In 1959- early 1960 five directors released debut feature length films that are widely regarded as heralding the start of the French nouvelle vague or French New Wave. Claude Chabrols Le Beau Serge (The Good Serge, 1959) and Les Cousins (The Cousins, 1959) were released, along with Francois Truffauts Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), Jean-Luc Godards A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Alain Resnais Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima my love, 1959). These films were the beginning of a revolution in French cinema.
In the following years these directors were to follow up their debuts, while other young directors made their first features, in fact between 1959-63 over 170 French directors made their debut films. These films were very different to anything French and American cinema had ever produced both in film style and film form and would change the shape of cinema to come for years. To understand how and why this nouvelle vague happened we must first look at the historical, social, economical and political aspects of France and the French film industry leading up to the onset of the nouvelle vague.
After the Second World War much of Europe was in ruins. 35 million people had died and most European countries were hugely in debt. 1947s Marshall plan saw billions of American dollars poured into Europe in the form of aid to help Europe rebuild. Along with this vast amount of aid came American expectations of political allegiance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was born, a military alliance which committed members to oppose the USSR and Communism. This American influence extended into many aspects of society, including the Film industry.
During the war years the flow of films from Hollywood into Europe had been drastically reduced. After the war the Americans were keen to expand again into Europe. The Motion Picture Export Association of America was formed. Hollywood formed this organisation to co-ordinate exports and to present a united front to negotiate prices for the different Hollywood firms. The US government, seeing American film as an important propaganda tool for American democracy, helped the film industry through Commerce Department initiatives and diplomatic pressures.
In the years immediately after the war Hollywood made great inroads into European Cinema not least in France. In May of 1946 the Prime Minister of France Leon Bum signed an agreement with the US Secretary of State James Byres which eliminated pre-war quotas on American films. This caused outrage in an Industry already low on capital and fighting to recover after the occupation years. The number of American features increased tenfold while French film output reduced to just seventy-eight features a year.
Similar agreements with other European countries worsened the situation as countries which traditionally relied on French Cinema were being saturated by Hollywood. This caused an outrage within the industry and in 1948 the French Government introduced legislation which brought back a quota on American films of 121 per year. Along with this quota, legislation was introduced which would shape the French film industry throughout the 50s. Major bank loans were made available for stable production companies to finance future films and a new admissions tax was introduced.
If a film was successful then a large fund would build up which the government made specifically available to producers to fund future films. This encouraged production companies to make popular and safe films with star names and well known stories, and discouraged experimentation. Throughout the early and mid 50s many literary adaptations, costume dramas and huge co-productions with cast and crew drawn from both France and other European countries were made. They were predominately studio bound with lavish sets, elaborate lighting, special effects and extravagant costume.
This Cinema became known as the tradition of quality and dominated French Cinema output. It was a prestige cinema preocupied with impresssive content and continuity. During this time the French Cinema was quite healthy and shared the market about 50/50 with American cinema. Despite the relative stability of the French Film industry in the early and mid 50s there was a growing voice emanating from the emerging youth culture, for some new and fresh ideas. The pre war cine-club movement was revived and by 1954 there were over 200 clubs with 100,000 members.
These clubs would show Hollywood classics as well as the latest releases. They would also show many of the re-released French films of the 30s from such directors as Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo and many of the Hollywood films that were never released during the occupation. It was from such clubs that the inspiration and driving force of many of the new wave directors came from. A young Francois Truffaut, along with Jean Luc-Godard and Jacques Rivette, some of the prominent future new wave directors and future writers for the Cahiers du Cinema, used to frequent Cinematheque Francais.
This was a cine-club founded by Henri Langlois and devoted to screening the Classics. It was here where they learnt there history of the cinema. Indeed Truffaut actually founded a cine-club himself at an early stage in his life. Also, it was in a cine-club where one of the most important cinematic relationships in France was formed. Truffaut met Andre Bazin the famous French Film theorist. Bazin took Truffaut under his wing and through his teens nurtured him into the fierce film critic he became. In 1951 Bazin co founded Cahiers du Cinema and two years later he hired Truffaut as a critic/essayist.
Cahiers du Cinema was the most influential and famous film journal of the many published after the war. As well as Francois Truffaut, it had fellow cinephiles Jean Luc-Godard and Jacques Rivette as writers and also Claude Chabrol and Eric Rhomer. These five became known as the Cahiers group and it was in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema in the 50s under the guidance of Bazin that they argued out a new theory of film. These men were fiercely critical of the tradition of quality in French cinema that prevailed in the early and mid 50s.
They labelled it the cinema de papa (old fogies cinema). They put forward and discussed many different propositions and ideas in the pages of the cahiers du cinema in the 50s. The most significant one which had the greatest influence on new wave films was la politique des auteurs (The policy of authors). Largely created by Truffaut in his famous essay a certain tendency in French Cinema he argued that a film, through the way in which its images are presented to the audience on the screen, should express and reflect the personality of the director.
This policy later became known as the auter theory. These critics were renowned for their praise of some Hollywood directors, particularly Howard Hawkes, Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford who they admired for their individual styles. For the best part of a decade these critics argued their beliefs in the pages of cahiers du cinema. It was in their criticisms of other peoples work that subliminally they defined the kind of films that they wanted to make, but it wasnt until 1959 that any of them actually made a feature length film.
The French New wave is widely regarded, and quite rightly so, as a significant movement in film style and form, but it is important to understand that without certain social, economic and technical freedoms it might never have happened. The main reason why the nouvelle vauge existed was because the French Film industry went through a drastic change and opened its doors to new ideas. These changes were brought about inadvertently because of a number of different factors. For reasons that I have outlined above the French film industry was pretty closed and un-sympathetic to new ideas.
By 1957 things were changing. Attendances to cinemas were falling sharply. This was partly due to the growing popularity of television as an entertainment medium and partly due to the stagnant nature of French cinema. By 1959 the industry was in crisis. Roger Vadims 1956 film Et Dieu crea la femme, (And woman was created) was a low budget film which was a commercial success. It proved that low budget films made outside of the tradition of qualityrquote could make money and it acted as a sort of catalyst within the industry and led to a climate of experimentation.
This, along with the invention of new fast emulsion film stocks and light weight cameras, enabled film makers with material restraints to make saleable films on a low budgets because they needed less crew and could work with ease on location. This new openness within the industry was significantly aided by a government initiative known as the avvance sur recettes (advance on receipts) system. This initiative funded first time film makers on the basis of a script and enabled hundreds of potential film makers to finance their debut features.
These factors combined together to form the climate for production that prevailed in the late 50s but to understand why the nouvelle vague was so embraced by the public we must look at the actual term nouvelle vague. The term nouvelle vague was actually coined by a journalist named Franois Giroud to describe the new and socially active youth class. The idealisms and politics of the post war years like sexual liberation, along with new fashions and American influences like Rock Music and Hollywood combined together to create what has become known as youth culture.
It was this new and affluent youth class that created a new market with leisure time and money to spend that so embraced this revolution in Film. It was also in this climate that this new generation of directors emerged from to fill the spaces of the old and out dated. They had an empathy with their audience which is demonstrated by the fact that the term nouvelle vague was so quickly attributed to this movement in film style and form.