In addition to the Italian neorealism movement of the ’40s and ’50s, something similar began happening in France in the ’50s and ’60s. This movement that came to be known as La Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) was inspired by the neorealist films of Italy and it left its own mark on the film industry.

Before the New Wave

France had always been an important country in the history of cinema. As a result of the creativity of French filmmakers like the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès in the silent film era, France’s films in the sound era were mature, complex, witty and poetic. France had conquered the world of visual expression so it comes as no surprise that they would conquer words once movies began to talk. Overall France’s transition from silence to sound went smoother than America’s.

This was pretty much a reflection of the modern attitude of Paris in the 1920s, a period of avant-garde art where music, paintings, poetry, fiction and drama were all being experimented with and reaching new heights. This was after all the city of Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali.

The films of artist Man Ray, for example, were so surreal and untethered by plot that they bordered on the meaningless, such as in the ironically titled Return to Reason (1923) and in the films of Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp who both made films showcasing images similar in form, shape and rhythm rather than meaning. Most famous of these types of films being Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s dream-like non sequitor journey Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929).

Even the more traditionally plotted films were highly impressionistic with their uses of slow motion, distortion, lens focus, light and darkness to amp up emotion.

This unbound creativity paved the way for ambitious filmmakers like Abel Gance, the D.W. Griffith of France who created epics like J’accuse (I Accuse) (1919) which was one of the greatest antiwar films ever made, the melodramatic, tragic and romantic eight-hour film La Roue (1922) (that’s right, eight hours!) which was like a compelling Victor Hugo novel come to life that brought its first audience to their feet in standing ovation, and of course the 9 1/2-hour innovative masterpiece Napoleon (1927) which introduced stereophonic sound and employed multiple imagery in creative ways (Gance called it polyvision).

Then there was the whimsical French director René Clair who loved to target social conventions and money in films like The Italian Straw Man (1927), Le Million (1931) and Liberty for Us (1931) which felt like a precursor to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times in its themes of human beings becoming slaves to machines.

Film director Jean Renoir was also a social satirist but less whimsical and more melancholy with films that were more deep, more bitter and more perceptive of humanity, as evidenced in films like The Little Match Girl (1928) which was an emotional adaptation of the story by Hans Christian Andersen, Grand Illusion (1937) which satirized European aristocracy and the hopeless artificiality of international relationships in times of war, and The Rules of the Game (1939) which was a complex exploration of death, nature, history and social convention.

Other great post-war French directors include Max Ophüls, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati and Carl Theodor Dreyer who directed a cinematic landmark The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). These filmmakers were some of the most creative in the world, but this period eventually established a pattern that was hard to break. Melodramatic period films like Joan of Arc were the only films that the French film industry really considered great while some found these types of films high-minded and further observed that film snobs had considered them immune to criticism which was of course ridiculous because there is no such thing as a film that is immune to criticism due to its genre.

Start of the New Wave

The term “La Nouvelle Vague” was first used by a group of French cinephiles and critics in the late 1950s to describe films that went against mainstream French cinema’s emphasis on craft and literary adaptations by focusing instead on innovation and experimentation.

Many of the leading New Wave filmmakers started out as critics for the famous film magazine Cahiers du cinéma which was founded by film theorist André Bazin and featured such contributors as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette who established French film’s auteur theory which valued the expression of a director’s personal vision and style and were encouraged by Italian director Roberto Rossellini to do what he and his colleagues in Italy did: make films instead of write about them.

In addition to Italian neorealism, these French auteurs were inspired by Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (some of the biggest pre-New Wave auteurs in the world) and classic Hollywood was a big influence on the filmmakers who established the French New Wave.

Films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and Godard’s Breathless (1960) helped popularize the French New Wave internationally when they met with global success.

These films often had small budgets, existential themes, sharp irony, improvised dialogue and bold camera usage. Things like breaking the fourth wall to address an audience had been used in comedies before but rarely in such clever ways as in the art-driven films of France in this period.

The New Wave is primarily associated with the Cahiers group of critics-turned-directors which is identified as the “Right Bank” of the New Wave, but a “Left Bank” group of filmmakers like Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnés Cards was often characterized as the more literally, politically and philosophically serious group of filmmakers and they also had more directing experience. These guys did make some good films, such as Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) about a French woman (Emmanuele Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) who fall in love and the war-related traumas that complicate their relationship, but I will focus on the more influential “Right Bank” in this article.

François Truffaut built his early films on the foundation of unbridled freedom both in film technique and in content. He favored protagonists who were misfits and rebels who felt stifled by convention, such as in The 400 Blows, whose 13-year-old protagonist must endure school and prison (two things that are portrayed similarly in this movie) after being sentenced to both by closed-minded and unsympathetic authority figures. Similar freedom-seeking protagonists can be found in the Truffaut films Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and Jules and Jim (1962).

The perfect example of the ambitious nature of the French New Wave is Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, a film about a man whose self-absorption leads his wife to suicide, which makes him even more emotionally closed off and self-absorbed because he is afraid to connect with another human being for fear of facing heartbreak again. The interesting thing about the film is that it ultimately ends with the paradoxical message that heartbreak is the nature of love but to avoid love is to also avoid life.

Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film Breathless (1960) follows a petty crook (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who casually jacks cars and kills a policeman, gets emotionally entangled with a girl (Jean Seberg) and is eventually killed by the police after the girl tips them off. It is a simple story but it is told in an exciting and refreshingly bold way with emotional beats that feel authentic, further aided by the hand held camera style and jump cutting that gives the film an energetic charge.

And films like Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) (1962) are so unglamorous as to almost fool you into thinking they lack heart but in fact they just bring the artificiality and convention of previous films to stark light. His film Masculine Feminine (1966) similarly treats topics like death with a startling coldness.

Other film critics turned New Wave directors include Claude Chabrol who specialized in suspense and thrillers and directed films like La Beau Serge (1958), Les Cousins (1959), Web of Passion (1959), Les Biches (1968) and The Unfaithful Wife (1969); Éric Rohmer who was known for his film trilogies such as his “Six Moral Tales” trilogy and his “Comedies and Proverbs” trilogy and directed films like My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1971), The Aviator’s Wife (1981) and The Green Ray (1986); and Jacques Rivette who specialized in lengthy and largely improvised films and directed films like L’amour (1969), Out 1 (1971), Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991).

Later New Wave filmmakers in France would emphasize emotions, political analysis, gender analysis and psychological experiences over linear narratives as the years went by. These filmmakers included Jacques Deny who was like the French Busby Berkeley, his wife Agnès Carda who made intelligent and sensitive films and became famous for Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) about a woman who confronts the possibility that she has cancer in real time, Bertrand Tavernier who liked to unite film tradition with new innovations, the politically radical Constantin Costa-Gravas, the deceptively ordinary Alain Tanner who was Swiss but French in style and the eclectic Louis Malle.

After the New Wave

The French New Wave had a huge impact on the style of cinema going forward and you can see it in the stylistically bold, self-aware and morally ambiguous films of Hollywood in the sixties and seventies. In fact, American films salvaged their own relevance thanks to the New Hollywood auteurs who took their lessons from the filmmakers of Italy, France and beyond who overshadowed Hollywood in the 1950s in the waning days of the studio system. So you can very well say that Hollywood was saved by the creativity and enthusiasm of these innovators.