal strong leader in 1958 with the ability to change the constitution approved by referendum. [de Gaulle biography]
De Gaulle becomes President of France January 1959 (Above)
From the end of the war a tension between France and the USA emerged around cinema. The trade agreements established between France and the USA included film export quotas as part of the agreement for delivering Marshall Aid. Marshall Aid was the funds which the USA made available to help fund post-war reconstruction in Europe and thus stabilise the region conditional upon providing support for liberal democratic politics. These quotas were to prove a symbolically important bone of contention. The history of protectionist measures instituted by the French to ensure the survival of their own film industry go back to 1928 the Herriot Decree introducing a quota system. Following this a ceiling was created of 150 American films per year in 1936. In 1952 this was lowered to 110. In May 1946 the Blum-Byrnes agreement was established which stipulated that that French films must be screened for at least four out of every thirteen weeks - equivalent to slightly less than one third of available screen time.
This created a strong negative reaction amongst the French film industry who felt extremly threatened by the immediate post-war ‘swamping’ - or massive popular demand depending on your point of view! - of French screens with American output. Arguably this represented huge pent-up supply and demand. The French film industry which had been largely unchallenged during the occupation started a defensive mobilisation at the end of 1947 and early in 1948. As a result there was a demonstration from all parts of the industry in Paris of approximately 10,000 people. This accompanied a vigorous publicity and lobbying campaign. As a result of the pressure the quota was renegotiated giving French films a minimum of well over 40 % of available screen time, five weeks out of twelve.
Of course read through eyes which are not driven by self-interest or nationalist hubris it could be argued that the French general public much preferred the output of Hollywood, its narratives and its content. Hollywood for millions of ordinary people across Europe signified progress and liberal democracy firing idealism and hope at a time of reconstruction and revelations about the horrors and deep traumas of war in general and the Holocaust in particular.
The First Plan of the post-war republic between 1947-1950 incorporated concerns about cinema and proposed to reduce taxes on the cinema, build studio capacity, to modernise and rebuild cinema theatres and establish a specialist body to co-ordinate cinema. As a result as early as 1946 the Centre National de la Cinematographie ( CNC ) was established. In 1947 it took over responsibility for the film festival at Cannes. In 1948 the loi d’aide was set up. This didn’t provide any subsidies but ensured that a proportion of profits from the industry were reinvested in the industry.
Financial assistance was also offered to producers in proportion to receipts of the last film they had made. This policy was an attempt to ensure continuing financial support for the creation of new French films. The policy was moderately successful and during the 1950’s it provided approximately 17% of the total investment in film production in France. This system was reliant upon high attendance figures to be successful. However many of the films failed to receive critical acclaim and audiences began to decline partly due to the mediocrity of the products. As a result the French parliament in 1953 set up a development aid fund which was designed to promote higher quality and innovation. Projects were to be: “French and of a kind to serve the cause of cinema or to open new perspectives in the art of cinematography”[v]. Speakers in the National Assembly also argued for the importance of education over pure profits. This position was clearly a conflation of aesthetics and national identity. This added selective aid to that of automatic aid designated in 1948 thus making available funds for low-cost independent film-makers also coincided with much lighter and more effective cinema technologies made production cheaper and location shooting possible.
Postwar French cultural Policy & the Links to Vichy France
Whilst the aesthetic nationalist traditions can be traced to 1918, the industrial cultural policy framework influencing present day France has its origins in Petain’s Vichy collaborationist government. A new ruling body for the industry was established in Paris the Committee for the Organization of the Cinematographic Industries (COIC). The regulations they introduced laid the basis for a more stable financial structure, policies to boost short film production, establishing controls oer box-office receipts and establishing a new film school IDHEC (Now Femis).
The convergence of political and financial support alongside technological innovation provided the basis for the emergence of the ‘New Wave’ in 1958 coincided with the recent installation of the Gaullist regime which was concerned with protectionist ideas particularly in relation to cultural concerns and considered Hollywood as threatening to dilute the culture, as it was increasing its market share of cinema takings. Government aid to the industry came through establishing the avance sur recettes (which still exists) system. This advance on potential takings acted as a form of subsidy to those films which didn’t become profitable and acted as a soft loan for those films which did move into profits as some of the profits was used to pay back the advance. Acting as a form of underwriting this enabled many people to become directors for the first time stimulating production.
The inception of the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) [Sample chapter available here!] allowed space for critics and policy-makers to support cinema in the form of the ‘art film’. As a cinema for audiences with considerable cultural capital and those concerned with increasing their cultural capital and the financial means to do this, French government policy enabled indigenous cinema to compete against Hollywood at a time when TV was beginning to erode the mass-audience base of cinema. On average between 30-40 films a year received the avance, which represented approximately a quarter of the production.
Francois Truffauts 400 Blows (1959) was the film which announced the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague only months after de Gaulle came to power.
Falling Box Office Receipts and Audience
In common with cinema in general there was a continuous steep decline in cinema-going dropping from around 400 million attendances in 1959 to around 180 million by 1969. The context had moved from a crisis of production to one based upon exhibition, a crisis which was general in western countries at this time largely because of the impact of TV. French cultural policy had to adapt to the changing circumstances and in 1967 the first step to try and halt the decline was put into place by allowing exhibitors to benefit from the development funds through the Fonds de soutien. This helped to modernise cinemas but benefited larger chains rather than smaller independents leading to rationalisation and concentration, a process which happened amongst the distributors thus reducing the numbers of films available. This could be seen as bad for consumers by limiting choice but it signalled a clear problem of supply outstripping demand.
Furthermore there is the issue of the viewing experience! The rapid improvements in TV technologies and the failure to re-invest in making cinema an attractive outing was a failure to adapt to newer audience requirements. Consequently from some consumer points of view consolidation of exhibition space was beneficial to consumers. The financial support for exhibitors helped to establish multiplexes in the larger towns and cities. This reflected an international tendency to make widespread releases of films in order to increase the speed of receipts on a given film thus amortising the costs of production quickly.
Alongside the specific help given to exhibitors the relaxation of censorship after 1968 which was general across the west encouraged both the production and exhibition of sex films and it wasn’t until 1976 that a law was passed preventing sex-films from benefiting from government support. At the same time new taxes were instituted on the production and exhibition of these films. The intention was to reign in the pornography market back to the approximate 10% of market share which had always sustained it.
Throughout the period of the 1960s through the 1970s TV ownership blossomed as it had done over the rest of Europe. As disposable incomes rose leisure other leisure pursuits developed reducing audiences. In parallel to this TV became an important exhibitor of films. Between 1965 and 1975 the number of films screened on TV doubled. Films were a relatively cheap way of filling up continuously expanding broadcasting schedules, and the French TV monopoly ORTF was broken up into seven separate companies. This was partly motivated by an attempt to control costs making a proportion of each channel’s income dependent upon viewing numbers to increase competitiveness. Popular films which were also cheap were popular with schedulers too. This led to the numbers of art films which had received the avance de recettes being shifted from prime-time viewing.
TV also steadily became important producers of films and there was a special budget allowance of 8 million francs allowed for film production in 1979 for the TFI and Antenne 2 channels which joined the 2 channels which had had a production license since 1974. By 1982 the Bredin report on French cinema pointed out that joint production and advance sale of broadcasting rights had significantly transformed film production and distribution. Becoming exhibition-led rather than production-led, the influence of cultural policy that was directly intervention declined changing to a more regulatory role, whilst TV has taken over as the ‘effective controller of the industry’ suggests Forbes.[vi]
In many respects Forbes’ analysis effectively shows that the processes of globalisation, in the form of centralising capital were gradually becoming focused upon media concerns. Cultural policy at the level of state control was being eroded. Historically it is likely that the period of French film history from the inception of the nouvelle vague to the awarding of several TV companies with the rights of film production will go down as a period when the auteur film flourished in a way that no other single country has ever seen or is likely to see. These films were somewhat elitist in that they were made for a largely intellectualised audience, it is nonetheless important to ensure that cinema seen as a form of public sphere operating at levels of both form and content should have some relative autonomy from purely commercial concerns. Arguably the way forward for European cinema and the institutional frameworks supporting it needs to be multiperspectival utilising some of the insights which informed French cinema policy.
1 [i]Graham, Peter. 1997 p
[ii] Forbes, Jill. 1992, p 2 makes a stronger case arguing that the audience has been constructed and maintained by ‘supporting the production of films that are intended ot for the mass audience but for the smaller , educated, middle-class
3 [iv]Joll, James.1990, p 448.
4 [v]Forbes, Jill. ( 1992 ) p 6.
5 [vi] Forbes ( 1992 ) p 10 .
Roberto Rossellini & the French New Wave
It is generally acknowledged by most critics that Roberto Rossellini was an enormous influence in the development of the French New Wave. Andre Bazin considered that Rossellini was hugely important in the development of a realist aesthetic within cinema and his viewpoint strongly influenced the young critics cum filmmakers especially Truffaut and Godard. McCabe in his recent biography of Godard emphasises the point:
McCabe argues that it was Voyage to Italy that was the most admired. McCabe notes that Le Mepris by Godard can be read as a remake of Voyage to Italy although of course the endings are radically different with Rossellini being immensely optimistic at the end whilst for Godard there is death. I argue elsewhere on this blog discussing Visconti's Bellissima that Godard's metacinematic approach to Le Mepris links his work to that of Visconti as well.
The connections between Truffaut and Rossellini are if anything even stronger as Ingrams and Holmes (1998) point out. Bazin had introduced Truffaut to Rossellini in 1954 and Truffaut worked with him ‘intermittently’ as an assistant director between 1955-1956. Rossellini didn’t make any films in these years but Truffaut gained experience of pre-production in the preparation of scenarios rather than the process of practical production.
The recent re-release of Voyage to Italy from the BFI with a commentary option by Laura Mulvey opens up an opportunity to reassess Rossellini’s work and its influence upon the Nouvelle Vague Cahiers critics. For Rossellini location shooting was a pre-requisite of cinema and although he used the well established Hollywood lead actors Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders part of the reason that they were affordable was because they had already peaked in Hollywood. Mulvey notes that Rossellini gave Sanders a hard time during the shooting and that Rossellini was seeking to breakdown the Hollywood professionalism of Sanders and to get the real Sanders to come through. As for the rest of the cast it was a mixture of minor actors non-professionals and friends. The music was scored by Rossellini’s brother who had worked with him on many occasions. This then was a classic authorial approach to production. With regard to the realism of the shooting it is worth noting the many shots taken from the point of view of the car and in the car. There is a marked contrast between the way these are shot and the studio work of Clouzot’s car scenes in Les Diaboliques made two years later.
Apart from the actual conditions of film-making the film can be marked out as distinctively modernistic in terms of how it treated narrative. Mulvey emphasises this aspect of the film describing it as ‘the first modern film’. By this she means that the film is resistant to a modernity marked by its instrumentalism and its emphasis on driving forward narrative goals in a way which emulated the instrumentalist ethic of capitalism itself. By comparison Rossellini had chosen a short story by Joyce upon which to base the film. As such the film meanders, there are cinematic asides such as Mr. Joyce’s little adventure to find some wine during siesta time. Mulvey notes that this scene was cut by many distributors when the film was released. The narrative itself marks time and the content at this point highlights the northern Protestant impulse ‘to do’ marked against the different Neapolitan time. This attitude to time is something which Mulvey sees as an elemental theme throughout the film. The narrative structure itself still seems to fall within the schema suggested by Todorov who argues that stories have distinct phases in which the balance of equilibrium is upset, there is a recognition of this and eventually a balance is restored. In Voyage to Italy the equilibrium of the London life is upset by the dislocated space of holiday and the chance for self-reflection by the couple. The crisis develops is identified and then in this case somewhat miraculously the couple are brought back together again.
Mulvey also emphasises that in Voyage to Italy it is Naples itself that is the star of the film seeing the film as largely an excuse for Rossellini to film in and around Naples. This is of enormous importance when one comes to think about the representations of Paris in the work of the New Wave for most of the early films of the Cahiers group were shot in and around Paris. In a bout de souffle Belmondo specifically enters into a verbal architectural discourse. The full length feature films of Truffaut also resonate with the sounds and the feel of Parisian streets.
It is in the representations of cityspace that a sceptical or nostalgic form of modernism is given reign. There is a certain nostalgia for the old which in Voyage to Italy becomes quite literally archaeological whilst the archaeology is more metaphorical in the Nouvelle Vague. It is the ambiguities of modernity that are also explored in Tati’s satirical cum slapstick films with Mon Oncle (1958) being a fine example of the juxtaposition of the modern Corbusian ‘machine for living’ set against Hulot’s labyrinthine pre-modern living space which is softer, more human and more in touch with nature itself where a song-bird sings when the sun shines on it whilst the fish fountain a modern vanity only comes to life when the visitors bell is pressed.
For more on notions of cityspace try the work of Guiliana Bruno
July 08, 2007
Of all the new young French directors who came to prominence between 1958-1964 Francois Truffaut is currently the most written about. Truffaut’s key films from this period are 400 Blows (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules et Jim (1961). In 400 Blows the character Antoine Doinel a schoolboy, who is at odds with his parents, school and society is introduced. The film won Truffaut the best director’s prize at Cannes in 1959 and firmly placed him on the map of French film directors. Below some of the circumstances of these films are explored. Firstly the article notes the position of the changing representations of youth, it then develops some issue, themes and concerns within Truaffaut's three key films of the Nouvelle Vague. Finally the article relates these films to issues of gender and the specific kind of femininity represented in the New Wave. It also questions whether Truffaut's films can be understood as being misogynistic.
A Celebration of Youth Begins
In Europe and the USA the phenomenon of youth as having a separate cultural identity had started. 400 Blows gains much of its vibrancy from a representation of youth which is totally different to anything which had come before. How far its elements are autobiographical are unclear however this to some extent irrelevant for Doinel acts as an allegory for the position of youth in France. France in this representation was seen as repressive and thoroughly hierarchical suffering the hangovers of an imperialist nation which had been invaded and was undergoing severe post-war stress as problems in Algeria and Vietnam started to emerge.
There is something of the freshness and vigour of both Vigo the pre-war French director and the neo-realist approach of Roberto Rossellini in Truffaut’s approach - Truffaut had worked for Rossellini who was even a witness at his marriage. In Rossellini's Roma Citta Aperta (1945) a young tearaway and his followers played an important role in symbolising resistance to Nazi occupation and the closing scene of children walking into a future Italy was symbolically powerful.
400 Blows is not so clearly optimistic as Roma citta aperta. It challenges the audience through its open ending. Antoine having successfully escaped from the institution and standing at the seaside is in a state of confusion: where next? is the question posed by the closing shot on his face. The shot begs the question what is the future of this boy. Does the audience want him to go back to the reform school, how do they want Antoine’s life to proceed? are his parent’s good influences? There are no straightforward answers for Antoine is in a very confused and ambiguous position. Antoine has been mistreated, yet at times is dishonest as the interview with the psychologist makes clear. It is the underlying quest of the film to place the audience in a position of reflexivity which makes the film so effective and makes it a part of a distinctly modern tradition. The film thus poses a question for France. Its politics are thus linked to its form.
Doinel appears as a character in many of Truffaut’s subsequent films. There are strong autobiographical references in this film and it is claimed that the film contributed to the divorce of Truffaut’s parents. Apparently they were very upset by the contents as Doinel’s parents are very unsympathetic characters. Apparently Albert Remy who played the father bore quite a strong resemblance to Truffaut’s father. Gillain points out that interviews with Truffaut revealed two contradictory positions on the film’s status as autobiographical having claimed that he had experienced all the hardships represented in the film and denied that the film was his autobiography. Gillain argues that the denial was down to aesthetic reasons.
Just as the world view of a director, especially an auteurist one, will operate at both a conscious and unconscious level, it is possible to over-read a text and construct it as totally autobiographically determined:
The need to understand oneself better, the desire to establish one’s unique identity or the urge to interpret one’s life- all these motives account for the autobiographical impulse. In order to treat the self as a narrative object, the author must select the facts that he or she recalls to reconstruct the unity of his or her life. The author must also impose an order on its individual events and bestow upon them narrative coherence , as well as achieve the creation of an imaginary self.
Truffaut’s autobiography can be seen as being spread over twenty-one feature length films. Although each film is self-contained an auteur structuralist perspective argues that the whole of his _oeuvre_ can be read in the light of each being a part of a greater whole. Gillain’s (2000) contention is that all Truffaut’s films offer a variation along themes of repression and secret aspects of the self in what she describes as a ‘Script of Delinquency’.
In 400 Blows a spatially organised set of relationships can be discerned which revolves around a binary opposition between outside and inside. Inside, whether at home or at school the shots are mainly static and in close-up, whilst outside there is mobility and a sense of freedom. The streets and the outside come to represent freedom of thought, action and movement.
Stylistically 400 Blows is influenced by the camera-person Henri Decae. The camerawork is fluid and combines ...a modern mobility with classical depth in many of the location shots suggests Neupert (2002) as the filming of the rotor ride sequence indicates. Gillain takes a more psychoanalytically inflected analysis of the rotor scene suggesting the space is womb-like and represents a compensation for lack of affection.
The narrative style constructs the film as a series of separate scenes or segments. This is very different to the continuity codes of the classical Hollywood cinema. This use of segmentation opens the text up so that the audience can quickly recognise that these activities and scenarios are everyday ones, in which there is no single cause and event structure, rather, the life of Antoine is consistently one of being alienated from the institutions and his parents. That he ultimately gets into trouble for stealing a typewriter - clearly an act driven by some level of internal frustration rather than maliciousness or even to try and make money - spurs the drift into his institutionalisation. In France at that time parents were able to ask the French authorities to take their children into reformatory care if they thought that they were behaving in a very uncontrollable manner and Doinel’s father did this.
The film acts as an opportunity for liberal modern reflection upon an archaic disciplinary structure which has no place in contemporary French society, and transcends the purely autobiographical, moving from the micro ethnographical approach to the everyday. In doing this it serves to create a meaning which challenges the dominant discourses based upon the discipline of the time. This trend can be seen in a wider context across western countries with the disciplinarity of imperialistically minded discourses. Resistance against the system was represented in the British New Wave by The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for example.
Behind the Production
400 Blows was co-produced by Truffaut’s father in law who was a mainstream producer and distributor in the French film industry. 400 Blows proved a critical and popular success as well as a financial one. The American rights were sold for between $50,000 - $100,000 (depending on which version is listened to). The film was also the fifth largest grossing one in the French box office that year. This catapulted Truffaut from being one of the best known young critics to the best known young film maker. It enabled him to engage in new feature length projects as well as putting him in a position to help influence producers to back other projects from the emergent new wave directors.
Shoot the Piano Player
Shoot the Piano Player was Truffaut’s next project. It was based on a pulp fiction American novel Down There. Here it is important to note that Truffaut hadn’t been against literary adaptations as such but the treatment of adaptations by the French studio system which prioritised a visual syntax that was explanatory of the words in the book rather than trying to translate the book into what Truffaut understood to be a properly cinematic language to convey the essence and spirit of the original. Truffaut and the other participants of the French New Wave prioritised a visual and cinematic language as a means of expression.
Shoot the Piano Player was a parodic take on the American 'B' movie thriller and for several reasons was unpopular with both critics and the audiences alike at the time. Sellier argues that it is a modernist work by being both critical of established Bourgeois culture of the quotidian but also of the mass culture of entertainment.
bq. Analysing mass market American films the Cahiers du cinema critics - by emphasising the most abstract aspects of their mise en scene and by disregarding the socio-cultural context of their production and consumption - gave impetus to the modernist, distanced gaze on cinema that the most innovative films of the New Wave worked to mobilise' (Sellier, Genevieve, 2001, p127)
It is in retrospect that the qualities of the film emerge Neupert (2002) describes it fulsomely as ...one of Truffaut’s great stylistic triumphs and one of the freshest, loosest and even funniest films of his career. Truffaut used Raoul Couthard who had worked on Godard’s a Bout de souffle as the camera-person which helped give the film a grittier less polished feel to it.
Truffaut’s editing was also a fundamental part of the film's aesthetic. There were shifting visual rhythms moving from the long takes, favoured by Andre Bazin, to discontinuous montages far distant from the Bazinian naturalist aesthetic. The text also plays with genre systems of narrative which has encouraged some in need of a publication to suggest that the film is in some sense ‘postmodern’ however this is taken as mere critical discursive construction, for it is in this that the film is decisively modern in its approach.
As Sellier argues the film takes a modernist mode, of what Astruc describes as cinecriture, to construct and represent a wounded masculine subjectivity. Sellier describes the process as one of an admixture between the modernist sensibility and the romanticist one leading to a dual cultural inheritance that was to strongly mark the aesthetics of the New Wave.
The Political Context
The film became beset by political problems. In the post production phase Truffaut's editor Cecile Decugis was arrested for allowing her flat to be used by the Algerian resistance movement. Truffaut used several thousand dollars from the production budget to establish a defence fund. Truffaut also signed the ’Manifesto of the 121’ encouraging soldiers to desert rather than fight the Algerian war. It had soon been signed by 400 intellectuals, artists and other well known people, including Truffaut. As a response the state owned media prohibited the appearance of the signatories which reduced Truffaut’s opportunities for publicity. The right dubbed Truffaut as ‘anti-French’, although the left-wing cinema journal Positif were led to revaluate their position on Truffaut.
Jules et Jim
Truffaut’s next film was in the mould of an historical melodrama, however, it could hardly be described as ‘generic’. Jules et Jim came from Henri Pierre Roche’s novel of the same title . The film was shot on a budget that was high by New Wave standards of $280,000, nevertheless with the death of his father in law Morgernstern during production there was an increased level of financial vulnerability.
As a result, shooting was in borrowed locations with costs pared as far as possible. The film is based upon a menage a trois consisting of: Jules, an Austrian living in Paris; Jim, a writer who meets Jules in Paris; Catherine who becomes their muse. Catherine resembles a Greek statue which they saw together on a spontaneous trip after seeing a slide show and becoming fascinated by it. Jules eventually marries Catherine, then World War 1 breaks out and Jules and Jim fight on opposite sides.
After the war Jim visits Jules and Catherine who by this time has a daughter Sabine. Catherine is unsettled and has taken on other lovers and is currently having an affair with Albert the person who showed Jules et Jim the slide show in the first place. Catherine seduces Jules who has always wanted her and the menage live in the same chalet for a few weeks together. Catherine gets bored with her romance with Jim and seduces Jules again. The men pretend that they aren’t jealous of each other although one evening it comes out that they are.
Catherine is represented as wanting to have men on her terms and as being mentally unstable. (how often is this the case when men are wanting women on thier terms?) Jim eventually returns to Paris but wants to be with Catherine who has declared that she wants to marry him and have children. Jules who has given up hope of a stable relationship with Catherine favours this as he can’t bear the idea of losing Catherine altogether.
From Paris Jim corresponds with Catherine whilst being with Ghilberte who is represented as being little more than somebody who brings Catherine’s letters to Jim and is wetly prepared to accept her lot. The relationship between Jules and Catherine seems to have broken down irretrievably when Catherine who is pregnant by Jules has a miscarriage. By ‘chance’ Jules and Jim meet up in Paris and Jules goes to meet Catherine again in the mill house near Paris where she and Jules have moved to. Jules is determined to try and break the spell and announces that he is going to marry his girlfriend Ghilberte whereupon Catherine draws a revolver and threatens to kill him .
Later, there is a seeming attempted rapprochement when Jules, Jim and Katherine go out for a drive together in Catherine’s car. Catherine asks Jules to come with her for a drive and asks Jim to watch them carefully. Catherine then proceeds to drives them both off an bridge which has no central section and they both drown. It was a film about amour fou or mad love.
The use of Jeanne Moreau and the nature of the story were good marketing ploys. It was criticised by the Catholic church in France and the Legion of Decency in America which might well have helped its success. The film employed long takes and montages alongside freeze framing, handheld wide screen shooting, and 360 degree pans. This combination of techniques break decisively with the ‘cinema of quality’s’ approach to the historical melodrama.
The larger budget also allowed for more refined lighting techniques and more sophisticated work on the soundtrack so in this sense the film was moving away from the rougher edged early films. Many critics see the film as the beginning of the end of the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague ) as many of directors gradually became part of a different structure of cinema.
Issues of Stars and Gender in Jules et Jim
It is worthwhile reading Jules et Jim through the lenses of both gender and star criticism. Here the work of Sellier and Vincendeau is especially useful in beginning to open up the discourse. The typical new wave film coming from ex-Cahiers critics can be seen as being an aesthetic project which was highly critical - at times vituperative in Truffaut’s case - towards the establishment. The aesthetic also functioned from a necessity born of material limitations.
In a move typical of rebellious youth, Truffaut had announced that he wasn’t prepared to work with established stars such as Michele Morgan and Pierre Gabin on the grounds that they influenced the mise en scene by demanding close ups in accordance with their status as stars. An argument that was more polemically based than factual.
It was an argument which Godard would effectively dispel in Le Mepris which critiqued the role of the producers and their control of the financial package to ensure that the audience were given what they ‘wanted’ as the key determinant. (Godard's treatment including the ways in which Bardot was filmed will be dealt with elsewhere(. Nevertheless, in relation to the issue of the usage of stars Truffaut made an aesthetic vision the rationale for not being able to afford well established actors.
The Eroticised Star of the New Wave
Of course this very materially influenced approach to film-making brought forward new actors. Less established women actors such as Jeanne Moreau and entirely new women such as Anna Karina became central to the French New Wave. In a tradition that emanated from 19th century romanticism the leading women were often associated with the directors. In Moreau’s case with firstly Louis Malle and then Truffaut and in Karina’s case with Godard.
Vincendeau perceptively places Moreau as central in this process for Moreau was associated with Malle in the prefigurations of the New Wave in Lift to the Scaffold, and then Les Amants. This was followed by her work with Antonioni in La Notte (1961). Moreau then played a key role as Catherine in Jules et Jim.
Above Jeanne Moreau in Antonioni's La Notte
Moreau had been firstly reconstructed by Malle and her early acting work within the mainstream played down. As Catherine, Moreau fits in well with one of the trends in the representation of women in which they are objects of desire who function to lead the male protagonists to their downfall. Moreau played this role in Lift to the Scaffold (1958), Les Amants and Jules et Jim. Truffaut can be identified along with Malle by establishing this approach in Tirez sur le pianiste as well.
Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Les Amants(1958)
The attraction of Moreau is that through her performances she helped to establish a new definition of femininity which was an essential part of liberalising modernity. It was a representation that was fresh, alluring and different suggests Vincendeau.
This wasn’t a position solely occupied by the French New Wave for the ‘phantasmic male projection’ of new woman was also created in Britain through the character of Julie Christie. Unlike Moreau, Christie was to gain international star status in films such as Dr Zhivago moving on from the ‘will o the wispish’ persona exemplified in Billy Liar (1963).
Christie can also be associated with the more gamine actresses associated with the New Wave such as Karina and Jean Seberg. Moreau’s role as a slightly older actress was to reflect the sophisticated, intellectual mood of the films. But all echoed the ideology of the New Wave: authenticity, modernity and sensuality. In Jules et Jim, Moreau was positioned in a different hierarchy to mainstream cinema as the star wasn’t dominant in the mise en scene, just an element within it.
In common with other films from the New Wave such as A Bout de souffle and Bande a parte, both by Godard, there was a different regime of the look in which a less sexually but more erotically inscribed construction of femininity was installed. Vincendeau compares this look with that of Bardot: New wave actresses were young, good-looking and sexy, but not too overtly glamorous. Bardot was so extraordinary that her beauty conceptualised as an effect of surface, became the theme of her films. In the New Wave films committed to authenticity and depth, beauty appeared more ‘realistic’ coming ‘from within’. Vincendeau argues that in contrast to the female nudity increasingly exploited by the mainstream the New Wave achieved a more erotic effect by shifting the focus of attention from women’s bodies to their faces.
This attention to ‘surface modernity’ of the stars also fitted well with the liberalising modernity of modernising France which was moving to a consumption based model of capitalism as the more classically bourgeois fourth republic, which was also a moment of post-war reconstruction and austerity, gave way to TVs, holidays and cars a harbinger of greater leisure as the post-war boom progressed and the bonds of empire began to fall away.
In terms of space and the representations of women in the city the New Wave saw Jean Seberg in a Bout de souffle follow Moreau’s roam through the city firstly in Lift to the Scaffold and then in La Notte. This public space was still fraught with danger that accompanied those who tried to became a sort of flaneuse. Moreau was taken as a prostitute on occasion and Seberg ended up being chatted up by a thief and a murderer. In that sense these representations of modernising women were rather more conservative than that of Julie Christie in Billy Liar for it is she who travels everywhere, even to France (perhaps a reference to the new wave representation of women?), by hitch-hiking on lorries if necessary.
New Wave Directors as Misogynists
Christie represents the fearlessness of modern female youth in a world apparently without danger. She is contrasted with the dreaming Billy Liar who is unable to turn his fantasies into reality. By contrast the French representations of femininity end in the misogyny of the femme fatale of a neurotic Catherine in Jules et Jim, a femininity based upon a romanticist notion that it is women through their deadly sexuality who foil the projects of the heroic male.
The final sentence of Vincendeau’s article encapsulates the gendered limitations of the New wave directors take on liberal modernity: Concentrating the values of romantic love, sensuality, sensitivity and modernity, Moreau brought a feminised surface to the New Wave which superimposed itself on its male and misogynist foundations.
If Jules et Jim epitomises a masculinised notion of freedom through the carefree images of an idealised woman and set of relationships in its first part the darkening mood of the film could be seen to represent a post-First World War in which the mechanised killing fields mean that nothing is ever quite the same again. It is a position which relates to the expressionist mood of early Weimar cinema. As a story of amour fou looked at in hindsight the film seems somewhat vacuous. Characterisations are thin and inconsistent and Catherine as an object of desire is constructed through the look rather than through any intellectual or emotional capacities.
Enigmatic Romanticism and the Suspension of Materiality
In Jules et Jim this enigmatic romanticism was constituted around an enigmatic statue of a woman in a way which establishes an essential female eroticism which transcends both time and space and inscribes femininity with both an exotic and erotic otherness fundamental to romantic thought. The film also suspends materiality, for Catherine manages to afford her own car at a time when to have a car meant to be extremely well off yet she has no obvious independent income. Jules as a hermit style ecologist in his post-war character can hardly afford that.
The audience is informed that Catherine has both an aristocratic and a commoner background however this is not expanded. The voice-over narration is used to describe the feelings of the characters functioning to allowing the mise en-scene a certain amount of autonomy. In that sense the film is working as a part of New Wave aesthetics. Unlike La Dolce Vita (1959) the film tends to ignore society, and it fails to achieve the necessary depth in its characterisations. Its romanticised modernism doesn’t go as far as Antonioni’s L’avventura (1960) in terms of alienation and the difficulties of communication between people but it is nonetheless following this path.
All these films feature suicides which is the ultimate breakdown of interpersonal communications and alienation and still a feature of contemporary life. In hindsight the explanation from Tartan video’s opening that the film is a ‘cult’ classic is probably fitting. Whilst it was a massively important contribution to a defining cultural moment in French cinema it ultimately fails to satisfy as a piece of art when set alongside the contemporary contributions from Italy.
References here can be accessed in the bibliogaphies section of the blog in the French bibliography.