Tuesday 14 February 2023

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema - Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - 6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group


Independent auteurs: Robert Bresson (73) b.07   Jacques Tati (69) b.08    Jean-Pierre Melville (71) b.17 Louis Malle (65) b.32     Cahiers du Cinema Group Eric Rohmer (72) b.20   Jacques Rivette (66) b.28   Jean-Luc Godard (74) b.30   Claude Chabrol (70) b.30   François Truffaut (64) b.32     Left Bank School Georges Franju (67) b.12   Marguerite Duras* b.14   Chris Marker b.21   Alain Resnais (73) b.22   Alain Robbe-Grillet b.22    Agnès Varda* (09) b.28     Originals Jean Rouch b.17   René Allio b.24   Jacques Rozier b.26  Jacques Demy b.31

Part 1 The New Wave: The Cahiers du Cinema Group

The above listing of directors of art films in audience reception, at times crossing into the mainstream, might give a misleading impression: that the French New Wave was an art film movement limited to a small group of filmmakers comparable to Italian neo-realism and German cinematic expressionism. But it was more than a cinema art movement not only because of the industry-wide dimension of the transformation that initially resulted but, as Alan Williams points out, (328) there was also “a wide range of highly diverse temperaments and goals within the ‘Cahiers du Cinéma’ group themselves.” , 

Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard in the offices
of Cahiers du Cinema

François Truffaut led the attack, in Cahiers, on mainstream French cinema of the 40s and 50s, “the Tradition of Quality,” labelled in Cahiers as ‘le cinéma de papa’ with its repetitively themed literary scripts based on psychological realism, smoothly photographed and edited star vehicles designed to more than compete with aspiring American product. The stories were either in period with a French emphasis or “focus[ed] predominantly on the lives and loves of young middle class characters. The working class which had been a strong motif in earlier periods of French filmmaking, was largely excluded.” (Temple & Witt 185).  

In contrast, heroes of loosely structured New Wave films lacked personal or social integration. The New Wave's resistance to Hollywood's commercial domination coupled with inspiration drawn from the vitality and formal excellence of auteur directors, contrasted with Cinema de Papa's studio-bound creative conservatism which was in financial crisis. This prompted the introduction of government financial incentives favouring independent film production. 

Neither a genre nor a school, the New Wave initially gained strength from its divergency and an imperative to experiment with narrative on low budgets. A hundred new filmmakers made their debut from the mid-fifties to the early 60s, filmmakers often beginning with short films. “The New Wave can be seen as a continued attempt to establish the main codes of classical American cinema and to subvert, undermine, and rework them.” (Flitterman-Lewis 31)

Alexandre Astruc with his essay on “Le Caméra stylo” (‘writing with the camera’), and Roger Leenhardt, were important influences on filmmaking ambitions. Leenhardt’s influential essays on cinema in ‘Esprit’ are seen to have initiated modern film criticism in France. They were responsible for first luring Cahiers’ editor and theorist André Bazin into studying film (Dudley Andrew). In terms of the actual filmmaking, Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1955) and Agnès Varda's Le Pointe-Courte (1956) are the widely considered precursors to the New Wave.  Although Varda's first feature failed to find an audience her experiment in narrative with an audience-distancing dual structure, exemplified the subsequent commitment to low budgets to preserve freedom of expression over the compromises generally required to reach a mass audience. 

Jean-Pierre Melville

Only given its full critical due in retrospect, Bob le flambeur is the first of five personal entries to the gangster genre by Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73), spanning nearly two decades peaking with the masterpiece of the series, Le Samourai (1967). David Thomson describes Bob le flambeur as a “lyrical documentary-thriller...made astringent by the casual humour, the remarkable eye for honour, friendship   and double cross, and the pleasure at a world that Melville made his own.”  Independently produced on low budgets - Melville had set up his own studio in Paris - he achieves a kind of generic purity, a finely understated tough romanticism revivifying as policiers the American gangster film, atmospherically filmed on location with emergent actors of the time.  

The original phrase nouvelle vague was applied by a journalist in the weekly L'Express in October 1957 to a whole generation formed culturally and politically after Liberation in 1944.  In relation to the film industry the term New Wave was adopted to identify a brief period of upheaval and innovation in the French industry. Audiences for the New Wave films peaked during this flood of releases and then in the course of 18 months fell by 50 per cent. The first features of Cahiers critics Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze (L’Eau à la bouche/A Game for Six Lovers) were released in 1959. Their approach to the conventions of mainstream cinema was, on the whole, more inventively casual and freewheeling than outright subversive.

Initially the “real new wave auteurs”, relied on enlightened producers, intent as they were on making films in improvisational mode rather than from well prepared scripts required by the state support scheme established for more 'difficult' films (Kovács 306). The period after 1962-3, it is suggested, should be referred to as the post-New Wave. The film industry recovered from its crisis in the late 50s, structurally largely unaffected. The aesthetic impact of the New Wave filmmakers - deployment of Godardian fragmentation and  improvisation in camera technique and performance -  was more permanent, both across Europe and internationally.  

Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Luc Godard
 (1930-2022) early brought an adventurously spontaneous approach to genre-based narrative. Breathless (1959), Godard admitted, emerged not as the realist narrative he had initially intended to have been more linear like his second feature, Le Petit Soldat, (1960).  In Godard's fourth feature, Vivre sa vie (1962), his interests in female subjectivity and formal manipulation - the radical exploration of film's sound-image relationship - are most apparent. It also soon became clear that Godard was the most political of the core Cahiers group. Initially, however, he showed anarchic disinterest in taking a political position on the Algerian war in Le Petit Soldat, preferring a confused identification with the right-wing militant Michel. The anti-terrorism position taken in Le Petit Soldat transmutes into the detached political didacticism of his fifth feature, Les Carabiniers/The Riflemen (1963), foreshadowing his shift into a radical dialectic of fiction and documentary modes .  More on Godard will follow in 6 (11-13).

François Truffaut 

François Truffaut
 (1932-84), after the autobiographical Les Quatre Cents Coups/ The 400 Blows (1959), made an ironically playful, inventively contradictory genre picture with Charles Aznavour playing a caricatured gangster in Tirez sur le pianiste /Shoot the Piano Player (1960).  Its failure with audiences prompted Truffaut to mute the clash of tones and authorial markers in his third feature Jules et Jim (1961), uniting the “innocence” of his first feature with the “experience” of the second, as he described it (Monaco 47). He settled into a varied, modified classicism in a more relaxed semi-autobiographical stream with Baisers Volés/Stolen Kisses (1968)  counted among Truffaut’s best films, the second of four features in the Antione Doniel /Jean-Paul Leaud series beginning with The 400 Blows. One of his most underrated films, La Peau Douce/ Soft Skin (1964), is the first of three features made across more than two decades on the theme of frustrated passion, Truffaut in effect establishing his own ‘non-genre’. 

His inheritance from Renoir can be felt in a number of his films. In various on-going collaborations with four writers Truffaut’s more overt attempt to evoke ‘pure’  Hitchcockian cinema fails to overcome their differences in temperament in La Mariée était en noir /The Bride Wore Black (1968) but is better realised in the combining of genres in La Sirène du Mississippi / Mississippi Mermaid (1969).  He also made a succession of exploratory historical - literary adaptations:  L’Enfant sauvage/ The Wild Child (1970) in which Truffaut also played the lead role and narrates, Les Deux Anglaises et le Continent/ Two English Girls on the Continent (1971), an adaptation of a novel by the author of Jules and Jim, Henri Pierre Roché,  L’Histoire d’Adèle H / The Story of Adele H (1975) an account of sexual alienation based on the diaries of Victor Hugo’s daughter, and La Chambre verte/ The Green Room (1978) a  further example of Truffaut’s capacity for self-renewal in an adaptation of a dark short story by Henry James with Truffaut again playing the lead.  Bordwell notes “that Truffaut exemplifies the degree to which the norms of classical and art-cinema narration can peacefully co-exist […the] synthesising of certain Hollywood norms with art-cinema notions of psychological realism” ('Narration' 316). 

Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol
 (1930-2010) played an important part in launching the New Wave when between 1958-60 he financed short films by Rivette and Rohmer, with whom he collaborated on the first serious book length study of Hitchcock’s films. Monaco describes the films of Hitchcock and Fritz Lang as “Chabrol’s paragons.”  He financed Rohmer’s first feature, Le Signe du lion (1959) Philippe de Broca’s first, Les Jeux de l’amour (1960), and helped finance Rivette’s Paris nous appartient (1961) more than two years in the making. Chabrol formed his own company which served as a nucleus for the early cooperative efforts of the ‘Cahiers’ critics-turned filmmakers and Chabrol deserves more credit than he received for the practical intelligence he showed in financing the early New Wave films (Monaco 254).  

His first feature, generally regarded as the first feature of the New Wave, Le Beau Serge/ Handsome Serge,(1959), with autobiographical elements filmed in his town where Chabrol spent his adolescence during the Occupation, was financed with inherited money. It served  as a practical demonstration to aspiring New Wave filmmakers of how a feature could be made on a small budget. Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins (1959) are thematically companion films and the latter was the beginning of a collaboration with writer and friend Paul Gégauff - on-going collaborations both in front of and behind the camera was central to Chabrol’s accomplished craftsmanship and mode of working.  Les Cousins (1959) was the only major commercial success in his first filmmaking phase of 8 features 1958-63 which can be identified as Chabrol’s ‘art film period’. His fourth feature, Les Bonnes Femmes / The Good Girls (1960), which Chabrol nominated as his best film, is centred on four Parisian shopgirls entertaining dreams for a better life, but ending in a murder. Subtle ironies unexpectedly emerge with emotional affect through a complex formal structure.  Chabrol’s achievement in this initial personal phase of his filmmaking career was better understood retrospectively in light of the ironic subtleties in “a distillation of Chabrol’s preoccupations” almost universally praised by the critics in Le Boucher/ The Butcher (1970). 

The survival phase of 6 commercial assignments 1964-8 ended with the breakthrough, critically and commercially, of Les Biches (1968) beginning Chabrol’s fully mature phase in 9 features 1968-73 all variants on the psychological thriller genre pioneered in the French cinema by Henri-Georges Clouzot*, usually centred on triangular relationships. In the films most fully realised in this phase such as La Femme Infidèle/ The Unfaithful Wife (1969), Que la Bete Meure/ This Man Must Die (1969)  and Le Boucher, culminating with Les Noces rouges/ Wedding in Blood (1973), Susan Hayward sees Chabrol as providing “a social document of contemporary France that is far from flattering in its continuous criticism of bourgeois morality.” She further sees, as a constant, Chabrol’s obsession with the very fine line between good and evil, morality and madness, stupidity and frustration, “the way that social/bourgeois hypocrisy papers over that (260-1).” Chabrol is described by Alan Williams as a Left, no longer practicing, Catholic “who associated with Right anarchists” (344), his Catholicism seemingly displaced by the films of Lang and Hitchcock. He and Rohmer have been identified as forming Cahiers’ “Catholic wing.” Hayward describes Rohmer’s films as “more intimist” than Chabrol’s - “his moral fiction does not particularly address the social questions of the time but does paint the social mores of a certain intellectual middle class [and their] practices of self-deception (ibid 262).”  See also René Allio below. 

* On genre Monaco writes :  “There are seldom identifiable protagonist/antagonist relationships in Chabrol films…His world is internal and global rather than dialectical. It is not ratiocination [conscious reasoning] that fascinates Chabrol, but guilt, psychopathy, and violent passion. His films, then, are much closer structurally to the Films Noirs of the late forties, and early fifties.”  Monaco suggests they be called ‘Films Noirs en coleurs’ (256).

Jacques Rivette

Jacques Rivette
 (1928-2016) in some ways closer in his filmmaking to the Left Bank group especially Resnais, Rivette was initially the least prolific of the core Cahiers group in terms of individual films but not in screen time. The original Out One (1971), screened publicly only once, ran 760 minutes edited with the intention of it screening as a serial on television but rejected by O.R.T.F.  Rivette then recut the film to 255 mins as Out One Spectre (1974) with a different narrative, from the more than 25 hours of film he had shot for Out One.  These two films are more closely related to the traditions of Louis Feuillade and the silent film serial which Feuillade pioneered, the story not following a straight line. Two unresolved story lines largely improvised - one a mystery story involving 13 conspirators, two theatre groups and two crazed outsiders, the other a realistic story involving the same people that makes no sense.   

La Religieuse/The Nun  (1965 ) is a classical literary adaptation starring Anna Karina based on a story by Diderot and also a play which Rivette had directed in the theatre. It was originally banned on the grounds of blasphemy (the banning apparently initiated by Madame de Gaulle), to become Rivette’s only financial success after the ban was lifted years later. Céline et Julie vont en Bateau/ Céline et Julie Go Boating (1975) more accurately translates as the less active ‘Celine and Julie Taken for a Ride’ running 3 hours. The pleasurable, innovative narrative play on fictive mystery in the House of Fiction - a concern with fiction as an end in itself- is linked also to Rivette’s love of cinema showing that, relaxed and assured in his direction, Rivette could make a potentially successful art film deploying a similar framework of split narratives to that of Out One Spectre*.  

In an experimental narrative such as the 256 minute L'Amour  Fou /Mad Love (1968) Rivette combines 35 and 16mm filming, merging fiction and documentary elements. The initial element of the film is actors rehearsing a play by Racine. Then follows the psychodrama of the breakdown of a marriage and the descent into madness filmed on 35mm. The third element is the rehearsals for the psychodrama of the couple filmed on 16mm by a “documentary crew.” James Monaco describes it as “like La Religieuse  - an essay on the psychological aspects of individual freedom ” (318).  The psychology is simpler and more direct “without the fictive mystery” of Out One Spectre and Celine and Julie. “ The result is that the dialectical tensions between the various combinations of cinema, stage and television in L’Amour fou  are vividly clear, whereas the comparable oppositions in [his first film] Paris nous appartient/ Paris is Ours (1960) are “muddy and indistinct,” and those in La Religieuse were only implied” (ibid). Monaco notes that by this time Rivette has completely rejected the concept of filmmaking conventionally divided it into three distinct motions - script writing, production and shooting, and montage -  the stages in Rivette’s words “should be be totally interactive.“

Eric Rohmer (as he appears in Jacques Rivette's 
Out One)

A fellow ‘Cahiers’ critic and close friend of Rivette’s, Eric Rohmer (1920-2010) began to more clearly focus on a neo-classical style in building up a personal universe on the screen filmed with a love of natural light, a series of elegant, deceptively simple explorations of his characters' emotions, sexual urges, hesitations and moral dilemmas. In the six ‘contes moraux’ through the sixties, 1962-72, each “a story,” as he explained “which deals less with what people do than with what is going on in their minds while they are doing it.” The moral tales come to full fruition with third and fifth of the series, Ma nuit chez Maud/ My Night at Maud’s (1969)  and Le Genou de Claire/Claire’s Knee (1970) which Molly Haskell aptly sums up as “breathtakingly subtle and brilliantly cast and enacted amorous skirmishes” (Cinema vol 2 ed. R.Roud). In characterising Rohmer’s breakthrough with the international arthouse audience Rohmer additionally gives us time, through his film series, David Thomson concludes, “to consider how people are beautiful.” (Biographical Dictionary 898).

Certain 'Catholic tendencies' in the politics of the Cahiers group reflected critical thinking based in the realist film theory of its founding editor and spiritual father, André Bazin. Their filmmaking was an extension of their criticism – a politique des auteurs  inspired by the talent of many directors working in Hollywood genres. The main rival, Positif, also auteurist but with an anti-clerical left-wing stance, attacked Godard's and Bresson's films while supporting the Left Bank filmmakers' literary-based modernism and leftist politics as well as the work of others ignored by Cahiers in the early part of their careers such as Cavalier, Sautet, and Pialat (Nowell-Smith ed. 578).                                                                                                        

Jacques Rozier

One of the neglected films of The New Wave Jacques Rozier's  Adieu Philippine (1961), has affinity with the gracefully lyrical, humane cinema of Jacques Demy (1931-90) in, for example, Lola (1960), Les Baie des Anges/The Bay of Angels (1962) and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/ The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Rozier’s film exemplifies some of the more memorable qualities of New Wave cinema: street shooting with non-professional actors, emphatic visual devices capturing something of the post-war Americanisation of French culture and the forced hedonism of mass tourism, yet in the shadow of the Algerian conflict as we are reminded in the opening credits. Adieu Philippine failed at the time, not helped by money problems which delayed its completion for two years. For Rozier's subsequent work including five feature films 1973-2007 see Wikipeda. Adieu Philippine was acknowledged in Cahiers du Cinema for its pioneering application of cinema-vérité techniques to a fictional subject - the loss of teen-age innocence - with rare lyrical sensibility. The title derives from a French kid's wishing game in which “philippine” means “sweetheart.” 

Jean Rouch

Jean Rouch
 (1917-2004) was one of the pioneers of ethnographic filmmaking which, as Brian Winston points out, came from “a French tradition which concentrates on cosmologies with a kinship to surrealism, rather than a scientific study of kinship patterns.” His documentary practice, like that of Chris Marker, came from a French style of personal film that moves beyond using the camera for other than documenting objectively observed processes and behaviour. Rouch was an avid filmgoer who attended a film club, Cercle du Cinéma, founded in 1934 by Georges Franju and Henri Langlois which led eventually to the founding of the Cinémathèque Francaise. Rouch's consuming enthusiasm for cinema was closely connected to his interest in the Surrealism of Buñuel and Dali. Peter Wollen notes that these interests, “mixed with the solvent of ethnography,”  Rouch began film-making after the war having worked as an engineer in Niger. He bought a 16mm Bell & Howell camera and returned to Africa where he made films concerning cosmology – magic, possession and children's games – topics with a strong surrealist resonance in addition to their ethnographic interest. He liked the way Robert Flaherty mixed documentary and fiction in Nanook of the North (1922) and Rouch followed Flaherty's practice of screening his films to those who appeared in them. He also had them contribute to the post synched soundtrack. Improvisation became central to Rouch's practice as he discarded altogether the rhetoric of scientific objectivity using new sound technology to foster interactivity. His interest became the exploration of film's double nature in a form of ethno-fiction erasing what he saw as the false line between fiction and documentary (Wollen).

Rouch's pioneering work in ethnography shading into ethno-fiction has not been without its African critics for wrongful portrayals of Africa and Africans who see his films as perpetuating the exoticism and exploitation initiated by colonialism, most notably by Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike who has called into question a whole tradition of ethnographic filmmaking as Rouch and others practised it. At the same time Rouch worked with black actors with whom he jointly produced scripts and who later acknowledged his role in them becoming filmmakers themselves.  Both Oumarou Ganda (in Moi un noir) and Safi Faye (in Petit à petit) said they disliked some of the falsifications made by Rouch in these films. Strongest criticism by Africans has been directed at Rouch's most controversial film, Les maîtres fous, in what is claimed to be his falsification for subversive effect of the significance of the images of religious ritual and possession among the Huaka sect in Ghana. Teshome Gabriel charged that Rouch's “obsession with penetrating the African mind” reached its climax in Les maître fous and in “the growing tendency to personalise and fictionalise” in Rouch's later films” (Ukadike 51).

Rouch influenced, and in turn was influenced by the New Wave. Kovács notes “that right from the beginning Godard's style was strongly influenced by Jean Rouch's self-reflective direct style of La Pyramid Humaine (1959),  a form of psychodrama made with students in Abidjan applied to Paris in Chronique d'un Été/Chronicle of a Summer (1960) co-directed with Edgar Morin.” Godard was attracted by “the way visual segments from real life, can be loosely put side by side and organised by a subjective voice-over or onscreen narrative.” Rather than representing reality socially, as in neorealism, in cinema-vérité “subjective views are expressed through images that give the impression of a direct relationship with reality.”  Kovács further notes that after 1967 such cinema-vérité style  disappears from Godard's films as he entered a new political phase in his filmmaking (170).

Not the poster used in Australia

* Myself and Film Alert editor Geoff Gardner can both attest to the existence of a substantial ‘found’ art house audience for Celine and Julie in Australia.  As a cinephiles’ investment and as regard for the film we jointly bought the Australian theatrical rights after its screenings at the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals 1975 failed to attract local distributor interest. We recovered more than several times over what, by today’s standards, was a fairly modest outlay for rights advance and the 35mm print (we later also acquired a 16mm print courtesy of the French Embassy) then paying the producers a further 25% of rentals and gross receipts after recovery of our initial outlay. The growing local cult following was apparently not exceeded internationally, even in France. This seemed to us a mysterious if welcome windfall given that we had almost no promotional material, mainly depending on positive reviews and word of mouth from festival, other single screenings and short seasons in independent cinemas. The 3 hour running time may offer part explanation for lack of distributor-exhibitor interest.  Celine and Julie is best seen to weave its magic, I think, without an interval break for which there was no provision on the release prints. In the decennial world poll just published it was voted by the critics at 78th position, from 127 in 2012. BH


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series

Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

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