In the wake of the Second World War Paris was besieged by a number of film clubs. Figures such as André Bazin, Henri Langlois and Alexandre Astruc led the charge for a nation catching up with a decade of international cinema, a pleasure long withheld by the occupying German forces of World War Two. A generation of young French moviegoers was wallowing in masses of foreign (predominantly American) films they’d been denied from seeing during the years of the occupation.
To supplement the curated film clubs that spring up during this period (groups such as Objectif 49 and Ciné-Club du Quartier Latin) a culture of film appreciation developed within magazines and journals, and dedicated sections of newspaper space, with the figureheads and enthusiastic participants becoming involved in a wider and inspiring discourse. The likes of Revue du Cinéma and Positif sprung in to life in the wake of all of this, with the former eventually evolving in to the legendary Cahiers du Cinéma, the literary headquarters for the eventual Nouvelle Vague. André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca founded Cahiers du Cinéma in 1951, with their intentions being to produce provocative, challenging film criticism, with a particular emphasis and appreciation of the Hollywood cinema that was being rediscovered in Europe at the time. They were early champions of Orson Welles for instance, a man who had struggled to find appreciation in his homeland, while Alfred Hitchcock is another such figure who was celebrated and recognised in a manner akin to how the grand masters of painting were, or the classicists of literature. Film was recognised as an art; the seventh art.
This Gallic appreciation of the Hollywood cinema over their own national one was was actually systematic of a wider international problem. While a film culture was a-booming within France, the French cinema itself was performing badly overseas, and floundering next to the more innovative likes of the Italian Neo-realists, and the Japanese cinema of the time. Something needed to be done, and to do so the French government, traditionally very protective of its film industry, as it was the wider arts and culture, would ultimately choose to relax rules in an attempt to encourage younger filmmakers in their attempts to put the once-mighty French cinema back on the map. The French cinema has long revolved around the Centre national de la cinématographie (CNC), an agency of the ministry of culture that controls the country’s filmic output. In order to be eligible for screening a film must be certified by the CNC, who in turn exist to protect and support the national cinema. While the intentions of the agency are honourable enough, one can appreciate how living to the law of such a group may tamper with the intentions of a young filmmaker aiming to produce a film as quickly and for as little money as possible. Should a filmmaker choose not to work with the CNC on a given project they risk the ire of the organisation. In short film production sans CNC involvement was incredibly difficult.
The road to the glory days of Godard and Truffaut runs quite complex, and in many ways serves as a demythologization of the lofty reputation of the Nouvelle Vague itself. While it serves the narrative to view Truffaut’s conquest of the 12th Cannes Film Festival as the immediate moment of revolution, as is the case with many things the reality and the run up to the situation is far less immediate.
The bridge between lands old and new is one held up by a number of filmmakers, five of who provided the core elements for what would come to signify the nouvelle vague. The three key elements of style, means and intention are evident in these filmmakers at various stages from the late 1940s through to the dawn of the wave. Jean-Pierre Melville would be the first cited in any attempt at a chronology, with his 1949 feature debut, the remarkable Le Silence de la mer earning the filmmaker the title of “Godfather to the Nouvelle Vague” from his younger contemporaries. Melville was incredibly cine-literate and a true outsider; he shot the film cheaply, essentially proving how such economical filmmaking could be achieved. He worked on location, relying on a narrative voice-over to disguise the use of post-synchronization for the sound, over a number of months. Rather amazingly Le Silence de la mer was shot in just 27 days albeit across a period of five months, and with no less than 19 different film stocks, due to accessibility to film stock (By shooting illicitly, and outside of the CNC’s system, Melville risked the ire of a number of parties, such as unions and other film organisations). Make up was also abandoned, as was artificial lighting. The resulting film is one of the most impressive of the period, and acts as an early blueprint for the major changes that would see the film landscape of France shift within the course of less than a decade. So affecting was his finished film that it began a productive debate on the role of the CNC and the future of the French cinema, ultimately paving the way for the conditions to enable the likes of Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette to actually be able to make their own films.
Melville’s closest literal association to the films of the New Wave comes in his performance as the writer Parvulesco in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle, with his own work always sitting on the edges of the movement, as opposed to being a fully-fledged part of it. Agnes Varda stands as a similar pre-Nouvelle Vague practitioner whose work paved the way for the “young turks” at the Cahiers du Cinéma, with her 1955 debut feature La Pointe Courte, of which André Bazin wrote of in Cahiers du Cinéma that Varda used “People and locations as found footage”. While Varda would find fame later as a part of the Left Bank cinema movement that coincided in Paris with the Nouvelle Vague, any attempts for the filmmaker to capitalise on the quality of her debut feature were quelled by restrictions placed on the film by the CNC thanks to Varda’s unorthodox methods of production. While also a prolific filmmaker, Alexandre Astruc is best known for his written work. In ‘The Birth Of A New Avant-Garde – Le Camera Stylo’ Astruc penned one of the defining texts of the era, with an essay that sits alongside Bazin’s ‘The Evolution Of Film Language’ François Truffaut’s ‘A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema’ as a nicely defined canon of film criticism that defined an era and encouraged a sea change.
The fourth foundation shaping filmmaker is Roger Vadim, who set the tone for the trend towards youth movies. Coming to the fore alongside his then wife, and instant icon of the French cinema Brigitte Bardot, Vadim revitalised the Gallic film industry for an international audience with a pair of movies, And God Created Woman and Les bijoutiers du clair de lune. And God Created Woman is particularly noteworthy for broadening the international demand for the kind of youth-driven, hyper-contemporary pictures that would come to define large portions of the French New Wave, which stood at odds with the stuffy, literary-sourced weighty pictures that the young rallied against in the early 1950s.
The film was a major success, and proved to be a more profitable venture in terms of exportation tax than the whole of Renault when released outside of France in 1957. Shot in CinemaScope and featuring dialogue that revolved around popular culture, And God Created Woman was a fully-fledged cultural phenomenon (and one to which Jean-Luc Godard would pay direct homage to during the height of the New Wave period with his own Le Mepris).
What Vadim was to the international set, Louis Malle was to France itself. It’s something of an unofficial tradition for anyone examining the interlinking relationships of the filmmakers of the pre-Nouvelle Vague era to place Malle in their own bracket: a consensus agreement as to where he fits can not be agreed upon. Some see him as an already commercially successful filmmaker by the time the Nouvelle Vague happened, who borrowed from the emerging trend as and when he wanted to, while others discredit him entirely. Others consider him to be a bona-fide member of the core set. While achingly contemporary (Malle adopted jazz and Jeanne Moreau in 1957, while the Cahiers gang were still writing on film, as opposed to scripting their own), Malle maintains a timeless edge, tying him neatly to a similar spot as fellow almost-Wavers such as Robert Bresson and Jacques Tati, or even Melville (Indeed, the trailer for Elevator To The Gallows displays a keenness on the behalf of the unknown party behind the piece of marketing material to associate the young filmmaker with the greats that had followed before him (specifically Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Robert Bresson and Jacques Becker). The subject of class also comes in to the picture with Malle. Stemming from a very privileged background, thanks to an inherited wealth from a sugar dynasty, Malle’s own upbringing contrasts greatly to many of his contemporaries, and afforded him the opportunity to attend a formal film school, as opposed to the cineaste approach adopted by the Cahiers five. Malle had already won the Palme d’Or and an Oscar before any of the Cahiers crowd made their debut features, with his Jacques Cousteau collaboration The Silent World a formidable world cinema entry upon release in 1956. Undeniable similarities between Malle and “the others” are evident in one particular area though for certain: that of choice of source material. Malle’s personalised breakthrough came with the pulp fiction crime novel inspired Elevator To The Gallows, which is perhaps the pre-eminent influence on the early films of the New Wave outside of the Hollywood picture. It’s not only in their adoption of pulp fiction as source material in which similarities can be found, but also in the widespread tendency to deviate greatly from, and take liberties with said source material, with the auteur of a specific movie choosing to replace the original authors voice with their own.
Thanks to the developments pursued by Melville, Varda, Vadim, Astruc and Malle the stage was set for great revolution to sweep through the French film industry. Already an industry shaped by creatives, artists and cineastes, the New Wave would seal and define the perceived emphasis of a national cinema, and affirm the identity that persists internationally to today; that of an auteuristically driven, cine-literate and thoughtful cinema that had the power to inspire and prompt change in every facet of French society.