The New New Wave in French Cinema
The New New Wave in French Cinema
A talk presented by Dr Joe Hardwick (University of Queensland) at Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art, Friday 5 October 2007, as part of the Breathless: French New Wave Turns 50 program.
It is unfortunate that, the way the distribution of foreign films has come to work in Australia, we get to see very few French films every year, and the films we do get to see are hardly representative of the French film industry, which is the world’s largest after those of India and the United States. Between 150 to 200 French films are produced every year, of which we only get to see a handful in Australia, and many of those we do see fit into the marketable categories of ‘art house’ cinema or French farce and are shown only at certain selected niche venues. This means that, to a large extent, we missed out on something quite exciting in the 1990s when something genuinely new appeared to be happening in French cinema, after somewhat of a lull in the French film industry.
A group of films from France in the 1990s came to be known as le jeune cinéma français – young French cinema – and this set of films was seen to have a certain number of parallels with the arrival of the New Wave in the late 1950s and 1960s. For this reason, the emerging directors of 1990s French cinema came to be dubbed the vague nouvelle or the nouvelle Nouvelle Vague, the New New Wave.
I want to begin by looking at the lines of continuity and points of discontinuity between 1960s French cinema spearheaded by the New Wave and le jeune cinéma in the 1990s. For the first part, I want to concentrate on the discourses uses to shape both movements and used to link the jeune cinéma of the 1990s to the New Wave of the 1960s. Films and directors don’t just emerge in a vacuum, it’s never purely a question of aesthetics of individual films nor of the genius of individual directors but about the way the industry is structured, about financial mechanisms available to film makers. It’s also about technology, how recent advances in film technology impact upon the kinds of films made. It’s about the narratives which shape film history, how new movements are constituted, how they are seen generally to be either revolutionary, presenting a radical break with existing forms of cinema, or evolutionary, how they pick up on existing forms of cinema and adapt them, and how these are commented on, by critics and film historians and by the directors themselves. But it’s also about history in general, the greater context of what is happening in society at the time, about the relationship between film and society, and this is absolutely fundamental to le jeune cinéma, which relies on discourses concerning both the personal and the political. Of course, it’s also about aesthetics, a certain vision of the world brought to the screen, an attitude to film production and the way stories are recounted, the relationship between actors and directors etc, and about the common characteristics discerned in the films themselves by film critics, academic and historians.
Finally, I also want to give a broad overview of the films showing in the New New Wave section of the retrospective, to give you a taste of what’s to come, with the films selected in the program reflecting the sheer diversity of films released in France by new and exciting directors working within that industry.
The Paradox of the New New Wave
The paradox of defining a group of films as constituting a New New Wave is that if the lines of continuity with that old New wave are sketched too boldly, then there threatens to be nothing new about it at all. The new becomes simply a repetition of the old. One of the questions I want to look at is: is there anything genuinely new brought to French cinema or cinema in general by the group of filmmakers known as le jeune cinéma in the 1990s? Secondly, if le jeune cinéma is a cinema of innovation and renewal, is it particularly useful to talk about this set of films as a New New Wave or would it be more useful to drop that label, to talk about this set of films without making any reference at all to the mythical 1960s Nouvelle Vague?
I want to start with a quote from French film historian Michel Marie’s most recent book on the New Wave of the 1960s entitled La Nouvelle Vague: une école artistique (The New Wave: An Artistic School) which he begins by stating that:
Presque tous les ans, à l’occasion d’un festival ou du bilan de la production de l’année, les chroniqueurs se demandent s’il est apparu une nouvelle ‘Nouvelle Vague’. Dès que deux jeunes cinéastes présentent un lien de connivence, on y voit le noyau d’un groupe qui va engendrer un mouvement de renouvellement thématique ou esthétique sur le modele figé de cette mythique et vieille Nouvelle Vague.
Almost every year, at a film festival or looking back at the end of the year at that year’s film production, film historians ask themselves if a new ‘New Wave’ has appeared. As soon at two young filmmakers show some complicity in their work, people see the nucleus of a group who will engender a movement of thematic or aesthetic newness based on the frozen model of that mythical and old New Wave. (1)
Just one year later, Marie would coordinate a collection of articles entitled Le Jeune Cinéma français dedicated to the most recent grouping of filmmakers who have been alternatively referred to as ‘la nouvelle Nouvelle Vague’ or as ‘la vague nouvelle’. Marie’s book was the second of three major studies on le jeune cinéma published between 1997 and 2002, the others being Claude-Marie Trémois’ 1997 publication Les Enfants de la liberté: le jeune cinéma français des années 90 and René Prédal’s study also entitled Le Jeune Cinéma français published in 2002. This would suggest at least that, notwithstanding the regular tide of ‘new waves’ declared by French film critics, this latest one would appear to have some validity, or at least some kind of staying power in the French critical imagination. Indeed, French film historians often associate decades with particular movements, and le jeune cinéma français will undoubtedly be the grouping representative of French film production in the 1990s, just as the 1980s was the era of the cinéma du look, the 1970s that of documentary realism, and the 1960s with the French New Wave.
One of the recurrent themes in writing on le jeune cinéma is this idea that it constituted a new ‘New Wave’, not simply in the sense that it represented a break from preceding cinematic trends, but that its arrival was in some respects a repetition of the classic French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
I want to start by looking at how a certain set of films in the 1990s comes to be constructed as a distinct cinematic category known as le jeune cinéma français, and the importance of references to the French New Wave of the 1960s in this process. Like many cinematic groupings, le jeune cinéma is one that has come to be constituted by critics rather than the filmmakers themselves and that has come into being retrospectively.
I want to focus at three key discourses in the critical construction of le jeune cinéma, the first being that word jeune, the others being discourses concerning political commitment and auteur cinema. All three discourses are fundamental in constructing the 1960s and 1990s New Waves. I also want to look at two key moments in the 1990s which effectively brings le jeune cinéma into existence, these being the 1995 Cannes film festival and the 1997 Appel des 66 cinéastes.
Jeune: the 1950s and 1960s
The first point to make is the meaning of Nouvelle Vague, new wave: now this initially wasn’t a term assigned to a cinematic movement but was the term used by French journalist Françoise Giroud in the then new French news magazine L’Express in 1957 to refer to the arrival of a new youth generation in the 1950s in France. So the very ideas of youth, and with them innovation and renewal, are immediately associated with the term. In 1959, at the Cannes film festival, where François Truffaut won the prize for direction for The 400 Blows 1959, it’s used again by L’Express to refer to new films released in 1959. Unifrance, whose role it was to promote French films, picked up on the term as a marketing device. From 1959-1960, there is an explosion of films by new directors in France which we now come to call the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave.
So, first and foremost, the New Wave is about youth and generation, and there is something quite specific about the French cinematic culture of that period which gives rise to the possibility of the emergence of a New Wave. Now, the core of those New Wave directors had actually grown up attending or running ciné-clubs. French cinemas were overwhelmed with American B movies after the end of the Occupation. This influence is readable in films like Shoot the Pianist 1960 by Truffaut and Breathless 1959 by Jean-Luc Godard. Later, the key directors who came to be associated with the New Wave became critics at various 1950s French cinema journals, but in particular the new journal Cahiers du cinéma, these directors including Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, who made their reputation by attacking the ‘cinéma de qualité’ (‘Cinema of Quality’), those films which tended to represent France at major festivals. These were often quite expensive studio pictures, and these were criticised because of the lack of creativity given to film directors in the filmmaking process, with directors playing second fiddle to screenwriters and producers.
The move from theory to practice from the Cahiers critics is also related to the structure of the industry and new financing mechanisms favouring new directors. For the most part, New Wave films were avowedly low budget pictures. In 1948, a special tax was put on film entries–including foreign films–which was set aside for the production of French films. In 1953, a special criterion of quality was added, meaning only films that served the cause of French cinema and were considered innovative would benefit from the proceeds of these taxes. These are factors which all contribute to the wave of films by new and emerging directors in this era. By the 1960s, the number of debut films triples in the French market.
Related to their small budget are the classic trademarks of New Wave films
- the director is at the centre of the action, often being the screenwriter as well, with the emphasis on the visual image rather than the dialogues
- a limited découpage allowing for much improvisation
- the use of natural lighting and sound for the most part, with the technological innovation of handheld cameras facilitating the use of outdoor shots
Jeune again: the 1990s
Now, in the 1990s, something along broadly similar lines occurs, especially in terms of funding mechanisms and the importance this has for first and second-time filmmakers. In the 1970s and 1980s, debut films make up about 25-28% of the French market, but by 1992, this figure dramatically increases to 42%. Now, the vast majority of these will stay a very short time in the cinema. Their destination is really television thanks to a system known as the ‘Avance sur recettes,’ (the ‘advance on receipts’) which allows producers to recoup their losses if a film flops. But this is not the only means of financing new films. A major player in French cinematic production are the television stations, both cable and free to air, which need films to fill their programming. Canal Plus pre-buys 80% of films produced, and ARTE, a kind of Franco-Spanish equivalent of SBS, together with the other major free to air stations put in quite a bit of money to co-produce films. Another major factor is the existence of arthouse film distributors and specialist arthouse cinemas in France looking for quality, innovative content to screen.
Now, out of about 200 films produced every year, about ten–René Prédal writes–are of such quality to form part of what became know in the 1990s in France as le jeune cinéma français. What counts as belonging to le jeune cinéma varies from one critic to another, but generally it’s a blanket term used to used to somehow bring together the significant number of films released since the early 1990s directed by new and in particular ‘young’ French filmmakers. We’ll have a look a little later at the other characteristics seen to be common to this set of films. For the moment, the variable criteria include the age of the filmmakers and their protagonists, the relationship between the filmmakers and the stories they film, the particular approach of the filmmakers to their subject-matter and the quality of films made.
Despite this substantial increase in the number of new filmmakers in France from the beginning of the 1990s, unlike the Nouvelle Vague where there is an explosion of high quality, innovative features by new and emerging directors in the space of two to three years, le jeune cinéma is like a slow fuse that flickers to light every few years, and it really only comes in to being retrospectively, by critics and film historians. It’s only in 1995 that the work of these new French filmmakers begins to catch the attention of film critics in general, at the 1995 Cannes film festival, although the first films seen to belong to le jeune cinéma.
Critical and cinematic
In an overview of the 1995 Cannes festival in the news magazine L’Express, Sophie Grassin and Gilles Médioni lauded the arrival of a new cinematic generation in France. The article entitled ‘La nouvelle Nouvelle Vague’ designated from the outset that the explicit point of comparison for this new group of film-makers would be the French New Wave of the 1960s. The specific points of connection were made clear in the sub-heading:
In this article, the authors emphasise the importance of youth in this new set of films, this being the first point of cross-over with the French New Wave of the 1960s with Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) appearing as the standard bearer for this era of renewed hope for French filmmaking. Several other points of comparison between the 1960s and the 1990s ‘new waves’ converge in the article. These new film-makers are “‘auteurs who are in contact with each other, who collaborate, who resist, they form clans” (“[d]es auteurs qui se fréquentent, collaborent, résistent, des clans”). Just like the early Godard and Truffaut, these 1990s young French filmmakers work together; they also seem to exhibit a form or resistance to older cinematic traditions. They are not content to “‘photograph a contented society on glossy paper” (“photographier une société aimable sur papier glacé”) (3)
In the same way that the 1960s French New Wave had explicitly rejected the ‘cinéma de qualité’ which had dominated critical interest in French cinema in the 1950s. Of course, the most important consideration in the rejection of that ‘cinéma de qualité,’ as made explicit in Truffaut’s celebrated essay entitled ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ was that it was essentially a cinema of screenwriters, not directors, where the director’s role was simply to add images to the words. The French New Wave of the 1990s, like its 1960s antecedent, is first and foremost a cinema of auteurs in the sense that the director is very much at the centre of the film as artistic enterprise:
“‘[c]es cinéastes ont surgi dans le désordre, sans la tribune dont la Nouvelle Vague disposait avec les Cahiers du cinéma’”
But this is in no way meant to be a criticism. Rather, this ‘nouvelle Nouvelle Vague’ rejects classicism, emphasising the freedom of the films being made:
“le jeune cinéma français sait prendre des risques pour ne pas mourir. Il palpite. Mouvant, libre, varié”
Christophe Rossignon, producer of La Haine, who offers an interesting variation on this idea:
“‘Si on le photographierait, on distinguerait des parentés, des chapelles, et des électrons autonomes qui, à eux seuls, forment une école’”
From the outset then, the age of the film-makers, their collaborative efforts, their rejection of preceding forms of cinema all place them firmly in a lineage that takes them back to the French New Wave of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Nonetheless, there does seem to be something genuinely different with the arrival of this new set of French filmmakers on the scene, as is shown in two of the French films which premiered at Cannes in 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Karim Dridi’s Bye-Bye.
La Haine hit like a bombshell when it premiered at the Cannes film festival:
A film which also made a splash at the Cannes film festival was Tunisian-born Karim Dridi’s Bye-Bye. That word beur recurs in the rap song of the child Mouloud, though this isn’t conveyed in the subtitles. Beur is a form of verlans, a special type of backslang invented by French adolescents, and which has now passed into general usage. Beur derives from Arabe, and it was initially derogatory before being reclaimed. It functions a bit like ‘wog’ in Australian culture. It sounds like the word for butter in French--beurre--which explains the word-play in the boy’s song. Bye-Bye takes its characters out of Paris to Marseilles, a multiethnic port on the Mediterranean.
Both films have a clear political edge, looking at questions of marginalisation, exclusion, criminality and racism, and they take their inspiration from the language and music of the streets in which they are set. Both films are also examples of two important sub-genres of French cinema which stretch back to the 1980s: the cinéma beur and banlieue cinéma, both of which gather considerable momentum in the 1990s, though several directors reject the category of cinéma beur, seeing it as a kind of ghettoisation of French cinema.
In general terms, le jeune cinéma has become synonymous with relatively low-budget, director-driven and character-centred films which have been read as bringing to French cinema a new kind of realism in the very personal stories they recount, which are often set against the backdrop of the fracture sociale of late 20th century French society. As well as such critical successes as Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995), the other banner films for the ‘movement’ include Erick Zonca’s La Vie rêvée des anges (1998), Bruno Dumont’s La Vie de Jésus (1997) and Manuel Poirier’s Western (1997).
Now, the question which arises in relation to films of le jeune cinéma is the extent to which they’re overtly political or not, with critics being in some disagreement on this point. From 1995 to 1997, the way that le jeune cinéma comes to be deployed undergoes a kind of discursive shift with the arrival of the second event that defines the movement.
In France in 1997, under what became known as the Pasqua laws after Charles Pasqua, the minister who brought them into effect, any French national found to be harbouring an illegal immigrant was liable to be imprisoned. This is precisely what happened to a woman known as Madame Deltombe, who had taken in the husband of a friend, the man being an African migrant without proper documentation. The previous year, in the St Bernard Church in Paris’s multiethnic 18th district–the same district in which Amélie was shot–a number of irregular migrants took refuge in the Church, and this stand-off ended in what many French would consider the horrifying scenes of the CRS, the Republican police, beating down the doors of the church and ejecting its inhabitants.
Following the arrest of Mme Deltombe, a group of 66 filmmakers, the vast majority being directors of le jeune cinéma, published the following declaration in the newspapers Le Monde and Libération and the music magazine Les Inrockuptibles, calling for civil disobedience in solidarity with Mme Deltombe:
L’Appel des 66 cinéastes (The Declaration of the 66 Filmmakers)
After the publication of this declaration, the way that the jeune in le jeune cinéma is deployed undergoes an important discursive shift, and with it, the nature of the association with the 1960s New Wave as a point of reference. In itself, the signing and publication of a political statement by those from the cultural sphere in France is not unusual, consistent with a tradition of manifestos, declarations or appeals penned or at least signed by various participants in the arts as a form of either political or artistic intervention. French film directors and actors and actresses had signed various declarations in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the protests by directors such as Truffaut, Godard and Roman Polanski at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival in protest at the closure of Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque in Paris. What is different with the Appel des 66 is that the majority of signatories were largely young French film directors. It is only after the publication of the declaration that the three major studies on le jeune cinéma by Trémois, Marie and Prédal are published which all refer to greater or lesser degree to the Appel even though this declaration made no reference whatsoever to the cinematic activities of its signatories and, in fact, would have little effect on how many would go about making their subsequent films.
What is interesting in terms of the Appel des 66 is that it allowed critics to write about le jeune cinéma as if it were something that functioned in some ways a little like a cinematic school, even though the document makes no reference to their work as film-makers nor to the signatories themselves as constituting a specific group with a particular doctrine. Importantly, the Appel des 66 acted as a kind of discursive nexus, consolidating for critics those questions of generation, auteur cinema and social awareness already set in place at the 1995 Cannes film festival but transforming them. This is particularly evident in the opening paragraph of Trémois’ 1997 book Les Enfants de la liberté which begins by citing the declaration:
‘Nous, réalisateurs français, demandons à être mis en examen et jugés nous aussi’. Pas une pétition. Pas un manifeste. Une mise en cause personnelle. ‘Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands’, disaient les soixante-huitards, solidaire de Daniel Cohn-Bendit. ‘Nous avons tous hébergés des sans-papiers, nous devons tous être condamnés, comme Madame Deltombe l’a été’, disent en substance les Enfants de la Liberté.
From the opening lines of Trémois’ book, a kind of discursive slippage takes place. It is not the youth generation of the late 1950s that stands as the point of comparison for le jeune cinéma but that of the late 1960s. Trémois’ opening paragraph politicises le jeune cinéma in a way that appears perhaps a little contradictory. The Appel des 59 might look like a manifesto but in fact it isn’t one. Rather, it’s a mise en cause personnelle. Within the opening sentences, we already have a certain oscillation of personal and political concerns which will be characteristic of the way le jeune cinema comes to be represented. This, however, does not mean that the comparison with 1960s New Wave disappears. Rather, it is the New Wave as it was constituted in the late 1960s, rather than its inception in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that becomes the reference point.
Thus, a cinema that was described as libre at Cannes 1995 is now transformed into a cinéma de liberté, a term whose political overtones allow Trémois to rescue le jeune cinéma from accusations of navel gazing that had previously been levelled at it by critics. This move to politicise what Trémois calls la vague nouvelle is particularly significant in terms of those narratives used to structure filmic histories, enabling her to posit le jeune cinéma as a point of rupture with French cinema in the 1980s. Le jeune cinéma can now be made to stand in contrast to the cinéma du look of directors such as Besson and Beineix, a cinema regarded by some as largely apolitical and excessively formalist.
This emphasis on aesthetics and the importance of the liberty of the films protagonists’ as the central driving force of their narratives means that the grouping also avoids accusations of didacticism levelled at the filmmakers of a cinéma engagé, or indeed contemporary older filmmakers such as Bertrand Tavernier or Robert Guédiguian. Nonetheless, it is still the discourse of engagement or political commitment which is used to position le jeune cinéma immediately after the publication of the declaration. However, a problem emerges almost immediately since the idea of engagement is not particularly prominent in a lot of the films themselves.
By the 1998 Cannes film festival, the presumed engagement of le jeune cinéma is put in question. In another article in L’Express entitled ‘Avoir 20 ans dans la dèche’, Gilles Médioni notes a variation within le jeune cinéma seen to arrive in competition with a cinéma engagé represented by directors such as Robert Guédiguian and Jean-François Richet. This new group of films, which include Erick Zonca’s La Vie rêvée des anges (1998) and Les Corps ouverts (1998) by Sébastien Lifshitz is seen as proof of an emerging group of film-makers whose key characteristic is precisely their distance from any formalized kind of political commitment.
Thus, the need to read the films of le jeune cinéma in terms of rebellion and revolt stands as one of the principal discourses which allows points of linkage to be maintained with the New Wave of the 1960s. However, the form that this connection takes changes quite markedly in the course of the decade, appearing first as a youthful rebellion against existing cinematic trends at the 1995 Cannes film festival, being transformed dramatically into a form of social and political engagement after the publication of the Appel des 66, followed by a distancing from any form of direct, standardised political commitment at the end of the millennium. At the same time, the links between la vague nouvelle of the 1990s and the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s require quite a deal of discursive footwork to maintain. Discourses concerning youth and generation have become very blurred, now embracing two generations, those of the late 1950s, as well as a more openly politicised youth generation nearly ten years later. And this discursive slippage seems ultimately to be one that, in fact, isn’t actually borne out through textual analysis of the films themselves, which fail to reflect the kind of politicisation required to maintain the discourse of engagement
Le jeune cinéma français and the ambiguity of the auteur
Similarly, the more properly aesthetic link between the 1990s and the 1960s ‘New Waves’, that of auteur cinema, also undergoes a rapid transformation in that passage of 30 years. All three major studies of le jeune cinéma insist on the auteur approach to varying extents. Marie’s collection of edited articles, for example, contains a margin featuring, in alphabetical order, the biographical details of those considered to be the major directors of le jeune cinéma. The specific criterion for their selection is that they are all born after 1959-1960, the date of the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague.
In terms of recent French film history, auteur cinema constitutes a kind of discursive bridge, linking le jeune cinéma to the Nouvelle Vague. The directors of le jeune cinéma are true auteurs, in the sense that the real creative force is the director. However, just as the discourse of engagement has changed since the 1960s, so has the discourse of the auteur. For some critics, the word ‘auteur’ is used to distinguish between small, director-driven films and the genre films which make up the vast majority of French film production. More and more, auteur cinema has come to mean small, low-budget films in which there is often an intimate connection between the lives and the directors and the stories they recount. It is precisely the kind of intimacy born of a close relationship between the directors’ lives and their films which is one of the distinguishing features of le jeune cinéma.
However, there is another manner in which the term auteur is used in critical writing on le jeune cinéma, that is in its more technical sense, as films potentially readable in terms of auteur theory, that is, as films by the same director over a period of time which display similar thematic or stylistic traits. Of course, this traditional understanding of auteur cinema derives also from the French New Wave of the 1960s, a concept whose beginnings are closely linked to the critical writings of New Wave directors at the Cahiers du cinéma before they turned from cinematic theory to practice. However, these two understandings of auteur cinema–as a cinéma intime and as the signature of a director readable in terms of stylistic evolution across a corpus of films–are not necessarily compatible, as an auteur cinema of the first kind will not necessarily develop–nor should it necessarily be expected to develop–into one of the second. The failure of these two different kinds of auteur cinema to connect in le jeune cinéma français has been the source of criticism by some commentators, even among those who have otherwise lauded the arrival of le jeune cinéma français on the French cinematic scene. Most directors who emerged in the 1990s have failed to have a cinematic career that extended beyond their first couple of films. But a major reason for this is that the industry is no longer particularly set up for the longevity of its directors. This, in a way, mirrors the lives to the many characters brought to the screen by directors of le jeune cinéma, for many of these are wanderer figures, moving from job to job, having to deal with the ever-present reality of unemployment and underemployment which inhibit attempts to follow a neatly linear trajectory in life. A similar kind of précarité extends to the circumstances of French filmic production in the 1990s, for various reasons:
A second criticism of le jeune cinéma concerns the relationships between the directors themselves and the difficulties of reading their films collectively. Once more, such a criticism seems particularly misplaced when precisely what is specific to le jeune cinéma is taken into account. The adjectives which recur in writing on this cinematic grouping are those of diversity and plurality. In the 1990s, more markedly than in any preceding generation of French filmmakers, the cinematic gaze shifted focus from bourgeois inner-Paris to the banlieue, to provincial regions and to the lives of those who had been previously marginalised in terms of cinematic representation, notably women, the unemployed and underemployed, and those from migrant backgrounds. I think the following quote by Konstantarakos sums up neatly precisely what le jeune cinéma has brought to French cinema screens:
“The jeune cinéma takes as its subject-matter “an ‘other’ France, non-Parisian, non-intellectual, a France of everyday people, the business people of provincial cities of little interest, the underprivileged social classes, the excluded, the unemployed, the homeless, the products of the infamous ‘fracture sociale’... a whole people who haven’t had a place on French cinema screens for a long time.”
Moreover, the diversity of protagonists in front of the camera was matched by the diversity of directors behind it, with significant contributions being made by women directors and the children of first and second generation migrants to France. Women directors by the mid-1990s come to make up one third of French filmmakers, a considerable increase on preceding decades, and a long way removed from the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s whose only major female member was Agnès Varda. While some commentators have criticized le jeune cinéma for lacking a centre, a groupe-moteur who could be seen to be the driving force of the group, one might argue that in a cinema otherwise lauded for its emphasis on marginality and a plurality of perspectives, that the very idea of a centre is highly questionable, and that it is entirely appropriate that this cinematic grouping not be seen to revolve around the work of a handful of stand-out directors.
It’s precisely these ideas of plurality and diversity which come to the fore in the films which screen as part of the New New Wave program, so I would like to give a brief overview of some to the major films from le jeune cinéma as feature in this programme at Australian Cinémathèque:
Y aura-t-il de la neige à Noël (Will it Snow for Christmas):
La Vie de Jésus (The Life of Jesus):
L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance):
De l’autre côté de la mer (The Other Side of the Sea)
Wild Side :
The films in the New New Wave program really underline the idea of la France au pluriel, France in the plural, with films set in the banlieue, in provincial regions, both North and South, and featuring a full range of characters, many of whom count as marginal in some way.
Although incredibly varied in both narrative techniques and cinematic style, critics have nonetheless discerned a set of recurring characteristics in the films of le jeune cinéma français, many of which are readable in the films which make up the Cinémathèque program, these including:
Something that is rarely mentioned in critical writing on le jeune cinéma is the extent to which it has revitalized the notion of genre, in particular genres such as the road movie and the urban street movie, the film de route and the film de rue, not to mention the polar, or crime thriller, and the musical.
One film I want to single out in particular is Cavale (On the Run) by Lucas Belvaux. Cavale is the second in a trilogy of films directed by the Belgian director, in which he also plays the main character, which all recount essentially the same story, though each belongs to different a genre: a comedy (Un couple épatant [A Wonderful Couple]); a crime thriller (Cavale [On the Run]); and a melodrama (Après la vie [After Life]). All three feature the same scenes, but shot from different angles, featuring different music, editing etc., so at the same time as recounting a story of the changing nature of political commitment since the 1970s, the films are also an interrogation of the notion of genre.
A second film which provides an excellent example of the inventiveness of le jeune cinéma in reworking genre is Jacques Martineau and Olivier Ducastel’s film Jeanne et le garçon formidable (Jeanne and the Perfect Guy). This is a musical comedy about AIDS, shot in the style of a Jacques Demy musical. It recounts the story of Jeanne, a young woman who can’t decide between the three men she is seeing, until she falls for the one who happens to be HIV-positive.
Although the film is clearly reworking the Jacques Demy musical for the new millennium, it maintains a very prominent political edge, (which is not always translated in the subtitles.) Ducastel and Martineau are a rarity in world cinema, a gay couple who make films together. One of the couple had actually worked on one of the last films of Jacques Demy, with the homage to Demy extending to the casting of the lead male role in the film, played by Mathieu Demy, the son of Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda.
So, having looked at the kinds of discourses which film critics and historians have used to posit lines of connection and points of disconnection between the 1960s New Wave and the 1990s jeune cinéma, how do the filmmakers themselves see the relationship between the two movements? To what extent is that influence readable in the films themselves?
Pascale Ferran won the Caméra d’or at the Cannes Film Festival for her debut feature Petits arrangements avec les morts which is part of the New New Wave program here at the Cinémathèque. The debt to Truffaut’s first short is quite explicit in Ferran’s film, which reproduces the framing of a similar sequence in Truffaut’s debut short.
More generally, several points of cross-over are discernible between the New Waves of the 1960s and the 1990s:
On the other hand, it has to be said that it is clearly not the case for many directors in le jeune cinéma that the French New Wave of the 1960s stands as a kind of cinematic forebear. The inspiration for the directors of le jeune cinéma often comes, quite explicitly, from elsewhere.
Clearly that the films of Martin Scorsese were a major source of inspiration for Matthieu Kassovitz’s classic banlieue film, La Haine, not only in terms of visual style, but also in relation to subject matter. Spike Lee was seen to be the other major influence on Kassovitz, with his first film Métisse being seen as roughly comparable to She’s Gotta Have It while La Haine was closer to Do the Right Thing. The suggestion was that the violence and ghettoisation of the suburbs of America’s large cities was now something translatable to the French banlieue as well. Some French critics have noted that the point of reference for le jeune cinéma is in fact relatively rarely the French New Wave, that the mythologisation of the French 60s New Wave lives on in critical writing about le jeune cinéma but is of little interest to the young filmmakers themselves. Their sources of inspiration are much more broad, being found more in the contemporary cinema of other countries or indeed from their intimate, personal experiences, their own experience as marginal subjects in late 20th century France.
So, to conclude by returning to those original questions posed at the start of this paper concerning the links between the 1960s and 1990s French New Waves–is there anything genuinely new brought to the French industry by le jeune cinéma and, if so, would it be best to drop the idea that it constitutes a Nouvelle Nouvelle Vague?–the answer is not clear cut.
On the one hand, there are some films which clearly show their debt to the French New Wave of the 1960s. On the other, the somewhat forced vertical connection which results in continual comparisons with the Nouvelle Vague can only result in 1990s French cinema being seen as a pale imitation of the 1960s movement. Moreover, the grounds on which the two might be fruitfully compared are somewhat shaky: French critics and historians have relied largely on discourses relating to political commitment and auteur cinema to compare them, but these are discourses that have radically changed since the 1950s and 1960s. It might, in fact, be much more useful to look at le jeune cinéma as something less specifically français than as a phenomenon belonging to a more global reinvigoration of national cinemas effected by new, young filmmakers in a number of industries the world over, from France, to Argentina, to Australia where a similar style of new realism was discerned by critics in the 1990s. As in Australia, one of the major sources of cinematic innovation was the multiplicity of perspectives by directors brought to the screen from a variety of backgrounds. This diversity shouldn’t be the object of criticism on the basis that it makes the work of film historians more difficult but rather should be celebrated since this decentralization of the French cinematic gaze is where the true originality of le jeune cinéma lies. Another way of putting this would be to say that the new cinéma de papa is actually one constituted by the Nouvelle Vague itself. The continued nostalgia for a cinema and a time that no longer exist can only result in the conclusion that everything new is old again. To fully appreciate what is nouvelle in this supposed nouvelle Nouvelle Vague requires a letting go of the old and an embracing of those characteristics which actually distinguish it from the filmic movements of preceding generations, notably the plurality and diversity of perspectives it offers and its personal rather than overtly political interest in the marginal, the peripheral and the everyday, filmed with an intimate proximity to the characters it frames. Only then might we be able to consider it a true cinéma de liberté.
1. Michel Marie. La Nouvelle Vague: une école artistique. Paris: Gallimard, 1997. p.5
2. Sophie Grassin and Gilles Médioni. “Spécial Cannes 1995: La nouvelle Nouvelle Vague”. (L’Express, 18 May, 1995. pp.48-50)
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