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Cécile Decugis: French New Wave Editor of ‘Breathless’ Dies at 87

The famed editor and political activist helped launch the careers of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, before becoming Eric Rohmer's editor for 15 years.

Cécile Decugis, one of the key early figures of the French New Wave, passed away June 11, according to El Watan, the French-language newspaper in Algeria. The news only started to spread throughout the film world when fellow editor and protege Mary Stephens paid tribute to the Decugis in a Facebook post.

At the dawn of the New Wave in 1957, Decugis edited a young Francois Truffaut’s short film “Les Mistons,” which is largely credited as being the first film in which Truffaut found his cinematic voice and being a key early short of the film movement that would dominate international cinema in the ’60s.

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Decugis also edited Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature, “Breathless,” one the most important pieces of editing in film history and the movie that made Godard a filmmaking sensation. Although the film plays on many American genre conventions – actor Jean-Paul Belmondo does what is largely a Humphrey Bogart impression as a gangster alongside American actress Jean Seberg – the film was intended to be shot in a documentary style, with Godard “writing” the movie as they shot. Each day of production would last as long as Godard didn’t run out of ideas and quickly gained the reputation of being a disaster.

However, Decugis and Godard reinvented the film in the editing room. Removing whole sections from the middle of long takes to create “jump cuts,” or noticeable jumps through time and space, gave the film a sense of energy and movement, while being a direct counterpoint to the classical seamless editing of Hollywood.

Decugis went on to help Truffaut with his early features “The 400 Blows” and “Shoot the Piano Player,” but film editing was secondary to her political passion for Algerians fight for independence from France. In 1957 she started filming and documenting the struggles of Algerian refugees forced to leave their villages as a way to counter the French army’s portrayal of events. She was in her early 60s when she was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for renting her apartment to FLN activists (the National Liberation Front, an Algerian socialist political party that France consider terrorists).

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The film editor served two years of her sentence, with Truffaut lending her financial assistance. Still engaged in historical struggle decades later, Decugis would revisit her 1957 footage and make “The Refugees,” which she screened in Algiers in 2013.

In the late ’60s, Decugis became the regular editor for Eric Rohmer, with whom she collaborated with on some the filmmaker’s greatest works over a 15-year span: “My Night at Maud’s,” “Claire’s Knee,” “Love in the Afternoon,” and “Pauline at the Beach.” She also edited for Luc Moullet and Jean-François Davy.

Shelly, who replaced Decugis as Rohmer’s editor, said that when the director offered her a job as Decugis’ assistant editor, she jumped at the opportunity.

“When I knew that Cécile had come up with “Breathless,” which is a mythical work for us — film students from all over the world — I replied to Eric that I would be too happy to sweep the assembly room for Cécile,” wrote Shelly in a tribute shared by Film Alert.

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