Is It Time to Let Go of the French New Wave?

Is It Time to Let Go of the French New Wave?
Is It Time Let Go of the French New Wave?

This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

The French Nouvelle Vague kept popping up in this year’s Locarno Film Festival. In his introductory message to the press, artistic director Carlo Chatrian said that “cinema is an art that takes advantage of intersections, overlaps, hybridization. The legacy the Nouvelle Vague has left us contains this notion of cinema.” Then he saluted an heir “who has drawn upon that experience”: Olivier Assayas, who presented his latest feature “Clouds of Sils Maria” on the Piazza Grande. And finally, the tag served to introduce Agnès Varda, who received a Pardo d’onore and hosted a crowded talk with the audience.

The first question the French journalist Jean-Michel Frodon asked Varda was about her place in the wake of the Nouvelle Vague — to which she responded that she was not actually part of it: “I was always confused by the Nouvelle Vague. The term itself was created very late and included many filmmakers. But there was the group of critics-turned-directors from Les Cahiers du Cinéma, and there were the free spirits: Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Chris Marker, myself. We were clustered under the same name but we weren’t a group. I felt really far from Les Cahiers’ crew.” This well-known assertion didn’t seem to bother the festival artistic director as he stated that “like it or not, she will always remain associated with it”.

The Nouvelle Vague is of course a crucial milestone in cinema history, well remembered in Locarno. Jean-Pierre Léaud, an iconic actor of the Nouvelle Vague and many of its directors, received an award for his career and read a short text paying tribute to François Truffaut. The founding film of the Nouvelle Vague, Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows”, was shown on the Piazza Grande and a program was dedicated to Agnès Varda. But how and why we refer to film history is an important question. “Should we forget about old films? I don’t know. Sometimes I think we should let them disappear,” said Varda, about restoration and reissue.

Being compared, associated or referred to the films of Godard, Chabrol or Truffaut, which changed film history forever is a heavy weight for young filmmakers. “I knew nothing about film when I started. I invented my own language,” said Varda to a startled audience. “I didn’t know there was a cinemathèque in Paris. Resnais made a list of masterpieces I should see and I went. If I had know all those films before shooting my own first, maybe I wouldn’t have started. Beautiful films are heavy. Being ignorant served me.”

Unlike Dogme 95, Nouvelle Vague is a tag formed by critics and not an organized movement. It was first used in 1957 by Françoise Giroud in the French newspaper L’Express, to describe the wake of a new generation in all aspects of social life and society. Six months later in 1958, it was used to talk about the massive eruption of young filmmakers directing their first feature.

It has then characterized essentially the group of filmmakers born within Les Cahiers: Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette. “Each of these five directors are singular, their films are not alike — as, indeed, their texts in Les Cahiers are not at all interchangeable,” wrote Frodon in 2002 in a text about the Nouvelle Vague’s heritage. Energy and spirit glued them together, not esthetic rules, nor a manifesto. “An idea of cinema was constituted that, in very personal and diverse form, each of their cinemas has explored.”

Sixty years later, Jean-Luc Godard became JLG to avoid a label that has not evolved with him. If the Locarno screening of his last film “Goodbye to Language” was crowded, it will have limited access to theater. French journal Libération met him when he was shooting it: “for long, the myth has weighted too heavily on Godard’s shoulders. Until he understood that he was not concerned by that myth anymore, or decided that he would not be concerned. Since then, he privileged the identity of JLG. It is very important to know that when meeting him. Reflecting an image or an idea of his own myth onto him, and you’ll hit a wall.”

The myth of the Nouvelle Vague should not bury the new films of its authors. Referring to it, to help the audience relate to unusual form of filmmaking, is actually refraining us to really look at the most recent film from Godard or Varda in their modernity. She said it herself, she hate being put in boxes. “I was a photographer until “Cleo from 5 to 7″, I was then a director, and for the last couple of years, I’ve been a visual artist. People who like my movies don’t have the curiosity to see my work in galleries. We are in small boxes, categorized. Museum people know that I’m a renown director but they haven’t seen my movies!”

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