The French New Wave could very well be the most important movement in cinema history. There is a good chance you have heard of this movement, but you may not be familiar with just how influential it was, how many rules it broke and exactly how they did it. As Quentin Tarantino said about the movement: “Whatever books that said this is how it had to be done, they burned them”.
Having been initiated by some amateur French filmmakers who felt dissatisfied with the current state of mainstream movies due to a lack of innovation in the industry. They felt that movies had reached a format in which they were consistently sticking to instead of attempting to reach beyond the established boundaries such as casting a different actor, or utilizing different formulas.
They also disagreed with the emphasis of commercialisation, do not think of them as critical knit pickers though, they were still huge fans of cinema, but they wanted to see it made differently once or twice.
They felt that it should express truth, be handled by a singular vision and complex like any other art form. This meant that whatever methods their predecessors had been using to make movies had exploited, they had to find an alternative. What this new style of filmmaking did was simply staggering.
It completely changed the landscape of movies in so many ways beyond just among high brow film critics, audiences started paying more attention to foreign cinema and even the American filmmakers of the time recognised its significance and tried to emulate it with their own style of making of movies, which brought on the New Hollywood movement, and that in turn directly changed western movies forever.
This list comprises of ten reasons of why and how the movement had such a huge influence on so many.
1. Low Production Values
Perhaps the first thing you should know about the movement is that its creators were not established figures in the film industry prior to the actual genesis of the French New Wave.
This was simply a group of film enthusiasts meeting to discuss film, and eventually concluding that they wanted to make their own movies instead of just talking. Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jaques Rivette and Claude Chabrol all had some interesting ideas concerning film, but they had no studio backing and very little money to put their ideas into action.
Despite this set back, they still elected to at the very least attempt to enact these theories. However in the economic depression of a post-World War II France, they found difficulty just making a film with their own very limited budget. Dues to this, they sought low budget alternatives to the standard production techniques that big budget studios would use on their films.
This expenditure difficulty has led some to question whether the methods of the French New Wave were intentional or circumstantial, but regardless these directors used what little resources they had to convey their vision onto the screen.
Such a drive and determination, and the success of accomplishing so much artistic quality within the films on such a low cost makes it rather unsurprising that some of the largest admirers of the New Wave today are indie filmmakers (such as Tarantino, as previously shown) that came to prominence during the rise of independent filmmaking in the nineties. Without the French New Wave doing it first, it is unlikely that anyone would even consider taking the risk of relying more on independent directors.
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about a film from this movement is its editing style. What makes it so influential and ground-breaking is the fact that prior to the movement, the purpose of editing was primarily to uphold continuousness and keep the picture moving at a regular pace (more on that later). Editing was supposed to be invisible, disguised under a set of rules concerning how the style and order of shots should be presented so that the audience never notices it.
That may be the first thing the New Wave directors wanted to avoid, they strove to be noticed and discussed. The audience should become more aware of the techniques being used to create the film and using a shot to contrast opposing shots preceding them. This reduced the restriction of the structure from which they would present their movies.
After Godard was told that his film Breathless should be cut down to an hour and a half, he cut out several exposition scenes and instead used jump-cuts to establish the bare essentials and then knitted them together in a stylistic and innovative way.
3. Breaking the Fourth Wall
The fact that the main purpose of movies was to provide escapism for audiences proved that just by referencing or making any act to remind the audience they were simply watching a series of moving images, the French New Wave introduced highly unconventional (though to be fair not completely unheard of) practices.
Improvisation was heavily used, but this was not necessarily ground breaking, but something else that the actors did do that was unique at the time was addressing the camera or acknowledging the existence of the industry.
In Breathless, the main character is infatuated with the style of Humphrey Bogart, or in Pierrot Le Fou when one character asks who another is talking to, they reply with ‘The audience’. This was all part of disillusioning the audience to what they were watching. Though this was once again part of a unique style and method of writing the films, but there was a greater point to it.
If the audience was aware that they were watching a work of fiction, then they were more likely to see the message behind it and view it as something more than mindless entertainment a simple or a form of escapism.
4. Director Acting as Overall Creator
Simple question, do you associate the name of a Golden Hollywood director with their film, such as Ben-Hur with William Wyler, or something like Taxi Driver with Martin Scorsese? Today, directors are seen as the primary creative force behind movies, displaying their own vision and techniques onto the screen instead of being dominated by studio control.
This was solidified in the French New Wave as a filmmaking technique called Camera-Stylo that meant that a director should use their camera in the same way that a writer would use their pen.
It was a simple concept, but it meant so much. The idea of a director using their own visual trademarks and techniques to personalise their own films and could follow their own specific vision. It can relate to their own personal opinions, messages they themselves want to convey and the themes that ring true to their own style of filmmaking rather than being contractually obliged to direct a project that would be under heavy scrutiny from the studio.
As a result, today we recognise a film mainly through its directorial style and associate it with particular directors. We consider them to be the main driving force and decision maker within the project, even if that is not the actual case.
The editing stylisation of the movement eventually became a method in its own right. The directors would look at each scene and ask if it was necessary to the message, plot or themes of the film. If it was not, then it would be cut. Then they went a step further and started cutting out moments that were not important to the scene itself. This whole technique sped up the film drastically, forcing the audience to pay attention and crafting a much faster pace in their movies.
Today movies are often criticised for being faster and more intense, but at the time of the new wave, many saw it as an improvement on the slower and sometimes melodramatic pacing that was found in the major Hollywood movies.
Even in transitional scenes, the pace was altered as rather than show something to represent the character’s journey, the new wave filmmakers would just jump straight to that location, leaving the audience to connect the dots. It all stemmed from a rule about filmmaking that was ‘show don’t tell’. The French directors concluded that sometimes, they didn’t even need to do either.