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)
Films by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and more after the jump.
Les Cousins (dir. Claude Chabrol, 1959)
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)
Cleo from 5 to 7 (dir. Agnès Varda, 1962)
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)
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)
Claire's Knee (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1970)
Le Joli Mai (dirs. Chris Marker and Pierre L'Homme, 1963)
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.