Nouvelle Vague. The Belle Epoque of Cinema.

In 1967, André Labarthe filmed a conversation between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang. It was called The Dinosaur and the Baby. Godard, along with François Truffaut, was then at the head of the new tendency in French film, the Nouvelle Vague. This New Wave was basically a group of young male film critics, the defenders of Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, who had turned themselves into directors: Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer and Godard himself. Like his friends, Godard adored Fritz Lang. And Lang – like other grand old men, like Roberto Rossellini, like Max Ophüls – was fond of the kids who formed the Nouvelle Vague.

But what, really, was the Nouvelle Vague? As they both chain-smoke in black and white, Godard, with a small smile, asks Lang what it feels like to be an older film-maker. (A dinosaur, Lang corrects him, a dinosaur.) Because what strikes him, Godard continues, in the work of Lang, is his extreme youth: he is always interested in things when they happen for the first time. He is always interested in new problems. And Lang inhales, and exhales, and slowly replies that he thinks that their craft, their art – the art of cinema – is not just the art of their century, it’s art for young people.

You think it’s the art of youth, me I think that too, agrees Godard, happily. Youth! When he interviewed Lang, Godard was nearly 40. But youth, in the end, was still the basic definition of the Nouvelle Vague. The phrase “La Nouvelle Vague” was first used in 1957 by the journalist Françoise Giroud. Writing in L’Express, she used it to describe a new generation of French youth who were the subject of a vast public opinion survey (question number 7: “Are you happy? Explain your reply”). Thirty years later, Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma offered this definition: “perhaps the only generation which found itself in the middle of both the century and perhaps of cinema”.

In retrospect, it’s possible to see why Godard also thought that a defining feature of the Nouvelle Vague was collaboration. Its figures formed a mutual support group. They all wrote for the new cinema magazines in Paris in the 1950s – most notably, Cahiers du cinéma. They went to the same regular film screenings at the Cinémathèque française, run by the magisterial archivist Henri Langlois. They gave each other money. They borrowed each other’s actors – such as Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy. Most importantly, they worked on each other’s films. They helped produce them, and write them. Truffaut, for instance, the year after Les quatre cents coups won him the award for best director at Cannes, provided Godard with the four-page outline of his own first film, À bout de souffle, and allowed his name to be used to get his unknown friend some funding.

The Nouvelle Vague, so canonical, so assured of its own history, was really the joyful experiment of a few excitable friends. And this shared joy is obvious in their delighted quotation of each other’s films. In Les quatre cents coups, Rivette’s Paris nous appartient is showing – even though, at that point, it had not yet been released. And when, in Godard’s Une femme est une femme, Anna Karina asks a girl called Suzanne what she’s been up to lately, she mimes a shoot-out, then playing a piano. The same actress had been Charles Aznavour’s love interest in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste, which had come out the year before.

Like every movement, the Nouvelle Vague didn’t really exist. All those films date from three years, from 1959 to 1962, when Truffaut made Les quatre cents coups, Tirez sur le pianiste and Jules et Jim, Chabrol directed Les cousins, Rivette finally showed Paris nous appartient, and Godard made À bout de souffle, Une femme est une femme and Vivre sa vie. Even then, by 1962, it was obvious how different these kids were.

And yet, in Les quatre cents coups, the story of a boy adrift in the punitive world of adults, Truffaut announced their central theme: the refusal of adulthood as a world of tyranny and corruption. Their theme was youth. But youth is elusive. Youth is complicated. At the start of Godard’s later film Masculin féminin (1966) – the subject of which he described as “the idea of youth” – the viewer sees a close-up of Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was 15 when he played the hero of Les quatre cents coups. Now 22, he is sitting in a café, nervously chatting up a girl and playing with his cigarette. Léaud is still young, he is still a symbol of revolt. But he is also a boy who wants to be cool. He wants to be a film star – just as Belmondo wanted to be Bogart in À bout de souffle. Rohmer said that the Nouvelle Vague directors were literary people who made films. And they inherited the novel’s great investigation: of characters who are romantics, who want to live life like a novel. The characters in the Nouvelle Vague are romantics who want to live in a film.

The Nouvelle Vague put cinema into the street. Then it entered the bedroom, the bathroom – the world of the censored and the hidden. The ideal of youth was absolute truthfulness. And this was possible because of new cinematic techniques: the faster film stock (the Kodak Tri-X panchromatic camera negative); the new hand-held cameras (the Éclair Cameflex); and the new possibilities for mobile sound recording (the Nagra III). The heroes of the Nouvelle Vague weren’t just the directors: they were the sound engineers, the directors of photography – the greatest of whom, perhaps, was Raoul Coutard. When shooting À bout de souffle, Coutard pieced together reams of photographic stock (more sensitive at the time than film stock) to shoot a night scene.

And this truthfulness had a theory, too. The one thing these directors all had in common, after all, was that they all wrote film criticism. Criticism and directing were, in the end, just different ways of sketching out films. And the most important theoretician of the Nouvelle Vague was the great critic André Bazin, a co-founder of Cahiers du cinéma and the dedicatee of Les quatre cents coups

Bazin’s two heroes were Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini. In these directors, he found examples of film-makers who, in Bresson’s terminology, wanted to use film not to “reproduce”, but to “create”. “The screen has no backstage,” Bazin wrote in his essay “Theatre and Cinema”. When a character leaves the screen, he argued, we believe in his continued existence as a character. When he leaves a stage, we know he becomes a man who was playing a part. Therefore, Bazin concluded, all cinema is documentary, even fictional films. The language of cinema is coextensive with life. Jean Renoir, after all, had said: “In La règle du jeu, I didn’t film that role, I filmed Marcel Dalio playing that role.” With Bazin as his mentor, Godard went further, describing À bout de souffle as a documentary on Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in a film by Jean-Luc Godard.

The search for truth was understood as a search for the literal. It is there in Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste, where Aznavour is in bed with a girl. She sits up, exposing her breasts. You know, says Aznavour, in cinema it would be like this – and he raises the sheet to cover her up. Or consider Godard’s response, in the short film Two American Audiences, recording his visit to New York University in 1968, when he is asked why, in La Chinoise, he interrupted characters’ conversations with loud quotations from Vivaldi. It seemed, said an earnest grad student, a mystery. “Why is it a mystery?” Godard said. “When you are walking in the street, you are suddenly whistling for 10 seconds, and then, you know … I mean: there is nothing more than that.”

This devotion to the real had a further consequence. Truth, in Godard’s formulation, meant that he wanted to “both show and show myself showing”. (His master, he added, was Montaigne.) In a survey that came out in Cahiers in 1966, Italo Calvino commented that, for him, the most interesting aspect of the new French tendency in film was this invention of the film-essay. The line between fiction and documentary was being constantly erased, he thought, by the Nouvelle Vague’s precision.

The essayistic tendency was patented by Godard, whose films revel in exposing the film as film – above all, with varieties of writing: intertitles, quotation, subtitles, book covers, random words in neon. But the play with form wasn’t just his. Truffaut was also adept at what he called “respectful pastiche” – such as, in Tirez sur le pianiste, his gleeful use of the gangster cliché when a man has just been murdered: “Go back inside, it was just an accident.”

All the conventions could be sidestepped. And the difference constituted by the Nouvelle Vague can be seen in the history of the script for Bonnie and Clyde. It was written by Robert Benton and David Newman, who had Truffaut in mind for the film. Too busy, Truffaut recommended Godard instead, who happened to be going to New York. Godard announced he could do it in three weeks’ time. The producers were scared: no time, they said, no money, no studio, no deal. What did it matter, said Godard – why not? “If it happens in life, it can happen in a movie.” And when the producers worried that the weather in Texas might not be right for shooting, he countered: “We can make this film anywhere; we can make it in Tokyo.” Still dubious, they called the Texas weather bureau. There was a strong likelihood of rain. “I am speaking of cinema, and you are speaking meteorology,” said Godard. The next day, Benton and Newman met the director in his hotel. “Call me when the script reverts to your ownership,” he said.

Godard’s final quip reveals another aspect of the Nouvelle Vague’s youth: it believed in a utopian politics, constantly trying to invent new means of cinematic production. Rivette had anticipated this politics in Paris nous appartient: a politics that took the form of paranoia. His film is nominally about a group of actors trying to put on a production of Pericles, while characters mysteriously die or disappear. But really it is about the new politics of youth – where politics is figured as melodrama. In Rivette’s ironic redefinition, radical politics is revealed as a possible version of egotism: an obsession with the hidden world of adults.

By 1968, however, the paranoia seemed less paranoid. Langlois was sacked from the Cinémathèque Française by Malraux, the minister for culture. Amid orchestrated protests, Langlois was eventually reinstated. But the protests continued, and culminated in the May évènements. That month, the Cannes festival went ahead as usual. In response, Godard and Truffaut put forward a motion to stop the festival in solidarity with the workers and students on strike.

But this public twinship was illusory. 1968 marked the moment when Godard abandoned conventional film-making – and the Nouvelle Vague disintegrated. With Bazinian grandeur, Godard had once said that he did “research in the form of spectacle”. The search for the truth in images now became a search for a true politics of the image, against its corruption by capitalist hegemony. It was too much for Truffaut. “Between your interest in the masses and your own narcissism there’s no room for anything or anyone else,” he wrote to Godard in 1973: “you’re the Ursula Andress of militancy.”

But Truffaut and Godard had always been uneasy friends. When Belmondo lay dying in the street at the end of À bout de souffle, Godard wanted him brutally to ask to be shot one more time: “Quick in the spinal column.” Truffaut persuaded him to cut it. And while this cut is a sign of the problematic friendships of the Nouvelle Vague – a disparate collection of rivalries and talents – it also exemplifies the shared and deep concern for truth: their insouciant precision.

For the Nouvelle Vague was truly young – the directors’ experiments remain contemporary. They are still a shock. And their lesson is delight. At one point in Une femme est une femme, Brialy interrupts the argument his character is having with the character played by Anna Karina, and turns to the camera. “I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a tragedy,” he says. And then he adds, with the chutzpah of someone doing something for the first time: “In any case, it’s a masterpiece.”

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“Une certaine tendence du cinéma française” es el título de un famoso artículo escrito a principios de 1954 por François Truffaut que fue publicado en la revista más prestigiosa de cine mundial por aquellos momentos, “Cahiérs du Cinema”.

El texto contenido en ese artículo puede considerarse como el punto de arranque de las teorías fílmicas de la conocida corriente denominada Nouvelle Vague francesa.

Esta nueva ola modificó las normas narrativas y temáticas del mundo del cine y abordó críticamente la totalidad de la historia del mismo, significando en su valía la importancia de la teoría de autor.

Años atrás al escrito de Truffaut, en 1948, el director y crítico francés Alexandre Astruc ya había concedido gran importancia en la revista “L’Ecran Français” al trabajo del realizador/autor, proclamando un nuevo estilo fílmico acuñado como “caméra-stylo” y afirmando: “Si el escritor escribe con una pluma o un bolígrafo, el director escribe con la cámara”.
Lamentablemente y a veces, este afán estilístico conlleva una rémora en el contenido plasmado en pantalla, pudiendo provocar la dictadura del estilo, otro error en la forma de proyectar un título cinematográfico.

Otro gran teórico del cine, André Bazin, editó junto a Jacques Doniol-Valcroze en 1947 una nueva publicación sobre el séptimo arte, llamada “Le Revue du Cinema”, que con el paso de los años se rebautizaría como “Cahiérs du Cinema”, revista en la cual comenzarían a colaborar gente como el citado Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette o Eric Rohmer, personajes con un afán crítico demoledor pero constructivo.
Demoledor contra el cine academicista instituido en la Francia de la época y constructivo en el asentamiento de los cimientos del cine moderno.
Truffaut en su artículo atacaba a las producciones que sólo se ocupaban de la “qualité” y las buenas adaptaciones literarias y se olvidaban de aportar su punto de vista personal a la obra.

Los creadores de la Nouvelle Vague se preocupaban por que el film se considerase por encima de todo como una obra de autor, significaba que el director tenía que encontrarse creativamente por encima de cualquier otro personaje envuelto en la producción de la película, la película tenía que salir de él; ni el guionista, ni el productor, ni los estudios podían inmiscuirse en la labor creativa del verdadero hacedor del film, el director y sus ideas sobre el cine y la vida.
Al mismo tiempo, proclamaban una mayor libertad narrativa, ausencia de comercialidad como fin y un mayor número de filmaciones en localizaciones exteriores y naturales.

Bien es cierto que con el paso del tiempo, estos propios directores, con raras excepciones, se acomodaron a un cine más comercial y su narración se ubicó en formas clásicas pero intentando mantener sus premisas básicas sobre el modo de construcción de sus obras.
Estas condiciones y características fílmicas establecieron asimismo una revisión crítica a muchos antiguos cineastas, en muchos ocasiones injusta y que ellos mismos, con el paso del tiempo se retractarían de sus previos e influyentes comentarios.

Lo verdaderamente importante es que la teoría de autor y sus convicciones creativas provocaron una convulsión en el mundo del celuloide, que ya había comenzado unos años antes del debut de los críticos del “Cahiers de Cinema” con las películas de Louis Malle “Ascensor para el cadalso” (1957) y “Los amantes” (1958) o de Roger Vadim “…Y Dios creó la mujer” (1957), film en el cual se presentaba en sociedad a la sex-symbol Brigitte Bardot.

Fueron títulos de notoria resonancia comercial y bajo presupuesto, que animarían a los beligerantes críticos franceses a emprender sus propios largometrajes tras debutar anteriormente haciendo cortos.

François Truffaut obtendría un clamoroso triunfo con “Los cuatrocientos golpes” (1959), pelicula dedicada a su mentor André Bazin y con la cual ganó el premio al mejor director en el Festival de Cannes. Asimismo introducía a un personaje clave en su cine, su alter ego Antoine Doinel, interpretado por Jean Pierre Léaud.

Jean Luc Godard asombraría con “Al final de la escapada” (1959), un film ya mítico, ideado por François Truffaut y con diseño artístico de Claude Chabrol. El propio Chabrol presentaría “El bello sergio” (1958), un título financiado con la cuantiosa herencia de su mujer.

Junto a ellos, una gran cantidad de cineastas surgieron en Francia siguiendo las nuevas tendencias: Alain Resnais, Jacques Demy, Philippe De Brocca, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Agnes Vardá o Jean Rouch, entre otros muchos, fueron creadores que revolucionaron los convencionalismos establecidos, siendo imitados en muchos países por las nuevas corrientes de realizadores jóvenes con ganas de mostrar al mundo un cine más personal, independiente y liberado.

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