Our first part of a series that retraces the French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard’s influence on cinema.
From time to time there is a paradigm shift in the way people conceive of an art form. In cinema, the French New Wave was one of those times.
And at the center of the art movement there was Jean-Luc Godard.
Godard, who died at the age of 91 from assisted suicide this week, was one of the last survivors of the era.
Together with François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Éric Rohmer, Agnès Varda and many others, Godard has opened a new approach to the medium. His death marks the passage of an era.
But what exactly did the French New Wave define? And how was Godard indelible of it?
The style of the French New Wave
Coming at a time of writing films about the elderly produced in big studios, the French New Wave was a breath of fresh air.
Godard tore apart the rule book for cinema. What they should have been about, how they should have been filmed and how they were edited were all up for grabs.
A souffle match (Breathless) from 1960 was Godard’s first feature film and is emblematic of many of the styles of the French New Wave.
It was shot on a shoestring budget using portable cameras that allowed Godard to move freely instead of fixing the camera in place.
The use of portable cameras “came to characterize the New Wave because it created a flaky and grainy aesthetic. A famous example is the scene on the Champs Elysées a BreathlessExplains Dr Darren Waldron, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies on Theater at the University of Manchester.
Godard could go out and wander the streets of Paris. Portraying the city and the life of young people at the center of your film seems trivial today, but it was radical then.
_Breathless_ ‘protagonist Michel, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, speaks directly to the camera and is obsessed with actor Humphrey Bogart. The overt references to cinema itself were a distinctive quality of the New Wave movement.
Waldron indicates the opening of Breathless where Michel discusses his interests and thoughts with the audience.
“Another example I like is Godard’s Pierrot le Fou”, He underlines, where another character played by Belmondo is asked who he is talking to and simply replies:“ the audience ”.
“The actors seem to be in a movie,” says Dr. Neil Archer, professor of film at Keele University. In part this is why Breathless it is a clear homage to the American films of the 40s and 50s.
Films that know they are films
Godard was willing to have his actors play the narratives they were creating on the screen in an obvious way.
“That sense of putting a story in another context to make it feel like a performance. Belmondo’s character is playing a role, he’s a character in his own movie as a gangster who performed this act and the romance of the role kills him in the end. He can’t act, so he can’t live, ”says Archer.
Part of the comfort in making film references and breaking the fourth wall is that the French New Wave was defined by a cohort of filmmakers who were full-fledged film critics, Waldron points out.
Many of the big names started their careers writing for Cahiers du Cinéma magazine. “Exploring and making films as film critics is a natural evolution of their role as film historians,” says Archer.
While Godard’s manual techniques in the streets of Paris may at first strike an observer for the first time as an amateur’s technique, cinema has always been a means of interrogating film for him.
The interrogation of the film was strongly reflected in the way Godard approached the cinematic language of his narrative.
“In Godard’s cinema in particular, editing was often innovative, almost anarchic,” says Waldron. “He broke the normal codes of continuity editing, including the inclusion of many jumps, which would give the film a jagged and nervous aesthetic.”
“It also allowed the characters to get in and out of the frame without the camera following them and seemingly randomly,” he continues, citing Le Mépris’ use of artificial lighting and spontaneous acts.
“Such films / scenes interrupt the usual ways stories are told and could be said to distance the viewer or interrupt their conventional viewing practice because their attention is directed to understanding what is going on rather than following the story. So, they might think about the form of the film rather than its content, ”adds Waldron.
Films typically took place in chronological order before the New Wave, with scenes following a strict rubric: establishing a framing of the venue, then a breakdown into individual units, and a clear bottom line of the action.
Godard didn’t think about misses that weren’t absolutely essential to the point he was making. Sometimes, this would be a budget necessity, but often it was a pioneering editing style that influences today’s editing choices.
From non-linear storytelling devices to winks at the camera, Godard and the French New Wave created a visual language for film that communicated with its art form and was willing to treat audiences as smart enough to hold the step.
Stay tuned for our second part on Jean-Luc Godard’s influence on cinema.