What is The New Wave?
The French New Wave is a very important movement in the history of European cinema. Inspired by the best exports of Hollywood cinema and the cinematic movement called Italian Neorealism that emerged there after World War II, the French New Wave was looking to revolutionize and reshape the state of cinema and to set in place new rules and new aesthetic priorities. It succeeded in doing more than that, establishing the “politique des auteurs” and offering to hundreds of young people passionate about cinema the possibility to make their first feature film, thus showing to the world that the French love good quality cinema. Certain things that one must bear in mind about this cinematic movement are the new aesthetic priorities that even today provide new filmmakers with inspiration for their own films.
Precursors of the cinematic movement
In order to establish the aesthetic priorities of the New Wave one must look back at the cinema that preceded it, draw parallels and point out the contrasts that triggered in fact the whole movement. One can notice that Francois Truffaut’s harsh manifesto against “le cinema de papa” seemed to have a quick response through the works of Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955), Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (1958) which observed a “certain tendency” to break away from the norm and show audacity by attempting to reinvent the French cinema. The French culture and tradition had been overused as themes for the cinema and therefore directors had to resort to other tricks to find inspiration. They decided to focus less on the story and more on the telling of the story and how the story is presented to the audience.
Looking at the works of Jean Pierre Melville and Louis Malle, it’s impossible not to notice the American influence on the style and motifs used in Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’echafaud respectively. These directors were big fans of the golden age of Hollywood and they were not afraid to show it and find inspiration in it. Jazz music is specific to America and its role in these films is one not to be neglected. Transforming music into an important part of the process of filmmaking is apparent even from the opening credits of Bob le Flambeur. They introduce the viewer into the atmosphere of his world, the underground life of a retired gangster. It is interesting to observe that the intentional interruption of the narrator by the non-diegetic trumpet comes right after a simple shot of a car on a road. This has nothing to do with the story but it helps create a border between real life and cinema. Thus, even though Place Pigalle and Montmartre are real places that exist outside the story, Bob the gambler appears to be a product of the jazz trumpet playing, an American song played by Melville and his crew. Yet another element worthy of analysis is Melville’s name that dominates the credits, very suggestive of the “politique des auteurs”, theory which is closely linked with the French New Wave movement.
The music that signals the American factor more and has a greater impact on the viewer is the one present in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows). Just like the trumpet crying out Bob’s name in Melville’s opening credits, Miles Davis’ music is crying out the love between the two protagonists of Louis Malle’s film. It is the very definition of American jazz music, captured in an amazing score perfectly synchronized with the images onscreen. Also important to bear in mind is the fact that Miles Davis improvised on the spot the entire score for this film. Improvise is a key term and one feels impelled to explore the matter further. By associating his film with Miles Davis’ music and the art of improvising, Malle is inviting the viewer to freely interpret and judge the film itself. The free spirit of Miles Davis’ trumpet is beautifully blended into the corpus of the film, further emphasizing the free spirits of the characters on-screen, projections of the directorial vision. Very subtly and effectively, the music comes to add extra sentiment to the scenes where it’s being used, most notably in the sequences where Jeanne Moreau’s character, Florence, is wandering around Champs Elysees at night looking for her loved one. One must also add that Miles Davis’ contribution to the score of Elevator to the Gallows prompted a change in his career, improvisation playing a very important role in his subsequent albums.
Turning Jeanne Moreau into a star
The central aspect of the sequences is of course the image of Jeanne Moreau as the confused, distressed lover searching the night for answers. The narrative is not as important as the feelings it triggers, feelings displayed in the most unusual and poetic manner. It’s not about the story it’s about how the story is told. Just like in Bob le Flambeur, the focus on the little details is of central importance, and not on the fact that this is an adaptation of a pulp novel. As Richard Neupert writes “It was fairly standard for first-time directors in France in the late 40’s early 50’s, to shoot a B-grade detective story, or polar, loosely following American noir patterns. But Malle’s adaptation varies from the model in his reworking of the crime drama, his addition of personal and art cinema traits to what would otherwise be a conventional genre film.”
What it may have not been so standard was the fact that Louis Malle used only natural light and no make-up on Jeanne Moreau for that sequence, which, rumour has it, surprised the lab technicians who didn’t want to process it. As Terrence Rafferty puts it “The new wave doesn’t quite get born in Elevator to the Gallows, but it’s clearly in the late term here, more than ready to emerge. You can sense it in Decaë’s remarkably daring natural-light cinematography (which he would soon be putting to good use for Truffaut and Claude Chabrol as well) […]most of all, in the unleashing of Jeanne Moreau, who, nearing thirty, was a busy actress but never quite a star until Malle turned her loose in the nocturnal city and did justice, for the first time, to that amazing, imperious, gravelly sexy walk of hers—which would, over the next couple of decades, come to seem the defining movement of the new wave, the embodied rhythm of freedom.”1 Louis Malle sees the opportunity and takes it. Adapting the story and re-telling it his way may be seen as Francois Truffaut’s answer to his 1954 article “A certain tendency of the French cinema”. With influences from both Bresson and Hitchcock, Malle is recreating society on film: recreating the image of woman in love, introducing the image of the young rebels (via Veronique and Louis) embracing the new and innovative, but using it as a canvass for his work. The focus on the protagonists’ face and the close-up seems to have been used differently and to enormous stylistic effect in these movies. Most notable is the scenes when Jeanne Moreau’s character, Florence, has her inner monologues. The camera manages to capture the imperfection of her face as well as the perfection of her performance. It may be the opening door for other directors to focus on the feminine beauty and play with it so daringly.
New modernized society
The image of an industrialized and “deromanticised” Paris is very well created on screen in both films by the wonderfully talented Henri Decaë, who later worked with Godard and Chabrol and most notably with Francois Truffaut in The 400 Blows. Fast cars, modern buildings, futuristic motels, electric pencil-sharpeners, are all part of the picture that represents a new France, a new society and morality. A good example for this is of course the image of the car spraying the streets with water early in the morning in Bob the Gambler. The high angle camera insists on watching the process of the streets being washed, to bring a sense of reality to the scene. It is early in the morning and the first time Bob sees Anne. It should be a more romantic environment. Instead, she is picked up by an American sailor and he watches on while the car never stops spraying the road. This is just another way to deconstruct Paris: by presenting one process that’s part of the less romantic city, that one doesn’t usually witness in a film, let alone in a scene where the protagonist sets his eyes on a beautiful woman. Another very important gadget is, besides the cars that get stolen in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud and complicate the plot even more, the minicamera that Julien forgets in his car, which he so preciously holds onto until then. The same minicamera holds the information that resolves the situation at the end of the movie, namely both the proof of the love between Florence and Julien and their doom.
One gets a glimpse of that new France with Bob le Flambeur, which presents that same type of new morality through the character of Anne, who seems to drift through life with no clear purpose. But it’s still the father figure of Bob, who represents both the old and the new Paris dominating the narrative, whereas in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud the assumed father figure, Carala, is killed off even before the story unfolds, setting the scene for the “new love”. It is interesting to observe the interaction between old and new in these two films, which is transferred to the whole style of these cinematic works. The language used is another step bringing French cinema closer to the New Wave. For the viewer it marks a change in style, from the rigidity of the “cinema de papa” to the freedom and audacity to use expressions like “belle gueule de voyou”(nice face of a hoodlum) or “casse-toi, chien”(beat it, you dog) anticipating the language and also the attitude towards women employed later on in films such as Godard’s Breathless.
The way the camera works in these two films is of vital importance to pinpoint the advent of the revolutionary style of the New Wave films. Some good examples lie with the director’s choice to film on location, rather than in the studio, to have the camera follow the characters, as well as high angle shots of great effect, like the one where it shows Bob in his kitchen. Here the stylistic choice of the decor catches the eye and may be analysed as an extension of Bob. The way the kitchen looks reminds of the appearance of the first gambling room where Bob’s being introduced to the audience. The decor is starting to be noticed, to come to the forefront as an important piece, not of the storytelling, but of the story viewing. As mentioned before, the narrative falls second place in importance of the space in the story. The directors rediscover how to play with light, like one can notice in opening gambling scene in Bob le Flambeur, as well as in many scenes from Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, like the interrogation scene, which resembles very much with the American film noir. The characters are similarly presented and played with but it seems that there’s an innovation in the way the camera captures their struggle and depth of performance.
Roger Duchesne’s performance as Bob is almost flawless not only because he’s a great actor. One wouldn’t see as much in Bob as there is to be seen if the camera hadn’t been able to capture elements from his routine. These are not important parts of the story but they are central to the “tres curieuse histoire” (very strange story) of Bob. For example there’s no change to the story whether or not he puts his clothes carefully on the hanger, or if he chooses to drink tea instead of wine as soon as he wakes up, some time during the night. But it says a lot about himself as an individual and that is not information to be neglected. Similarly, in the case of Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, when Florence wanders through the night looking for Julien, she is seen moving her lips, but one can’t hear what she’s saying. One can guess though, as the camera captures everything her face expresses, all her hidden emotions. The voiceover also indicates to those emotions, almost standing in for the narrator in Bob le flambeur.
Maurice Ronet’s character in Ascenseur pour l’echafaud is the source of future New Wave male characters like Michel from Breathless or Pierrot le fou, who both go to extreme lengths, including breaking the law, to prove their love for a woman. His performance is very subtle and convincing as the man who’s very much in love with his boss’ wife, especially if one bears in mind the difficulty of the task, given that Julien and Florence are never seen together onscreen.
The two films analyzed above are not considered to be part of the New Wave movement for various reasons, including a certain heaviness and lack of playfulness in presenting the story onscreen. However, the elements that have created artistic cinema within the New Wave are present with both Bob le Flambeur and Ascenseur pour l’echafaud and have clearly represented an influence on future filmmakers from France and worldwide, including Hollywood.