Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "French New Wave"

Taking a class on a specific cinematic movement was an interesting experience. On the one hand, it closed a lot of gaps in my viewing knowledge and provided me with a better understanding of how this particular movement - the French New Wave of the 1960s - was important to the history of cinema. These were films that rejected the traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking traditions that dominated French cinema and sought to expand the possibilities of what film can achieve, though there was no coherence as to how to do so. The success of French New Wave films abroad influenced dozens of other new waves, including the emergence of American Independent Cinema and the "New Hollywood" in the United States.

On the other hand, studying a single movement - even one without a single unifying vision and a diverse group of filmmakers - means seeing a lot of films that start to blur together after a while. Even if there was not a coherent vision to the French New Wave, each of the films we watched did share common themes, aesthetics, or actors, with some even more or less telling the same kind of story. It was interesting and exhausting in equal measure.

The links correspond to articles I previously wrote about the film.

The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958)

Malle's film predates the generally accepted period of the French New Wave, and he is generally not considered a New Wave filmmaker. The Lovers, however, is an interesting precursor film. Jeanne Moreau stars as Jeanne, a bored housewife who develops passionate affairs with polo player Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga) and archeologist Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). The film is perhaps best known to American audiences as being the center of the Jacobellis vs. U.S. obscenity case that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to define obscenity as "I know it when I see it." But the film itself is a bit of a standard-issue "finding yourself through adultery" story, aided mostly by Malle's serene direction and Moreau's measured performance. It's also a reminder that Malle was only 25 when he made this, his second film, suggesting that he was the Xavier Dolan of his day.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959)

Similar to Malle, Resnais is not often considered a part of the French New Wave, if only because he was not a part of the collective of filmmakers to emerge from the Cahiers du Cinema critics. But his masterwork, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, certainly fits the bill with its poetic dialogue, easygoing narrative, and elegiac cinematography. The film focuses on the romance between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) while the former shoots a film in Japan. The film is staged as a series of conversations overlapping with flashbacks, as each of these characters process the personal tragedies they faced during World War II. Okada and Riva each give masterful performances that enrich the film's emotional content through what isn't said as much as what their characters reveal to each other. Resnais' film is as haunting as it is beautiful.

Films by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and more after the jump.

Les Cousins (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1959)

If Hitchcock had worked in the French film industry instead of Hollywood, he might have made Les Cousins. Chabrol clearly imitates Hitchcock's style in this psychological drama, in which studious Charles (Gérard Blain) stays with his debaucherous cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) in Paris to finish his law school exams. Charles is sucked into his cousin's world of sex and booze and falls for Florence (Juliette Mayniel), but Paul's manipulations of Charles come with dire consequences. The Hitchcock comparison is unavoidable in Chabrol's gliding camera movements and coded homosexuality (predatory, of course). Perhaps that's the reason the film feels so derivative today: it established Chabrol's career and laid the groundwork for future New Wave films, but did so mostly through slavishly mimicking Hitchcock's work (Rope immediately comes to mind) without distinguishing itself.

Les Bonnes Femmes (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1960)

Unlike Les Cousins, Chabrol exercises much more of a distinct artistic vision in Les Bonnes Femmes. Four Parisian women - Jane (Bernadette Lafont), Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon), Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano), and Ginette (Stéphane Audran) - navigate their daily lives as shopgirls and the advances of crude, boisterous men, including a mysterious man on a motorcycle (Mario David) who appears to be following Jacqueline. The film divides its time between the women, alternating between the mundane and the fantastic with a handful of surreal touches (including a finale that could have inspired David Lynch). And despite the film being a professional production - thus putting it on the edges of the burgeoning New Wave - Chabrol's episodic storytelling and blasé tone cement his status as a key figure of the movement's early days.

The 400 Blows (dir. François Truffaut, 1959)

Truffaut's feature debut, we can argue, is where the French New Wave begins. Truffaut was a film critic who tried his hand at filmmaking with The 400 Blows, a delightful, anarchic tale of a young boy, Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who aims to misbehave. The film is a masterpiece in itself, as Truffaut's direction is remarkably confident and studied, suggesting that this is his tenth feature rather than his first. He would draw comparisons to his colleague Jean-Luc Godard through the rest of the 1960s, and though they came to filmmaking through similar paths, Truffaut brought heart and humanity to the New Wave.

Jules et Jim (dir. François Truffaut, 1961)

My previous statement about Truffaut bring "heart and humanity" to the New Wave would seem to be challenged by Jules et Jim, based on the synopsis. Shy Austrian writer Jules (Oskar Werner) meets extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre), and the two form a strong friendship that is later tested by their mutual feelings for - and Jules' relationship with - Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). What follows could easily form the basis of a typical romantic thriller, but Truffaut evades this easy path in favor of focusing on the dynamics between the three main characters. Truffaut's direction is much more experimental here, incorporating a number of new techniques into the story - but never at the expense of the film's emotional honesty. If The 400 Blows announced him as one of the greats, Jules et Jim confirmed it.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (dir. Agnès Varda, 1962)

Varda's place in the New Wave is less established than Truffaut's or Godard's (or Jacques Rivette's, for that matter): she's more often aligned with the Left Banke, a concurrent movement that included Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, and therefore does not receive the same critical attention that the Cahiers du Cinema group enjoys. Cleo from 5 to 7, however, is impossible to ignore as a New Wave film. Varda shot most of the film on location around Paris, which is fitting: the film follows pop singer Cleo (Corinne Marchand) in "real time" for an hour and a half, as she goes about her daily life while waiting for medical test results. The film is broken down into distinct segments based on the time, through which Varda explores feminism, the Algerian War, pop music, performance, and existentialism. Marchand proves to be the film's glue, perfectly conveying all of Varda's ideas without reducing Cleo to an idea herself. That may be the film's most remarkable achievement.

Breathless (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

Though most people agree that The 400 Blows was the first film of the French New Wave, Breathless quickly became the most famous - and the most influential. Godard's first film is a rambunctious, exciting, and ramshackle production, casting Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as a wannabe criminal and his reluctant girlfriend, respectively. The film gleefully resists the conventions of narrative filmmaking at the time, tossing character psychology aside for spontaneity, mimicry (Belmondo's Michel fashions himself after Humphrey Bogart), and iconography. Over 50 years later (and multiple viewings on my part), the film incredibly still feels fresh, a high point in the filmmaker's remarkably prolific career.

Vivre Sa Vie (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)

None of Godard's other films (at least among those I've seen) can match the joie de vivre of Breathless, but then, it doesn't seem as though the filmmaker ever tried to. Vivre Sa Vie, in contrast, ranks among his most mature and ambitious efforts. Drawing heavily from the theory of epic theatre, the film stars Godard's frequent muse Anna Karina as Nana, a woman who leaves her family to become an actress but can only find work as a shopgirl and a prostitute. Godard divides the film into twelve "chapters" with intertitles that explain what will happen in the next scene (though, naturally, Godard finds ways to subvert his own expectations). Karina delivers one of her finest performances in the lead role, and together with Godard she transforms the film beyond a mere formal experiment. Instead, the film is a complex study of one woman's choices and the consequences that come from them.

Contempt (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

If Vivre Sa Vie can be described as "mature and ambitious," then Contempt can be described as "glossy and ambitious." Essentially Godard's raised middle finger to gargantuan studio filmmaking, the film follows screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), who is hired to rework the script for a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey for American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) and German director Fritz Lang (playing himself). Paul's wife, Camille (Bridget Bardot), is aloof and estranged, and the film threatens their marriage. As evidenced by the presence of Palance and Bardot, the cast was among the most star-studded Godard would ever assemble; Bardot, particularly, was among the biggest stars in the world at the time, so much so that Godard's producers required him to show her naked body in the film (he does so, but adds red, yellow, and blue filters over the scene). The film mocks the Hollywood megaproduction style with vibrant colors and Palance's slimy performance, but the film doesn't quite add up to a coherent statement. Unsurprisingly, Godard never made another film as expensive as this one.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Unlike Contempt, which despite its satirical targets is among Godard's most accessible films, 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her found Godard transitioning away from making films that tweaked cinematic convention toward explicitly political films with abstract forms. Ostensibly, the film depicts a day in the life of housewife and prostitute Juliette Jeanson (Marina Vlady). However, the character of Juliette is really a mouthpiece for Godard's rumination on everything, from politics to sports. The film is more of an essay film than a narrative, presaging Terrence Malick's career, but Godard's ideas run a gamut of relatively understandable to arguably intentionally obfuscated. His films would only become more difficult over time.

My Night at Maud's (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1969)

Rohmer belonged to the Cahiers group alongside Truffaut and Godard, but was considerably older than his colleagues and came to filmmaking at a later point in his life. His films may lack the formal experimentalism of Godard or the warm humanity of Truffaut, but they are marked by deeply complex relationships and emotional honesty. My Night at Maud's is exemplary of his style: Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is caught between his attraction to a young woman he has yet to speak to and recently-divorced Maud (Françoise Fabian). Rohmer refuses to use close-ups on any particular character, instead letting the camera see how characters interact with each other, especially as Jean-Louis shares his Catholic-influenced opinions on love, divorce, sex, and friendship. If it sounds particularly "theatrical," the film's script could certainly be produced onstage. The pleasure of the film, however, is in seeing how the framing of Jean-Louis' and Maud's conversations (and silences) affirms or subverts their positions.

Claire's Knee (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1970)

Claire's Knee is certainly not the better representative of Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" (My Night at Maud's was the fourth produced). The fifth tale centers on diplomat Jérôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) as he vacations at Lake Annecy one summer, reconnecting with his former lover, novelist Aurora (Aurora Cornu), and navigating both his crush on the young Claire (Laurence de Monaghan) and her half-sister Laura's (Béatrice Romand) crush on him. Jérôme and Aurora approach these affairs with remote detachment as Jérôme fetishizes Claire's knee (thus the title) and entertains Laura's affections. What's fascinating - and a little frustrating - about the film is how little emotional toil this seems to take on anyone except Laura. Of course, there's nothing wrong with a film about emotional detachment; but the conflict here appears to be so low-stakes that Jérôme's supposed temptation comes across as boredom. Yet the film still works as a testament to Rohmer's measured style and direction.

Le Joli Mai (dirs. Chris Marker and Pierre L'Homme, 1963)

Marker and L'Homme, like Varda, are considered more in line with the Left Banke group than the Cahiers group, but their documentary Le Joli Mai certainly fits the New Wave aesthetic. Assembled from 55 hours worth of footage, the film is a collection of interviews with Parisian citizens during the month of May in 1962 - shortly after the end of the Algerian War - as an unseen Marker asks questions about everything from their personal lives to politics. The result is a fascinating snapshot at a particular moment in French history delivered through the people themselves, rather than through historians.

La Jetée (dir. Chris Marker, 1963)

I've already said plenty about this short film in the link above, but Marker's experimental approach - using still photographs and voiceover narration to tell the story of a time traveller returning from an apocalyptic world - reveals the post-WWII nuclear anxiety that was still affecting France at the time. It's a remarkable work of art.

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