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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

New Wave

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. 1936 or 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After World War II, French cinema was suffering from years of bleeding: bleeding of talent as directors, actors, and film industry workers fled the Paris studios; bleeding of the film industry in terms of material and equipment shortages; and bleeding of creativity as the formerly Nazi-controlled French film world shed itself of censorship restrictions, only to impose them regarding the growing independence movement in Algeria, which was still a French département then.

Essentially, the violence of World War II destroyed not only lives, political orders, land, and financial systems, it also upended the norms by which a new generation operated. Against the backdrop of so much social upheaval, New Wave cinema developed.

In fact, as Richard J. Neupert argues, "[E]very French film is to a certain degree measured against the New Wave" (xxviii, A History of the French New Wave Cinema, 2002).

The baby boom meant that the French population would soon skew young, giving that demographic greater political, social, and consumer power. The French Fourth Republic rose and fell, and the Fifth Republic, under Charles de Gaulle, came to power. Workers from Belgium, Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere in Europe joined laborers from French colonies, territories, and départements (such as Algeria, Senegal, and Martinique) to work in agriculture, construction, mining, manufacturing, and other sectors. This labor migration changed the demographic makeup of increasingly large urban areas, especially in Paris and Marseilles, where large housing estates called HLM (habitation à loyer modéré/low-rent housing) developed into the centerpieces of new suburbs, called banlieues, which would later figure centrally in Beur film.

The end of World War II also instigated colonial independence movements throughout the world.

Algeria's war for independence changed France forever. Massacres in the Algerian towns of Sétif and Guelma in 1945 arguably sparked what would become the war for Algerian independence (1954-1962) and the eventual emigration to France of pieds noirs/black foot European settlers and harkis, Algerians who had fought for France during World War II. In the meantime, North Africans in metropolitan France often faced racism. Yasmina Adi documents one of the worst episodes in her film Ici on noie les Algériens/Here They Drown Algerians (2011), about the little-known massacre and brutalization of North Africans in Paris the night of October 17, 1961.

Other independence movements, with differing levels of resistance and violence, took place in Indochina/Vietnam, Madagascar, Cameroon, Morocco, French Somaliland/Djibouti, Mauritius, Dahomey/Benin, and many more areas formerly under French rule.

The Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo (or Congo-Kinshasa), Rwanda, and Burundi gained independence from Belgium as well.

In North America, the Canadian province of Quebec made substantial changes to its government and economy during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. This movement reflected not only the socioeconomic troubles that sparked it, but also the growing sense of nationalism in the mainly French-speaking province. (In one of the more memorable episodes of this era, President de Gaulle, during a visit to Montreal, shouted "Vive le Québec libre!/Long live free Quebec!" during a speech, seemingly legitimizing separatist actions, which sometimes veered into terrorism.)

In the literary and artistic world, writers of le nouveau roman/the new novel experimented with narrative forms. Authors and critics such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Françoise Sagan, Assia Djebar, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mohamed Dib, Roland Barthes, Aimé Césaire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Marguerite Duras, to name only a few, challenged the idea of what the Francophone literary and scholarly canon looked and sounded like.

The cinema world responded to these sociopolitical and economic transformations.

In 1951, André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca first published the cornerstone Francophone cinema journal Cahiers du cinéma/Notebooks of Cinema, which became a touchstone for film criticism, reviews, and news, especially in the French-speaking world The magazine published debates on film that sometimes became contentious, a prime example being François Truffaut's 1954 essay, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." In it, Truffaut critiqued what he perceived to be the lack of vitality and the intractability of the French film world, which clung to stale values that kept young directors out of the industry and kept French cinema restrained by la tradition de qualité/the tradition of quality or cinéma de papa/dad's cinema, which was a remnant of World War II and that generation's values. He contended that a director acted as a virtual auteur/author of a film, and that the film should be distinctive in order to reflect the director's personal sense of the world.

The term "nouvelle vague" (new wave) first appeared in a 1957 article by Françoise Giroud, journalist for L'Express magazine, and came to describe a style of cinema characterized by experimental storytelling techniques and distinct aesthetics, this due mainly to budget constraints and/or directors' idiosyncratic styles.

The trend toward stylization and individualism, with an emphasis on the prominence of the director's vision, is a hallmark of New Wave cinema. Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Louis Malle are some of the directors most closely linked to the movement.

These and other directors circumvented the constraints of low budgets by embracing creative solutions that allowed them to bypass big studio systems: Natural lighting, filming using lightweight equipment (such as 35mm cameras), on-location shooting (e.g., shooting on the streets of Paris in Chronique d'un été/Chronicle of a Summer [1961, dir. Jean Rouch]), and experimental editing (such as the jump cuts in À bout de souffle/Breathless [1960, dir. Godard]) are only a sample of the cinematographic techniques by which the New Wave would change cinema.

A parallel movement of directors, mainly from the documentary world, developed an alternative approach to filmmaking during the same period. The Left Bank directors (named for the side of the Seine River in Paris where they worked) included Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, and Alain Resnais, among others. This group was not as coherent as their New Wave peers, and their films tended to be more overtly political (e.g., Les Statues meurent aussi/Statues Die Also ;[1953, dirs. Chris Marker, Ghislaine Cloquet, and Alain Resnais]).

The aforementioned political and socioeconomic crises fueled debates in Cahiers du cinéma and were reflected in films such as Mort en fraude/Fugitive in Saigon (1957, dir. Marcel Camus), Patrouille de choc/Shock Patrol (1957, dir. Claude-Bernard Aubert), Muriel, ou le temps d'un retour/Muriel (1963, dir. Resnais), Le Petit Soldat/The Little Soldier (filmed in 1960 but not released until 1963, dir. Godard), La Bataille d'Alger/The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo), L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows (1969, dir. Melville), La Noire de.../Black Girl (1969, dir. Sembène Ousmane), and Z (1969, dir. Costa-Gavras), for example.

The French film world's response in the ensuing decades, Cinéma du Look, would be slick, bright, and cynical, everything against which the New Wave stood.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering the New Wave era in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.