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Impacts French New Wave Film on Traditional Cinema

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Published: Fri, 15 Dec 2017

How and why did the French New Wave upset traditional film grammar?

Firstly we must look at the period before French New Wave came about to understand why this movement upset tradition. The French New Wave period reigned from the 1950s to the 1960s and entertained millions of people who watched film at the time. This period is very important as famous directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard emerged. They were the next generation of directors; they had been brought up in a France that had been torn apart after the second World War meaning France was starting to get back on it’s feet. They had seen the works of directors that had come before this period titling it, cinéma de papa or Dad’s cinema, and wanted to separate themselves from it. Films prior to the French New Wave period were often dull and had little quality put together in them. Truffaut often wrote in Cahiers du cinéma, a critics magazine on film about the films he had to grow up around.

Truffaut displayed an almost obsessive hostility to the post-war French film industry, attacking what he sarcastically labled the French ‘Tradition Of Quality’ as nothing more than ‘three hundred continuity shots stuck together a hundred and ten times a year.’

Powrie, P. & Marie, M. (2006) p.83

This objectivity towards the cinéma de papa began to grow and new light was being shone on other films that played with different ideas. Directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville started to make films that resembled the French New Wave Movement mixed with other techniques that had been used before. In his film, Bob Le Flambeur, he films it in a film noir style but the film has so many modern aesthetics to it such as its similarities to western gangster genres. This similarity between American film and French was an important reason why the French New Wave Movement upset tradition. We can only imagine what it must have been like to be living in France after the war and have a mass influx of Hollywood cinema that had been imported due to the production of French film being too expensive. Truffaut and Godard had witnessed this through the years and decided to start making films, perhaps influenced from the American films they had seen. Such influences are seen in Les Quatres Cent Coups with the Humphrey Bogart style hat we see Antoine wearing when he steals the type writer, and the same with À bout de souffle with the protagonist dressing like Bogart. Many of the directors and audiences that watched Bob Le Flambeur were amazed at the “clipped street language, low budget on-location work, moody street scenes and contemporary jazz soundtrack.” (Phillips, R. 2006 ) and this shines through in later works such as À bout de souffle. This was completely going against the previous era of film making in the sense, directors were starting to open up to the outside world and focus on making their own artistic impression. This perhaps can be a reason to why French New Wave upset traditional film grammar. An interesting point to look at is the way in which the generation gap from after the second World War was so concerned about the future of France. In Les Quatres Cent Coups the school master shouts, “What will France be like in ten years?” (Les Quotres Cent Coups, 1959) and we can perhaps look at this as being Truffaut’s own thoughts coming through in the film’s dialogue.

We can also look at the technology that was sweeping across the world at the time. New cameras had started to be produced and this gave people like Godard exactly what they needed to create the sweeping, moving shots we see in À bout de souffle.

The American low-budget cinema, on the other hand, tended to be thought of as a commercial and studio-based product, to which Godard pays homage in his dedication of A bout de souffle (1959) to Monogram Pictures.

Powrie, P. & Reader, K. (2002) p.21

This was a new innovation in film making and made shots look realistic in the sense, cameras could be placed in busy crowds and could follow a person with ease. The shot of Michel in À bout de souffle of him walking through the hotel reception is a prime example of this new technique as he follows the camera through a vast open room without any sight of a film crew in the shot. Continuous shots like this excited Godard and also Truffaut, which is perhaps why he favours using the lightweight camera in Les quatres cent coups where Antoine is running down the road near the end of the film. This gave French New Wave films a sense of freedom and the scene where Antoine is running really symbolises this sense of freedom as the shot of just him breaks out into a panoramic view of the sea – something he had long desired in the film. Such big camera shots echo the likes of the Italian Neo-Realism film movement where we saw similarities between the way the directors had placed the camera.

The war had changed France a lot and cultures within the country started to feel the difference. French New Wave films began to explore particular human traits such as sex, violence and swearing. This may have shocked an audience twenty years prior to the movement, but instead it seemed to add emphasis to the reality of the film and story. In both À bout de souffle and Les quatres cent coup, we see a great number of references to violence and sex. In À bout de souffle, Michel is seen at the beginning shooting a policeman with a pistol he finds in the car he has stolen. Also, the way in which he speaks to Patricia in the film is quite aggressive and we can see Godard asserting masculinity into the character of Michel. His final words to Patricia are also quite offensive and this definitely would have broken the mould from films in previous years, before French New Wave. The sexual references in the films are very much giving light to the realities of modern day culture. In Les quatres cent coup we see Antoine in the police station with prostitutes and also where he is telling of how a foreigner told him he could use a prostitute even though he is very young. The way these references to violence, sex, and swearing are used in the films adds to the audiences reaction and the reality of the story. By showing people what life is like in the darker parts of Paris, French New Wave directors were able to maintain this reality.

Location was a big factor in French New Wave films. The opening scenes of Les quatres cent coups are so important when looking at why the movement may have upset tradition. We see this great tracking shot of the Eiffel tower, a iconic feature of Paris and perhaps symbolising France as a whole. The reason why this upsets traditional film grammar is the way Truffaut has shot this scene with the tower in the background and in the foreground a not so nice Paris. Something that hints Italian Neo-Realism, in the way that the director wants to show the audience realistic scenes instead of a artificial studio set. This idea of getting away from the studio is ever present in French New Wave films.

Truffaut discovered a new aesthetics of simplicity and sincerity. Indeed, in taking to the street to escape the heavy-handed rule of the studio system, Truffaut unconsciously doubled the rebellious attitudes and actions of his young protagonist, Antoine Doinel.

Powrie, P. & Marie, M. (2006) p.83

The whole factor of shooting film out in a busy Parisian street gave French New Wave films a lot more depth and created this sense of a modern France. In À bout de souffle the shots of the actors walking down busy streets enforced this sense of realism and added to the story.

French New Wave films pioneered the way films were edited. They were really the first to play with jump cuts and this is apparent in À bout de souffle. This may have upset traditional film grammar because of the fast pace it gave films.

… the rapidity of the editing and the disorientating scale of the shots means thatMichel’s crime takes place before the spectator – and, we might surmise, before he himself – has a chance to realise what is happening.

Powrie, P. & Marie, M. (2006) p.93

This process of having a very disruptive cut between different characters in one scene can give the film a scene a whole new meaning. To an audience at the time this was quite innovative and gave a scene, quite a disturbing feel to it. This is an example of how directors like Godard played with the idea of Mise En Scène. It demonstrates how a meaning can be changed by altering different cuts and camera angles even though we are still hearing the same dialogue.

Godard and Truffaut were very interested in the way American Film had been made prior to the French New Wave period and in particular the studio system. Due to France being in an economic problem after the War, it meant studio filming could not be accomplished very often. This contributed to some of the fantastic shots used in French New Wave films.

The new wave directors, like their Hollywood predecessors, worked individually and creatively within often severe budgetary constraints and the conventions of the studio genre.

Powrie, P. & Reader, K. (2002) p.21

This definitely contributed towards the innovative look of French New Wave films but without funding from the French Government. With the generation gap after the war, France needed new directors to carry on film making and to write scripts.

“They were also greatly helped by the introduction, in 1960, of the avance sur recettes, a system of government loans, granted on the basis of a working script, to enable films to be produced.

Powrie, P. & Reader, K. (2002) p.21

Therefore, we saw a greater amount of scripts and directors willing to create films in France. This contributes towards this upset in traditional film grammar because there is an increased amount of variety from where the films are coming from. There is more of an incentive for innovative films such as the films we see in French New Wave and this certainly is a factor to the movement being successful.

To conclude, the French New Wave period marks a great change for France’s film industry. In particular, the directors who contributed to the movement are probably the most influential in the change. Truffaut, a famous film critic turned director believed in auteurism – the process in which the directors vision comes across in a film. He liked the idea of the camera being a pen in which he could write out his masterpiece.

European art-house directors, such as Renoir or Rossellini, had traditionally been treated as the ‘authors’ of their films, in much the same way as Balzac or Baudelaire were of the literary texts they signed.

Powrie, P. & Reader, K. (2002) p.21

Both Truffaut and Godard pay tribute to this auteur theory in their works with Godard even using Balzac’s work in Les Quatres Cent Coups as an inspiration to Antoine. The idea of these new directors coming into the limelight and putting their own touch into film was a crucial part of understanding why French New Wave broke the mould and ultimately upset traditional film grammar as it had not been done before to this extent.

 


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