10 Overlooked French New Wave Films That Are Worth Watching

6. La peau douce aka The Soft Skin (François Truffaut, 1964)

La peau douce

The “auteur theory” embodied by the famous French New Wave directors gave the films the ability to be innovative yet familiar. The singularity of vision allowed the audience to see stories that were usually more of a comment on the traditional than something wholly in the realm of confusing. Truffaut hit his stride with that idea in this film, in that it’s a simple, conventional story, but told in a way that highlights a new and fresh perception of it.

The film is about a successful and famous writer in Paris who cheats on his wife with a flight attendant. He attempts, poorly, to lead a double life, but his actions lead to eventual unravelling, and he’s left to play various levels of damage control. What makes this film unique is its concern with the machinations of adultery rather than the emotions behind the act. It gives the viewer a new perspective on the subject by daring to ask the viewer just how one would logistically go about perpetuating this situation.

Love is an emotion that drives marriages and relationships, and attraction is usually seen as the beginning of such an undertaking, but one has to have a conception, or a game plan, on how to act on such emotions. That game plan might be bad, but how many people actually realize that game plan exists at all? Also, that game plan can, and will, have real world consequences that manifest in not only one’s own stress level, but also in the emotions of the other players in the game plan.

Truffaut was also a master director who oozed cinematic brilliance out of his smallest of pores. There is a scene in the film where his wife gives him a distinct, clear cut choice: “just admit you’re cheating on me, and I won’t be all that upset.”

The scene is framed in profile, creating a distance between the characters and the viewer, which asks the viewer to look at the situation objectively. We are not supposed to be in the character’s world, feeling their emotions. We are in our own world, judging them on their actions, and feeling our own emotions about it.


7. Vivre Sa Vie aka My Life to Live (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)


This film is considered somewhat of an overlooked classic, but it definitely shouldn’t be. It should be revered by all film enthusiasts far and wide. It’s a masterpiece of modernism and sophistication, with respect to the past, present, and future of film. It showcases a level of control that can only be attributed to a genius, and a story that is effective not only in its point, but also in the manner of telling it.

The plot involves a young woman, named Nana, who decides to leave her family to pursue a career in acting, when that eventually doesn’t work out, she turns to prostitution. On the surface, this seems like a very simple plot, but it gives way to many details and themes.

For one, it’s a film about female empowerment, and more specifically, also perhaps more revolutionary, her freedom to make bad decisions. It’s told in twelve chapters, the way a novel is structured, but, because of the way we, as the audience, understand that life in general isn’t necessarily neatly structured, it’s meant to highlight the fact that life is unstructured.

The acting is clearly influenced by Bresson’s way of direction, specifically the level of stoicism in her face that creates an enigma in the audience. We don’t understand what she’s feeling or why she’s feeling it, but why should we anyway?

People spend their entire lives attempting to reconcile their inability to understand how people feel. They try to articulate it. They project their own emotions onto it. They marginalize it in attempt to feel better about themselves and their own importance. On a root level, however, there is truly no way of knowing, and she can live her life however she wants.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the film is the camera work. It’s an astonishing combination of cinema verite immersion and formal elegance, which creates the effect of calculated distance, as if the viewer is witnessing this woman’s life as she wants to live it. Consider a scene in which she is at a bar and the camera pans back and forth between her and a person playing pinball.

We, as the audience, clearly know that the movie is about her, so the camera rightly focuses on her, but when it pans to the person playing pinball, we wonder why we’re looking at this other scene, until we realize it’s for no reason, but therein lies the reason itself: it’s not up to us to decide how we should look at this woman’s life, and neither does the perceived “POV” of the camera.


8. Le deuxième souffle aka Second Breath (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)

Le deuxième souffle

Jean-Pierre Melville was the master of working in the realm of the paradoxical, specifically the minimalist and textural telling of crime tales normally associated grand maximalism. This film, overlooked presumably because so many of his other films are so exquisitely masterful it’s hard to comprehend, was a spiritual turning point from thrilling fireworks toward the more achingly melancholic, reflective styles of his later films that one can only assume paralleled his own growth as a person.

The film is about a criminal, named Gu, who escapes from prison for a horrific crime, but now wants to return to his home, but before he can do that he has to be the fourth man in a heist. A master inspector is on his tail, but so is his past, as he has to deal with the consequences of a previous shooting.

It’s a simple story on the surface, much like a lot of film noirs were, but Melville was a master of emphasizing the moment. Melville, like his French New Wave brethren, especially Demy, was obsessed with Hollywood, and here is a film with set pieces that echo the great heist films.

They’re filmed, however, with such a verite style, its as if they really happened, and we’re just watching a documentary team shoot it. This gives the audience a connection to characters otherwise deemed evil or repulsive, and, like the best genre films, it emphasizes themes we can apply to our own lives.

The major theme of this film is repentance, specifically the lack of it. Gu escapes from prison to get a second chance at life, only to find his past has not escaped him at all. He makes no attempt to reconcile any of the situations, and simply tries to run away, but he doesn’t have the means, hence he goes further and further down the rabbit hole.

The cinematography of Melville’s films have always been widely acclaimed, but not much is ever said about the equally brilliant production design. In this film, when Gu escapes, we arrive at this exquisite bar and lounge, filled with glistening jewelry and elegant wine bottles, and longer the film runs, the more dilapidated houses we see, with chipping wood, and minimal furniture.

The famous heist scene that occupies this film is a sight to behold, which could be seen as a predecessor to the jaw dropping heist in Le Cercle Rouge, but it has a pulse of its own. Where Le Cercle Rouge was more meditative, this film is more about controlled and textural tension in pursuit of fireworks, and the heist is suitably nerve wracking.


9. Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961)

lola 1961

Jacques Demy, perhaps more than any other French New Wave directors, loved Hollywood. It’s clear from the first frame of Lola, which features an American getting in a Cadillac and driving down the coast, that he loved the romanticism, the glamour, and the iconic imagery. It was his first film, and serves as a spiritual manifesto for his later career. His style is that of classical Hollywood precision with a French New Wave realist, modernist pulse, which results in a poetic showmanship unique to a true auteur.

The film is an ensemble that takes place over a few days, centering on a dreamer named Roland, who’s out of work and wasting his life. He reluctantly accepts a presumably criminal job to deliver a mysterious suitcase. Before he leaves, he coincidentally runs into a woman named Lola, a cabaret dancer, who he knew when he was younger. They rekindle their friendship, and she reveals to him that her husband had abandoned her and her son. Meanwhile, a few other lives intertwine with Lola and Roland’s, including a sailor in love with Lola, and a mother and daughter who mix in between.

It’s all about the fact that life is full of chance encounters. Some are perfect. Some are a minute too early. Some are ten years too late. Each character searches for something to make him or her feel special, whether it be Lola’s dancing, or a teenage girl’s brief platonic encounter with an older man. This theme is punctuated by a visual style that is rooted in Hollywood musicals in some scenes, with dancing and choreographed movement aimed at the camera intended to entertain and please the senses.

Life isn’t all fun and games though, as tough as that might be to accept. Demy uses contrast in a very unique way in this film to convey complicated relationships to the audience. When Lola and Roland encounter each other for the first time, they’re lit in darkness, while their body language is cheerful, alluding to a complicated relationship we see unfold throughout.

The film seems to want us to exude a sense of awe about our own, mundane lives, and call to mind moments where they did feel like a Hollywood fairy tale, and perhaps they were. It’s not uncommon for people to be dancers, nor is it uncommon to be a wandering dreamer. Both people are just as beautiful.


10. Le Signe du Lion aka The Sign of Leo (Éric Rohmer, 1959)

Le Signe du Lion

This was Eric Rohmer’s first film, and it carries such an odd tone it’s almost impossible not to be hypnotized by it. The film walks the very fine line between tragic and comedic, playing with our sense of pity by showing a Paris filled with despair, and a man embroiled in it.

It dares to depict a man slowly running himself into the ground, and asks us to judge whether we think he brought his fate on himself, or fate has given it to him without his consent. There are many scenes in this film where things happen for no reason, commenting on the level of dumb luck and chance that dominates the world we live in. Call it God, or Leo, or whatever, but it’s there.

It’s about a man named Pierre, an American musician living in Paris, who makes a living mostly by buddying up to rich people. He wakes up one day to find he has inherited a mass fortune from his deceased Aunt, and subsequently throws a large party to celebrate. When he finds out it was a mistake, and he didn’t get the inheritance, he finds himself in poverty. Suddenly the floodgates open, and his life gets worse and worse, and seemingly nothing can go his way no matter how hard he tries.

This film is a brilliant depiction of a certain frame of mind, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how he or she feels about it. Pierre is an eccentric, a dreamer, perhaps a little selfish, perhaps a little lazy, but maybe he’s just out of the ordinary. We watch his plight with a mixture of laughter, empathy, and bewilderment.

It’s easy to question why he wouldn’t just try his hardest to get a job, but then we realize he has precisely zero cash and no place to live. The most miniscule tasks must be extremely difficult without so much as a bed to sleep in. It’s also easy to question his eccentricity, but why should he expect him to act like everyone else? Furthermore, it’s easy to pity him, but that turns the question back on ourselves: who are we, on our noblest of high horses, to judge this man?

The blocking in this film is something that really hammers these points home. The film starts with Pierre surrounded by his friends with him in the center, as he feels he is amongst his peers. The actors in frame progressively turn their backs to him and get smaller in number as he becomes more and more impoverished.

When we see him in the neighborhood market with no money, the hustle and bustle dominates and complicates the frame, showcasing Pierre’s frustration. If one was in that situation, his or her eyes might see that way too.

Author Bio: Anthony Gagnon is a graduate of the American Film Institute in Screenwriting. He is currently a writer/director in development with his second feature, which is slated to shoot in the spring of 2015. He’s also a guitarist in the metal band Of The Earth. facebook.com/oftheearthband.