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New Wave

New Wave



The period from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s was a turbulent one in many parts of the world. While African and Asian countries struggled for and gained independence from colonial powers, the United States expanded its own "imperial" interests in Southeast Asia and Latin America, with important effects on the colonial powers themselves. In Europe—East and West—there was widespread political and cultural upheaval, culminating in the violent events of 1968. Cinema was no exception to the general sense of change in the cultural realm and was an important contributor to it. The period saw a number of "new waves" in cinema in different countries, but the best known—and the one that gave its name to the others, sometimes also referred to as "new cinema" or "young cinema"—was the French nouvelle vague, generally considered to have surfaced in 1958–1959 and to have had decisive effects on French cinema, as well as other national cinemas, at least until the mid-1960s, although its influence and reputation lasted much longer and continues today.


The phenomenon of the nouvelle vague is rooted in the fact that between 1958 and 1962 some one hundred filmmakers, mostly a little under or over thirty years of age, made and brought out their first feature films. Such a sudden influx of young, new directors was unprecedented in any national cinema. Most French directors in the mid-1950s had established themselves and a style of "quality" cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. New directors found it hard to enter the industry; those who did often attended the official French film school, L'Institut des Hautes-Etudes du Cinéma (IDHEC) and then served long apprenticeships as assistants. Along with established actors and screenwriters, well-equipped studios and experienced technicians, art directors and directors of photography, this typical path encouraged a safe, studio-bound, script-heavy, often literary cinema—the kind of cinema that François Truffaut (1932–1984) subjected to blistering attack in a polemical 1954 essay in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma (no. 31, January 1954). In "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," Truffaut branded such cinema la tradition de qualité (quality tradition) and le cinéma de papa (Daddy's cinema), while praising the auteurs, or authors, whose vision and style were personal and individual. The politique des auteurs—the auteur polemic or policy—singled out for praise French directors like Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, Jacques Becker, Jean Cocteau (as well as Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti and other European filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Carl Dreyer, Luis Buñuel, and, more controversially, American directors like Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and the British Alfred Hitchcock).

Truffaut and several of his critic colleagues from Cahiers du CinémaJean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), Eric Rohmer (b. 1920), and Jacques Rivette (b. 1928)—consciously set out to oust the cinéma de papa with their own youthful cinema and establish themselves as auteurs, using their critical writing as preparation for filmmaking. At the Cannes Film Festival in May 1959 the nouvelle vague was officially recognized as having arrived: Truffaut's debut feature Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows) won the Prize for Direction and Alain Resnais's (b. 1922) first feature, Hiroshima mon amour, though not in official competition (for censorship reasons)—and though eliciting much vocal opposition—won the International Critics' Prize. Though these awards did signal a vital change, the "triumph" of the nouvelle vague at Cannes should not be overemphasized: the main prize, the Palme d'Or, went to Marcel Camus's Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), the Special Jury Prize to Konrad Wolf's East German–Bulgarian Sterne (Stars), and the acting prizes to the three male actors in Richard Fleischer's Compulsion and to Simone Signoret for her performance in the British Room at the Top. In fact, Chabrol had already had some commercial success with his first feature film, Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1958), and was about to release his second, Les Cousins (The Cousins, 1959; and some earlier films could be regarded as marking the arrival of a "new wave"). Also in 1959–1960, several important first features were released—Godard's controversial À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Rohmer's Le Signe du lion (The Sign of Leo, 1959), and Rivette's Paris nous appartient (Paris Is Ours, 1960).

Many have argued that this group of Cahiers critics turned filmmakers (though they had all made—sometimes not very good—short films during the 1950s) were the nouvelle vague. Indeed, when these films were shown widely on big screens, and with commercial success, they had a disorienting effect on the mainstream French film industry. But it is unlikely that, on their own, this handful of directors making their first features, albeit in a tight time frame, would have had such an impact. The Cahiers group of filmmakers also became known as the "Right Bank" (of the river Seine) group, in contradistinction to the loosely designated "Left Bank" group, generally slightly older, associated with Resnais and Agnès Varda (b. 1928), Chris Marker (b. 1921), and perhaps Georges Franju (1912–1987). Before Resnais's success with Hiroshima mon amour, in some cases since the 1940s, these filmmakers had won admiration for their short and more political films ("Left" and "Right" also had these connotations). Notable among these were Resnais and Marker's study of colonialism and art, Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, 1953), Resnais's study of the concentration camps, Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), Franju's striking films about animal slaughter (Le Sang des bêtes [Blood of the Beasts], 1949) and the Paris military hospital (Hôtel des Invalides, 1952), and Marker's critical travelogues Dimanche à Pékin (Sunday in Peking, 1956) and Lettre de Sibérie (Letter from Siberia, 1957). Making short films of this kind, along with the changing atmosphere of French cinema from 1958 to 1962, opened up possibilities for these directors to make their first features: Franju's La Tête contre les murs (The Keepers, also known as Head Against the Wall, 1959) and Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1959); Varda's Cléode5à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, 1961); and Marker's !Cuba Sí! (Cuba Yes, 1961) and Le Joli mai (Pretty May, 1963). Resnais was able to continue making controversial features like L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961) and Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (Muriel, or the Time of Return, 1963).

Needless to say, other filmmakers graduated to features at this time who could not be said to belong in either group or camp—directors such as Jean Rouch (1917–2004), whose background was in anthropological filmmaking, with Moi un noir (I, a Negro, 1958), La Pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961) and Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961, co-directed with Edgar Morin); Jacques Demy (1931–1990), with Lola (1961) and La Baie des Anges (Bay of Angels, 1963); and Jacques Rozier (b. 1926), who followed short films, including the striking 1958 film about young people on the Côte d'Azur Blue Jeans, with his first feature Adieu Philippine (1962). And caught up, as it were, in the nouvelle vague were a number of more conventional directors who had served their time as assistants and fortuitously found themselves making their first features at this time and benefiting from the general buzz being generated—directors like Philippe de Broca (1933–2004), Michel Deville (b. 1931), Claude Sautet (1924–2000), and Edouard Molinaro (b. 1928).

These bare facts about who made what when, and what the filmmakers' backgrounds were, are easy to record, but they do not begin to touch on a crucial question: How was it that an established industry could be upset so decisively—and was that industry in fact decisively upset? A related question concerns the conditions and circumstances that enabled these new filmmakers to make their films. Moreover, what was new about the nouvelle vague, insofar as it is possible to talk generally about a diverse group of films and filmmakers who nevertheless have something in common?


In social terms, the 1950s—in France as elsewhere—saw the growth of youth culture and the beginnings of the displacement in politics and culture of the war and post-war generation by a new generation. The term nouvelle vague was coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud in 1958 in the weekly news magazine L'Express for a series of articles about the new generation emerging in France as the Fourth Republic got under way, not just in cinema but in politics and culture in general. The sudden and very visible emergence of the new filmmakers in 1958–1959 meant that what Giroud had noted as a general phenomenon became attached uniquely to cinema.

There were perhaps good reasons why the most striking manifestation of this New Wave should make itself felt in cinema. France had a long tradition of taking popular culture—perhaps especially, cinema—more seriously than did the United States and Britain. This was particularly true of the post–World War II period, with its lively, often polemical, culture of film criticism and reviewing both in specialized journals like Cahiers du Cinéma and its main rival Positif, both founded in the early 1950s, and in the daily and weekly press. At a time when the audience for mainstream cinema was declining, this culture was sustained by—and helped to sustain—a network of ciné-clubs and subsidized art et essai cinemas—art houses—dedicated to showing both repertory cinema and more noncommercial cinema. In Paris, Henri Langlois's Cinémathèque Française regularly screened historical material of all kinds, allowing for the discovery, or rediscovery, of past cinema. Cinémathèque screenings were given a lot of attention in the pages of Cahiers, whose critics regarded it as their equivalent of a film school. When the New Wave broke, there was an audience eager to see these new films and an infrastructure within which they could be seen, discussed, and argued about—Cahiers and Positif were often in sharp disagreement about the worth of the new films.

The state played a role in film production in France through the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), founded in 1946 to help regenerate French cinema, with a role in the financing, distribution, and censorship of films, as well as in professional training, archiving, the selection of films for festivals, and so on. Before 1959 the way in which loans were advanced rewarded established producers and directors, although there was some encouragement of short filmmaking. In the late 1950s, with mainstream French cinema in crisis, there were changes in the way films were subsidized: in 1959 control of the CNC passed from the Ministry for Information to the Ministry for Cultural Affairs, then headed by the literary icon André Malraux (1901–1976), and state subsidy became more varied, including the avance sur recette (interest-free advance against box-office revenue), awarded on the basis of submission of technical details and a synopsis, and a guarantee of profits from foreign distribution. In addition, prizes and grants were awarded: for example, Truffaut's 1958 short Les Mistons (The Kids) cost 5 million francs and was awarded 4.5 million francs after completion, while Chabrol's first feature Le Beau Serge, which cost 46 million francs, was awarded 35 million francs. Both directors, having been their own producers, immediately reinvested their awards in new projects—Truffaut in The 400 Blows and Chabrol in Les Cousins. Although these new and varied forms of subsidy helped to generate the New Wave, they still tended to favor a relatively traditional approach to filmmaking, rather than the less script-based, more improvised approach of a director like Godard.

The New Wave filmmakers benefited from what was effectively a new wave of adventurous producers willing to take risks, who either graduated from short films to features with the new filmmakers or got a new lease on life through them. Pierre Braunberger (1905–1990), a veteran producer of Buñuel and Renoir in the 1920s and 1930s, was hardly a newcomer, but he had produced several Resnais shorts in the 1950s and now took risks with films like Jean Rouch's Moi un noir, Truffaut's second feature Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960) and Godard's Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962). Godard was equally indebted to producers such as Georges de Beauregard (1920–1984), who enabled him to make À bout de souffle, Le Petit soldat (The Little Soldier, 1963), Les Carabiniers (1963), Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), and other films, and Anatole Dauman (1925–1998), who enabled him to make Masculin, féminin (1966) and 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967). De Beauregard also produced Demy (Lola), Varda

b. Paris, France, 3 December 1930

From the mid-1950s Jean-Luc Godard was a critic (a highly idiosyncratic one) at Cahiers du Cinéma, with André Bazin, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Godard and his Cahiers colleagues made some short films in the 1950s but learned about cinema by watching and writing about cinema. As Godard has said, "All of us at Cahiers thought of ourselves as future directors. Frequenting ciné-clubs and thémathèque was already a way of thinking cinema and thinking about cinema. Writing was already a way of making films."

Godard's first feature, À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), helped announce the definitive arrival of the nouvelle vague, provoking both exhilaration and consternation by its wayward story and its cinematic treatment—fragmented narrative; long, often handheld, mobile takes; jump-cut editing. Godard rapidly became the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, committed to formal experimentation and rejecting script-based filmmaking. He often began a day's shooting with a few notes and ideas and improvised both script and camera work. He was also committed to productivity, making thirteen features from 1960 to 1967. Although some of Godard's films seem lightweight, Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962), Les Carabiniers (The Carabineers, 1963), Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), and others were major low-budget works reflecting on contemporary society and radically questioning conventions about style and meaning, sound and image. Godard continued to experiment on higher-budget, wide-screen, color productions like Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963). Pierrot le fou (1965) was a quintessentially Godardian work—reflexive, stylized, lyrical, autobiographical, funny, restless, desperate. 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967) was an audacious mix of essay, documentary, and fiction.

After the more political La Chinoise and Weekend (both 1967), and the near-revolution of May 1968, Godard abandoned his art-house audience for a militant, deconstructionist "Counter Cinema" attacking bourgeois society and bourgeois cinema with films like Vent d'est Cine (Wind from the East, co-directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin, under the aegis of the Dziga Vertov Group, 1970), but later tried to reconnect to art-house audiences with the magisterially Brechtian Tout va bien (All's Well, 1972).

Although Godard has continued to make acclaimed films into his seventies—Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980), Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985)—his reputation rests primarily on his experimental work from the 1960s and 1970s. The radical inspiration provided by the nouvelle vague is essentially the inspiration provided by Godard, who has generated one of the largest bodies of critical analysis of any filmmaker since the mid-twentieth century.


À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live, 1962), Les Carabiniers (The Carabineers, 1963), Le Mépris (Contempt, 1963), Bande à part (Band of Outsiders, 1964), Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964), Pierrot le fou (1965), Masculin, f éminin (Masculine, Feminine, 1966), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1967), Weekend (1967), Le Vent d'est (Wind from the East, 1970), Tout va bien (All's Well, 1972), Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980), Je vous salue, Marie (Hail Mary, 1985), Éloge de l'amour (In Praise of Love, 2001)


Brown, Royal S., ed. Focus on Godard. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Translated by Tom Milne. Edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. London: Secker and Warburg; New York: Viking, 1972; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1986.

MacCabe, Colin, with Mick Eaton and Laura Mulvey. Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Sterritt, David. The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Wollen, Peter. "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d'est." Afterimage, no. 4, autumn 1972. Reprinted in Peter Wollen: Readings and Writings (London: Verso, 1982), and in Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Jim Hillier

(Cléode5à 7), and Rivette (La Religieuse [The Nun], 1966, and L'Amour fou, 1969), while Dauman was otherwise more involved with the Left Bank group, producing Marker's Lettre de Sibérie and La Jetée (The Pier, 1962) and Resnais's Muriel.

The New Wave filmmakers could achieve what they did only by seizing the opportunities opening to them and freeing themselves from some of the constraints of the mainstream industry. These constraints had to do with practicalities on the one hand, and ways of thinking on the other. On the practical side, it was recognized that the New Wave films found ways around the obstacles posed by union requirements on minimum technical crews, as well as the obstacles to location shooting and various censorship matters, while rejecting some of the things that had been assumed to be absolute requirements, like established stars and the fetish of technical "quality." In terms of ways of thinking, Truffaut—on the verge of breaking through with The 400 Blows—stated his position in a striking 1958 review of a cheaply made Japanese film, Juvenile Passion: "Youth is in a hurry, it is impatient, it is bursting with all sorts of concrete ideas. Young filmmakers must shoot their films in mad haste, movies in which the characters are in a hurry, in which shots jostle each other to get on screen before 'The End,' films that contain their ideas." He then suggested that the IDHEC should buy a copy of Juvenile Passion and show it to students on the first Monday of every month

to keep them from acquiring the mentality of assistants. And what is the assistant's mentality? It can be summed up: "I am finally going to make my first film; I am terrified of falling on my face; I have allowed a script and actors to be imposed on me, but there is one thing I won't give in on, and that is time; I demand fourteen weeks of shooting, thirteen of them in the studio, because if I can use time and film as much as I want, I will be able, if not to make a good film, at least to prove that I can make a film." Juvenile Passion was shot in seventeen days.
(Truffaut, 1978, pp. 246–247)

This begins to suggest what sort of films the New Wave filmmakers wanted to make and what was new about them; but there were also contemporary developments in filmmaking technology that were having an impact in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The development of lightweight, more mobile, and thus more easily handheld cameras like the Arriflex and the É clair opened up new possibilities for shooting methods, while more sensitive film stocks made it possible to shoot without excessive artificial lighting. At the same time, the miniaturization made possible by transistors led to lightweight sound equipment that could record sync sound on location more simply. There were implications here for the quality of the image as well, as for the cost of feature filmmaking and for the traditional craft specialization of the past. These various liberating developments were exploited by a new generation of brilliant cinematographers, all of whom came to features with the New Wave: most prominently, Raoul Coutard (b. 1924) (who worked extensively with Godard and Truffaut), Henri Decaë (1915–1987) (who worked with Truffaut and Chabrol), and Sacha Vierny (1919–2001) (who worked with Resnais). Coutard had been a still photographer and worked in documentary and newsreel prior to 1959, a background that informs the look of the films he shot. Although the new technology was often associated with the greater professional use of 16mm—with which most of the 1950s short filmmakers had some experience—with a few exceptions (such as the compilation film Paris vu par … [Six in Paris], 1965), New Wave features were invariably shot on 35mm but nevertheless benefited from these new possibilities. These developments, though not unique to France, had a significant impact, with more immediate implications for documentary filmmaking than for fiction—for example, they were crucial to the emergence and development of American "direct cinema." But some of the distinctions between fiction and documentary became blurred in both the French New Wave and in some of the other new waves that followed. In France the improvisations/documentaries of Jean Rouch—Moi un noir, La Pyramide humaine, Chronique d'un été—exerted considerable influence on a number of fiction filmmakers, notably Godard, much of whose work fuses or blurs fiction and documentary.


Expressing in general terms what made the New Wave new is inevitably very difficult, given that the filmmakers did not consciously form a movement or group with a unified aesthetic agenda and might be better considered as a loose grouping of disparate filmmakers brought together, to some extent, by historical accident. Truffaut, retrospectively, claimed that for him the nouvelle vague meant, simply, "to make a first film with a reasonably personal theme before you were 35"; he reduced the movement to a few stylistic or production features in commenting that in Un Homme et une femme (A Man and a Woman, 1966) the director Claude Lelouch (b. 1937) "shoots with a hand-held camera and without a carefully planned script: if he isn't part of the nouvelle vague, then it doesn't exist" (Hillier, 1986, p. 107). Similarly, Rohmer claimed that the greatest innovation was "making films cheaply" (Hillier, 1986, p. 87). Even the Cahiers "group" was probably more a group as critics than as filmmakers, when their different sets of interests and concerns immediately began to set them apart from each other.

Even so, we can say that Godard, Truffaut, and the Cahiers group in general felt that mainstream French cinema—excluding the French auteurs they admired—had lost touch with everyday French reality (something they valued in the contemporary Italian cinema of Rossellini and others). This did not mean that they wanted to make problem pictures about contemporary French society; rather, they felt that filmmakers should show and talk about what they knew best at first hand—the everyday life around them. Writing in Arts in April 1959, Godard noted the irony that Truffaut had been debarred from an official invitation to the Cannes film festival as a critic in 1958 but that The 400 Blows had been selected by Malraux as France's only official entry in 1959: "for the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers-that-be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world" (Godard, 1972, p. 146). Addressing the ranks of the old directors of the cinéma de papa, having castigated the camera movements, subject matter, acting, and dialogue of their films, Godard put it this way: "We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are" (Godard, 1972, p. 147). The films of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette tend to forgo "big" subjects in favor of demonstrating a familiarity with the recognizable mores of everyday French life centered on streets, bars, shops, apartments, and on family life and male–female relations, sexual and otherwise, often among young people. Their films evoked a strong sense of what contemporary France—particularly, though by no means exclusively, Paris—looked and sounded like. Location shooting was a major factor here, aided by a responsiveness to the way people talked: the use of slang and swear words in Godard's Breathless proved offensive to some sectors of the audience while ringing wholly true, of course, to others.


However, this might suggest that the films were naturalistic, observational studies of contemporary French life. Although this was an important component—The 400 Blows, for example, seems a clear descendant of the Italian neorealism of Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, though more personal and autobiographical in tone—other elements, potentially at odds with naturalism, combined with it. For example, the Cahiers critics' love of American cinema did not mean that they made films remotely like American ones, but American cinema—and cinema in general—served as a point of reference both for the films and their characters. Thus, Truffaut's second feature, Shoot the Piano Player, combined an evocative sense of contemporary place, time, and character with elements of the gangster film, melodrama, and comedy—a veritable "explosion of genre," as Truffaut put it; Breathless uses Humphrey Bogart and the American crime film (dedicated as it is to the B-movie studio, Monogram) as a point of reference, but from the point of view of a thoroughly French and contemporary (anti-)hero.

Having reproached the cinéma de papa for losing any sense of what was cinematic about the cinema, New Wave directors were also concerned that audiences should experience their films, in a variety of ways, as cinema. This could mean a variety of things. The directors expressed their passion for, and pleasure in, cinema through the exuberant and often flamboyant ways they embraced the possibilities of the medium, as well as through references to scenes and characters in films they loved. Godard said that he wanted to give the feeling that the techniques of filmmaking were being just discovered for the first time. Breathless jettisons much conventional narrative continuity, with jump cuts and narrative elisions, random actions, long takes, and the like, while Shoot the Piano Player introduces an array of cinematic devices, such as sudden big close-ups, subtitles, and irises, borrowed freely from film history. Such strategies gave the early New Wave films a modernity and lightness of touch, and an improvised or spontaneous feeling, very different from the rather literary, ponderous, studio-bound films that typified mainstream French cinema in the 1950s. Truffaut's style soon became more conventional, and Rohmer and Chabrol did not really abandon or continue to question narrative conventions; but Godard remained consistently iconoclastic and experimental beyond the main period of the nouvelle vague. My Life to Live is both a fiction about the life of a prostitute—in a series of Brechtian tableaux—and at the same time a systematic exploration of the function and meaning of camera movement, editing, narrative, and sound. Two or Three Things I Know About Her is both a fiction and a documentary essay about the reorganization of Paris as well as a rigorous examination of film form and the director's decision-making process. Rivette later placed himself well beyond the mainstream with long-form improvisations like L'Amour fou (1968, over four hours long), Out One: Spectre (1973, in four -hour-plus- and twelve-hour versions) and the more commercial but still experimental Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974, over three hours), often using theater as a metaphor for cinema. Effectively, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Rohmer, having helped to put the cat among the pigeons, integrated into mainstream French production, making bourgeois films for bourgeois audiences; only Godard and Rivette continued to fly the flag of radical experimentation. Godard in particular responded to the political turmoil of May 1968 and its aftermath with highly politicized and theoretical as well as formally radical films like Le Vent d'est (Wind from the East, 1970), before trying to regain a wider audience with Tout va bien (All's Well, 1972).

In Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour the Cahiers group recognized a different kind of modernity and modernism than they claimed for their own work—though Godard and Rivette very soon represented different versions of modernism in cinema. Rohmer acclaimed it a "totally new film" and Resnais as "the first modern film-maker of the sound era" (Hillier, 1985, p. 61). Resnais's strategies of montage and parallelism made him appear the successor to Sergei Eisenstein and other 1920s Soviet modernists, while the equivalent to—and even advance on—then current strains of modernism in the French novel. This was not surprising, given that Resnais directed scripts by leading writers of the nouveau roman ("new novel"; a literary movement of disparate styles but concerned above all with time and the effects of modern technology) writers like Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) (Hiroshima mon amour), Alain Robbe-Grillet (b. 1922) (Last Year at Marienbad), and Jean Cayrol (1911–2005) (Muriel, Night and Fog). At the same time, Resnais's stylized use of ambiguity, subjectivity, poetic voice-over, flash inserts, camera movement, and sound marked his work as far removed from naturalism; his subject matter—much more obviously "weighty" and philosophical, with themes like war and the nuclear age, time and memory—made his work more recognizably "art" cinema than seemed at first the case with the work of the Cahiers group. Accordingly, Resnais's work and that of other Left Bank directors—despite the intense controversy generated by Hiroshima mon amour because of its subject and the demands it made on its spectators—was more readily accepted as art cinema both in France and elsewhere. Many critics who had problems working out what kind of "art" Godard was making had no such difficulties with Resnais, even if—as happened most notably with

b. Vannes, France, 3 June 1922

An amateur 8mm filmmaker in his teens, Resnais studied briefly at film school and in the 1940s worked as a cameraman and editor. His first 35mm short film, Van Gogh (1948), was followed by other films about art: Guernica (1950), Gauguin (1951), and Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die, co-directed with Chris Marker, 1953). Resnais, usually his own editor, edited Agnès Varda's 1954 innovative medium-length first feature La Pointe-courte, often considered a forerunner of the French nouvelle vague (New Wave). Resnais gained significant recognition for two later short films centered on memory: Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955) juxtaposes contemporary color footage of an overgrown Auschwitz with black-and-white historical footage, while the commentary meditates on time, memory, and responsibility; and Toute la mémoire du monde (All the Memory in the World, 1956) explores the French national library.

Resnais's first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (script by Marguerite Duras), was shown out of competition at the 1959 Cannes festival. Both its story—a Frenchwoman's brief liaison with a Japanese man in Hiroshima in the present juxtaposed with her memories of a love affair with a German soldier in occupied France during World War II—and its form caused controversy. Resnais's film rethinks narrative time, inter-cutting present and past, with stylized camera work and a poetic, stream-of-consciousness voice-over. With Marker and Varda, Resnais formed the core of the Leftist and more modernist "Left Bank" group of the New Wave (the "Right Bank" group being formed by the former Cahiers du Cinéma critics).

Hiroshima mon amour was central to establishing the artistic credentials and commercial viability of the New Wave worldwide. Resnais's second feature, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961, from a script by Alain Robbe-Grillet), proved even more controversial, with its subjective and opaque construction of time and narrative—critics argued endlessly about what it all meant. Resnais continued his thematic interest in memory and time with Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (Muriel, or The Time of Return, 1963, script by Jean Cayrol) and La Guerre est finie (The War Is Over, 1966, script by Jorge Semprun). Some critics have found the systematic ambiguity and formalism of Resnais and the nouveau roman (new novel) writers he chose to work with too intellectual and lacking in passion.

Many of Resnais's later films, usually also collaborations with writers—for example, with David Mercer on Providence (1977) and Alan Ayckbourn on Smoking/No Smoking (1993)—have been admired, some critics arguing that his work after the 1980s has become more personal. Resnais has continued to make interesting films into his eighties, but his reputation rests primarily on his uncompromisingly modernist works under the nouvelle vague umbrella in the period from 1959 to 1966.


Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), Hiroshima mon amour (1959), L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), Muriel ou Le temps d'un retour (Muriel, or The Time of Return, 1963), La Guerre est finie (The War Is Over, 1966), Je t'aime, je t'aime (1968), Providence (1977), Mélo (1986), Smoking/No Smoking (1993), On connaît la chanson (Same Old Song, 1997)


Armes, Roy. The Cinema of Alain Resnais. London: Zwemmer; New York: A. S. Barnes, 1968.

Kreidl, John Francis. Alain Resnais. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

Monaco, James. Alain Resnais: The Role of Imagination. London: Secker and Warburg; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Sweet, Freddy. The Film Narratives of Alain Resnais. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1981.

Ward, John. Alain Resnais, or the Theme of Time. London: Secker and Warburg, 1968.

Jim Hillier

Last Year at Marienbad—no one seemed quite sure what it all meant or what it was all about.


Of course, many New Wave filmmakers had their own individual styles—Demy's intensely romantic, enclosed fictional worlds and lyrical camera movements and use of music, Franju's strain of surrealism, Rouch's improvised documentaries. In a sense, that was the point: these were individual filmmakers with their own visions and styles rather than a group with unified aims and ideas, other than to be different from and more personal than the earlier mainstream. Just as it is difficult to characterize the nouvelle vague as a movement, it is very difficult to identify when the nouvelle vague came to an end. Most of the most important filmmakers who emerged at the time simply continued to make films and develop and change: Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Resnais, for example, continued to work into their seventies and eighties. It can probably be said, however, that the period in which so many young filmmakers were able to make their first features ended in 1962–1963, in this sense making the nouvelle vague period, or its most intense manifestation, quite short at four or five years. But then it is equally difficult to locate precisely when the nouvelle vague began. If it is dated from Chabrol's Le Beau Serge in 1958, or Cannes in 1959, what about Louis Malle's (1932–1995) Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), made in 1957 (though not released until 1958), and his controversial Les Amants (The Lovers, 1958), both distinctly New Wave in both subject matter—contemporary sexual mores—and in look? Malle, formerly an IDHEC student and then an assistant, does not quite fit the New Wave profile (insofar as there is one—though having been assistant to both Jacques Cousteau and Bresson, his experience as an assistant was hardly conventional). But both films were photographed by Henri Decaë, cinematographer on four of Chabrol's early films and on Truffaut's The 400 Blows, and starred Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928), who was strongly associated with the New Wave (though she had acted in French films since 1949). Moreover, The Lovers was designed by Bernard Evein (b. 1929), later the art director for Chabrol, Demy, Godard, and Truffaut and someone who helped to define the New Wave film's look. But if Malle's first features are to be considered part of the New Wave, then why not also Roger Vadim's (1928–2000) early films, including his first, Et Dieu … créa la femme (… And God Created Woman, 1956)? Vadim had served a more conventional apprenticeship as assistant in the postwar period. The career of Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934), kickstarted by Vadim's film though she had already appeared in several others, only occasionally intersected with the New Wave, and the career of its cinematographer, Armand Thirard (1899–1973), had begun in the 1930s. All the same, when the film appeared the Cahiers critics saw in it something of the looser, unpolished style and the contemporary sexual mores that they found lacking in most French cinema of the time. Looking even farther back, Varda's first (medium-length) feature, La Pointe-courte (1956), made outside the structures of the industry (and therefore never properly distributed), was low-budget, shot on location, audaciously paralleled fiction and documentary, and was edited by Resnais; and Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–1973), a kind of spiritual father to the nouvelle vague—Godard gives him a cameo role as a film director in Breathless—had made films like Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) and Bob le flambeur (Bob the Gambler, 1955) independently, on location, on low budgets.

By 1962–1963 Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Resnais, Varda, Marker, Demy, Rouch, and Malle all had established themselves as major directors of international reputation, though in several cases their most important work was still to come. But from that point they are discussed, increasingly, as individual filmmakers rather than as members of a group or movement. Their work owed a considerable debt not only to a new generation of producers and cinematographers, as noted, but also to a new generation of actors (Jean-Paul Belmondo [b. 1933], Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy [b. 1933], Bernadette Lafont [b. 1938], Emmanuelle Riva [b. 1927], Anna Karina [b. 1940], and others), who, even when, like Moreau, they had been actors before the New Wave, became very much the faces of the new films; new composers like Michel Legrand and Georges Delerue; and new art directors like Bernard Evein, all of whom also helped give the New Wave a distinctive look and sound. Although the New Wave and the turnabout in French cinema it sparked remains a potent legend today, as a phenomenon it was clearly mostly over, its "victory" achieved. At the same time, the way the New Wave came about and some of the "liberation" from old cinema it represented continued to exert considerable influence both within France and beyond.


The impact of the nouvelle vague was such that its films were seen very widely. This undoubtedly had important effects on and implications for young filmmakers in many parts of the world. The widespread distribution and enthusiastic reception of the films helped to create conditions in which innovative work in other countries could be made, seen, and discussed. Compared to the 1950s, there was a veritable explosion of films that rejected old subjects and, usually, old forms as well—certainly insofar as they strived for "gloss" and perfection—often marked by a blurring of fiction and documentary and increasingly politicized as the 1960s progressed. More or less contemporary with the French New Wave was the so-called "British new wave," at its height approximately 1959 to 1963, with directors like Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and Jack Clayton. Also given the "new wave" title by critics was the new cinema emerging in Czechoslovakia, at its height in the period from 1963 to 1968, with directors like Miloŝ Forman, Vera Chytilová, Jaromil Jireŝ, Evald Schorm, Jan Nêmec, and Jiří Menzel; other Eastern bloc countries also saw the emergence of innovative work, with directors like Roman Polanski and Jerzy Skolimowski in Poland; Miklós Jancsó, András Kovács, and István Szabó in Hungary; and Dus̆an Makavejev and Aleksander Petrović in Yugoslavia. In Western Europe new filmmakers appeared: Bernardo Bertolucci, Marco Bellocchio, Ermanno Olmi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Francesco Rosi in Italy; Bo Widerberg and Vilgot Sjöman in Sweden; and later, Risto Jarva and Jaakko Pakkasvirta in Finland. In Germany the 1962 Oberhausen Manifesto, openly indebted to the nouvelle Jan Ne vague, called for a new indigenous German cinema of auteurs and attacked their own "Daddy's cinema"; with the introduction of loans for first features and the establishment of a film school in the mid-1960s, the New German Cinema began to emerge. Alexander Kluge's Abschied von gestern (Yesterday Girl, 1966) was followed by films by Volker Schlöndorff, Jean-Marie Straub and̀le Huillet, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders. Farther afield, in Japan Nagisa Oshima was making his first films in 1959–1960; in Brazil, Cinema Nôvo saw its beginnings in 1961–1962 with first features by Glauber Rocha and Ruy Guerra; the early to mid-1960s brought the first features by Claude Jutra, Gilles Groulx, and Jean-Pierre Lefebvre in Quebec; in India, the radical 1960s work of Ritwik Ghatak was followed by the early work of Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal.

The political and cultural turbulence of the late 1950s and 1960s that followed the birth and baptism of the French New Wave was to be seen very clearly in these new cinemas. Inevitably, the French New Wave was seen as a major influence on the various new waves, new cinemas, and young cinemas that came after it. In several cases the "new wave" label was borrowed to associate these movements with the French New Wave, whether as a marketing tool or a broad critical category. What is the relationship of these new waves to the French New Wave? Although in all cases there was some relationship, or connection, or influence, in reality the question is very difficult to answer.

The nouvelle vague showed that, given the right circumstances, young filmmakers could change dramatically the face and reputation of a country's cinema without working their way up by the conventional routes. The nouvelle vague also showed that there were different kinds of stories to tell and radically different ways to tell them—lessons not lost on young filmmakers in Czechoslovakia or Brazil or Quebec. But should the nouvelle vague be seen as the instigator of and chief influence on the various new waves and new cinemas that followed in the 1960s, or as one manifestation—though perhaps the earliest and most visible, and important because of that—of seismic changes taking place in cinema and society in different parts of the world at roughly the same time? The 1950s and 1960s saw developments in cinema and other areas of culture that had a global impact, such as the potent legacy of neorealism, the precipitous decline in audiences for Hollywood and other mainstream cinemas under the impact of television and the emergent art cinema, the growth of youth culture, the development of new technologies in cameras, film stock, and sound recording, and the increasing accessibility of both the ideas and the practice of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956). In the political realm, the end of one kind of empire and the development of another and the consequent shift in the balance of global power, the rise of the New Left in the West and challenges to Soviet-imposed socialism in Eastern Europe, also had global effects. These new forces combined with more specifically national contexts—very different in, say, Britain, or Czechoslovakia, or Brazil—to produce changes in national cinemas that were marked as much by their similarities as by their differences.

It may also be that the cultural and economic imperatives that so often drive cinema result in cyclical efforts to liberate or "purify" the medium from the accumulation of unquestioned conventions that went before. In such a perspective, the French New Wave followed in the steps of, and shared some of the concerns of, Italian neorealism, while the Danish Dogma 95, for example, draws on the nouvelle vague as a crucial reference point.

SEE ALSO Film History;France;National Cinema


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Douchet, Jean. French New Wave. Translated by Robert Bonnono. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, 1999.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Translated by Tom Milne. Edited by Jean Narboni and Tom Milne. London: Secker and Warburg; New York: Viking, 1972; reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1986.

Graham, Peter, ed. The New Wave. London: Secker and Warburg; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

Hillier, Jim, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma. Vol. 1: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.

——, ed. Cahiers du Cinéma. Vol. 2: The 1960s: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Marie, Michel. The French New Wave: An Artistic School. Translated by Richard Neupert. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Neupert, Richard. A History of the French New Wave Cinema. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.

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Truffaut, François. "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

——. The Films in My Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978; London: Allen Lane, 1980.

Jim Hillier

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