The 10 Greatest Filmmakers of The French New Wave

5. Louis Malle

Louis Malle

The difficulty with an all-encapsulating term like New Wave is that unless a director actively accepts the label, it is hard to decide who belongs and who does not. Malle made a very distinct decision. Unlike many others, Malle outright rejected the label and felt no affinity with those who were believed to be at the movement’s core.

Nonetheless, many people disagree with Malle and in some senses, they have every right to. Thematically speaking, some of Malle’s films fit seamlessly into the New Wave’s criteria, this combined with the fact that Malle’s golden era coincided with that of the other New Wave directors in the 1960s is enough to merit his inclusion.

Consistently marvellous and unpredictable, Malle’s career began in 1958 with the fresh, thrilling and beautifully shot Elevator to the Gallows. Miles Davis also blessed the movie with a soundtrack, which is a good enough reason to watch the film on its own. Malle refused to make a bad film for the rest of his career and this was most evident throughout the ‘60s when he unleashed such classics as Les Amants (1958), Zazie dans le metro (1960), where he illustrated his capability as an unpredictable and original entertainer, Le feu follet (1963), and Viva Maria! (1965).

Malle made most of his movies with the aim of exploring his characters and in doing so, he created some that were particularly memorable. Combine that with a penchant for beautiful shots and slick dialogue and you have a filmmaking master. Malle may have found later success with My Dinner With Andre (1981) and Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987), but he should be remembered for those films he orchestrated in the 1960s for all of their suspense and sheer entertainment value.

Recommendations: Le Feu Follet, Les Amants, Elevator to the Gallows


4. Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer

Not such a prolific director until after the movement had begun to lose momentum, Rohmer was still the ideal behind-the-scenes man and was responsible for upholding the critical values that had formed the basis of New Wave cinema. If you need proof of his importance, its worth noting that Francois Truffaut said of the former Cahiers Du Cinema editor: “He (Rohmer) became famous very late compared to the rest of us, but for fifteen years, he’s been behind us the whole time. He’s influenced us from behind for a long time.”

Born Maurice Schérer, Rohmer was a part of the preceding generation to that of his eventual Cahiers protégés, instead belonging to the same post-war group of cinephiles to which Alain Resnais and Jean-Pierre Melville belonged. Rohmer was, without doubt, an academic, as is exemplified by his pioneering biography on the films of Alfred Hitchcock with Claude Chabrol, his later work as a film studies professor, and his multiple university degrees.

Rohmer was unquestionably the auteur of his films and was essentially a philosopher using filmmaking as a medium of expression. The bulk of his work may have missed the alleged New Wave era, but the films he did make in this period were nearly unrivalled, at least regarding morals.

Films like the Sign of Leo (1959), The Collector (1967) and My Night at Maud’s (1969) all concern themselves with moral messages and manage to provoke the viewers thoughts all while blending into comfortable stories, normally to do with romance. Rohmer’s later works like the Six Moral Tales (1963-1972) or Comedies and Proverbs (1981-1987) are unique in their collective nature and informative message. Rohmer was a teacher above all else, and if you haven’t already learned anything from him, it’s strongly suggested that you do.

Recommendations: My Night at Maud’s, The Bakery Girl of Monceau, The Sign of Leo, Claire’s Knee


3. Claude Chabrol

Claude Chabrol

Chabrol’s career is notable for its durability alone as he continued making critically acclaimed movies until his death in 2010, but like everyone else on the list, his output was at its pinnacle during the New Wave era. A brilliant critic as well as director, Chabrol was a pioneering biographer and disciple of Alfred Hitchcock and accordingly drew inspiration strongly from Hitchcock’s own films.

With the film Le Beau Serge (1958), Chabrol effectively signalled the beginning of the New Wave movement and many still refer to the film as the first New Wave feature. Le Beau Serge and Chabrol’s next film, Les Cousins (1959), both starring Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain, essentially employ the same story and characters, with the two principle actors switching roles for each film, and yet both are incredibly fresh and thrilling.

Maybe the most spectacular thing about Chabrol was the means with which he funded his first two films, making them on shoestring budgets derived from his wife’s inheritance and sometimes going to extremes to achieve his desired effect like casting villagers to play themselves in the rural based Le Beau Serge. Nonetheless, the lack of funding did not stand in the way of the man famously dubbed “The French Hitchcock.”

Throughout the rest of the 1960s Chabrol would direct some New Wave staples, many of which starred his then-wife, Stéphane Audran. With Audran as his muse, Chabrol exported films with rich and original stories, the best of which are Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), La Femme Infidele (1969), Les Biches (1968), and Le Boucher (1970). The last of the aforementioned films follows archetypal Hitchcockian guidelines and is one of the most thrilling films of the New Wave.

Away from his collaborations with Audran, Chabrol deserves acclaim for Le Tigre aime la chair fraiche (1964), Que la bête meure (1969), and A Double Tour (1959).

Chabrol’s brilliance also lay in his diversity, and upon watching his films, it becomes clear that he would not be tied down by themes, preferring to explore and combine drama with comedy, resulting in the most wide ranging, and possibly most broadly popular collection of films born out of the New Wave movement. Claude Chabrol was, above all else an entertainer, and should be remembered as a director’s director, with legends like Ingmar Bergman singing him praise: “A marvellous story teller in a specific genre. I’ve always had a weakness for his thrillers…”

Recommendations: Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins, Les Biches, Le Boucher


2. Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut

This is not an easy position to denote. Truffaut’s status as one of the best directors of all time, let alone in the New Wave movement, has been solidified without question and it took a real giant to usurp him from the number one spot.

Much of Truffaut’s life is well known to anybody who has seen his films, specifically the Antoine Doinel series, which were, modelled semi-autobiographically on Truffaut’s own childhood hardships. A runaway from a broken home, a young Truffaut found solace in cinema and by the time he was offered a job at Cahiers Du Cinema magazine by André Bazin in 1950, Truffaut had already acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of world cinema.

As such, he became France’s most feared and controversial critic, mercilessly dissecting films to the point where his reviews could make or break a film financially. Famously, thanks to his unrepentant criticism, he became known as “the Gravedigger of French cinema” and was the only major film critic in France who was not invited to the 1958 Cannes film festival. What came next was a groundbreaking response.

Truffaut decided that in order to save French cinema from its apparent decline he would have to make a film worthy of reviving the industry. In his directorial feature film debut, The 400 Blows (1959), he did just that. The film tells the story of young Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud) who was basically a cinematic reincarnation of Truffaut’s youth.

Deservedly, it is widely know as one of, if not the best film ever made and while this is certainly a debatable title for any film, The 400 Blows makes a convincing case. In 1959, Truffaut and Leaud were the unsung heroes of the Cannes Film Festival, the same institution that had ostracized him only a year before.

Truffaut followed up his pioneering first effort with Shoot The Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), and The Soft Skin (1964), as well as the continuation of the Antoine Doinel character’s story, which led to Truffaut and Leaud collaborating five times between 1959 and 1979. Of these films, all can be described as must-see features from the man who routinely turned stories born out of harsh realities into touching and fantastical accounts of raw human emotions, with the feeling of entrapment being a clear cut and recurring issue in his plots.

Revered, feared, admired, Truffaut is to most people the face of the New Wave movement and the last shot of The 400 Blows is the image most people conjure up when they think of French film. Truffaut went on to make a string of successful and intriguing films until his premature death in 1984. He may have died young, but Francois Truffaut achieved cinematic immortality as a critic, biographer, and director long before his passing.

Recommendations: The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Shoot the Piano Player


1. Jean-Luc Godard

Jean Luc Godard

It is nearly impossible to separate the top two entries on this list, and the two of them will surely go down in history as two of the most capable, inspiring, and daring directors of all time. The key difference between Truffaut and Godard, at least in the frame of the New Wave era, is continuity. Do not misinterpret this as labelling Truffaut’s output as inconsistent, far from it, Truffaut churned out amazing films and struggled to make a bad one. The fact of the matter is, Godard made a string of masterpieces, with each moving in a different direction, and for many people, he was insurmountable at the height of his output.

Godard was always distinctive from the rest of his peers; he was raised outside of France, unlike many of his brothers in arms, he wore distinctive dark-rimmed glasses, and he had a particular left-wing agenda for his films, which came through time and time again.

An important catalyst to his sensational directing was his cinematography. Perhaps this is less of a compliment to Godard and more of a compliment to his long time cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who was also responsible for the visual prowess of Jacques Demy and Francois Truffaut’s works), but in any case Godard’s nonchalant and highly stylish approach to directing was the real key to a series of brilliant films.

During the New Wave era, Godard also had at the core of his freedom preaching, Marxist-inspired movies, and a pair of the most naturally cool actors of all time: Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard’s then-wife, Anna Karina. Of the fifteen films he directed in his so-called “Golden Era,” Karina appeared in seven and left her mark on each one. Godard expertly captured her natural beauty onscreen and used it to entice audiences around the world. Furthermore, Belmondo was not a bad collaborator with whom to work, and for a sizeable period of time Godard films solidified his status as the man all men wanted to be, and all with whom women wanted to be.

The films in this golden era include Breathless (1960), known as one of the more iconic films of the New Wave; A Woman is a Woman (1961), one of the most curiously constructed and beautifully shot films ever; Band of Outsiders (1964), from which countless filmmakers have drawn inspiration, not least of all Quentin Tarantino; and Pierrot le fou (1965), with an unrivalled use of colour. These movies are highly existential in nature and lack an embedded storyline. In fact, there is very little order in any of Godard’s best movies, but make no mistake, he reigns over the chaos he creates brilliantly.

Godard famously gave his actors all kinds of freedoms, began filming with unfinished scripts, and favoured unconventional tactics when it came to entertainment, such as fourth wall breaks and highly innovative use of jump cuts. What all this boils down to is a simultaneously playful and provocative series of films, which all contain a message that appeals to anyone willing to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The status Jean-Luc Godard has enjoyed has not lacked controversy. Some have referred to him as cinema’s answer to Picasso, whereas others, including famous directors like Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and eventually even Francois Truffaut, have dispelled him as a faux intellectual whose films lack depth.

Whether or not his films lacked the same depth as other greats like Alfred Hitchcock or Roman Polanski is a different matter entirely and, as far as positivity concerns itself, Godard should be looked at as one of the most entertaining and in your face directors ever. His career may have begun to deflate gradually from 1970 onwards, but there is little doubt that Jean-Luc Godard owned the New Wave when it was at its height.

Recommendations: Pierrot le fou, Breathless, My Life to Live, A Woman is a Woman, Band of Outsiders

Honourable Mentions: Roger Vadim, Chris Marker, Georges Franju

Author Bio: Philip Cluff is a History and Languages student at King’s College London. He has lived in London, Nice, Harare and Inverness. He loves learning languages and zoology. His aim is to become a director or writer and he also enjoys music production. His heroes include Alfred Hitchcock, Django Reinhardt, Ron Carter and Peter Sellers amongst others.