Sylvie Blum-Reid


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?

For me, the French New Wave is but one phase of French cinema. It seems to be exciting to students mostly, whenever they watch A bout de Souffle, or Le Mépris; they are somewhat attracted to this ”new style of filmmaking.”  Since I did not grow up before the New Wave but rather grew up with it, it was not new to me as it is to many of the film professors I have had. The term, coined by journalist Françoise Giroud (l’Express) did not just stand for cinema then, but for the youth generation that came of age in 1958-59 in an age of deep societal transformations.

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

Moviegoers can probably perceive the energy and “liberating feelings” that one feels watching these films and how they would somehow go against earlier conventions, and get rid of stuffy camera techniques and studio productions. On top of this, the language is what makes it new and fresh. Lines are almost spontaneous, or feel like it, and the main characters are not contrived.

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?

It is important to observe the context of the New Wave and French culture at the time and before, rather than just throw in New Wave films as unique examples of French film history. Of importance is the historical and political moment, with the end of the colonial era, the end of colonization (North Africa, West Africa and Indochina), the independence of (former) colonies, and the end of (colonial) wars that had been fought until 1962.  Of importance, of course, is the emancipation of women, although since the vote was only acquired in 1944-5, it is rather new at the time and always controversial as a topic.

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 most over-rated filmmaker is of course JLG – Jean-Luc Godard.  The most under-rated filmmaker is Jacques Rozier (Adieu Philippine, 1962 and all his films).  Unfortunately, his films are not distributed in this country and not too long ago, were not widely available in France either.  Because as a director, he would not compromise with the system, his career has suffered.  Jean Eustache is overlooked.  I’m always appalled by the absence of women from this rather male-dominated group. I won’t comment here on the way that Agnès Varda has consistently been labelled the “grand-mother of the New Wave” despite the fact that she is of the same generation of JLG,  François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette.  As always, the need to give labels is problematic.  I think that they all deserve equal recognition.

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

It was freedom from stuffy studio-shot films, cinema de papa, and Franco-French concerns with literary adaptations. Wind of rebellion.  Hand-held cameras giving the possibility of filming outdoors. Although of course, people like Truffaut would go on making brilliant adaptations of literary works, with for instance Jules et Jim (Henri-Pierre Roché).

The Cine-Files posed the additional questions about French New Wave fashion to Blum-Reid:

The film still of Jean Seberg wearing the black capri pants and New York Herald Tribune t-shirt seems to be one of those iconic images that circulates regularly through U.S. popular culture.  I think it’s interesting that although Seberg is in only one French New Wave film, her visage represents this film movement to so many.  Why do you think this image is so iconic?

The image of Jean Seberg wearing her black capri pants and especially the t-shirt is iconic because of the new free style they represented at the time for a French person.  Although one is familiar with this type of pants worn by Audrey Hepburn (Givenchy’s influence on Sabrina, dir. Billy Wilder, 1954). The style seems more linked to prêt-à-porter. The hairdo is also an important element of the fashion statement made here: a short pixie cut giving her a boyish or gamine look.  T-shirts were not worn then by French women; in fact I think that the term was not even part of the language. In 1959-1960, fashion for women still followed clear conservative guidelines and actresses were dressed accordingly; the example of Brigitte Bardot in Et dieu créa la femme by Vadim (1956) announces the New Wave, but despite its attempt to show a liberated woman, her skirts and shirts are formfitting, carefully arranged, and highly sexualized (when she wears them). The same with Catherine Deneuve in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967).

Godard’s Breathless overtly engages the discourse of fashion when Patricia (Seberg) makes a point of buying and wearing a Dior dress for an important interview, and Michel (Belmondo) objects, saying “No way.  There are nicer ones at the five-and-ten.”  What do you think the Dior dress means in the context of the film?

Dior is the (male) new comer to the fashion world after World War II; he created the ‘new look’ but actually went back to former shapes with the hour-glass skirt, bustiers, or long dresses accentuating women’s figures.1 Michel—the character—being a rather misogynist man (born before World War II) is not afraid to object to the newer (American) style sported by Patricia, while also trying to ‘Frenchify’ her with a more classical line, emulated by Dior. By wearing haute couture, she would become more conservative and taken seriously during her interview. It is also telling that the script chose a male designer as an example, as opposed to for instance Chanel, the couturiere who returns in 1954 after a long solitary exile, and whose new collection was not enthusiastically received by the French press, signing the death toll to the leading position that women fashion designers held for years to come.

Did Breathless introduce any particularly interesting or innovative ways of using fashion in film?  Is there a “new wave” of costuming, just as there is for editing, narrative construction, cinematography, etc.?

As in many of Godard’s films, but also Varda’s, fashion plays an integral role in the script.2 New styles being created and sold in youth-oriented magazines and advertisements are constantly displayed in these films, and commented upon.  Godard inserts many of these adverts, and gives close-ups of fashion magazine advertisements in many sequences. I am not sure that it is just specific to his films but those of the time. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, 1961) makes a statement about fashion and women’s bodies throughout the entire film.  So does Jacques Tati in Mon Oncle, or Playtime, or Les Vacances de M. Hulot. What people wear situates them in terms of class and in terms of their personality; it is revealing of gender bias since women’s wear is typically under the scrutiny of the camera in most of these films, as opposed to menswear.

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

I do not sense any danger regarding this; however, when some people get stuck in the past, they tend to forget about other films made after the New Wave, and rush to hasty general statements about the “death of French cinema.” (Since the New Wave of course!)  I do not feel nostalgic about that era.

Posted on May 28, 2012

Sylvie Blum-Reid is associate professor of French and film at The University of Florida, where she recently developed the course “Women and Fashion in French Cinema.”  Blum-Reid is the author of East-West Encounters:  Franco-Asian Cinema and Literature (2002).

1 However, by the time of the film release, 1959, Dior was dead, yet his brand name and house continued. It contributed to reestablish France’s position as a leader in haute couture in the post-world war II era.

2 The designer used for A bout de souffle is never named in the credit sequence. It is likely that Godard did not rely on anyone then, since this was a rather low-budget film. However, did he rely on Seberg’s own sense of aesthetic?