Louis Menand


“Why the French New Wave Matters”

It matters because it’s a wonderful focal point, a moment of both synthesis and originality, in the history of mainstream Western cinema. The French New Wave looks back: to European films of the nineteen-thirties, to Welles and film noir of the nineteen-forties, to Hawks and Hitchcock in the nineteen-fifties. This is the tradition that the future New Wave directors learned about at Henri Langlois’ Cinématheque, and that they wrote about in Cahiers du Cinéma. Prevented for years by industry regulations and a lack of capital from making their own movies, cinéphiles like Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer saturated themselves in American movies and in film theory. By the time they were able to make their own movies, they had absorbed the history of the medium in a way that few other filmmakers have. This makes their early movies especially so rich in cinematic values.

But the New Wave also looks ahead, to the American cinema of the nineteen- sixties and -seventies—the movies of Penn, Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Ashby, De Palma, Polanski, Mazursky, Schrader, and Towne. When European films arrived in the United States around 1960, at a time when the Code and what was left of the old studio system after Paramount retarded American moviemaking, they were an inspiration to young cinéphiles, just as the flood of Hollywood movies released in France after the war had inspired Truffaut and Godard.

What is fascinating—because this phenomenon is common in cultural production, but is rarely so visible—is the circulation of aesthetic influences, the manner in which one culture misreads another culture’s products, and then, seeking to imitate them, produces something new. When he made Breathless, Godard wanted to make a Hollywood crime couple movie, a film on the model of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night or Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy. The movie he made isn’t anything like those films. It’s an “American-style” movie that reads as completely French.

And when Robert Benton and David Newman set out to write the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde, they wanted to make a French New Wave movie, like Breathless or Truffaut’s Jules and Jim. They showed their screenplay to Truffaut and then to Godard before Arthur Penn was chosen to direct—and Penn was chosen because he was himself a devotee of New Wave cinema. The “French-style” movie these filmmakers ended up making was not French at all. Cahiers even panned it. But it helped set off Hollywood’s own New Wave.

Posted on May 28, 2012

Louis Menand is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University.  He has published numerous articles and books on literature, film, and history, including the Pulitzer Prize winning The Metaphysical Club (2002).  Since 1991, he has also been a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where his essay  “Paris, Texas: how Hollywood brought the cinema back from France” appeared in 2003.