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It’s hard to think of a cinematic movement more influential, and instantly recognizable, than the French New Wave. In the late 1950s, a group of young writers for the French publication “Cahiers du Cinéma” began to question the safe, compromising choices made by filmmakers and demand something more daring and honest. Many of these writers, including the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, became filmmakers themselves. And the results were extraordinary.
Happy endings and sentimentality were replaced with stripped down, meandering plots with conclusions that were often unsatisfying. Many films used nonlinear storytelling, packing a stronger emotional punch by utilizing techniques that shocked the world. Slick production values were often abandoned, with rougher, journalism-style footage and abrupt cuts suddenly finding a home on the big screen. But many of these movies still feel like movies. The movement was clearly an attempt to break free, to demand something higher from the art of cinema. But at the same time, directors like Godard and Truffaut liberally borrowed the aesthetic tropes of new American films and used them to express their own groundbreaking visions. They treated Hollywood history like it was just another paint on their palette, smearing it on the screen in broad brush strokes to create something totally new.
Part of what made these movies so fun is that the filmmakers were cinephiles themselves, and their subversion of Hollywood genres started from a place of reverence. In some ways, it was a precursor to the American “movie brats” that would take over Hollywood a decade later. Sometimes the directors’ love of movies even made its way into the plots of their films, with Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie” following two wannabe thieves who love American gangster movies. The combination of Hollywood influences with a desire to break free of artistic constraints and tell brutally honest stories resulted in some incredible films.
Many of these films feel just as fresh in 2021 as they must have in the early ’60s, and they’re often hard to watch just once. Many have been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, and they make great additions to any film collection. Whether you’re trying to start a world cinema collection with some classics films, or looking for some more obscure options to round out your Blu-Ray shelf, there’s certainly something on this list for you.
Perhaps the quintessential Godard Film, “Breathless” is pays homage to (and deconstructions) the Hollywood crime genre. It follows two romantically entangled people who ultimately commit a crime, but it’s far from a star-crossed love story. Godard emphasizes the meaninglessness of the lives of these two misfits, focusing on casual conversations are unlikely to inspire any romantic fantasies. The film’s abrupt cutting, verite-style dialogue, and an unsatisfying ending were groundbreaking, but many of the scenes radiate a distinctly Hollywood charm. The intertextuality makes it a perfect introduction to the French New Wave, and its rewatchability makes it a must-own Blu-Ray.
The first feature length film from Alain Resnais is brilliant in its simplicity. “Hiroshima Mon Amour” tells a nonlinear story through conversations between a young actress (played by Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) as they talk about their past relationships, using the atomic bomb as a metaphor. The film was notable for its use of flashbacks, as well as its tendency to treat people as symbols (the characters’ names translate to “him” and “her”). But even decades later, when those innovations now seem commonplace, the film holds up due to its excellent craftsmanship and genuine emotion.
The French New Wave Blu-Ray market might be dominated by offerings from Godard, but no list about the movement would be complete without some Francois Truffaut. One of the first French film critics to decry safe, boring movies, he became an auteur that did as much to shape the French New Wave as anyone else. There’s a bit of irony to “Jules et Jim,” given that Truffaut was a wunderkind who adapted a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, who did not begin his writing career until his mid-70s. But this brilliant film chucked convention into the wind, using a variety of documentary and journalism techniques to tell the story of a love triangle. The film is an essential piece of anyone’s education in world cinema.
While “Breathless” is Godard’s best-known crime film, he returned to the motif of criminals on the run many times throughout his storied career. “Pierrot Le Fou” is another piece of essential viewing. The premise is fairly conventional, telling the story of a man who feels stifled in his marriage and decides to run off with an exciting young girl. They quickly find themselves pursued by hitmen, and the film is classic Godard. Characters break the fourth wall, the editing is often startling, and the result is a rich piece of cinema that is compulsively watchable and entertaining without ever letting the audience feel completely safe.
Of all the Godard films that borrowed from Hollywood genres, “Band of Outsiders” was perhaps the most faithful to the movies that inspired it. By Godard’s standards, that isn’t saying much, but compared to other entries on this list, this gangster movie is less explicit in its attempts to be different. The story of two robbers who rope a student into assisting them maintains Godard’s dry sense of humor and distance from his subjects, but it breaks the format a little less. It is undeniably French New Wave, but it often feels more like Godard’s attempt to make one of the gangster movies he references so frequently. Rather than cheapen the movie, this allowed Godard to reach even more of a mainstream audience for his ideas. The result is a charming, endlessly watchable movie that serves as a great introduction for someone looking to dip a toe into French New Wave cinema.
Set against a backdrop of a city dominated by consumerism, this stripped down, episodic film follows a woman who gradually becomes involved in sex work due to financial hardships. Taking cues from the German playwright and dramatic theorist Bertolt Brecht, Godard deliberately alienates his audience and paints a stark picture without ever becoming sentimental. The raw film is a remarkable exercise in directorial restraint and control, while still maintaining playful touches from Godard.
If this list is your first introduction to the French New Wave, “dystopian sci-fi from Jean-Luc Godard” might not be a sentence you expected to hear. “Alphaville” takes place in a distant future where the world is ruled by a tyrannical supercomputer who suppresses emotion and creativity, and follows one secret agent’s attempts to overthrow it. This one is a little different, for sure, but faithful Godard fans have found a lot to appreciate. After all, one of the tenets of the French New Wave was appropriating and subverting popular film tropes. In many ways, “Alphaville” is to science fiction what “Breathless” is to crime. The stripped down production design (Godard’s future looked remarkably like his present) and muted characters allow it to fit seamlessly into the director’s oeuvre. It’s so unique, you’ll want to own it on Blu-Ray just so people believe you when you tell them about it!