In the 1960s, a large number of new, young directors in France started making films that offered a fresh perspective on existing techniques and attitudes about the medium of film itself. They influenced the rest of the world with their interest in film history and created reflexive, modernist work that pushed the boundaries of the medium and arguably changed the course of Hollywood forever.
There were many of them, and they were also prolific. The most famous ones were eventually grouped into an informally recognized movement called the French New Wave, but reality is more complex than that. An overarching sense of style and innovation dominated many directors of the time, and the theory that the director is the main creative force behind the projects, also known as the Auteur Theory, embodied every single one of them.
Because of the large body of work created in this time period, a great number of films have gone overlooked since their release, some even by the famous directors themselves. This list is an attempt to highlight such films, show why some of the directors not conventionally considered French New Wave were still a part of the movement, and give some insight into why the films, in retrospect, were just as good, if not better, than the more famous works.
1. Je T’aime Je T’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968)
The French New Wave was known for its innovative and challenging ideas of editing, and this is a film that uses non-sequential editing to an astonishing degree. It was surely written in sequence and jumbled around in the cutting room, which makes the film a conundrum, one that poses questions of the nature of memory, regret, and the question whether it’s worth it to play out your own past in your head, especially when the future doesn’t seem so great either.
It’s a sci-fi, too. Leave it to Resnais to create a sci-fi love story that’s about as sophisticated and profound as it gets, with no Hollywood schmaltz in sight. The premise is simple: a man named Claude, after a suicide attempt, is the perfect candidate for an experiment that will let him travel back in time to precisely one year earlier for one minute. Upon conducting the experiment, it goes awry, and he’s forced to relive the last year of his life out of sequence. What he finds is that he strung along his lover, pushing her further and further away.
The film shows us that, no matter the manner in which time is perceived, whether it be up, down, sideways, or like a patchwork quilt, actions are actions, and the consequences that arise from those actions are absolute. That love is a prominent subject in the film highlights this point by showing us that we can idolize and romanticize love all we want, but at the end of the day, these are only our own feelings.
If we hurt other people, if we slowly drive them apart from us, if we manipulate them, and so on, they will react, and there’s nothing we can do about it, except refrain from those things in the future, but even the future has a ticking clock.
It should be of note that, even though the film is out of sequence, the coverage is very controlled and static. The mise-en-scene has a purity to it, with intimate scenes being framed in close-up, and colors being bright in happy scenes, and dark in sad ones. I
t serves to lay out the story uninflected, as if to lay out conventionality, only to have it slowly collapse on itself through editing. The film itself echoes the experiment in the story: is time constantly moving forward, or is that just a perception we project onto it and, frankly, does any of it even matter?
2. Le feu follet aka The Fire Within (Louis Malle, 1963)
Film as a medium, has a great way of showing us a stylized version of ourselves. Sure, one can look in the mirror, or look at other people, or shoot a video, or take a selfie, but the beauty of a narrative film lies in the creative control of the elements that constitute it. The Fire Within is a film that uses this control to put us in the perspective of someone who was born with an innate despair and a weak will to live.
The film is about a man, named Alain, released from the hospital after treatment his alcoholism. His friends, and even his doctor, tell him he’s cured, but what exactly is he cured of if he doesn’t feel like he is? He revisits people in his past, who think he looks even worse than he did before, and he desperately tries to reconnect with them, only to be left feeling even more depressed and hopeless.
At one point in the film, he asks his friend what he does on a daily basis to be happy, which his friend replies that he does his work, spends time with his family, and makes love to his wife. This all sounds unappealing, and even his basic humans needs are gone.
The film is a triumph of style showcasing the unfortunate, but very real and prevalent, aspect of the human condition known as alienation. On the surface, many scenes in the film are upbeat and unremarkable. He proceeds in a fashion that anyone would in his situation, reconnecting with friends, focusing on his own health, trying to stay positive, but the mise-en-scene gives the viewer a sense of innate sadness underneath his visible actions.
This is a man who was simply given a weak will to live for no reason at all, the alcohol was just the medication, and the relationships are just for show. There was nothing he could do to fix his soul deep down. At one point, we see some of his colleagues talk about crossing the line into criminal activity, and it’s remarkable that he didn’t follow suit. At least he felt that much.
3. La Pointe Courte (Agnes Varda, 1955)
One of the main progenitors of the French New Wave, who was also a member of the “Left Bank,” was a woman named Agnes Varda. Legend has it she had never seen a film in her life before making this movie. While that is slightly hard to believe, and she herself has claimed she had at least seen Citizen Kane before, the film is so bold in its innovation in terms of storytelling and formal techniques that it stands as a film way ahead of its time, and, in some ways, a well of creativity left untapped.
It has two storylines, both of which are only linked by the fact they take place in the same town. The first is the daily lives of various characters in the town, which is framed as a macro story, given the small amount of time devoted to each little glimpse. We see a woman struggle with the death of one of her sons, a man imprisoned for a few days, and others that we check in with periodically. It has the feel of “making the rounds,” as if the audience is a resident in the town and attempts to keep up with people’s lives throughout the years.
This is all a framework around a micro story involving a couple and their attempt to reconnect with each other. They traverse the town, discussing their various connections and misgivings over the years. They make a concerted attempt to make sense of their past, present, and future, while the world exists around them. There isn’t much of a forward trajectory in the traditional sense, but more in an emotional sense, as the man gets more and more desperate to get his estranged wife to stay.
There’s a distinct sense of nobility in its own modernism with both the story and the shot choice used to convey it. In an era of film where most were genre films used to shock and awe, here was a simple story that dared to give us a glimpse into the mundane, with such simple, but universally powerful themes of love and survival. Also, its conceptual framework of depicting the story and also the world around it was nontraditional for its time for its expansion of story structure.
The shot choice was also very innovative in its use of cutaways and inserts that lend itself to a poetic quality. The editing is at times very traditional, and makes use of intentional jump cutting in others.
Traditional shot/reverse cadences are eschewed with different uses of framing, focal length, and eyeline placement in the same scene, creating an effect of disorientation that reflects the characters’ emotions for each other. One can only imagine the great directors watched this film and it left their brains unhinged, leading to several innovations years later.
4. Une aussi longue absence aka The Long Absence (Henri Colpi, 1961)
Henri Colpi was a lesser known member of the French New Wave to audiences abroad, but this film did win the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a film that gives an unflinching look into the emotions that come with eternal loss of a loved one, and that hole inside that just simply can’t be filled, even if the person were to come back in a different form.
Some films have a level of spirituality in the way some story elements are unexplained, leaving the viewer to just accept that a “God” has placed the characters in a certain situation, and this film bases its premise around this idea to astonishing effect.
It’s about a widow, named Therese, who carries on with her life as she runs a bar in a small town. One day, a homeless man, who looks exactly like her husband, mysteriously shows up in the town. She is overjoyed and shocked that her husband has returned after almost 20 years, only there’s one caveat, he’s lost his memory. She attempts to bring back his memory, while trying to reconcile with her own emotions to fill that hole inside her left so deep.
The film is very minimalistic, taking place in only a few locations, with only a few characters, but this lends itself to universality, in that we all only have a few “characters” in our lives, none of whom can truly feel our sadness, but only empathize with it. The fact that this man shows up for no reason, and with no memory, only fuels the conundrum, in that she leads a life suitable to extreme overthought with no ability to control the situation.
Whether the man truly is her husband and had lost his memory, or if she is mistaken, her emotions will never be what she wants them to be ever again. She so desperately wants this man to be her husband that she attempts to project their past onto him in an effort to mold him into the man he apparently used to be, only this man is not clay to be molded at will.
This also goes both ways; his memory may or may not be gone, but he still is a human being himself. As much as he wants to be her husband, he simply cannot be no matter how hard he tries. We can only love within our own capability.
5. Le Boucher (Claude Chabrol, 1970)
The fact that this film is called a “thriller” is a testament to its extraordinary inventiveness in terms of its unconventional take on genre films. There’s hardly any gore or suspense in the film at all, but what happens and, more importantly, how it’s depicted, lends itself to a deconstruction of what it means to be “scared” or “thrilled.”
The film is about a young female schoolmaster in a small town who meets a butcher who just arrived into town. They strike up a friendship with an obvious underlying sexual tension. Meanwhile, the town becomes increasingly dismayed by the appearances of dead young women not unlike the schoolmaster, evidence of a serial killer. The schoolmaster knows it’s the butcher, but is oddly drawn to him anyway. She’s left to wonder if she’s next, or if she has some sort of power over him.
What’s really innovative about the way the story is told is it’s very obvious to the viewer who the killer is early on in the film. He seems to like her, but it’s unclear where the power in the relationship begins and ends. Is she in love with him despite his “shortcomings,” or is it something more sinister? Is she in love with him because of his “shortcomings?” Is she subconsciously toying with him, daring him to kill again, and will that bring her closer to him?
The flip side of that would be: is the butcher killing despite his love for the schoolmaster, or is he killing to bring him closer to her? On top of that, is he refraining to kill her because he likes her, or is he inching closer to killing her, and has some sort of method unbeknownst to the audience?
Maybe he wants her to be some sort of psychopathic lover, and they would revel in the killings together. The fact the film leaves their relationship open to interpretation places emphasis on the viewer’s imagination, and those thoughts are far scarier than anything that could be depicted.
It should be of note that the actors play the roles with such cool confidence it adds to the idea that there’s something sinister underneath their outward intentions. The town they occupy is one of great minimalism, with every action emphasized and scrutinized, which only adds to the suspense.
Are they simply attracted to each other because of their proximity and lack of options, or would their sinister feelings pierce through any situation they found themselves in? The questions this film raises are thrilling, it’s up to the audience to answer them.