When I started French classes 8 years ago, I remember the triumphant feeling of coming home learning how to say a complex word the proper french way. One day, I decided to watch French movies to get some more practice with my pronunciation and oral skills. I was lucky to find a film by Jean-Luc Godard in YouTube. Suddenly, the website was proposing me to watch movies with a similar style. And I fell in love with the French New Wave movement – to the point where I was watching 2 per day! I was in love with the visual aesthetic, the ambiguous and imaginary adventures, but mostly the long beautiful conversations (and silences) about life and love.
I have to admit that there are movies that I watched so many times that I remembered the conversations by heart. And I used to apply a couple of phrases on my everyday life, to talk to random people I met in the beginning of my journey in France, as I was not comfortable enough with the language.
The movie “My Life to Live” from Godard has the most exquisite dialogue between the main character, Nana (Anna Karina) and a philosopher. And it is not staged, it is an authentic conversation. Nana says: “Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. First, I think about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t. Why must one always talk? I think one should just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean“. Beautiful, right? But maybe not the type of conversation you expect from someone you just met.
“The 400 Blows” by François Truffaut, is about a young boy, Antoine Doinel, misunderstood and tormented by his parents and school teachers. This movie, highly autobiographical, defined the French New Wave movement of caméra-stylo (camera-as-pen) whose writing style could express the filmmaker as personally as a novelist’s pen.
Truffaut followed the fictional life of Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) for over 20 years, with “Antoine and Colette”, “Stolen Kisses” – in which he falls in love with Christine Darbon, “Bed and Board” about the married couple Antoine and Christine – and finally, “Love on the Run”, where the couple go through a divorce. With these sequels we get to know, understand and accept the character – despite his faults – because we realize he is growing up and learning along the way.
My favorite scene is when he is in front of a mirror repeating the name of his lover, Christine’s name, then his name over and over again. Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel, Antoine Doinel … it shows a way of understanding feelings through words.
Fun fact: when I first met my husband and he told me his name was Antoine, I immediately asked if he knew this character. I saw Antoine Doinel become an adult, so he is to me like a childhood friend.
Eric Rohmer’s movie, “La Collectionneuse”, refers to a female collector (of men, in this case), Haydée, who finds herself living in a villa with two older men, Adrien and Daniel. They tease and ridicule Haydée, who sleeps around the neighborhood with a careless ease that’s most disturbing to the sensibilities of both men. This film is part of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, which demonstrated that his characters were not fated to do obvious things, and reserved the option of thinking about the meaning of their actions. They were not invariably moral, nor was their alleged morality necessarily one we would agree with.
Adrien says: “I found a definition for Haydée, she is a collector. Haydée, if you sleep around without premeditation, you are the lowest of the low. The atrocious ingenue. But if you collect in a consistent way, with obstinacy, it is a plot, and things are entirely different“. So we see there is a huge disparity between the main characters’ subjective interpretations of events. The way I see it is that the men are angry that Haydée represents the utopian sexual liberation of a younger generation. Rohmer wants us to interrogate ourselves since his scenes are full of long conversations that express feelings buried deep in our consciousness.
Agnès Varda was an outsider when she began making films in 1954: as a woman but also as a photographer, without professional training in cinema. But she ended up being a pioneer of the French New Wave. She was also interested in the feminist movement, making several documentaries about women.
I was lucky to have the chance to meet her for her last film “Faces Places”, where I appeared as an extra. She was there, explaining what we should do in the most tender and patient way, while offering us to eat some croissants before filming. And when we finished the scene, she came to say thank you to each one of us.
Varda’s film, “Cléo from 5 to 7” embodies the stereotypes that men subject women to and their oppressiveness. The main character, Cléo, commonly complains that no one takes her seriously since she’s a woman, and that the men think that she’s faking her illness for attention. She seems to go along with these stereotypes as well, as many women in France did, telling herself essentially that beauty is everything by saying “as long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive“. The film talks also about existentialism, as the character struggles with her existence and the potential of facing her mortality.
The film includes the music of composer Michel Legrand, who also worked with Varda’s husband, Jacques Demy.
Demy is also a French New Wave director, who worked with Legrand in the musical masterpiece “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”. The film is a nostalgic tribute to old Hollywood musicals while talking about real-world issues like unexpected pregnancy and the Algerian war.
Last year, I had the chance to listen to Legrand playing the music he created for “The Young Girls of Rochefort” (film directed by Demy). His music associated with the narration of the film is extremely charming and does not leave you indifferent.
These French New Wave filmmakers (including Alain Resnais, André Bazin, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette, among others) revolutionized cinema in the late 1950s with street filming, diverse camera movements, simple stories – sometimes autobiographical -, lots of improvisation, and no rules. Cinema gain in naturalness and simplicity, and the public was craving for it. The conception of French cinema changes and will influence many other countries.