While I will no doubt always stand by the assertion that the French New Wave is the single greatest sweep in cinema history, the (relatively) singular event during which everything changed (mostly) for the better, this week has seen me reminded me of an area for which I also have a great affection: the French cinema of the immediate pre-New Wave period, that fed in to and accommodated the better known developments.
My love for the work of Godard and Truffaut is up there with my greatest of cinematic passions, there’s just something that really excites me about the days during which Bresson and Tati, and Becker and Melville came of age. Remarkable films such as Journal d’un curé de campagne, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud and Touchez pas au Grisbi were accompanied by equally important pieces of film theory too, with groundbreaking essays from Andre Bazin, Alexandre Astruc and François Truffaut coming together with the non-mainstream cinema of the time to pave the way for the on-screen revolution that Truffaut and co. would headline.
The first film studies semester I ever taught was on this particular period, which perhaps explains my affinity to the era. The task had been bestowed upon me after having chosen to focus on the New Wave itself as the subject of my Masters Degree thesis, and ultimately proved to be as equally enlightening an experience as the extended paper did. Like so many “young Turks” I’d largely ignored the New Wave’s elder bothers, presumably having confused the likes of Becker and Sacha Guitry with the dreaded “fathers” of the Cahiers gang (cinéma de papa), so to tackle them wholesale was nothing short of a secondary education. (Even now, as if serving to prove the theory of evolution, when teaching the New Wave to a fresh audience I make an effort place a particular emphasis on the road that led to the great shift that came with The 400 Blows and A bout de soufflé, in an attempt to rectify my own youthful ignorance).
As with many of these things accessibility is everything, and while there is still much to be desire in the way of home video releases of many of the key titles that shaped the era (and I speak as someone who has spent much of this weekend trying to acquire a copy of André Malraux and Boris Peskine’s L’espoir), it is getting better. Gaumont have produced a number of English-friendly releases of a great deal of their back catalogue for some time now, with hi-definition renderings of Becker’s Antoine et Antoinette and Les amants de Montparnasse readily available and importable within a couple of days via amazon.fr, while the same director’s Casque d’Or even made it to UK Blu-ray late last year. It’s not without note that we’ve bestowed the title of “most exciting home video release of February 2013” upon Sacha Guitry’s La Poison, the forthcoming Masters Of Cinema release of which marks the titles first time on any video medium in the UK.
The New Wave coming together like it did was nothing less than a great fluke of chemistry, and the core element being one of intertextuality. The circumstances were drawn towards one another in a way quite unimaginable 60 years on (which in turns raises a question for another day in “are we too cynical to foster a new New Wave today?”), with that of an audience sensibility shifting to the beat of television and the automobile, coupled with the highly representative placing of the Cahiers critics and the post World War 2 socio-cultural-political placing of the host nation decreed that the stars had aligned to allow for what would follow, but in praising the revolution one must not take the groundwork for granted. For what is the Nouvelle Vague if not the physical manifestation of the core idiom that Cinephilia breeds Cinephilia?
Adam Batty – Editor-In-Chief
The Birth Of A New Avant-Garde – Le Camera Stylo – Alexandre Astruc’s landmark 1948 article on the shape of cinema in the late 1940’s.
The Evolution Of Film Language – André Bazin’s 1958 essay, charting the changing landscape of the cinema.
A Certain Tendency In French Cinema – François Truffaut’s 1954 call to arms.
Last week’s Criticwire Survey – In which we were asked to name Steven Soderbergh’s greatest movie.