An Introduction to French New Wave Cinema

James Hadland

It is so easy to get caught up in tales about Hollywood that sometimes we overlook the fact that cinema is a global art form. Cinema has developed significantly over time all around the world, influencing the progression of Hollywood to what it is today. One key shift to change motion pictures for the rest of time is the rise of the French New Wave. But what actually is it? James Hadland lists 5 films that provide a beginners introduction to the genre.

A culture embodying style, art, and creativity, French films have always been widely regarded as some of the best in the world. A key connection between all films within the genre was a rejection of traditional filmmaking, giving creative power over to the director – a dawn of art-house cinema that now dominates Oscar nominations and Netflix suggestions. However, while a superficial knowledge of the French New Wave can be obtained via a few minutes scrolling through Wikipedia, it is perhaps far more interesting to look at it through 5 of the most iconic New Wave films.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) (Louis Malle – 1958)

Elevator to the Gallows is considered perhaps the first ever French New Wave film due to the application of stylistic and thematic motifs of classic American Film Noir to a French context, while also introducing new cinematic and storytelling innovations that would influence others. The film explores Paris through a tense love affair between ex-paratrooper Julien Tavernier and his lover Florence and their plot for the perfect crime, which doesn’t exactly go to plan. Malle was only 25 upon the film’s release, and his choice of a new generation of actors, and modern settings set it for apart from its contemporaries. However, what is perhaps most cutting edge is its jazz score, composed by none other than Miles Davis, establishing the film in both the French New Wave and the New Modern Cinema.


The 400 Blows/Les Quatre Cents Coups – (Francois Truffaut – 1959)

One of the first New Wave films, and the directorial debut of New Wave pillar François Truffaut, The 400 Blows is about a young boy in Paris who is misunderstood by parents and teachers alike. It is a coming-of-age story that follows Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) through boyhood as his life gets gradually more difficult. This film is lauded by critics and is found at 240th of IMDBs top feature films of all time. If the character of Doinel impacts you after the film then don’t worry; Truffaut and Léaud went on to collaborate four more times with the Doinel storyline as the audience see his progression through adolescence and adulthood.

Godard allows the audience to follow Michel for themselves through the city of Paris and is widely considered revolutionary not only due to its ambiguity, but because of its self-awareness

Breathless/À Bout de Souffle (Jean-Luc Godard – 1960)

Moving on from François Truffaut to a film by another former editor for French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard. By the late 1950s, the editors of Cahiers had become increasingly dissatisfied with mere critiquing film, in a genre they were bored with, and so various former editors decided to take matters into their own hands.

Breathless is Godard’s ground-breaking crime film with constant referral to contemporaneous pop-culture. It follows petty thug Michel, acted by Jean-Paul Belmondo as part of yet another actor-director combination which lasted years, whose actions and personality are based on the gangster-types Humphrey Bogart played in Hollywood features. In fact, the American influence on cinema here is a key theme throughout the film, notably through the problems that his American journalist girlfriend Patricia causes him. Godard allows the audience to follow Michel for themselves through the city of Paris and is widely considered revolutionary not only due to its ambiguity, but because of its self-awareness. It is almost as if the character knows he is a character; a technique which has even been adopted in the Marvel film Deadpool (2016).

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7) (Agnès Varda – 1962)

Once more far different to the style of filmmaking at the time, Agnès Varda’s movie chronicles the minutes of one woman’s life in real time. The singer Corinne Marchand awaits the test result of a biopsy, and to ensure the melodrama of the situation, Varda chooses to follow her in a 2-hour time frame so the viewers can live through her. Varda, unlike Godard and Truffaut, forms part of the Left Bank community within the genre, far more interested in experimental filmmaking instead of the more movie-crazed Cahiers group. This experimental nature is exemplified here, with the quasi-documentary style of the film being viewed through a feminine gaze at morality. It is especially to be enjoyed by those who relish one-of-a-kind features that go against the grain of mainstream cinema.

As a forerunner to the New Wave, it is impossible to ignore Melville’s influence in 1960s French cinema

The Samurai (Le Samouraï) (Jean-Pierre Melville – 1967)

Although Melville is not counted strictly as a bona fide New Wave director, he was an inspiration and mentor to many of the genre’s upcoming directors. In fact, his establishment of a new type of French crime film largely inspired by Hollywood is regarded as having pre-dated the New Wave movement itself. Therefore, as a forerunner to the New Wave, it is impossible to ignore Melville’s influence in 1960s French cinema. The movie follows lone hitman Jef Costello’s questioning of morality in the Parisian crime world, running from police and gang alike. Le Samouraï is the quintessential French neo noir film, with a soundtrack as stylish as Jef Costello’s trench coat and trilby, a character whose coolness is only achieved due to Alain Delon’s excellence. Melville’s colour film is so bleak that it appears to be black and white at times and is considered a major influence to future films exploring the theme of solitude. A must watch.

James Hadland

Featured image courtesy of Malgorzata Frej  via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

In article trailer 1 courtesy of MUBI via YouTube. No changes were made to this video. 

In article trailer 2 courtesy of StudiocanalUK via YouTube. No changes were made to this video.

In article trailer 3 courtesy of DionysusCinema via YouTube. No changes were made to this video. 

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