The 10 Greatest Filmmakers of The French New Wave
“New Wave” was a term initially used to describe a handful of directors attached to the Cahiers Du Cinema magazine and the movies these young filmmakers were making in a period ranging from the 1950s until the 1970s. However, this term has since become synonymous with a much more diverse period in French film history.
Although the Cahiers crowd of Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Co. was at the front and center of this movement, which began with cheaply made human interest stories, the term eventually encapsulated many of the greatest French directors from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Some directors such as Louis Malle famously rejected the label and any association that came with it to Cahiers Du Cinema; however, others, like Claude Chabrol, for instance, embraced it and he would later happily refer to the fraternity and appreciation of cinema the movement bought about in France.
The parameters of the New Wave are hotly debated, but one thing is for sure: it was born out of the Nazi Occupation of France during the Second World War. The German ban on American movies during the war led to a flood of cinema classics entering France in 1945. Be it Hitchcock, John Ford or Orson Welles, the younger generation in France was exposed to nearly five years’ worth of films in just one year. The French New Wave was largely built on inspiration from and criticism of these films, The New Wave directors, many of whom had been critics prior to being directors, sought to improve cinema in their own right.
Long after it drew to a halt in the 1970s, the movement has been classified into two parts, both of which are highly represented on this list: The Cahiers Du Cinema directors (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, et al.), and the Left Bank directors (Demy, Varda, Malle, et al.). Here, the goal is to determine who the best of these directors were, based on their influence on film, the quality of their films, the originality of their pictures, and their contributions to cinema aside from filmmaking.
10. Jacques Rivette
A former editor of Cahiers Du Cinema, Rivette was at the center of the New Wave for the duration of its success, and while he is not as celebrated as his peers at Cahiers like Godard or Truffaut, Rivette left his own mark on cinema with a series of well aging films.
Rivette was known on a personal level as the leader of the Cahiers du Cinema group who frequented Henri Langlois’ Cinémathéque Française in the 1950s and, like many of the of the others in the group, Rivette moved to Paris in search of an opportunity to improve the film industry.
After undertaking the same process of directing short films as many of his contemporaries did, Rivette made a breakthrough with arguably his best film: Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs To Us) in 1961. Interestingly, the film, which is focused on the production of a play, took two years to film and ended with a near two and a half hour run time. This was a distinctive trait of Rivette and the vast majority of his films routinely exceeded two hours in length.
Aside from Paris Nous Appartient, Rivette made another important addition to the New Wave movement in the form of The Nun (1966), starring Anna Karina in a rare break from her collaborations with then husband Jean-Luc Godard. After the New Wave, or from the 1970s onwards, Rivette continued to make acclaimed films such as Celine and Julie Go Boating in 1974, but none matched his output during the 1960s, and unfortunately, for such a talented and audacious filmmaker, Rivette never found the consistency afforded to other New Wave directors.
Recommendations: Paris Belongs To Us, The Nun
9. Alain Resnais
Resnais was most certainly a member, if not the leader of, the so-called Left Bank directors who operated in tandem with the Cahiers Du Cinema directors. Eventually any difference between the two groups was rectified, and Resnais himself admitted, “There was some mutual sympathy [between himself and the team at Cahiers.]”
By the time the New Wave had been established, Resnais was already a successful director in his own right, and three years before the first New Wave Film had been made, Resnais directed the pioneering and much celebrated Holocaust documentary Night and Fog (1955).
In any case, the first three feature films Resnais directed coincided both thematically, and in terms of timing, with the height of the N Wave. These films, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963), would prove to be his crowning achievements. All three films share common ground in terms of their focus on memory and its effect on the present. Hiroshima Mon Amour, above all, is a stand out piece from the genre, and it had gone on to a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
Recommendations: Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad
8. Agnes Varda
Varda was perhaps the most influential female filmmaker in Europe when she was in her prime, and she is now remembered as the outspoken female voice of the movement. Her marriage to fellow Left Bank director Jacques Demy was the real life equivalent to many of the love stories the New Wave directors portrayed in their films, and she undoubtedly drew inspiration from him, as he did from her.
The film, Jacquot De Nantes (1991) was her homage to Demy after his death in 1990 ,and yet in spite of its touching background and expert documentation of Demy’s childhood and final years, Varda had by the time of her husband’s passing, already established herself as a cinematic force of her own.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965), both of which were made at the heart of the New Wave movement, are easily her greatest contributions to cinema. The former is an incredibly original story, which had the adverse side effect of capturing Paris on film at the height of its chic. The film concerns Cleo a vain singer, who wanders around Paris nervously awaiting medical test results. What follows is a brilliant philosophical insight into human mortality. Cleo from 5 to 7 is also a great example, although not the first, of the New Wave directors’ fondness for cameos in each other’s movies, as Jean-Luc Godard along with staple New Wave actors Anna Karina and Jean-Claude Brialy all make appearances in the film.
Varda’s films are punctuated by philosophical experiments and the messages taken from her films, especially regarding female placement in society, are some of the most interesting and uniquely expressed in the New Wave.
Recommendations: Cleo from 5 to 7, Le Bonheur, La Pointe Courte
7. Jacques Demy
Demy made films that were different to all of the others made by New Wave directors. That is meant in the best way possible. With highly entertaining films including Lola (1960), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), Demy exhibited his vibrant and colourful imagination and brilliantly intertwined fanciful love stories by adding vibrant feelings to otherwise regular locations.
Demy’s success is due in no small part to the great soundtracks that came with his best movies. This music was a product of long time collaborator Michel Legrand, whose music separated Demy from his peers and allowed a kind of expression that was otherwise unparalleled by other New Wave films.
For all of the love stories found in Demy’s movies, his marriage to aforementioned Director Agnes Varda was the closest thing to a movie romance, and their artistic collaboration was a catalyst in creating some of the best films in French cinema history.
Besides directing visually breathtaking and playful movies, Demy left another massive imprint on the movie industry by discovering and casting Catherine Deneuve in her first mainstream film, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Deneuve has since gone on to enjoy a fantastic career, and she can be said to owe a lot of it to the director affectionately nicknamed “Jacquot.”
Recommendations: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Lola
6. Jean Pierre Melville
Working under a pen name borrowed from American Novelist Herman Melville, Jean-Pierre Grumbach was an artist with a highly distinct taste and stylised vision. In short, he was a master, maybe the best director of crime dramas of all time. This strictly personal opinion seemed to be shared by many of the other directors on this list, and in addition to contributing to its success, Melville was also a huge source of inspiration to the New Wave.
In a time when production costs were a massive hindrance to many aspiring filmmakers, Melville made high quality films through his own studio, and in doing so, inspired many of the Cahiers critics to take the next step from critiquing to making their own their own films.
Like Alain Resnais, Melville enjoyed relative success before 1958, the year that instigated the movement. Movies like Bob The Gambler (1956) and Les Enfants Terribles (1950) had already solidified Melville’s reputation and would perhaps have been enough to immortalise him as one of France’s most unique and interesting directors had he not decided to outdo himself in the 1960s.
A string of crime dramas from 1962 to 1970 including Le Doulos (1962), Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966), Le Samouraï (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and The Red Circle (1970) redefined the formulae of heist movies, infinitely enriching the genre in the process. Through making these films, he solidified the career of one New Wave icon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, with Le Doulos and created another with Jef Costello’s eponymous character in Le Samouraï.
Whether or not he is considered a contemporary of the other directors on the list, Melville managed to rejuvenate an entire genre and went on to influence countless directors in the process.
Recommendations: Le Samourai, The Red Circle, Le Doulos, Le Deuxieme Souffle
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