The French New Wave, 50 years old today, was the greatest criminal enterprise in cinema history. A gang of filmmakers led a raid on the Bank of Tradition. They emptied its funds with the sole purpose of closing a near-bankrupt heritage, so that a new art could begin. Drawing aid from their own fund of resources (literature, Italian neo-realism, vérité documentary, the Hollywood B-movie), they created a new syndicate in screen culture. Cinema, almost overnight, became an organised bandit art, united in sedition, steadfast in rupture, forthright in innovation, enduring in immediacy.
The following is a Who’s Who of French cinema’s legendary Gang of Seven, its reservoir auteurs.
Jean-Luc Godard: “Mr Red”
Far-left and fearless in spilling the blood of the ancien régime. The prodigal father of the Nouvelle Vague, Godard created its fiercest anti-cinema. His first film, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1959), the movement’s foundation stone, was a plotless gangster movie about love, death and the existential life force. Mixing styles – Hollywood crime quickie, Platonic dialogue, Brechtian exposure of illusion – the film was the template for Godard’s best work to come. There was always a leftward lyricism; there were always subtexts on illusionism. And there was always violence, even when kidded or codded. A moment of bloodshed in one film produces the dialogue comment: “It’s not blood, it’s red.”
François Truffaut: “Mr Pink”
A pastel version of Godard – McCartney to his Lennon. Pink for the partial revolutionary. Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist, 1960) was Godard gone audience-friendly, Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959) Godard with a human face. Yet pink has a steadier, subtler, sometimes stronger glow than red. Truffaut’s best films leave their emotional resonance longer in the soul. Jules et Jim (1961) is a freewheeling feelgood romance, a European answer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (before the question). Even Truffaut’s deconstruction exercises – his great film about filming, La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night, 1973) – gave avant-gardism heart and substance.
Claude Chabrol: “Mr Black”
Chabrol mastered the noir thriller and gave it Zola-esque, even Flaubertian depths. Human comedy, vanity, fallibility. Portraying the petit bourgeois household as unsparingly as Thérèse Raquin or Madame Bovary, his films distribute tight rations of sympathy amid the bundles of mordant satire. Memorable roles as plotters, murderers or victims gave hitherto little-known actors – Isabelle Huppert, Michel Bouquet, Jean Yanne – a fast route to Euro-stardom and world arthouses. Chabrol’s great decade was the 1960s (La Femme Infidèle , 1968, Le Boucher, 1970) but he can still craft tales with a deadly sting (L’Ivresse de Pouvoir, 2006).
Eric Rohmer: “Mr Green”
Every Rohmer film is an organic product. Faithful to nature, it is sold without contaminants or preservatives. People simply, radiantly “are”, in naturalistic human dramas whose growth is manipulated only to bring out that nature and that humanity. Even when Rohmer recycles – medieval balladry (Perceval le Gallois, 1978), classic European fiction (Die Marquise von O, 1976) – he makes sure the product is faithful to source with no genetic mutation. Almost inevitably, his only film to win the top prize at a major European festival had “green” in the title: Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray), winner of the 1986 Venice Golden Lion.
Jacques Rivette: “Mr Blue”
From the midnight blue of La Religieuse (The Nun, 1966) to the sky-reflecting streams of consciousness in Céline et Julie vont en Bateau (1974) to the azure heraldry of Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan of Arc, 1994). This New Wave auteur sports the blue-tipped wings of the magpie, diving deep and high to raid other sources and prove that in good cinema “finders” are “keepers”. His name on the arthouse marquee never matched those of his best-known confrères . But they could never match him for unpredictability, for a handful of deep-sea astonishments (L’Amour Fou, 1968, La Belle Noiseuse, 1991) and for the occasional super-folly (the 13-hour Out One, 1971).
Alain Resnais: “Mr White”
The ultimate Alain Resnais film would be a white screen, purged of everything but enigma. Though not quite a New Wave member – belonging technically to the “Left Bank Group” with Agnès Varda (qv) and Chris Marker – Resnais cannot be sidelined in a survey of innovations in the wave’s wake or contemporary with it (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959). L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) thrilled the chattering classes, who saw themselves mirrored as Resnais’ human chess-pieces in a riddling game of life, death and memory. Muriel (1963), La Guerre est finie (1966) and Mon Oncle d’Amérique (1980) continued the quest for a perfect, crusading blank verity.
Agnès Varda: “Miss Yellow”
There is a demented sunniness about Varda. She could be a post-lobotomy Marguerite Duras. Her optimism prevails even in films with a dying heroine (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1961) or tormented vagrant (Vagabonde, 1985) or, most recently, in a memoir-movie about her own tragedy-struck life (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008). A fatal illness took away her still-young husband Jacques Demy, himself a Nouvelle Vague doyen (Lola, 1960, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964). Death is a constant presence in Varda’s films. But so is an elfin defiance that produces the New Wave’s most capricious, erratically lyrical canon.
No criminal enterprise such as the French New Wave is complete without the countless contributions of colleagues, comrades and “backroom boys”. How can we justify omitting Louis Malle from the Gang of Seven (or eight if included)? Yet Malle was already in business on his own before 1959. He ran a small but significant import/export racket, buying in co-artists (Jacques Cousteau in Le Monde du Silence, 1956) before releasing joint ventures, or ordering lengths of conventional art cinema to sell them with his own fashion cut (Les Amants, 1958). He was enlivened, but not engendered, by the New Wave. (We could say Resnais was also in business before 1959, making Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) in 1955. But somehow Resnais seems a figure from “after” rather than “before”, toying with the odd creative cap-pistol while awaiting the starting gun.)
Chris Marker (La Jetée , 1962), Jacques Demy and Philippe de Broca (L’Homme de Rio, 1964) must be included among those we regret excluding. And no group portrait of the “Reservoir Frogs” is complete without the man known affectionately, as “Frog One”, after the mastermind in French Connection II. André Bazin, critic and essayist, mapped out a new direction for French cinema. He was valuable even in catalysing the energies of those who disagreed with him. His vision of a seamless realism based on the plan-séquence (uninterrupted take) so irritated Godard that it helped create the acts of defiance, like A Bout de Souffle, by which the pupil shook off the teacher.
Or, to maintain the metaphor, by which the new criminal shook off the old lag and mentor. For the New Wave was a crime: that was its beauty. It was an outrage against law, order and aesthetic decency. If you have doubts that that was its spirit and agenda, look at the films. See what a preponderance are stories involving crime. In their early years Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol could hardly pick up a camera without depicting robbery or violence. The overthrow of society and culture was both their missionary activity and their favourite story.
Life and death. Destruction and renewal. Long live the French New Wave. But that is a needless exhortation, since it is impossible to imagine the French New Wave ever dying. At least until the next wave, still far off on the horizon ...
‘Nouvelle Vague’, British Film Institute, April 9-23; www.bfi.org.uk