In the 1950s film journal, Cahiers du Cinéma, film critics Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut discussed the concepts and ideas that would lay the groundwork for arguably, film’s most influential period, the French New Wave. The self-styled 'Young Turks’ created an independent, accessible form of filmmaking which embraced a 'mise-en-scène’ grounded in the reality of day-to-day life in post-war Paris. In so doing, they eschewed big budget productions and the prevailing consensus of what constituted a 'quality’ film. Central to the French New Wave was 'auteur theory’, the idea that unique and creative films are born not through a studio driven, predetermined formula, or indeed the script itself, but by the director’s own vision, philosophy and style. The empowerment of the director as the creative force, led to the disruption of existing conventions and the introduction of innovative editing and cinematography techniques which left an indelible mark on contemporary filmmaking.
Whilst studios continue to release big budget, repeatable box office successes, discussion about great films is inextricably intertwined with the directors that create them. The influence of the French New Wave can be observed in modern day director auteurs who leave an unmistakable signature on their work. From the cinematic excellence of Martin Scorsese, to the stylised gore of Quentin Tarantino, and more recently the cognitive exploration of Christopher Nolan and the visceral storytelling of Alfonso Cuarón, director as auteur has continued to be the hallmark of many of today’s critically and commercially successful films. In his critically acclaimed directorial debut Samson & Delilah (2009), writer, director & cinematographer, Warwick Thornton, embodies many of the ideals of the French New Wave:
'The most important thing was to be truthful to these two children and make a film that I believed in and this is the community that I come from. There’s nothing in the film that I haven’t seen personally in my growing up in that town.’ Writer/Director/Cinematographer, Warwick Thornton (Thornton, 2010)
In the same vein as François Truffaut’s, The 400 Blows (1959), Thornton draws upon his own lived experience to tell the love story of two indigenous kids and their quest for survival in central Australia. Working with a skeleton crew and minimal dialogue, Thornton wrote, shot and directed the film in his hometown of Alice Springs. Using two non-professional actors from the local community in the leading roles, Thornton captured the essence and realism of life in a remote, impoverished part of the country. Although it follows that retaining the writing and directing roles would help facilitate a singular vision for a film, it is by no means a prerequisite. Auteur theory expanded on Alexandre Astruc’s concept of caméra-stylo ('camera-pen’), which views the creative expression of a director and camera in the same vein as that of a writer and pen. In his most recent film, the similarly well received Sweet Country (2017), Thornton relinquished writing duties but employed the same approach and style that distinguished his filmmaking in Samson & Delilah (2009); that is the essence of auteur theory.
Preceding the French New Wave and the emergence of the auteur, films adhered to what could be described as a formulaic set of conventions which governed how a film was to be shot; a wide shot followed by a two shot followed by a single shot was commonplace. The filmmakers of the French New Wave disregarded these rules and experimented with new shot making techniques that have themselves become commonplace in contemporary film. Camera movement was one such innovation and whilst the simple act of moving the camera is taken for granted today, it was still experimental in the 1950s.
'Photography is truth and cinema is truth 24 times a second’, Jean-Luc Godard, The Little Soldier (1963).
Godard’s observation encapsulates the essence of 'caméra-stylo’ and aided by the availability of handheld cameras, camera movement was used creatively and stylistically to convey the auteur’s own reality. Horizontal (pan) and vertical (pedestal) moves, long tracking shots, lack of artificial lighting and unorthodox use of lenses were employed in a way that flew in the face of the shot making etiquette of the day. As these techniques have made their way into the mainstream, new technology and methods have built upon these innovations. Critically acclaimed filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón has cited the French New Wave as an inspiration and its influence can be observed in many of his films. In the sci-fi/thriller, Children of Men (2006), Cuarón employs extended and purposeful tracking shots to bring the audience into Theo’s perilous journey as he ducks and weaves through the dystopian storyworld. In the Oscar winning outer space thriller Gravity (2013), Cuarón uses similar techniques — the memorable tracking shot of the opening scene lasts around 12 minutes — to 'make the audience a “third astronaut” in the film…’.
Used in tandem with camera movement, one of the immediately noticeable characteristics of a French New Wave film is its creative use of editing. It was convention at the time that editing be used to maintain continuity and keep the action moving at a steady pace whilst remaining unnoticeable. In true French New Wave style, the Young Turks once again sought to upend these rules and one of the ways they did so was through the adoption of discontinuity techniques such as the jump cut. The jump cut is where 'two sequential shots of the same subject are taken from camera positions that vary only slightly if at all … abruptly communicating the passing of time’. Discovered serendipitously over half a century earlier by film pioneer Georges Méliès, the jump cut was adopted and popularised by Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless (1960) and subsequent films of the French New Wave. The rationale for its use in Breathless is debated, however one of the explanations offered is the 'desire to express cinematically the moral and emotional disjointedness of the behaviours portrayed or to depict the social world as meaningless in the eyes of Michel Poiccard’ (Raskin, 1998). Although jump cuts have since become ubiquitous in music videos, they can be seen in a narrative context in films such as Scorsese’s psychological thriller Shutter Island (2010), used to convey the protagonist’s torment or Spielberg’s historical drama Schindler’s List (1993) to accelerate the passing of time. One of the proponents of the jump cut is director Guy Richie who has made it a signature of his films using it extensively to set a frenetic pace, show rapidly changing focal points and create a connection between seemingly disconnected plots.
In addition to jump cuts, French New Wave films creatively employed various emphasis techniques with narrative, dramatic and stylistic intent. This included altering the frame without changing the shot to focus on a particular subject, freezing the frame to encapsulate a key moment and a breaking of the 4th wall (addressing the audience directly). As with the jump cut, the freeze frame was not an invention of the French New Wave. Its earliest recorded use was by Alfred Hitchcock in Champagne (1928) but it has been used widely since François Truffaut’s film, The 400 Blows (1959), culminated with the famous freeze frame of Antoine in his dash towards an uncertain future. Emphasis techniques pioneered by the French New Wave can be observed in many of Martin Scorsese’s films. In the crime film Goodfellas (1990), Scorsese uses both the freeze frame, to highlight key moments that shaped Henry’s life, and a breaking of the 4th wall in the final scene, to allow the audience to empathise with the eventuality of his deeply flawed character. In the biographical story of a corrupt stockbroker, The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese makes use of the freeze frame once again, this time to draw attention to the morally questionable personality traits of its protagonist, Jordan Belfort. Scorsese also employs a frequent breaking of the 4th wall reminiscent of Breathless (1960), which draws the audience into being an unwitting accomplice to Belfort’s high rolling but morally bankrupt life choices.
The seeds planted by 'The Young Turks’ in the pages of the Cahiers du Cinéma launched a movement which has had a profound impact on filmmaking. Taking to the streets of Paris, the auteurs of the French New Wave put their theories into practice rejecting the established approaches to filmmaking which they regarded as outdated and formulaic. They viewed film as a work of creative art with the director as its artist and sought to create a new form which better reflected their own reality. In so doing, they developed new techniques and reinvented existing ones. From minimal crew and makeshift sets, to dynamic camera movements and discontinuity in editing, the French New Wave introduced innovations that have inspired a new generation of auteurs, but perhaps their biggest influence was the call to be different; to look for new ways of expression through the language of film. In the words of Jean-Luc Godard 'it’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take things to’.