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Katy Penrod

C Lit.
Revolutions in Cinema: From the French to the American New Waves
The French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) is widely regarded as one of the most
influential movements in the history of cinema. With an emphasis on the re-invigoration of
cinematic narrative, the French New Wave rejected the traditional linear tropes of storytelling
and created a new language of film. Inspired by both depictions of the common people by Italian
Neorealist filmmakers and Hollywoods Golden Age, the French New Wave became a vibrant
influence in international and especially American cinema. The American New Wave of the
1960s and 70s owes a great amount to the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague, as most of the
techniques and themes that made the American New Wave revolutionary were borrowed from
the French. In fact, had it not been for the influence of the French New Wave, American cinema
as we know it today may not exist.

French New Wave

Following the fallout of World War II, France was economically and politically drained.
In many ways, the French Fourth Republic was a revival of the pre-war Third Republic, and was
equally ineffective and problematic. The film industry mirrored this to a degree, falling back in
its pre-war aesthetics in story choices, often based closely on literature, and limiting funding to
only those already established in the system (Coates). During this time, a number of film
societies and cine clubs began, and for the first time since the end of the war, French audiences
were exposed to a diverse variety of cinema outside the French studio sphere (Coates).

Out of this re-exploration and rebirth of French cinema came what we now know as the
French New Wave, a movement spearheaded by a group of film critics who wrote for the Cahiers
du Cinema, a French film journal that began publication in the 1950s. Led by editors Henry
Langlois and Andre Bazin, the Cahiers employed many now-known names as writers, including
Francois Truffant, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette among
others (Luzi). Each of these soon-to-be filmmakers was well-versed in film history and had a
passion for cinema which was due to and expanded by the Cinematheque Francaise, a film
archive designed to promote cinema study and cinema culture in France that Georges Franju had
kept open during occupation (Cook 441). The Cinemantheque gave the critics access to a huge
library of films, and they consumed as many of them as they could.
The critics of the Cahiers opposed what Truffant called cinema du papa (granddads
cinema), more commonly referred to as the cinema of quality, a style of film with traditional
narrative structure and heavy reliance on dialogue that focused on the development of the plot
rather than on cinematic style (Cook 442). With the release of three films by members of the
Cahiers in 1959 Truffauts 400 Blows, Renaiss Hiroshima My Love, and Godards Breathless
French audiences saw a departure from cinema du papa, and the beginnings of what we now call
the French New Wave movement (Lanzoni 213).
These films displayed the characteristics that defined the French New Wave, which was
essentially the opposite of the cinema du papa. The main themes of the French New Wave were
the importance of mise-en-scene (to put the scene) the arrangement of actors and scenery or
the physical setting of an action and la politique de auteur (the policy of the author) the
concept of the crucial role of the director as the artistic creator to implement his or her own

aesthetic and narrative vision using elements like blocking, lighting, and scene length rather than
plotline to convey their message in the film (Britannica).
Along with the overarching concepts that defined the French New Wave, certain
techniques and styles of filmmaking that many times overshadow the plot in importance are
characteristic of the movement, many of which were borrowed from the Italian Neorealists. The
Neorealists reacted against the mainstream cinema in Italy which they, much like the French, felt
was unrepresentative of what was really happening in the country in the aftermath of World War
II (Luzi). They wanted their films to be more realistic, causing them to take their cameras to the
streets where they used unprofessional actors and avoided artificial editing, camerawork, and
lighting in favor of a style-less style. The neo-realists also sought to evade contrived, neatly
plotted storylines in favor of looser, more episodic structures (Criterion).
The French adopted the Neorealist desire for realistic film production and used many of
their techniques to achieve this effect. They used hand-held cameras to shoot on location, partly
out of practicality and partly out of stylistic innovation, and filmed with small crews and
unknown actors to capture the real way that people interact and talk, favoring more organic
storylines over calculated narratives (Coates). The new wave also saw the invention of the jumpcut when a scene is cut forward in time, whether by a split second or many seconds, creating a
non-continuous passing of time (Britannica).
A classic example French New Wave film with use of neo-realist as well as newly
developed French techniques is Godards Breathless (1959). Godard used a hand-held camera
and improvised shots for hours at a time before he ran out of ideas, often without permission to
shoot at the locations he filmed, adding to the spontaneous, documentary-style feel that he was
aiming for (Criterion). Godard also broke the eye-line match rule and utilized jump cuts,

purposefully violating the classical norm of continuity editing (Criterion). For example, in a
scene of the two main characters riding around in a convertible, in one shot Jean Serberg is
sitting in the passenger seat with her hands on her legs, and then the next cut she is shown from
the same angle but now holding a mirror. There is an abrupt feeling of lost time and an emphasis
on the seams of the shots, going against the invisible editing of the past generation. For the
filmmakers of the French New Wave, the viewer was supposed to feel the intent of the film, not
necessarily see it (Luzi).

The American New Wave

About a decade after the New Wave of cinema emerged in France, a similar movement
occurred in America. Though American New Wave has been used to refer to at least three
generations of American filmmaking (one in the 1950s and one later in the 1980s and 90s) the
period of New Hollywood which occurred during the 1960s and 70s was a period in which
filmmakers, inspired by the French, sought to move away from the traditional cinema of Old
Hollywood in order to make films that conveyed a more real depiction of American society
which had reached the peak of its counter-culture movement.
During Hollywoods Golden Age that preceded the American New Wave roughly
1930 to 1960 the studio system reigned supreme and most leading directors made their films
through one of the Big 5 studios (Fox, Loews, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Bros.) who
monopolized the film market. The studios functioned through a vertically-integrated system in
which writers, directors, producers and actors were under contract and the studios distributed
films through theaters in first, second, third et al run showings with the goal of producing as
many films and making as much money as possible. Despite being part of and unarguably

limited by this industrial process whose purpose was to make entertainment for the masses, many
of these directors, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles
retained a distinct artistic vision and thematic consistency in their work. The French critics of the
Cahiers du Cinema were the first to recognize these directors as artists with personal creative
visions, as true auteurs, which first inspired them to explore the concept of the auteur, the
director as author (Hitchman and McNett).
In 1948, Hollywood underwent a complete reordering when the Supreme Court ruled that
the Big 5 held an illegal monopoly in the film industry and ordered them to stop the practices of
block-booking and blind-buying, processes by which the major studios would sell A movies with
a block of other films, including B movies and shorts which the theaters often didnt see before
purchase. The emerging popularity of television beginning in the 1950s also marginalized
Hollywoods share in the entertainment market. Despite attempts by the studios to lure audiences
through innovations like Technicolor, widescreen, stereo sound and 3-D, Old Hollywood was
losing both money and audiences at an alarming rate, prompting aging and increasingly out of
touch studio executives to look for new ways to remain relevant.
The fall of the Old Hollywood studio model and the rise of television provided the
perfect catalyst for change in the film industry. The French New Wave had proved that young
directors could craft original ideas and still enjoy financial success and the void left by the end of
the studio monopoly had to be filled. With nothing to lose, the studios turned to a group of young
directors to bring cinema back to the forefront of entertainment. These directors, including
Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Arthur Penn, and Dennis
Hopper among others blended New Wave French filmmaking techniques with a uniquely
American flair that explored the violence, drug use and sexuality of the youth-driven counter-

culture of the late 1960s and 70s in a way that pushed the boundaries of older generations. In
1967, now considered a turning point in the history of American film, the Motion Picture
Association of America replaced the Production Code (a set of industry censorship guidelines
that banned most sex, drugs, and violence) with a rating system that allowed filmmakers to film
counter-culture themes in a way that they hadnt before (Monaco 183). In that same year, the
release of two films Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Graduate (1967) which in form, tone,
and content broke the mold of what had come before, signaled the beginning of a New
Hollywood revolution. (Hitchman and McNett).
Arthur Penns Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is considered by many to be the first truly New
Hollywood film. The film was heavily influenced by French New Wave themes and techniques;
in fact, both Truffant and Godard were approached to direct the film though they decided to
make Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Alphaville (1965) respectively instead (Hitchman and McNett).
While the film opened to initially poor responses, later reviewers praised it as revolutionary,
comparable to The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Citizen Kane (1941) (Hitchman and McNett).
Stylistically, Bonnie and Clyde borrowed New Wave elements such as jump-cuts, heightened
sexuality and violence, and an overall playfulness in its weaving in and out of comedy and
gangster film moods. For example, the jump-cuts in the driving sequences of Bonnie and Clyde
are clearly reminiscent of the opening scene in Breathless (1959) in which the protagonist,
Michel, drives a stolen car through the countryside and kills a police officer. The elements of
slapstick comedy and gangster violence are also referential to Godard who often blended these
classic Hollywood genres in his films (Giannetti and Eyman).
Another film released in 1967, The Graduate, is also regarded as a classic representation
of New Hollywood. The film dealt with subject matter, a sexual relationship between a young

man and a married woman as well as the angst of a college-educated American youth, which hit
home with young audiences in the midst of a counter-culture movement and would not have been
filmable in the previous generation. The director, Mike Nichols, also employed many stylistic
techniques borrowed from the French New Wave that made the film revolutionary, using extreme
close-ups of characters, montaged sequences of spliced together shots, and match cuts (such as
the infamous one that connects a scene of Benjamin jumping onto a floaty in the pool to one
where he lands on top of Mrs. Robinson in bed) to convey a message using visual elements more
so than dialogue (Hitchman and McNett). The choice to use contemporary music, the folk-rock
of Simon and Garfunkle, rather than a composed score also showed a departure from traditional
film rules and is arguably one of the most-loved qualities of the film. Like Bonnie and Clyde,
The Graduate received initially poor reviews, mostly from older critics who spoke for an older
generation who felt personally attacked by the movie that portrayed them as self-centered,
materialistic, and immoral (Hitchman and McNett). Younger viewers, in contrast, flocked to the
movie, turning it into the highest-grossing picture of 1968. The films success was so categorical
that Warner Bros. and United artists announced that they were rethinking their entire
development slates with a view to appealing to younger audiences and other studios soon
followed suite (Hitchman and McNett).

Modern Day
Though the French New Wave took place roughly from the 1950s to the 1960s, its
influence has reached far beyond those years. After directors of the New Hollywood period
brought the techniques and themes of the French New Wave to the forefront of American cinema,
the impact of its revolutionary ideas have continued to permeate contemporary independent

American film. Directors such as Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Andersen
among others have professed their admiration for the movement and its influence is evident in
their films (Hitchman and McNett).
Perhaps the most notorious fan and emulator of French New Wave is modern director
Quentin Tarantino. His use of unexpected plot twists, unusual dialogue, unconventional
characters, and absurd violence along with twisting of genre conventions and non-chronological
editing have become Tarantino trademarks that clearly have their foundations in French New
Wave. In Tarantinos first big hit, Reservoir Dogs (1992), the influence of French New Wave is
clear in his use of jump cuts, natural lighting, on-location shooting with handheld cameras and
focus on the reaction of actors rather than the action that caused it. Kill Bill (2003), another
successful Tarantino film, blends elements of western, kung fu, and blaxploitation films genres
much like Godard and Truffaut did in their earlier films. Further, Tarantinos now trademark nonlinear editing and long panning shots, most notably seen in arguably his most famous film, Pulp
Fiction (1994) are a direct homage to Godard who first made the techniques famous in
Breathless (Hitchman and Mcnett).

It has now been more than half a century since the directors of the New Wave shook up
the film scene in France and, in the following decade, America. The directors of the Nouvelle
Vague created a new cinematic style with their use of breakthrough techniques and a fresh
approach to storytelling that proved that film could express complex and revolutionary ideas
while still being both direct and emotionally engaging. Most importantly, these filmmakers
proved that they did not need mainstream studios to produce successful films on their own terms.

By emphasizing the personal and artistic vision of the director and the artistic message of the
film over its worth as a commercial product, the French New Wave set an example that others
around the world would be inspired by and follow. And while the French New Wave itself may
no longer be new, its directors and films have had and continue to have a profound influence
on cinema today in American and around the world. As Scorsese himself aptly stated, the
French New Wave has influenced all filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the
films or not. It has submerged cinema like a tidal wave, (Hitchman and McNett).

Sources Cited

Coates, Kristen. "The French New Wave: The Influencing of the Influencers." The Film Stage.
N.p., 28 5 2010. Web. 5 Dec 2013.
Cook, David A. A History of Narrative Film. New York, New York: W. W. Norton &
Company, 2004. Print.
"French New Wave." The Criterion Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec 2013.
Giannetti, Louis, and Scott Eyman. Flashback: A Brief History of Film. 6. New York, New York:
Pearson, 2009. Print.
Hitchman S and A McNett. "A New Hollywood." N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec
Lanzoni, Remi Fournier. French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. New York, New
York: Continuum, 2002. Print.
Luzi, Evan. "The French New Wave: A Cinematic Revolution." The Black and Blue. N.p., n.d.
Web. 7 Dec 2013.
"New Wave". Encyclopdia Britannica. Encycloedia Britannica Online.
Encyclopdia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 2 Dec. 2013

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