French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Between 1956 and 1960, several young French directors made their debuts. Most of these directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, had been film critics and theorists before they began to make films of their own, and their films marked the beginning of the internationally influential, formally innovative, and theoretically informed French New Wave movement in film.

Summary of Event

The term Nouvelle Vague, or “New Wave,” was coined in 1958 by film critic Françoise Giroud Giroud, Françoise to describe a youthful group of French filmmakers who were just beginning to make themselves felt through a stunning array of debut features released during the years 1956 to 1960. It was during this period that such now-celebrated directors as Roger Vadim, Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette made their initial appearances as auteurs, or cinematic “authors,” with highly personalized works marked by brashly audacious thematic and stylistic twists. French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation [kw]French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema (1956-1960) [kw]New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema, French (1956-1960) [kw]Cinema, French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of (1956-1960) French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation [g]Europe;1956-1960: French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema[05100] [g]France;1956-1960: French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema[05100] [c]Motion pictures and video;1956-1960: French New Wave Ushers in a New Era of Cinema[05100] Godard, Jean-Luc Truffaut, François Bazin, André Rohmer, Eric Rivette, Jacques Chabrol, Claude Vadim, Roger Langlois, Henri Astruc, Alexandre

Vadim broke the ice in 1956 with the erotic box-office blockbuster Et Dieu créa la femme And God Created Woman (Vadim) (And God Created Woman). Later, the New Wave’s freshness and vitality were recognized by an impressive array of festival awards, such as the Locarno Festival’s prize for best direction to Chabrol for Le Beau Serqe Beau Serqe, Le (Chabrol) (1958), the Cannes Festival’s first prize for direction to Truffaut for Les Quatre Cents Coups Four Hundred Blows, The (Truffaut) (1958; The Four Hundred Blows), and the Berlin Festival’s award for best direction to Godard for À bout de souffle Breathless (Godard) (1960; Breathless). The New Wave, as epitomized by these four highly successful debut feature films, had arrived.

In part, the phenomenon of the French New Wave was a natural event. It was the coming of age of a new generation of cineasts who castigated the work of their elders as “papa’s cinema.” For such rebellious youth, the well-made but impersonal films of such established directors as Claude Autant-Lara, René Clément, and Henri-Georges Clouzot were marred by their calculated coolness; their literary pretensions; their emphasis on conventional narratives with too neat beginnings, middles, and ends; and their essentially artificial, theatricalized mise en scène, a visual style derived from the films’ having been shot within a studio rather than on location.

If such barbs had been confined to café conversations along the Seine, significant changes in the French cinema undoubtedly would have been slow. During the 1950’s, however, such soon-to-be New Wave directors as Vadim, Truffaut, Chabrol, and Godard vented their cinematic passions as film critics, and their broadsides and bromides were regular features of such influential film journals as Cahiers du cinéma. Cahiers du cinéma (periodical)

Indeed, it was in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma that the tenets of the New Wave were first sketched. Under the sage and temperate editorship of renowned critic André Bazin, the “angry young men” of Cahiers du cinéma developed the auteur theory, which endorsed only those films in which the imprint or stamp of the director was clear. Inspired by Alexandre Astruc’s seminal 1948 essay “La Caméra-stylo” "Caméra-Stylo, La" (Astruc)[Caméra Stylo, La] (the camera-pen), which conceptualized cinema as a mode of expression potentially as flexible and subtle as written language, the Cahiers du cinéma critics advocated an open-ended and personal approach to filmmaking in which the predominant “voice” was that of the director, who would “write” with the camera as the novelist wrote with words.

Though rejecting the bulk of French cinema of the late 1940’s and most of the 1950’s as too conservative and too “literary,” the Cahiers du cinéma group found inspiration in the 1930’s films of countryman Jean Renoir, whose naturalistic settings and antibourgeois polemics were in tune with the kind of stylistic freedom and cultural-political rebellion espoused by Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Godard. With the aid of Henri Langlois, the head of the fabled film archive Cinémathèque Française Cinémathèque Française in Paris, they also found inspiration in the films of a variety of American directors. Indeed, it was Langlois who first introduced the young cineasts to much of the work of John Ford Ford, John , Howard Hawks Hawks, Howard , and Sam Fuller, among others. The eager, even obsessive critics scrutinized and argued the relative merits of such films as Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). Their views on these and hundreds of other American films were then formalized for publication in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma.

Eventually, a director such as Ford or Hawks was “certified” as an auteur Auteur theory Cinema;auteurism after demonstrating a capacity for inscribing his personal mark—an idiosyncratic and recurring thematic or visual style—in all manner of studio films, including established genres such as the Western, the screwball comedy, the gangster film, and even the musical. Such American filmmakers were praised for their directness, their energy, and their visual style as it correlated to theme, as well as their purging of virtually anything suggesting literary or even philosophical intent. Significantly, the Cahiers du cinéma group was looking for a cinema untainted by the encrustations and conventions of the older arts, especially the novel and the play. The ideal cinema was to be forged from its own intrinsically unique resources, its capacity for deconstructing the continuum of actual space and time, and the reciprocal process of reconstituting its fragments into uniquely cinematic constructs.

While such theorizing was well and good, it was quite another matter to move from one’s typewriter at the Cahiers du cinéma office to the director’s chair. What was needed was an unqualified box-office success, a film that would convince the industry’s money men that there was potential profit in bankrolling production costs for young and unproven directorial talent.

The breakthrough came in 1956 with Vadim’s And God Created Woman. Starring Vadim’s wife, Brigitte Bardot, the steamy and sultry tale was a box-office smash in France and abroad. The dam had burst, and a New Wave was unleashed—a tidal force that would transform the French and international film scenes.


The consequences of the success of And God Created Woman were many. Suddenly, youth was in vogue. Also, producers were impressed that the New Wave tyros needed only a fraction of the money typically allocated to establishment directors such as Claude Autant-Lara. Combined with the gradual erosion of the French film-going audience as a result of competition from television, producers saw that they could underwrite eight or nine low-budget features, in expectation that at least several would generate profits, for the cost of, for example, a single Autant-Lara production.

There were also subsidies from the French government in the form of the loi d’aide, a prize for innovative filmmaking. On the basis of a modest grant for his short film Les Mistons Mischief Makers, The (Truffaut) (1958; The Mischief Makers), for example, François Truffaut was able to make his first feature, the celebrated The Four Hundred Blows.

Another auspicious factor encouraging the rapid rise of the New Wave was the postwar trend toward the development of an international youth market. During the 1950’s, the worldwide ascent of rock and roll, the quintessential musical expression of postwar teens, was paralleled by an increase in the number of youth-targeted films. It was a movement epitomized by the global success of Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause Rebel Without a Cause (Ray) (1955) and the canonization of its brooding star, James Dean. In France, such developments helped pave the way for the New Wave.

Indeed, between 1956 and 1960, more than a hundred French filmmakers made debut features. In addition to the premieres of Vadim, Chabrol, Truffaut, and Godard, there were prominent first-time efforts by other Cahiers du cinéma critics such as Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette. Along with the Cahiers du cinéma directors was an older cadre, the so-called Left Bank group Left Bank group , which included Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, and Chris Marker. Buoyed by the success of their younger colleagues, these more politically involved and literary directors also gained new opportunities.

The French New Wave had a marked influence on American college students, who in the 1960’s increasingly began dreaming of directing the next great American film rather than of writing the great American novel. Film critic Stanley Kauffmann aptly described this burgeoning group of youthful American cineasts as “the film generation.” Nurtured by the auteur theory and the English edition of Cahiers du cinéma (edited in New York by Andrew Sarris), as well as by the growth of university film programs that made the study of film an official part of the curriculum, young Americans avidly devoured the latest films of Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais in college and museum film series.

The quirky freedom of such films as Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960; Shoot the Piano Player) and Godard’s Une Femme est une femme (1961; A Woman Is a Woman), as well as the formal if enigmatic brilliance of Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961; Last Year at Marienbad) bedazzled and inspired. Moreover, thanks to the auteur approach to criticism, Americans themselves began to take seriously the work of such directors as Ford, Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, and previously devalued American genres such as the Western, the musical, and the detective film were newly appreciated. The arrival of the New Wave was a watershed that at last established the motion picture as a linchpin of American culture.

The French New Wave, with its audacious use of improvisation, its breaking of technical rules such as the use of the jump cut, and its tendency to favor open-ended, unresolved narratives, was also an inspiration to filmmakers in developing and Communist nations. In Brazil, for example, the Cinema Novo movement was spurred in its search for bold new aesthetic means by the deconstruction of narrative filmmaking conventions undertaken by the New Wave. Cuban directors, charged with making films that had direct political as well as aesthetic value, also increasingly looked to the New Wave for narrative and technical strategies that would cut against the grain of the bourgeois Hollywood film.

It should be remembered, however, that the French New Wave was not a cohesive stylistic or thematic movement but rather a largely fortuitous gathering of talent that was given extraordinary opportunities to express itself thanks to a propitious conglomeration of economic, social, and historical circumstances. Indeed, it is significant that many critics regard the New Wave as a phenomenon that lasted only several years. By the mid-1960’s, the New Wave was a mostly self-indulgent and tepid force; the movement’s reflexive preoccupations with cinema itself and its often inscrutable narratives ceased to have even novelty value. There was also a sense that youth had been served, and that the New Wave, if it were to be sustained, needed more than fresh faces and reckless detonations of traditional cinematic conventions.

The French New Wave, though, was an integral part of the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960’s. It was a force that helped establish a serious-minded and worldwide “film generation.” Through the agency of the auteur theory, moreover, the New Wave was a force leading to profound reevaluations of film criticism and the very history of the medium, including the cultural conditions that have supported it. Most significantly, the French New Wave gave the world a pantheon of significant directors and a canon of films that have clearly established themselves as central to any reading of film history, theory, or criticism. French New Wave Cinema;stylistic innovation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Armes, Roy. The Personal Style. Vol. 2 in French Cinema Since 1946. 2d ed. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1970. A well-considered account of seventeen of the most important New Wave directors, including Chabrol, Truffaut, Godard, Resnais, and Vadim. A filmography and bibliography are included for each director.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bazin, André. Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. Translated by Alain Piette and Bert Cardullo, edited by Bert Cardullo. New York: Routledge, 1997. Collection of essays by the influential mentor of the major figures in French New Wave cinema. Includes his critiques of directors and of individual films of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Peter, comp. The New Wave: Critical Landmarks. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Provocative collection of seminal articles by such New Wave proponents as Astruc, Bazin, Chabrol, Godard, Truffaut, and Robert Benayoun taken from Cahiers du cinéma and Positif. Illustrated, with bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hillier, Jim, ed.“Cahiers du cinéma,” the 1950’s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985. Collection of essential essays from Cahiers du cinéma by Bazin, Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol, and others. Hillier’s comments help contextualize the cinematic and political dynamics giving rise to the New Wave. Includes a valuable guide to Cahiers du cinéma articles from the 1950’s that are available in English translation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Excellent overview of the forces that propelled the French New Wave to the summit of the international cinema. Includes useful bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, John Russell. “The New Wave: François Truffaut; Jean-Luc Godard; Alain Resnais.” In Cinema Eye, Cinema Ear: Some Key Film-Makers of the Sixties. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Penetrating treatment of the early successes of Truffaut, Godard, and Resnais.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiegand, Chris. French New Wave. New ed. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England: Pocket Essentials, 2005. An extremely useful reference on the New Wave, this book includes an introduction to the movement, a critique and analysis, and a discussion of its place in the history of film and culture. Bibliography and summary of available Web resources.

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Categories: History