Fifty years after France’s “New Wave raised a storm at Cannes with Francois Truffaut’s iconic arthouse “The 400 Blows, some critics believe the cult school of cinema has stymied French film.
The term “new wave was first coined in 1957 in the nation’s press as a general reference to the new generation. But it quickly came to refer to the upcoming auteur filmmakers and critics known as the “Cahiers du Cinema group, in reference to France’s learned cult film magazine.
It was also in the mid-1950s that Truffaut, then a young writer for the Cahiers who also directed “Shoot The Piano-Player, attacked the great French filmmakers of the time – Claude Autant-Lara or Marc Allegret – as a bunch of “bourgeois people making bourgeois films for the bourgeoisie.
Thanks to technical advances in the late 1950s – lighter cameras and increasingly light-sensitive film – he and cohorts Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, brought a fresh breath to movies, shooting outside in natural settings with trimmed-down budgets and crews, and no stars.
For some movie-lovers, Godard’s “Breathless, Resnais’ “Hiroshima Mon Amour or Chabrol’s “Bitter Reunion (aka Le Beau Serge) were no more than a passing trend, but for others they epitomized a cultural revolution turning cinema on its head.
Today some academics would argue that Truffaut’s 1959 “400 Blows, which won a prize at the Cannes film festival that year, is not that very different to the traditional-style movies criticized at the time by the rebel directors.
And some critics claim that by raising the New Wave to the status of a national cult, the film establishment in the long term has undermined the emergence of fresh new talent on French cinema screens and on the festival circuit.
Critic Michel Ciment, who heads the rival magazine to the Cahiers du Cinema, Positif, said in an interview that the New Wave filmmakers “represent one of the key international movements in the history of film, much like Neorealism or the German Expressionists.
The historical importance of the school was illustrated by the fact that its main proponents continue to make films even today, he said. Resnais for one, who turns 87 this year, has a movie in competition for Cannes’ prestigious Palme d’Or this month.
And Rivette, Godard, Chabrol, Agnes Varda and Chris Marker too are still making movies 50 years on.
“But the mythology has become dogma and has left a pernicious legacy, Ciment said.
“A whole generation of young filmmakers have been trained to believe that plot no longer matters, that you can improvise a shoot, use non-professional actors.
“Yet Truffaut and Chabrol used star actors and professional screenwriters, as well as the best cameramen and set specialists they could find on the market.
Ciment said many of the well-respected critics at the Cahiers du Cinema over the decades had waged war against France’s more mainstream filmmakers such as Claude Sautet, Alain Cavalier, Louis Malle or Bertrand Tavernier.
“They’ve been almost systematically demolished, he said.
Film historian Marc Ferro agreed, saying “the New Wave has exercised a form of terrorism against other filmmaking styles.
“They were iconoclasts who carved out a place for themselves, but their descendants are still on the attack today. Earlier this year, the influential monthly newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique carried a piece by writer Philippe Person asking “Do we have the right to criticize the New Wave?
Person said the New Wave’s taste for using non-professional actors and its love of navel-gazing autobiographical fare had alienated filmgoers, who came to believe that auteur cinema was necessarily amateurish and boring.