Can you imagine a bunch of film reviewers deciding they'd rather make movies than critique them, and being so successful that they not only revolutionised cinema in their homeland but influenced filmmakers around the world for decades?
Unthinkable, perhaps, in today's world dominated by Hollywood and largely reliant on state-funded film industries, but that's how the French New Wave movement was born 50 years ago.
François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette all started out as writers for Cahiers du cinema, the monthly magazine which is widely credited with reinventing film criticism and analysis.
“All of us at Cahiers thought of ourselves as future directors,” Godard has said. “Frequenting cine-clubs and the Cinémathèque was already a way of thinking of cinema and thinking about cinema.”
These directors along with others such as Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Jacques Demy and Louis Malle ignored the traditional rules of movie-making, asserting that films could and should reflect the director's creative vision: the embodiment of the auteur.
“Working without established stars or big money, these guys produced – at their best – fresh, innovative cinema becoming, in a very real sense, the founders of the independent film movement,” Movie Maker magazine observed in 2002.
The term New Wave was probably coined in France by the mag L'Express, which, in a 1957 survey, referred to “Nouvelle Vague de la jeunesse.” That expression gained wider currency after the publication in 1958 of La Nouvelle Vague, portrait de la jeunesse (The New Wave, portrait of youth), Françoise Giroud's novel which advocated fundamental changes in French society.
The title quickly became a nickname for a band of insouciant young directors who introduced innovations such as improvised dialogue, rapid changes of scene, and long tracking shots, usually within the confines of tight budgets.
In 1958-1959, it's estimated that at least 18 French directors, aged from 24 to 48, made their first feature films. In his tome Revolution! The Explosion of World Cinema in the 60s, film historian Peter Cowie noted, “So prolific would the output of French film-making become during the late fifties that the New Wave seemed to appropriate every vestige of innovation that was changing the character of European cinema.”
Chabrol effectively kicked off the movement in 1958 with his debut film, La Beau Serge, a bitter portrayal of life in a provincial town, shot on location with natural lighting in just nine weeks on a budget of roughly $US150,000, which he raised from his family.
Truffaut's first feature, Les 400 Coups, in 1959 heralded the arrival of an inventive director who thrived on spontaneity and wasn't afraid to draw on his own experiences: the film depicted his painful childhood, marked by aloof parents, oppressive teachers, petty crime, and a friendship that would last a lifetime.
Jules et Jim (1962, left) further enhanced his reputation, an amusing and melancholy tale of the love of two friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) for the mischievous Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).
Released in 1960, Godard's debut, À Bout de Souffle (Breathless), the saga of a young car thief who kills a cop and tries to persuade a girl to hide in Italy with him, stunned audiences and critics. “There is a direct line through Breathless to Bonnie and Clyde, Badlands and the youth upheaval of the late 1960s,” opined Roger Ebert. “The movie was a crucial influence during Hollywood's 1967-1974 golden age. You cannot even begin to count the characters played by Pacino, Beatty, Nicholson, Penn, who are directly descended from Jean-Paul Belmondo's insouciant killer Michel.”
A stream of groundbreaking releases followed, including Malle's A Very Private Affair; Rohmer's Suzanne's Career (main picture), Truffaut's Shoot The Piano Player, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos, and Godard's My Life to Live and Band of Outsiders.
Through the 60s, Rohmer (left) stood apart from most of his New Wave peers; as Cowie explains, “His cinema flourished in moral soil, his characters spending more time in discussion than they ever did in bed.”
French New Wave was in vogue primarily from 1958 through to 1964, although some New Wave works were popular until 1973. But its proponents and its risk-taking was an inspiration to countless film-makers,
"I would say that the French New Wave was the most important group of filmmakers in my life,” Brit Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas; Timecode) told Movie Maker. “I find their work so rich and re-visitable that it has become the only group of films that I still respect to the extent of being able to regard as vibrant and avant-garde today. Their influence is everywhere."
For Germany's Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola Run, The International), the works of Godard, Melville and Truffaut gave him a whole new understanding of what films can achieve.
“What I found so amazing," Tykwer told Movie Maker," was that they were so aware of classical storytelling – they had studied Hitchcock and so on – but then, probably because they just didn't have the money, they used these different methods. They were creating a sort of liberated style.”