IN DEPTH provides media analysis of selected media issues that has international relevance.
Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave
‘I make normal films for normal people’ - Francois Truffaut
Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave
‘I make normal films for normal people’ - Francois Truffaut
Introduction: The New Wave
The New Wave, the beckon of new thought in the French Cinema, primarily refers to the philosophy of the celluloid held by a group of young revolting filmmakers between 1958 and 1964. The pioneers of the movement like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer, were friends and film critics who fought over the subtle language of cinema, in their much popular and provocative magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Michel Marie would be more precise on her observation on this revisionist French school of cinema ‘...the expression Nouvella Vague, which refers everyone today to a moment in French film history and a particular collection of films, such as the 400 Blows and Breathless, was not specifically linked to cinema at the beginning. The label appeared in a sociological investigation of the phenomenon of the new post war generation, and the enquiry was launched and popularised by a series of articles written by Francois Giroud for the weekly magazine L’Express. Its genesis signals the thematic role played by the new youthful generation, but also the role played during the 1950’s by a new sort of publication, represented by L’Express.’ The development of new methods of social research, in fact helped the L’Express to conduct an enormous survey with the help of Institut francais d’opinion public (IFOP) in 1957, to publish a critical report on how French culture, thought, attitudes and politics should be in the immediate future. The survey was published with the title, ‘The New Wave arrives’ but with a little reference to cinema of the times. As Maurice says ‘…when films are mentioned, they are titles said to parallel this “new generation’s” values, and are summarised by the researchers as “representing new moral values, presented with refreshing, never before seen frankness.” But the journalistic pursuit of L’Express had a deep impact and it reverberated across the nation, to react in different forms, cinema being one of them. Francois Truffaut himself once said in an interview ‘…I think the New Wave had an anticipated reality. It was, after all, first an invention by journalists, which became a reality….’ (Hillier, 1986)
Unlike the mainstream films, New Wave cinema focussed at the inner life, and constructed mise-en-scène from the life situations of the common man. The New Wave directors carried their camera to the streets, coffee bars and where ever people met and also followed them to their homes to portray the cries and whispers. It was just like the return of the camera to reality, to the bitter world around the common people; who were astonished and at the same time identified themselves with the characters on the screen. It was also a creative exercise that re-defined freedom, importantly creative freedom, which also meant the freedom of imagination, thought, speech and expression. Thus, these films primarily became critical statements of the political and social life, and advocated for transformation; no doubt the democratic values of France were questioned.
This was some way inevitable, as France was still reeling under the cultural wounds of the Second World War that pained the French society as changes in value system and ideology.
The New Wave directors produced thirty two films between 1959 and 1966; which were mainly targeted at the thinking young intellectuals of the time. These films although contained a passion for experiment and underlined new ways of expression, many of them were well received in and outside France, signalling that France is heralding a new wave of thought in this new media. Among the pioneering achievements of the New Wave directors included the Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) by Francois Truffaut, which won accolades including the Grand Prize at the Cannes Festival in 1959. Jean Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle was the other film, which deeply impressed the European audience. These developments in fact had a significant impact on the European as well as the world cinema, where the unwritten rule was to learn from the truly commercial enterprises of the Hollywood. Thus the ‘experimental cinema’ overpowered the mainstream, contributing many new lessons in film language which the mainstream commercial productions adopted quickly to their advantage.
Cahiers du Cinéma vs Nouvella Vague
It will not be unwise to state that Cahiers du Cinéma wrote the prologue to the Nouvella Vague in French films. The participation of its films critics later as directors in the new movement is not the lone reason, but the magazine stood as an open forum for all the thinking people, particularly the younger generation who held the rational ideas and who needed to express themselves. The editorial of the 1962 nouvelle vague special issue explains its relationship, contribution and support to the movement.
‘We are reproached for not talking about young French cinema. That cinema is not only dear to us, but close to us too, and there I always something indecent in talking about oneself. We find ourselves unable either to judge this nouvelle vague for which we did rather more than facilitate the birth with the requisite objectivity or even to consider it with sufficient distance. Yet on the other hand, our magazine cannot allow itself to ignore the existence of a fact already being promoted as historical fact. So let’s silence our scruples, at least this once. Since it is difficult for us to place ourselves outside the nouvelle vague, let’s remain inside it…..’ (Hillier, 1986.)
Even though the world was witnessing many new experiments in film, as medium of independent expression, the most significant was the French New Wave. This may be attributed to the experience of the young directors in film criticism working for the Cahiers, and their in-depth knowledge of the medium, giving them immense motivation to experiment. Their ideas differed from that of the mainstream filmmakers and industry. In fact they were thinking of an alternate cinema, that conceptualised new rules of film making. Even though New Wave film directors, who were contributors of the Cahiers differed in notions, they still found the journal as the right podium to speak out.
The Cahiers, as a prominent voice of the film criticism was in fact thinking of a ‘new cinema’ that produced the reverberations of the changing times. Thus the contemporary French cinema or the American commercial films were not its concern, even though it tried to re-evaluate the Hollywood and created furore through its vehement criticism. So the quest and thought was about building a theory for the new cinema, and the new critics identified that the nouvelle vague itself is a main constituent in its development. As Jim Hillier comments ‘..among the factors generating debate about new cinema arising out of the nouvelle vague was the impact of new documentary forms emerging in the late 1950s and early 1960’s under the name of the cinema verite or (in the later, now more generally accepted term) ‘direct cinema’.’ In the context of France, the films of Jean Rouch, that dominated the first decade of the nouvelle vague were an important influence along with the American films. Rouch undoubtedly emerged as a champion of the French film with his non-conventional ideas and experiments. Michel Marie puts it right ‘ Rouch…..upset the boundaries between fiction film and document. ….puts back into question the shooting methods of traditional cinema.’ (Hillier, 1986). This itself points to the birth of the philosophy of the New Wave, where we find reflection and diffusion of Andre Bazin’s realism at the same time. Jean-Andre Fieschi explains it rightly:
‘…the camera assumes an entirely new function: no longer simply a recording device, it becomes a provocateur, a stimulant, precipitating situations, conflicts, expeditions that would otherwise never have taken place. It is no longer a matter of pretending that the camera isn’t there, but of transforming its role by asserting its presence, by stressing the part it plays, by turning a technical obstacle into a pretext for revealing new and astonishing things. A matter of creating, through the very act of filming itself, an entirely new conception of the notion of the filmic event.’ Thus it proclaims that the imprint of neo-realism is so vivid and it also a part of quest for new cinema by the nouvelle vague, and it also clearly explains the philosophy of the New Wave cinema. The peculiarities which are associated with the New Wave films like the jump cuts, shooting on location, natural lighting, refined dialogues, improvised plots, direct sound recording and the long takes, naturally descended from the neo-realist perspectives. This is further proved right by the high regard of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics for the French film-makers like Jean Renoir, Jean Vigo, Robert Bresson and Marcel Ophuls and the films of the masters of Italian neo-realism like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. It is this philosophy that in fact worked behind the rejection of the commercial French filmmakers like Clair, Clement, and Mark Allegret. Gilles Deleuze observes it critically ‘..the French New Wave cannot be defined unless we try to see how it has retraced the path of Italian neo-realism for its own purposes- even if it meant going in other directions as well. In fact, the new wave, on a first approximation, takes up the previous route again: from a loosening of the sensory motor link (the stroll or wandering, the balld, the events which concern no one, etc.) to the rise of optical and sound situations.’ 
The Auteur theorists
The New Wave filmmakers were particularly influenced by another personality, Alexandre Astruc, a film critic of the times. He argued that cinema is “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in a contemporary essay or novel.” This notion had a deep impact on the thoughts of New Wave film makers and they viewed film in a new perspective, to put it in Truffaut’s words “les politiques des auteurs” (the author policy), which the American film critic Andrew Sarris referred to as “auteur theory.” The auteur exponents celebrated the idea of Alexandre Astruc and began to view films from an artist’s perspective, and held that it constituted a creative piece formed from the ‘central consciousness’ (Fabe, 2004) of the artist. The film itself is a master craft that combined several elements, and thus it required a real craftsmanship whose privilege was entrusted on the intellectual and creative abilities of the director. And thus for the New Wave thinkers, director became the author (the auteur). The auteur theory in fact provoked them to isolate the artist out of the director, whose role in the traditional film making, particularly the Hollywood, was mere coordinator of the script writers, actors, camera crew and post production team. The auteur theorists demanded more from the director as true artist with immense creative potential, and the celluloid was regarded a medium to imprint his imagination. Thus the ‘director’s individual themes, psychological preoccupations, and stylistic practices’ (Fabe, 2004) got a greater significance. The New Wave proponents held certain Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks with high esteem and called them auteurs of their films. Truffaut being one of the main proponents of the New Wave and the auteur theory also regarded the French directors like Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau, for the distinctive personal touch in their films. Truffaut’s greatest work, and a truly autobiographical film, The 400 Blows, itself is an identification of himself with the auteur.
Truffaut and the New Wave
The year 1959 was crucial for the New Wave, for there were three great releases that redefined the conception of cinema. The year also marks the birth of Truffaut, the film maker, whose Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) which won the Best Director award at Cannes Film Festival in the same year. It was the first in a series of many semi-autobiographical films that Truffaut made with the gifted actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. The 400 Blows was a impassionate account of a delinquent boy who finds difficult to live with his parents and finally runs away from home. He faces the stark reality in the streets and faces the blows of the fate. The film narrates the unfolding events from Doinel's, the lead character’s point of view, but doesn't unnecessarily wander about and plays with emotion, a real tribute to Andre Bazin, for whom Truffaut dedicates the film. Truffaut's other two films in this series were the short feature Antoine et Collette and the poetic Stolen Kisses, which turns out as a wonderfully crafted romantic comedy. Truffaut's follow-up film, Shoot the Piano Player, did not fare well in the theatres. Fahrenheit 451 was also an unsuccessful film, for it appeared more like a science fiction than fiction. Truffaut later compromised for emotional plots but the Day for Night, stands out and proclaims the gifts of the master craftsman.
In one of his interviews in the Cahiers, Truffaut says, ‘…cinema for me is an art of prose. Definitively. The thing is to make films that look good without having an air about them or having an air of nothing to them. …Poetry irritates me, and when people send me letters with poems in them I throw them straight into the waste paper basket. I like poetic prose – Cocteau, Audiberti, Genet and Queneau – but only prose. I like cinema because it is prosaic, its an indirect unemphasised art, it conceals as much as it reveals. The film makers I like all have modesty…..Just to finish what I am saying about being modern, I don’t know if I’m being reactionary, but I don’t go along with the critical line which consist of saying, ‘after such and such a film it will no longer be possible to watch neatly packaged stories, etc.’ …..So, I have decided to continue making same kind of films, which either involve telling a story or pretending to tell a story – there is no difference. Deep-down I’m not ‘modern’, and if I pretended to be so it would be artificial. In any case I wouldn’t be happy with it, and that’s reason enough for not doing it.’ (Hillier)
Truffaut’s words explains his philosophy of cinema, which is very well expatiated in his films particularly The 400 Blows (1959).
The 400 Blows (1959)
Truffaut dedicates his master piece The 400 Blows, to Andre Bazin. In fact it was not a mere homage to Bazin, but a celebration of the New Wave, just like a child calling out with all the excitement and ecstasy, the ‘New Wave’ is here. It was Andre Bazin who pampered the Cahiers du Cinema, to mould more than one generation of film critics, film viewers, scholars and academics. It was Bazin, who introduced Truffaut and Godard to Rossellini and Renoir. He was in fact the patron of the New Wave movement in France and pioneer of the auteur theory; thus a dedication to Bazin, itself accounted for a dedication to the philosophy of the New Wave. It was this sincere dedication which is reflected throughout the film, in its every detail. It is apt to quote Gilles Deleuzes observation regarding Bazin’s aesthetics to show Truffaut has improvised the idea on his film. ‘…against those who defined the Italian neo-realism by its social content, Bazin put forward the fundamental requirement of formal aesthetic criteria. According to him, it was a matter of a new form of reality, said to be dispersive, elliptical, errant or wavering, working in blocs, with deliberately weak connections and floating events. The real was no longer represented or reproduced but ‘aimed at’. Instead of representing an already deciphered real, neo realism aimed at an always ambiguous, to be deciphered real; this is why the sequence shot tended to replace the montage of representations. Neo-realism therefore invented a new type of image, which Bazin suggested calling ‘fact-image.’ (Deleuze, 2005).
Truffaut has refined the ‘fact image’ from its neo-realistic perception to much sophisticated philosophy of nouvelle vague, without causing any damage to its transparency. Thus we see the same natural light, and exquisite detail of De Sica and Rosellini in Truffaut’s films.
The delinquent generation
The 400 Blows was a impassionate account of a delinquent boy who finds difficult to live with his parents and finally runs away from home. He faces the stark reality in the streets and faces the blows of the fate. The film narrates the unfolding events from Antoine, the lead character’s point of view. Antoine, is one of delinquent boys who ran through the streets of France in that confusing times, in his every gesture and action there is revolt. Antoine’s story is not only about his misfortunes but it depicts the fate of the young generation amidst the confused political situation in France, the cultural turmoil and the economic instability, thus Antoine is not a single entity, he is represents France’s new generation, about whom the older generation is always anxious. Truffaut cleverly portrays this in the sequence that involves the French master and his orthodox ways to teach French to the younger generation. ‘The young generation fails to understand the verses’ that was his complaint. The students are also seen involved in their own leisurely activities, which comes as a great blow to Antoine, as the pin up picture.
Truffaut underlines the statement when he takes the camera out in the casual New Wave style, marching the physical education teacher and the students through the streets. This is the most provocative and at the same time a truly critical statement of the state of affairs in France, irresponsible young generation and the uncaring political leadership, who are not at all bothered about the youth.
The unkind blows
The unkind blows that Antoine gets can never be counted. His birth itself, as he confesses before the psychologist is a blow.
antoine: ‘There were fights at home, and I over heard, that my mother had me before she was married, and she had a fight with my grandmother once, that’s when I found that she had wanted to have an abortion; it’s thanks to my grandmother that I was born.’
What Truffaut want expatiate is the psychological reasons of the delinquency of the new generation. Another instance Truffaut plays the game cleverly, when his central character meets goes to his friend Rene’s home to escape from his parents. He understands that Rene, despite his luxurious life hides a pain deep in his heart ‘…My mother drinks, my father spends whole day at races…..’ This is more than a great lament of an ill-pampered generation. Another aspect that the film portrays with critical acumen is the cultural blow, which the young generation sustains. The English teacher’s painful effort to teach English pronunciation is a vivid portrayal of this.
Antoine suffers despite his mother’s attitude, her love he knows was pretentious, but he tries to accept the reality as such. She asks Antoine after knowing that he has hinted something in his letter to his father that would reveal her affair. She says ‘ you and I can share some little secrets….tell me what did you mean in your letter when you said, we will discuss all that’s happened’ But Antoine says ‘my misbehaving and my bad grades.’ Antoine’s piercing looks are his reply, that he could identify the pretentious love, Truffaut has already said his comment on the love-starved generation.
The sad faces
Throughout the film, the expressions of the central character, Antoine shows a gloomy expression, he is never shown laughing, as if he never trusts the world around him, in fact he sees every person a stranger. As Ian Morison says, ‘the first thing to note about the New Wave directors is that they make no attempt to simplify their characters. Rather than giving us strong narrative lines that clue us into exactly what it is the heroine is going through, the New Wave picture gives us diverse presentations of its characters through a number of loosely connected scenarios and thus we can form rich, multifaceted understandings of what these characters are like.’
Morrison says that it is difficult to ascertain Antoine’s age, as shows a kaleidoscope of expressions on his tiny face, sometimes a kid, sometimes a man, and sometimes a youth.
In the famous lengthy shot that culminates the film, Antoine presents to the viewers a confusing expression, as Morrison puts it, ‘tradition is broken for the close-up is no longer a vehicle for confirming our expectations regarding the joy or distress of the character.’ His face asks us innumerable questions from the meaning of his own existence to his pursuit of happiness and love.
The films of the New Wave filmmakers are marked by their struggles in a politically unstable nation, particularly after the war. During the war, France was an occupied country, unlike other capitalist nations. Their face-to-face encounter with the dark economic realities and the ghost of Nazi occupation had shattered the country’s morale. The influence of existentialism advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre and other French thinkers was a major influence on the New Wave. Thus generally the heroes and anti-heroes of these films behaved in a provocative manner. But Truffaut went deep to find the root cause of the issues and made a psychological enquiry to the problems and social realities. Thus there was a greater stress on the anatomy of the emotion rather than the emotion itself; Truffaut’s films were distinct when compared to his friends of the New Wave.
Truffaut’s way of telling things in a subtle way, with plenty of natural light reveals how he imagined cinema to be. He was in fact, conducting experiments with the transparency of the medium. This inquiry had the theoretical strength of the auteur and philosophy of the nouvelle vague. Fabe puts it rightly:
‘In The 400 Blows, true to the spirit of Alexandre Astruc’s conception of the camera stylo, Truffaut creates a film language to translate subtle nuances of feelings and ideas into film, thereby demonstrating that film can be as emotionally and intellectually evocative and complex as a work of literature.’ No doubt Truffaut preferred to tell his own story; just like any other author, combining his own experience, imagination, frustrations and philosophy. Antoine, the lead character in the film was also born out of wedlock just like Truffaut. Antoine runs away from home and was later handed over to police by his own father, a portrayal of real incidents from Truffaut’s own life.
Truffaut’s other films in the Antoine Doinel series; Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), and Bed and Board (1970) testify the his art and craft in formulating a new genre of autobiographical cinema. As John Conomos says, ‘he has given us a complex Renoirian cycle of personal filmmaking’.
Truffaut’s inquiry of course had a distinct language of the camera, as we go through the film, we can see the long shots, jump cuts, track and pan clearly merging as if words in a poetry to make a distinct metre. The shots were clearly chosen and neatly packed, the camera reacts as if a reflect action to the situation it is portraying. This is evident in the medium shots in which Antoine’s home is portrayed, where he not at all happy; the real contrast comes in the wide and medium long shots where Antoine feels a lot more air to breathe along with the audience. This distinct use of camera is seen when the Antoine and his friend Rene goes to cinema, quitting the class, enjoying all the freedom. The camera tracks them, walking, running and jumping all the way to celebrate the freedom. Fabe (2004) makes a remarkable observation:
‘Once Antoine is caught and jailed, the space around him in the frame shrinks as Truffaut photographs him in tightly framed close shots. Our view of him, moreover, is increasingly obscured as he is photographed through the grillwork of the cage like holding cell where he must wait before being transported to a more permanent prison. In one shot, his face is enframed by a segment of the imprisoning grid pattern, creating the
effect of a noose tightened around his neck.’
The final scenes of The 400 Blows are the most beautiful at the same time thought provoking depiction on camera ever done in the history of cinema. The camera that follows Antoine after he escapes from the football ground and ends at the sea shore for an unexpected freeze, has gone beyond the possibilities of camera as a mere instrument that record events. Here the camera too takes the real time, to reach the sea, conveying the rhythm of real life to the audience. At the far end we the see the camera behind the protagonist and the deep sea on the left, and audience along with Antoine realises that there is nowhere now to go. The deep mystery and spontaneity of events in life, is vividly portrayed by the sea and the same the splendid freeze, translates the sad culmination to generalise as a common and widely observed philosophy that life teaches every one at any of the junctures in its course. Fabe (2004) observes:
‘Even the word of the title (fin) functions not just as a word but as an image. Superimposed over Antoine’s frozen face the letters F-I-N resemble the bars that obscured our view of him in the prison scenes, signaling not just that the film has ended but that Antoine’s hopes for escape and freedom are finished too.’
Truffaut was a true pioneer of the celluloid, that he taught many lessons in film language not only to his contemporaries and successors but also to the entire world.
- The French New Wave: An Artistic School, Oxford: Blackwell
- Jim Hillier (ed) (1986) Cahiers du Cinema, The 1960s. New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Deleuze Gilles, (2005) Cinema 2 : The Time Image, translated by Tomilson H. & Galeta R., London : Continuum
- Marylin Fabe, (2004) Closely Watched Films : An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film Technique, London: University of California Press
- Lehman P. (1997) Defining Cinema, London: Athlone Press
- Iain Morrison, The French New Wave and the Face.
- Nottingham S. (2001) The French New Wave retrieved from http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/Stephen_Nottingham/
cintxt2.htm on 30-12-2007
- John Conomos (2000) Truffaut’s 400 Blows or the Sea, Antoine, the Sea in Senses of Cinema retrieved from http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/6/blows.html#1-5 0n 30-12-2007
 Deleuze Gilles, (2005) Cinema 2 : The Time Image, translated by Tomilson H. & Galeta R., London :
 Quoted in James Monaco, (1976) The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, p.7.
 Quoted in Marylin Fabe, (2004) Closely Watched Films : An Introduction to the Art of Narrative Film
Technique, London: University of California Press, p.121
 Ibid. p.125.
 Ibid. p.131.