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  And, indeed, I will ask on my own account here, an idle question: which is better—cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better?---Fyodor Dostoevsky ---Notes from Underground There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief—in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as “commonplace people,” and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself. For instance, when the whole essence of an ordinary person’s nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine—. I think such an individual really does become a type of hi




What is French New Wave?

The directors associated with the Nouvelle Vague, including Francois TruffautJean-Luc GodardClaude ChabrolEric RohmerJacques RivetteLouis Malle,Alain ResnaisAgnes Varda, and Jacques Demy have made, between them, films numbering in the many hundreds.
 If you were to add to this the works of those various filmmakers of the era who have been labelled as New Wave at one time or another, as well as those influenced by the movement, both in France and abroad, then the number of potential films would run into many thousands.

Getting to grips with the New Wave thus understandably might seem a daunting prospect for somebody wanting to explore the movement for the first time. With that in mind, this introduction will provide some general context and an overview of some of the French New Wave's most basic concepts. It will also offer some suggestions about where to start your investigations, as well as an overview of the seminal "must see" films which best .define the movement. If you’ve already seen many of the best known New Wave films, or are looking fora more specific approach, you might check Top 10 New Wave Film Lists, which drill down by director, sub-genre, performance and other various categories.


3 Primary Characteristics of French New Wave Cinema

French New Wave films share a number of characteristics:

1. Rejects the studio. The primary motivation for French New Wave cinema was to wrest creative control from big studios and put it in the hands of film directors. While this change would give directors freedom to explore storytelling that challenged audiences, it also meant that they had to work without the resources that major studios offered, including large budgets, expensive equipment, and contained film sets. As a result, French New Wave directors often shot on location with handheld cameras, using natural lighting and recording sound during takes (rather than dubbing, which was popular at the time).

2. Departs from strong narrative. While Old Hollywood films were all about immersive, entertaining narratives, French New Wave films wanted to challenge audiences and keep them from becoming complacent while watching. They used many innovative techniques—including jump cuts and actors addressing the audience directly—to remind viewers they were watching a film, and rejected script-based filmmaking in favor of heavy improvisation.

3. Expresses complex ideas. While Old Hollywood films aimed to entertain, most French New Wave films were about expressing the directors’ thoughts or emotions, dealing with difficult, intellectual topics like existentialism and the absurdity of existence. They wanted to encourage their audiences to think both during and after viewing, so the films often featured long takes that allowed audiences’ minds to wander and bring their own experiences to the film.

 Fifty years on: Why New Wave Still Matters

It has now been more than half a century since the directors of the New Wave (in French, Nouvelle Vague) electrified the international film scene with their revolutionary new way of telling stories on film. The New Wave itself may no longer be "new", but the directors and their films are still important. They are the progenitors of what we have come to think of as alternative cinema today, and they had, and continue to have, a profound influence on popular culture in the West and throughout the world. Without the Nouvelle Vague there may not have been any ScorceseSoderbergh, or Tarantino (or Wenders, or Oshima, or Bertolucci), and music, fashion and advertising would be without a major point of reference.

The directors of the Nouvelle Vague, and those of their like-minded contemporaries in other countries, created a new cinematic style, using breakthrough techniques and a fresh approach to storytelling, that could express complex ideas while still being both direct and emotionally engaging. Crucially, these filmmakers also proved that they didn't need the mainstream studios to produce successful films on their own terms. 
By  emphasizing the personal and artistic vision of film over its worth as a commercial product, the Nouvelle Vague set an example that inspired others across the world to follow. In every sense, they were the true founders of modern independent film, and to watch them for the first time is to rediscover cinema.

A Radical New Way of Filmmaking

To get a general idea of what this new cinematic approach meant, it might help to understand that before they were directors, the main players of the New Wave were the original film geeks, or cinephiles. Cinema was very important in a culture-starved post-war France, and most of the New Wave directors spent a great deal of time in their early years writing or thinking about it. Some were film critics, some were simply lovers of film - nearly all sharpened their cinematic sensibilities through long hours spent in the various Parisian cinematheques and film clubs. Their influences included everything from movies by realist Italian directors like Roberto Rosselini to hard-boiled noir and B movies from America, as well as early silent classics and even the latest technicolour Hollywood musicals. From this passion for cinema they developed a belief in the theory of the auteur: that is, a conviction that the best films are the product of a personal artistic expression and should bear the stamp of personal authorship, much as great works of literature bear the stamp of the writer.

Although they admired many of the studio films being made at the time, they also felt that most mainsteam cinema, especially in France, was not expressing human life, thought, and emotion in a genuine way. Many of the popular movies of the era, they argued, were dry, recycled, inexpressive and out of touch with the daily lives of post-war French youth.
While the Nouvelle Vague may never have been a formally organized movement, its filmmakers were linked by their self-conscious rejection of the ‘cinéma de qualité’ (‘cinema of quality’), the pompous and expensive costume pictures that dominated the French filmscape at the time. 

Besides being made to impress rather than express, these films generally afforded their directors very little freedom or creative control, instead catering to the commercial whims of producers and screenwriters. Those New Wave directors who started as critics, mainly writing for the French journal called Cahiers du Cinema, regularly praised the films they loved and tore apart those films they hated in print. 

Through the process of judging the art of cinemathey began to think about what it was that might make the medium specialMore importantly they were gradually inspired to begin making films themselves. While each director had a slightly different agenda, Truffaut could be said to encapsulate the group's mission when he said, "The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure."

Broadly speaking, the New Wave rejected the idea of a traditional story in the "Old Hollywood" sense - stories based on narrative styles and structures lifted from earlier media, namely books and theatre. The New Wave directors did not want to hold your hand through each scene, directing you emotion by emotion, through a fixed narrative. There was a feeling that this sort of storytelling interfered with the viewer's ability to perceive and react to film just as they would perceive and react to life. These directors wanted to break up the filmic experience, to make it fresh and exciting, and to jolt the moviegoer out of complacent viewing - to make the viewer think and feel not only about what they were watching, but about their own lives, thoughts and emotions as well. Dialogue was to be as realistic as possible, or strange in a way that made one think beyond the film, or inspired new ideas. Expressing the truth was of the utmost importance. The object was not simply to entertain, it was to sincerely communicate.

The scripts (or lack thereof) of these new directors were often revolutionary, but the films' modest budgets often forced them to become technically inventive as well. As a result, the movies of the Nouvelle Vague have became known for certain stylistic innovations such as: jump cuts (a non-naturalistic edit), rapid editing, shooting outdoors and on location, natural lighting, improvised dialogue and plotting, direct sound recording (as opposed to the dubbing that was popular at the time), mobile cameras, and long takes. In addition, their films often engaged, although sometimes indirectly, with the social and political upheavals of their times. 

New Wave International

Although the French New Wave is the best known, similar cinematic movements were happening elsewhere, also fuelled by the cultural and social change that came in the wake of the Second World War. In Britain, the emergence of the Free Cinema movement in the 1950’s paralleled the course of the French New Wave. The first productions of these filmmakers who included Lindsay AndersonTony Richardson and Karel Reisz were documentaries chronicling working-class life that had a freshness, energy and modern satirical edge. These qualities were also characteristic of their subsequent feature films, many of which were adapted from the plays and novels of the so called “Angry Young Men” writers.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the New Wave helped to inspire groups of like-minded young directors in Communist controlled Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Shooting on location, often using non-professional actors, they sought to capture life as it was really lived in their societies. Italian cinema too, was encouraged by the example of the New Wave, as it moved beyond the Fantastical realism of Federico Fellini, the existential modernism of Michelangelo Antonioni, and the Marxist materialism of Federico FelliniPier Paolo Pasolini and Francesco Rosi

Later in the 1960’s, the directors of New German Cinema -- like Rainer Werner FassbinderWim Wenders and Werner Herzog -- took the New Wave methods and created a style of cinema uniquely their own.
Revolutionary film movements also arose in Japan and Brazil where directors like Nagisa Oshima and Glauber Rocha made films devoted to questioning, analyzing, critiquing and upsetting social conventions. Indeed, in countries around the world, young filmmakers armed with hand-held cameras and ideas inspired by the Nouvelle Vague were making films on their own terms. All had their own particular flavour, but, in each case, came into being as a reaction against what had come before and arose out of the feeling that such breaks in tradition were necessary to the positive evolution of cinema in their country.

It was happening even in America, the very heartland of commercial cinema. Directors such as John Cassavetes blazed a trail for independent American cinema with films like Shadows which bore remarkable similarities to the work of the French New Wave. At the same time, the Direct Cinema documentary movement lead by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. They applied similar techniques as the New Wave and Free Cinema in an effort to directly capture reality and represent it truthfully, and to question the relationship of reality with cinema.

Later, the Nouvelle Vague was a major inspiration on the New Hollywood generation of directors such as Arthur PennRobert Altman and Martin Scorsesewho began blazing their own paths in the late 1960’s and 70’s. This influence has continued to the present day with many of the major figures in contemporary independent American cinema, including Steven SoderberghQuentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson, professing admiration for the movement and have generously used its techniques. As Scorsese himself put it: 'the French New Wave has influenced all filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not. It submerged cinema like a tidal wave'.

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