French New Wave

Jean Douchet’s lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, French New Wave, is an eye-popping tribute to the movement that gained worldwide prominence in 1959 with the release of two groundbreaking motion pictures: Fran�ois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. At first glance, these films appear to have little in common. The 400 Blows is a bittersweet autobiographical account of Truffaut’s troubled childhood, whereas Breathless is a lurid crime melodrama edited with flashy jumpcuts. Yet, in what would become a hallmark of New Wave filmmaking, these two low-budget movies shared an invigorating cinematic self-awareness that was both playful and deeply earnest. A manifesto-like avoidance of studio sets seemed to ennoble the cityscape — Paris streets, coffee shops, and office buildings — as the only acceptable backdrop for modern narrative truth. They combined fresh young performers, loose elliptical scripts, and handheld camerawork. Like a double jolt of espresso, The 400 Blows and Breathless were a bracing wake-up call to the French film industry, in addition to achieving international box-office success.

While his name is not as familiar as Truffaut’s or Godard’s, Jean Douchet has been involved with the New Wave since its inception. He began in the 1950s writing film reviews for the influential journal Cahiers du Cinema. The core New Wave directors — Fran�ois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette — all began as movie critics for this legendary publication. (Other well-known filmmakers often associated with the New Wave, though not with Cahiers, include Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda, and Chris Marker.) Douchet is primarily a writer and lecturer, but he has a director’s credit for a segment of the 1965 New Wave anthology film, Paris Vu Par. Clearly, his book is not an objective or impersonal appraisal of the heady times between 1959 and 1965 when the movement was in its heyday. Indeed, Douchet has composed something of a polemical broadside aimed at rescuing the era’s legacy from what he refers to as "recent attacks by official French cinema against the decline of the New Wave."

French New Wave rarely rises above a romanticized "us versus them" combativeness. The mainstream French film industry is cast as "the establishment," and the New Wave directors are the radical and crusading "young Turks." Completely glossed over by Douchet is the reactionary strain of Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, particularly Truffaut’s infamous 1954 essay, "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema." As characterized by Douchet, Truffaut’s piece was a denunciation of studio filmmaking and an assault on lifeless screenplays adapted from novels. However, he fails to mention Truffaut’s tirade against "profanation and blasphemy," or his disgust with cinematic depictions of homosexuality. The excellent biography, Truffaut, by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, is honest about the strident right-wing tone of Truffaut’s essay, which got him branded a "fascist" and an "intellectual vigilante" by French leftists.

Cahiers du Cinema is probably most famous for giving birth to the controversial auteur theory, a key New Wave tenet. The auteur theory celebrated the movie director as "author," much in the manner that a novelist can be identified through recurring themes and stylistic techniques. It was an idea that downplayed the collaborative significance of screenwriters, producers, actors and editors. While it is commonplace today — for better or worse — to consider filmmaking a director’s medium, Cahiers du Cinema went further with the concept. A true auteur director, according to the theory, is able to triumph over second-rate scripts or third-rate actors by sheer strength of personality. A minor film by, say, Howard Hawks or Alfred Hitchcock, would often be championed simply because the director’s unique fingerprints were perceived to be in evidence. Jean Douchet, perhaps understandably, doesn’t discuss how this sometimes led to misplaced enthusiasm for terrible movies. However, he expends a good deal of axe-grinding against detractors who, he says, "minimalize and ridicule" the New Wave’s embrace of auteurism. (Andrew Sarris, a supporter of the auteur theory in the U.S., has been feuding with Pauline Kael about it since the early 1960s. In his 1998 book, You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, Sarris is still taking potshots at Kael over their disagreement.)

Douchet is at his best in describing the passion of Truffaut and his friends. They lived and breathed films, not uncommonly seeing several a day. The excitement that emerged in their own filmmaking came from the almost tactile joy they took from watching movies. French New Wave does a fine job of recreating the intoxicating atmosphere in postwar Paris when film clubs and journals suddenly flourished and there was an influx of foreign movies that had been banned during the Occupation. In 1948, Henri Langlois opened the Cinematheque Fran�aise, an archive of rare motion pictures coupled with a small 50-seat theater. Langlois regularly screened a mind-boggling array of world-class cinematic fare. It wasn’t long before his venue became the unofficial film school and social club for future New Wave directors. Langlois’s popularity was such that when the Ministry of Cultural Affairs tried to remove him from running the Cinematheque in April of 1968, there were demonstrations and scuffles with police. The government backed down and Langlois kept his job, but the youthful energy of the demonstrators carried over to the cataclysmic strikes of the following month when the country was brought to a near standstill.

Although the text of French New Wave is a hit-or-miss affair (it reads like a Francophile parody when Douchet at one point enshrines Jerry Lewis as a seminal American filmmaker), the illustrations and page layouts are magnificent. This is, after all, a coffee-table book meant to be browsed rather than read from start to finish. The pages are designed like a 1960s pop-art gallery with neon colors and flamboyant typefaces. Spilling across two-page spreads are movie posters, strips of film, single-frame blowups, Cinematheque schedules, and front covers and reviews from past issues of Cahiers du Cinema. There are stunning photos of glamorous New Wave icons like Jean Seberg, Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Brigitte Bardot. (Bardot’s alluring face is peeking out behind sunglasses and tousled hair on the book’s cover, a shot from Godard’s 1963 film Contempt.)

Is the book worth its deluxe price tag? If you’re a fan of the directors and their films, or if you’re captivated by the aura of French New Wave cinema, it will be an irresistible purchase (not to mention its assured value to book collectors in years to come). Even Jean Douchet’s eccentric commentary (translated from the French by Robert Bononno) is a testament to the vibrant debate that continues to surround these filmmakers more than forty years after their extraordinary debut.

Bob Wake