Paris vu par… la Nouvelle Vague (Paris as seen by the New Wave)
Lecture presented by Gilles Rousseau (Forum des Images, Paris) at the Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Saturday 27 October 2007, as part of the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program.
The story of the French New Wave is intimately linked to Paris. Birthplace of François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, adopted home of Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, Paris is at the heart of their cinematic desire. For the Cahiers du cinema generation, Paris is the ideal location, the place that allowed them to create a new kind of cinema which grasped reality as the medium of fiction. They loved and were inspired by the city in their filmmaking.
There are several key reasons for this. The first is simply the time spent together in the offices of the film journal Cahiers du cinéma, at the Cinémathèque Française, at the cine-club of the latin quarter; they walked the streets together and frequented the same cafes. It is not surprising to see the memories of these places appearing on the screen.
The second reason relates to the 'war' they had declared on the established filmmakers of the 1950s (Christian-Jacques, Claude Autant-Lara, Gilles Grangier and others) and on the tradition of 'quality French cinema' characterised by elaborate and formulaic scripts, the use of very well-known actors and studio shooting.
For the new generation, there is an urgent need to reinvent the city and show things as they really are, to film people as they behave in daily life, with all the idiosyncrasies of attitude and language that this entails. What had gone before had to be overturned. The new wave left the studio behind to reinvent urban space as shown in the cinema and to bring to the screen French youth at the end of the 50s.
In the journal Arts in 1959, Jean-Luc Godard violently attacks the older generation of 'quality' filmmakers:
' We cannot forgive you for never having filmed the women we love, the young men we meet every day, families as we hate or love them, children as they may astonish us or leave us indifferent, in short things as they are'.
Godard more than anyone else would break the established codes, ignore classical narrative conventions and fill his films with citations. He mocked the sacred rule book and reinvented cinema.
I chose two examples to illustrate Godard's thirst for freedom. The first is taken from Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) 1964, his seventh feature film. The film's trio, composed of Anna Karina, Samy Frey and Claude Brasseur, kill time together before undertaking their criminal job. What could be more incongruous that attempting to beat the record for visiting the Louvre in the least time, until then held by an American. The burlesque quality of this sequence is clear, but beyond this Godard shows his taste for offbeat provocation in choosing this cultural temple as a backdrop.
In a different mode, the following sequence from À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) 1959, Godard’s first feature film which was also a manifesto for the New Wave, puts into practice his ideas about what cinema should be about, as expressed in the journal Arts:
Film Sequence: Bande à part (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) and À Bout de Souffle (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
The last sequence summarises well the New Wave spirit and created real shock waves in French cinema. A woman with a boyish hairstyle is approached by a guy speaking in a very familiar register, who then asks her casually why she doesn't wear a bra - and all of this watched with surprise by passers-by who participate unknowingly in the film.
Now I'd like to go back a little to speak about the early points of reference for the New Wave. Jean-Pierre Melville was an important forerunner or guide for the New Wave filmmakers. In Bob le Flambeur 1956, he films the street sweepers working in the first morning light around the Place Clichy, and mixes fiction and a sort of documentary reality, just as Renoir had done 20 years earlier in Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning) 1932, with Michel Simon playing a homeless man in the middle of real passersby in the street. Melville was adept at shooting rapidly and with a small crew, and opened the way for the New Wave in his search for truthfulness and refusal to see the cinema set adrift from any anchorings in the real.
The advent of lightweight cameras and new faster film stock, tried out by Louis Malle - another forerunner of the New Wave - when he shot the night scenes in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Lift to the Scaffold) 1957, gave young filmmakers the technical means of realising their desire to capture the pulse of the city at any hour of the day or night.
The street as the place where anything is possible becomes their favoured territory. It's a place for unexpected encounters and attractions, as in Jean Eustache's Les Mauvaises Frequentations (Bad Company) 1964 , a place to wander for Agnès Varda in Cleo de 5 à 7 (Cleao from 5 to 7) 1962 or Eric Rohmer in Le Signe du Lion (Sign of the Lion) 1959. And in À Bout de Souffle it is a place to die. The freedom to which these young people aspire, as freedom which refuses the public morality promulgated by an older generation, has a price.
By way of illustration I have selected one of the many passages in Le Signe du Lion (Rohmer's first feature) where the director films his protagonist, a man descending into vagrancy played very convincingly by Jess Hahn, wandering by day and then by night in the streets of Paris.
Watch particularly how Rohmer captures these moments of aimless wandering without the slightest artifice. The sequences are almost silent and have no real narrative but are shot with the extreme care characteristic of Rohmer to show realistically in relation to the topography of Paris the path taken by his character through the city. Starting from the rue Soufflot (which runs from the Panthéon to the Jardin du Luxembourg), we travel along the Boulevard Saint-Michel then along quays of the Seine, to reach the Pont des Arts which allows pedestrians to cross from the left bank of the Seine to the right bank near the musée du Louvre.
Film Sequence: Le Signe du Lion (d. Eric Rohmer, 1959)
As you have seen, Rohmer doesn't cheat. The characters' movements are real physical pathways through the city and the viewers’ ability to follow them is tested with very precise geographical indications.
There is no doubt that occupying the street is in perfect accord with the desire of the New Wave filmmakers to create a strong relationship between reality and fiction, and to free themselves from the past. There were also economic constraints that lead them to film in the streets in black-and-white.
While by the end of the 1950s in France, around half of the films produced were shot in colour, Truffaut, Rivette and Chabrol have to accept black-and-white stock and location shooting to get their films into production (by way of comparison, the average New Wave film is four times less expensive to produce than a film shot in a studio).
We had to wait until Godard's Une Femme est une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) 1961 to see a new wave film shot in colour, in cinema scope, and with direct sound (rather than post-synchronised as previously). A triple tour de force!
It is not by chance that Godard chooses to bring these elements together in a film that flirts with the genre of the musical, while a working class neighbourhood of Paris (the faubourg Saint-Denis) provides the context for this masterpiece of tenderness and humour.
I couldn't resist showing you a sequence, which features two of Godard's favourite actors early in their career: the sublime Anna Karina and the electrifying Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Film Sequence: Une Femme est une Femme (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
We have seen the determining role played by the street in the apparatus of the New Wave, but it is also indissociable from the interior. The New Wave filmmakers moved incessantly back and forth between the street and the interior, the interior and the street. Godard illustrates this perfectly in films such as Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick (All the Boys are Called Patrick) 1958, Charlotte et son Jules (Charlotte and her Jules) 1958, À Bout de Souffle and Une Femme est une Femme . The transition from the interior to the street is also the transition from a cinema in the first person (often criticised by the detractors of the New Wave) to an opening towards the other. It is also a movement towards freedom and the discovery of the world.
One symbol more than any other embodies this thirst for freedom and escape: the car. But not just any car; it must be a coupé-cabriolet. Jean Rouch uses the seductive potential of its powerful cylinders in Les Veuves de quinze ans (The Fifteen-year-old Widows) 1966 and in Gare du Nord (his short film from Paris vu par 1965). Godard makes use of this symbol from his first short films, then again in À Bout de Souffle and Bande à part. Chabrol does the same in Les Cousins (The Cousins) 1958 and Les Godelureaux (Wise Guys) 1961.
There were so many possibilites in choosing an illustrative sequence here - I finally opted for an extract from Chabrol's Les Godelureaux, a film that I believe has been unjustly criticised. The scene was shot in Saint-Germain des Pres, the centre of literary and musical life in Paris in the 1950s and frequented by Chabrol in his youth. It shows a group of idle youths encountering a dandy played by Jean-Claude Brialy, a favourite actor of New Wave directors and Chabrol in particular.
Film Sequence: Les Godelureaux (d. Claude Chabrol, 1961)
We can't speak of the street without discussing the cafe and the particular qualities of the Parisian bistro, 'that privileged place of uncertainly and waiting', in the words of Jean Douchet. And then there are the parks and public gardens. Varda's beloved Parc Montsouris. The Jardin du Luxembourg, which the incorrigible Jean-Claude Brialy converts into a hunting ground for the hearts of beautiful young women in Godard's hilarious Tous les garcons s'appellent Patrick.
While taking over the Parisian common ground, New Wave filmmakers did not turn away from the great symbols of the city, the vectors of a mythical image of eternal Paris so often mobilised by Hollywood cinema. Chabrol plants his camera in the Place de la Bastille from the opening credits of Les Bonnes Femmes (The Good Girls) 1960. With À Bout de Souffle Godard takes over the Champs Elysees to make his own statement about what could have been considered at the time the world's most beautiful tree-lined avenue (today disfigured by McDonalds, Burger King and others). As for Rohmer, he films the Parisien’s summer promenades along the quays of the Seine in Le Signe du Lion.
I could have shown one of these extracts but I have chosen instead the shimmering opening credits of Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows) 1959, a veritable ode to Paris where Truffaut plays hide and seek with the Eiffel Tower, unveiling with great sensitivity its vertiginous presence. It is a magnificent sequence, filmed like a romantic encounter or a caress. As soon as the moment passes we move away. Truffaut's choice to film the Eiffel Tower for the opening of Les 400 Coups is all the more marked for this film taking place entirely on the right bank (the other side of the Seine) in the triangle between Clichy, Montmartre and Pigalle.
The second extract I will show you is from Jacques Rivette's Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs to Us) 1958 and has quite a different feeling. In this central scene from the film, Rivette uses the extraordinary backdrop of the Pont Neuf reaching across the Seine, filmed from the Pont des Arts. Knowing his love of the theatre, we can only see this as a set. Listen carefully also to the dialogues between Betty Schneider and Giani Esposito, as they summarise metaphorically Rivette's very lucid understanding of his own work.
Film Sequence: Les 400 Coups (d. François Truffaut, 1959) and Paris Nous Appartient (d. Jacques Rivette, 1958)
The story of Paris as it was seen by the New Wave is an accumulation of perceptions. Each filmmaker has a distinct view of the city. Truffaut remains faithful to his childhood memories of Montmartre and the Place Clichy, whereas Godard changes constantly. Unlike Truffaut who draws a map of the heart elevating a neighbourhood to the status of city within the city, Godard uses all possible aspects of Paris, going so far as to obscure any possible points of identification when he films Alphaville 1965. His lens captures Paris in the throws of major changes. The old Parisian building in Une Femme est une Femme and its attic room, make way for glass towers and concrete structures in this later science-fiction film, largely shot at night. A visionary of his time, Godard better than anyone plots the evolution of the city's architecture and urban character.
Film Sequence: Alphaville (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
For his part, Rohmer offers quite another reading of Parisian topography, as we saw with the extract from Le Signe du Lion. He defines his spaces and privileges signposted routes, offering viewers familiar with the locations the possibility to follow almost in real time the movements of his protagonists. This is true in all of the Rohmer films presented in this New Wave program.
Chabrol has a different approach to urban geography. For this most provincial of Parisians (although born in Paris, he lived part of his childhood in the centre of France and his filmography pays tribute to small provincial towns), what is important is not to show Paris but rather to open up a neighbourhood to depict the milieu in which his characters play out their lives. Interiors are often more present than exteriors. The wealthy suburb of Neuilly sur Seine where Les Cousins was shot is contrasted with the working class Faubourg Saint-Honore of Les Bonnes Femmes.
In fact what most unites the filmmakers of the New Wave in their view of Paris, beyond the specificities that I have just outlined,is the way they see the city at night. Thanks to the Kodak black and white double x film stock which got to 250 ASA , they could take advantage of the lights of a shop front, the city's neon lights or the lamps of a boat going by on the Seine to shoot at night without any additional lighting. Nocturnal Paris filmed by the New Wave is magnified by this deep, intense black and white, from which an extraordinary poetry emerges, as is evident in these last two extracts drawn from Les 400 Coups where Truffaut sets to musical accompaniment Antoine Doinel's nocturnal wanderings through the streets of the director's childhood, and from Bande à part where Godard leads his two protagonists (Anna Karina and Claude Brasseur) towards the Place Clichy, beloved of Truffaut.
Film Sequence: Les 400 Coups (d. François Truffaut, 1959) and Bande à part (d. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
I decided to conclude this talk with that last extract because it also crystallises the spirit of the New Wave filmmakers. When they started out in cinema they supported each other in many ways, not least in facing frequent critical attack. Godard pays a tribute to Truffaut in this sequence, the first of their band to gain widespread attention at the time of the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and often considered the true Parisian amongst them, the one to whom the very notion of Paris-Cinema is attached.
Gilles Rousseau is program manager at the Forum des Images, Paris.
© Gilles Rousseau and the Australian Cinémathèque. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author and the Australian Cinémathèque.