French New Wave

Breathless

The New Wave (French: La Nouvelle Vague) was a term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and 1960s, influenced by Italian Neorealism (a style of film characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class) and classical Hollywood cinema. French New Wave was a product of the social and political upheavals of the era; radical experiments with editing, visual style and narrative broke with the conservative paradigm.

The movies featured unprecedented methods of expression, such as long tracking shots. Also, these movies featured existential themes, such as stressing the individual and the acceptance of the absurdity of human existence. The techniques used to shock the audience out of submission and awe were so bold and direct that some filmmakers, notably Jean-Luc Godard, have been accused of having contempt for their audience. Effects that now seem either trite or commonplace, such as a character stepping out of their role in order to address the audience directly, were radically innovative at the time.

Classic French cinema adhered to the principles of strong narrative. In contrast, New Wave filmmakers made no attempts to suspend the viewer’s disbelief; in fact, they took steps to constantly remind the viewer that a film is just a sequence of moving images, no matter how clever the use of light and shadow. The result is a set of oddly disjointed scenes without attempt at unity; or an actor whose character changes from one scene to the next; or sets in which onlookers accidentally make their way onto camera along with extras, who in fact were hired to do just the same.

At the heart of New Wave technique is the issue of money and production value. In the context of social and economic troubles of a post-World War II France, filmmakers sought low-budget alternatives to the usual production methods. Half necessity and half vision, New Wave directors used all that they had available to channel their artistic visions directly to the theatre.

As with most art-film movements, the innovations of the New Wavers trickled down to American cinema. Beginning with the heavily evident stylistic similarities in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the following generation of American young, studio-hired filmmakers referred to as New Hollywood, such as Altman, Coppola, De Palma, and Scorsese of the late 1960s and early 1970s all claim and display influence from the French tradition of the previous decade.

Many contemporary filmmakers, including Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-wai claim influence from the New Wave. Quentin Tarantino dedicated Reservoir Dogs to Jean-Luc Godard and named his production company A Band Apart, a play on words of the Godard film Bande à part.

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