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 remains extremely pertinent and even fun to study. Cinema and French language students seem very open to the notion of this youth movement, even 50 years later. Some of the best films still look fresh and lively, while others are deservedly being questioned anew, often in terms of larger cultural questions and also gender. But during today’s general nostalgia for key films of the past, as the industry shifts to digital, the New Wave seems to stand out as a bright, special moment. There is just something so engaging about seeing camera operators perched on rooftops, or being pushed in wheelchairs, trying to capture new, daring images for the screen.
What can moviegoers of the 21st century take away from French New Wave films?
The New Wave remains very relevant today. Digital video radically challenges the notion of who can make “movies” and when and where. The New Wave’s adoption of lightweight sound and image equipment, and their determination to find stories that fit those new tactics, can provide important models for every new generation of filmmakers and technology. The search for stories and styles that fit a moment in history should encourage young writers, directors, and actors today to find their own pacing and their own themes, just as the young French cinema did. No one should copy the New Wave, they should just find it inspiring.
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?
Spectators and students of cinema today must keep in mind that the key talent of the New Wave did not fall from the skies. Rather, a fortunate combination of factors contributed to their preparation and directed or at least shaped their efforts. This was a group of creative people formed by a shared cinephilia and a deep awe and fascination with film history. One cannot simply start breaking rules aimlessly. They were all building upon personal and shared aesthetic principles and especially on historical context. They knowingly picked who and what they wanted to react against. But they also had their own heroes and role models for inspiration. And, they all worked very, very hard, even if the results sometimes looked casual and spontaneous.
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?
Since they were all working so closely with one another, and were motivated by one another, every movie, including some notable failures, proved significant. For instance, if a movie like Rohmer’s Sign of Leo disappointed some, it also taught them, and Rohmer, what to keep, and what to change. Every New Wave effort was a worthy experiment. Some films just ended up selling more tickets than others, and some of the films with the lowest international box office back then are celebrated as the greatest successes today. Demy’s Lola and Umbrellas of Cherbourg are both stunning, but they had very different commercial receptions.
What was the most innovative change that the French New Wave brought about?
The New Wave looked for stylish ways to tell new stories in new ways, that felt honest for them. Admittedly, we have to keep in mind that most of the filmmakers were young men and many of their choices were also determined by larger cultural forces and norms around them that they did not necessarily notice. But, as Godard and Varda continue to prove today, the innovative practice of making images and sounds must be personal and historical simultaneously. And, every aspect of production, from where the money comes from, down to what sort of camera to hold, has to be rethought and justified. American independent cinema learned a great deal from these amazing people. But there is still much to learn from returning to their movies, their interviews, and their articles. They created a seemingly inexhaustible legacy for us.
Posted on May 28, 2012
Richard Neupert is the Wheatley Professor of the Arts and a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia, where he directs UGA’s film studies program. His special areas of interest are French cinema, narrative theory, and animation. His books include A History of the French New Wave Cinema (2003, 2007) and French Animation History (2011). He is also translator of Michel Marie’s The French New Wave: An Artistic School (2002).