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Features of the French New Wave Film Era

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2631 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Making detailed reference to ONE or TWO films, outline what formally distinguishes ONE of the following film movements: German Expressionist Cinema; Soviet Montage Cinema; Italian Neo-Realism; French New Wave Cinema.

The French New Wave or as it is known in France, ‘La Nouvelle Vague’ was a movement within the French film industry which began in 1958 and lasted until 1964. To honestly examine what elements, comprise the movement we need to have a deeper understanding of what French new wave is and the very important people behind it. In this essay, I will be focusing on French Cinema in the years before the New Wave, before going on to discuss the talented people behind the movement and what makes French New Wave unique and yet similar to other movements of the time, I will be analysing François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959) and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout De Soufflé (A Bout De Souffle, 1960) to highlight the unique style of the New Wave.

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The movement was made up of a group of directors who began as critics for the film journal Cahiers Du Cinema. Their films were built on their strong personal ideals and their passionate love for film and the relationship they had with them as critics. The French New Wave came to existence due to a loss of emotional attachment with the films being produced and broadcasted in France at the time. During the Second World War, Hollywood films were banned, and the French films being produced were heavily censored by Nazi occupiers. Once the war finished French cinema reverted to showing ‘Tradition De Qualité (Cinema of quality) which the New Wave directors disliked. They considered the films being shown to be outdated and labelled them Cinéma De Papa (Dad’s Cinema). Ultimately the New Wave directors made films in partnership with a studio, but funding by the Government granted them full control over their movies.

There were many directors within the movement including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabol, Jacques Rivette, Louis Malle and Eric Rohmer. The New Wave directors writing for the Cahiers Du Cinéma were heavily critical of French cinema at the time. They wrote highly of Poetic Realism films from the 1930s such as ‘Hotel Du Nord’ (Hotel Du Nord, 1938), Italian Neo-Realism films like ‘Bicycle Thieves’ (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) or ‘Bitter Rice’ (Bitter Rice, 1949) which had been a personal inspiration for their own New Wave and a number of Hollywood directors. They also admired many directors from both France and abroad including Jean Renior, Fritz Lang, Roberto Rossellini, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

Individuals such as Henri Langlois who alongside Georges Franju co-founded the Cinématheque Française had a significant impact on the New Wave, they were praised for giving the young director’s both a platform to share their work and an arena to enjoy the array of films created. The Cinématheque Française in Paris is one of the most extensive film archives in the world, and its screenings both entertain and educate viewers. Greene states that (Greene, 2007) “both the Cinématheque and the ciné-clubs did far more than merely show films. That is, both felt it is their mission to teach viewers how to comprehend and analyse the unique nature of cinematic language.”

Another key influence on the New Wave movement was Andre Bazin who founded the journal Cahiers Du Cinéma which gave members of the New Wave a platform to express their passion and views on the film. Bazin also had a close relationship with Truffaut, even to the extent of helping him gain release from an offender’s institution by taking parental control of him.

New Wave directors all had a love of cinema, and this is reflected in their work. Fellow directors from the movement would appear in each other’s films and at times so would their work. Within New Wave films the characters would often visit the cinema, Wiegand states (Wiegnad, 2001) “As an indication of the extent of cinematic references in the films, it is extraordinary to see just how many characters go to the cinema themselves. The films are littered with trips to the movies.” Example of visits to the cinema in New Wave films includes in Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (Vivre sa vie, 1962) where the protagonist Nana (Anna Karina) cries while watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc, 1928).

As well as a love of cinema New Wave directors had a passion for writing and literature. Truffaut, in particular, had a strong passion for books and admired the author Honoré de Balzac. This is highlighted in Les Quatre Cents Coups when Antoine is accused of plagiarism after being inspired by Balzac.  The New Wave films had specific characteristics, a unique style and recognisable mise-en-scène. The characters tended to be young, often reckless and anti-authority. The films were captured quickly on newly designed handheld cameras. The films consisted of plenty of movement, heavy use of panning shots and at times freeze frames and photograph stills. Neupert states “New Wave stories tend to be loosely organised around rather complex, spontaneous young characters. Importantly, unpolished, sometimes disjointed film styles fit these rather chaotic, good-humoured tales of youth wandering around contemporary France.”

There is a significant influence from Italian Neo-Realism. This is shown through shared characteristics including location shooting, natural lighting, open ending plots and the use of non-professional actors. Scripts would often be written by the director rather than a scriptwriter giving them full creative control. French New Wave films often included locations of Paris streets and famous landmarks of the city. This helped to reinvigorate the patriotism of the French people after regaining their freedom from Nazi Occupation.

Two examples of New Wave films which highlight the characteristics of the movement are Les Quatre Cents Coups (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959) and A Bout De Souffle (A Bout De Souffle, 1960). François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups was released in 1959. The film is centred on Antoine Doniel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a young boy who lives a miserable life in Paris with his mother (Claire Maurier) and stepfather (Albert Rémy). Antoine has to sleep in a sleeping bag in a cramped apartment with his short-tempered mother and her husband. He struggles at school and eventually falls into petty crime and is imprisoned for stealing a typewriter. Like many New Wave characters, Antoine has an uneasy relationship with authority. Throughout the film, he finds himself in trouble with many authority figures including his mother, stepfather, teachers and eventually the police.

Many scenes in the film are believed to be autobiographical of Truffaut’s childhood. Truffaut denied that the film was autobiographical, but the number of similarities between himself and Antoine suggests otherwise. Greene writes that (Greene, 2007)” To create his portrait of Antoine, Truffaut drew heavily on aspects of his personality as well as incidents of his life. Indeed, the resemblance between Antoine and Truffaut is so marked that the fictional character-who would figure in three more films by Truffaut- has often been described as Truffaut’s ‘alter ego’.” Many scenes were shot on location on the streets of Paris a staple characteristic of French New Wave.

The streets of the city provide a location for Antoine’s experiences, one such experience that is quite memorable from the film is Antoine crying as he is being taken out of the town in a police van. A key characteristic of New Wave characters is the idea that while they break the rules and at times act immorally, they are good at heart. This shown in Antoine’s character by the fact he is caught not when he first steals the typewriter but instead when he goes back to return it. At times it is a lack of luck which leads to Antoine’s downfall. His bad luck is shown when throughout the film he is punished over others who had also been misbehaving. This takes places several times with his friend René (Patrick Auffay) who both skips school and steals the typewriter with Antoine and avoids punishment for both crimes.

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The final scene of the film is Antoine’s escape and is an example of an ambiguous ending in which many French New Wave films take part in. The scene begins with a long shot of the boys playing football. This shows the bond between them, and before Antoine makes his escape, he throws the ball back to the group. As he is making his escape, the sound of birds and the countryside around him represent his quest for freedom. The music begins as Antoine sees the water and it confirms his flight like many other protagonists in French New Wave Antoine is only interested in freedom, from what exactly is left up to the audience’s interpretation.

One of Antoine’s ambitions throughout the films had been to see the sea. A panning shot shows the sea, New Wave films featured many panning shots. The sea stops Antoine’s run and forces him to turn around which suggests he cannot run forever. The film ends with a freeze frame of Antoine’s face looking into the camera addressing the audience with his expression. Still, pictures and ‘breaking the fourth wall’ are key characteristics of the New Wave. This open ending leaves the audience questioning Antoine’s future. It was not Truffaut’s initial aim, but the open ending has resulted in Antoine featuring in later films L’amour á Vingt Ans (1962), Baisers voés (1968), Domicile conjugal (1970) and L’ Amour en Fuite (1979).

The next French new wave film I studied was Jean-Luc Godard’s A ‘Bout De Souffle’ (A Bout De Souffle, 1960) was released in 1960 and told the story of Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his love interest Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg). Michel, our protagonist, has murdered a police officer and escapes to Paris where he reunites with Patricia an American student and intends to flee to Italy with her once again encapsulating a theme of French New Wave, the need for freedom something we saw earlier in the case of Antoine and his eventual ambiguous escape to the sea.

It is easy to see that ‘Bout De Souffle’ is a French New Wave film due to all the characteristics and plot points it shares with other French New Wave pieces. Wiegand states that (Wiegnad, 2001) “all the trademarks of the New Wave style can be found here: rough jump cuts, fragmented narrative, handheld camerawork, panning shots, an improvised jazz score, the dialogue is spoken directly to a camera, frequent changes of pace and mood on screen. The use of real and recognisable locations such as the Champs Elysées and the Orlay airport instead of sound stages.”

Both Michel and Patricia show many characteristics common of New Wave protagonists. Michel is shown to be anti-authoritarian from the start when he steals a car and shoots a police officer. Characters in New Wave films are often marginalised. Patricia is marginalised in many ways. She is away from her family and in a foreign country. Patricia is also shown to be different from the other French females in the film; her hair is short which immediately sets her apart from the other woman in the film who have long well-kept hair. She even dresses differently wearing shirts and trousers compared to the Parisian girls who wear dresses and shun Patricia due to this. New Wave films often favour reminding the audience that they are watching a film, and they do this in A Bout De Souffle through the use of jump cuts and in the scenes in which the characters’ breaks the fourth wall’ by addressing the audience.

A pivotal scene in the film involves Patricia interviewing Parvulesco a writer played by director Jean Pierre-Melville. The scene begins with Michel and Patricia saying goodbye to each other. Patricia is set apart from the other characters the other interviewers are mostly men with only three women present. The other women are dressed differently to Patricia and are dark-haired a more traditional Parisian on the eyes of the audience.

The appearance of other directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville would be considered strange in modern-day films, but in French New Wave it was a common occurrence. The majority of the questions revolve around love and lust two of the main themes in A Bout De Souffle and many other New Wave films. The scene ends with a close up on Patricia looking into the camera after Parvulesco tells her his biggest ambition is to “become immortal and then die”, his answer and her reaction could be perceived as a foreshadowing of Michels later demise.

As with Les Quatre Cents Coups, there are references to other New Wave directors and films. A girl tries to sell Michel a copy of Cashiers Du Cinéma. The film features a scene at a cinema and the film being shown is fellow New Wave director Alan Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959).

While the French New Wave only lasted for a relatively short amount of time when compared with other movements in the film industry, its impact on the film industry cannot be undersold, and it was hugely significant. Through studying the examples of New Wave films directed by Truffaut and Godard, it is clear to me that while narratives may differ, the style and characteristics remain consistent. The success of The New Wave showed later generations that all it took to create successful films was a passion for cinema and the ideals to match. The key elements that comprise the movement were the urge for change, a unique style and a group of talented directors with a skill for making films which matched their passion.


  • A Bout De Souffle. 1960. [Film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: Les Film Imperia.
  • Bicycle Thieves. 1948. [Film] Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Italy: s.n.
  • Bitter Rice. 1949. [Film] Directed by Guiseppe De Santis. Italy: s.n.
  • Greene, N., 2007. The French New Wave A New Look. In: The French New Wave A New Look. London: Wallflower Press, p. 16.
  • Hiroshima Mon Amour. 1959. [Film] Directed by Alan Resnais. France/Japan: Argos Films.
  • Hotel Du Nord. 1938. [Film] Directed by Marcel Carne. France: SEDIF Productions.
  • La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc. 1928. [Film] Directed by Carl Theodore Dryer. France: s.n.
  • Les Quatre Cents Coups. 1959. [Film] Directed by Francois Truffaut. France: Les Films du Carrosse.
  • Neupert, R., 2007. A History of French New Wave Cinema. s.l.:Wallflower Press.
  • Vivre sa vie. 1962. [Film] Directed by Jean-Luc Godard. France: s.n.
  • Wiegnad, C., 2001. French New Wave. In: French New Wave. s.l.:Harpendan, p. 16.
  • Wiegnad, C., 2001. French New Wave. In: French New Wave. France: Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, p. 41.


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