Geoffrey Nowell-Smith


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?

It’s exciting because so many new films and filmmakers emerged so fast – even if the films those makers made at the time were not always great and their best films (e.g. in the case of Chabrol) were those they made later and were very different from their first efforts.

What can moviegoers of the 21st century take away from French New Wave films?

Enjoyment. Belief in the self-renovating power of cinema.

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?

I don’t think they need to know much, except that the Cahiers group were all critics first and loved the kind of American films they were in no position to make themselves. So at first they opted in their own work for, in Truffaut’s words, “realism and life,” both of which were singularly lacking in French cinema of the period. Also that they had a wide, if sometimes superficial, general culture as well as a cinematic one. They knew that art should be informed by realism and life, but they were not the same thing. Also that being entertaining was necessary but not sufficient.

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?

Generally I think the consensus is about right. Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, Marker, and Varda all deserve their place in the canon. But the winnowing process of canon formation has meant that lesser filmmakers such as Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (L’Eau à la bouche, La Dénonciation) have been unjustly neglected. Malle remains unplaceable. Some “minor” films are better than major ones. Shoot the Piano Player is preferable to Fahrenheit 451 and Une femme est une femme is preferable to Weekend. Breathless is fun and undoubtedly a seminal film but it is seminal because it is a mess and it should on no account be sanctified as an achieved work of art. Le Petit Soldat is a mess, period. Thereafter just about every Godard feature film up to 1968 is great or heading that way.

What was the most innovative change that the French New Wave brought about?           

New Wave filmmaking, stupid! It made all the other new waves possible.

Do you think there’s a danger in being nostalgic about the French New Wave era?

Nostalgia can indeed dangerous, but mainly if it is nostalgia for the days when cinema was a haven of comfort and reality-defying happy endings. Looking back to a time when the world and the cinema alike seemed full of possibilities does not seem to me to be nostalgia in that sense—more like a spur to action.

Posted on May 28, 2012

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is Honorary Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.  He has published widely on cinema, including Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s (2008) and The Oxford History of World Cinema (editor, 1996).  He has also served as Editor of the journal Screen and as Head of Education and Head of Publishing for the British Film Institute.