What for you makes the French New Wave such an exciting topic to study? Or… Is the French New Wave still an exciting topic to study?
The French New Wave grabs young people today because they recognize how exciting it must have been for other young people—those fanatics at Cahiers du Cinema—to take into their own hands the medium of their day, cinema. Mastering the history of the art, these brazen cinephiles felt confident enough to denigrate sacred cows and to uphold filmmakers they believed in and were inspired by. The fact that they moved seemingly effortlessly from film criticism to filmmaking surely inspires young people today who might blog about music or some other expressions, as they dream of the contributions they will soon offer themselves.
What can moviegoers of the 21st century take away from French New Wave films?
You can feel the inventiveness and spontaneity in all the memorable New Wave films. We should feel invited into an effort of expression, eager to find out not what will happen next on screen so much as to find out what will happen next behind the camera. As someone said of Bresson’s non-thrillers A Man Escaped and Pickpocket: there is “suspense behind the camera,” and a thrill when there is a track or a cut.
What advice would you give to an average moviegoer being introduced to the French New Wave? What do you feel is the most pertinent information they know about the movement before seeing Breathless, for example?
Audiences should understand that these filmmakers may have been the first to have systematically tried to see the entire history of their artform. They didn’t just inherit a tradition, they studied it and decided to intervene in it. Hence Breathless is a homage to Monogram Pictures, a B-Studio production house of the late 1940s, and the film is full of references to earlier films. Another aspect is the concern they had about the status of images in the 1950s. They found the frumpy picturesque “cinema of quality” so academic and old-fashioned; hence they often aimed for a free, spontaneous cinematography, influenced by new movements in documentary and even in films from the war in Indochina (where their great cameraman, Raoul Coutard had learned to shoot in low light and with hand held techniques). But they were equally concerned that there was a postwar image glut in magazines and later on TV. Images were becoming too common and commonplace . So the New Wave zigzagged between the overly careful Quality look and the overly casual look of much magazine imagery. The result is something like the last shot of 400 Blows where an anonymous boy (discovered by Truffaut) becomes frozen in a photograph that is both immediate and eternal.
What would you say are the most under- or over-rated films produced by the French New Wave? Who are its most under- or over-rated filmmakers?
The New Wave did not want to have included among their group such young popular filmmakers as Marcel Camus (Black Orpheus) or Serge Bourgougnon (Sundays and Cybele, which won the Oscar for foreign film in 1963). They felt closer to Philippe de Broca and Jacques Rozier, whose Adieu Philippine (1962) is really essential, a great new wave film. Truffaut liked the Quebecois Claude Jutra who made a fine New Wave film in French, A tout prendre (Take it All, 1964). I think the most questionable figure may be Louis Malle whose early features were crucial to the success of the movement but who was never a critic or a member of the group. I’m ambivalent about Malle’s early work myself, although he’s became very important after Lacombe Lucien in the early 1970s. For me, Truffaut has been lately underrated, which is why I’m editing a major anthology that revisits his films. I’d put Shoot the Piano Player up against any new wave film for audacity and sheer filmmaking pleasure. And I’m an Eric Rohmer fan. The conception of The Six Moral Tales is astounding. I could say lots about Godard, but everyone can say lots about him; he’s been the most fertile source for film discussion for a half century.
What was the most innovative change that the French New Wave brought about?
Truffaut always said that he just wanted the New Wave to increase the ambition of what a film might be…how it would be conceived, produced, and received. The New Wave made cinema culturally powerful, not just in France but in other waves around the world. Suddenly cinema was at least as important as literature. That may have receded after 1968; I hope not.
Do you think there’s a danger in being nostalgic about the French New Wave era?
I can’t help but be a bit nostalgic about a movement that I grew up with. And it is dangerous to be nostalgic. That’s why I’ve been working on this Truffaut anthology, and doing books on Bazin’s influence. I want us all to recognize the period for what it was and how the movies responded to it in a dramatic way.
Posted on May 28, 2012
Dudley Andrew is the R. Selden Rose Professor of Film and Comparative Literature at Yale University. He has published widely on film theory and French cinema, including Mists of Regret (1995) and What Cinema Is! (2010). He has also edited Breathless: Jean-Luc Godard, Director (1988) Opening Bazin (2011), and is currently editing an anthology on Francois Truffaut.