“I need images, I need representation which deals in other means than reality. We have to use reality but get out of it. That’s what I try to do all the time.”
– Agnès Varda
This video was a labor of love. Made for an undergraduate course on Avant-Garde movements in France, it attempts, as Madame Varda suggests, to use images in order to recreate reality. In this case, that reality is modern French cinema from the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Using Jean-Luc Godard’s trailer for Masculin Féminin (1966) as a template, this montage of French films, which date from 1958 to 1967, gives a visual and aural understanding of modern French cinema. Having stated this, it is important that the reader not confuse the umbrella term of “modern French cinema” to solely mean the French New Wave. While the New Wave was influential, and is a popular term to use for filmmakers of that time, it was one of two movements that coexisted in France at the time.
The French New Wave was an idiosyncratic movement that sought to revolutionize narrative structures, genres, characters, plots and film techniques. François Truffaut, one of the founding members of the New Wave, foreshadowed the arrival of this movement in 1954 when he wrote “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” a manifesto published in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut argued that French films lacked individuality and self-expression. Citing such directors as Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Roberto Rossellini, Truffaut called for a new group of directors to take the reins and follow in these men’s footsteps by creating films that unmistakably belonged to their respective director. Five years after the publication of Truffaut’s article, the Cannes Film Festival awarded Truffaut Best Director for his feature film debut, The 400 Blows (1959), which told the story of a hopeless boy named Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s doppelgänger). The premiere of this work was an important event that introduced the first ripples of the New Wave.
A year later, Jean-Luc Godard, a fellow critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, premiered his own debut feature, Breathless (1960), that recounted the adventures of a Bogart-loving criminal and his American girlfriend. Cinema would never be the same. Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette joined Truffaut and Godard in creating a slew of iconic films. The New Wave directors, like Charles Baudelaire, who a century before them invented the “poem in prose,” created works that crossed artistic boundaries by incorporating philosophy, theater, linguistics, journalism and painting into films. This band of cinephiles opened the door for the potential of cinema.
La Rive Gauche (the Left Bank)
While the French New Wave directors were making a splash in the international film scene, a second group of directors were making their own movement in France. In 1958, Louis Malle screened his first film, Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Revolutionary for its intricate plot, brilliant acting (especially by Jeanne Moreau) and jazz score by Miles Davis, audiences were introduced to the birth of a new movement: the Left Bank. Unlike the New Wave directors, the Left Bank directors focused on narrative-driven plots, experimentations in time and space on screen and transpositions of literary works, especially those of the Nouveau Roman, onto the screen. A year after Malle’s debut, Alain Resnais‘ Left Bank masterpiece Hiroshima mon amour (1959) drew praise for its ability to experiment with personal and collective memory, and its boldness in confronting the politics of the Hiroshima bombing. These two films solidified the reputation of the Left Bank as an important movement in cinematic history. Other directors, including Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Chris Marker, would join the movement and help the 1960s become a decade for modernization of cinema.
Yet like most artistic movements, the Left Bank, along with the New Wave, would slowly die out.
The “Waves” Begin to Crash
Around 1967, the New Wave and Left Bank had become outdated forms of expression. By May 1968, many of the New Wave and Left Bank directors became politically involved in the student riots. In the aftermath of this political revolution, the band of filmmakers began to disperse and pursue different paths: Truffaut began making commercial films that appealed to the masses; Godard explored the limits of the “film essay” genre and the philosophical potential of film; Malle went on to make films overseas; and Resnais explored other projects beyond his political works of the ’50s and ’60s. Although these two movements were short-lived, the influences of these men and women were (and still are) incalculable. Had it not been for these two movements, the films of Quentin Tarantino, Wim Wenders, Chantal Akerman, Pedro Almodóvar, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, John Woo and countless others would be shells, devoid of the influences and energy they attempted to replicate from the two movements.
The images that the New Wave and the Left Bank provided did not just offer an alternative to reality, they created a “modern” reality for future filmmakers and audiences alike. This “modern” reality opened doors that would allow for other movements in other countries. The waves of the two movements may have crashed, but the ripples still linger.