Film History – French New Wave Cinema

Film History - French New Wave Cinema

The French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) emerged in the 1950s as a core of articulate young film-makers. Amongst the most successful of the group were soon to be famous names such as Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard and to a lesser extent Jacques Rivette, Jacques Daniol-Valcroze and Eric Rohmer. All were critics for the influential film magazine ‘Cahiers du Cinema’, where they worked under the guidance of film theorist and co-founder of ‘Cahiers’, André Bazin.

Intellectual Cinema

French cinema has always held a reputation for producing experimental films and forging sometimes tenuous links with the world of fine art. Luis Bunuel’s 1928 collaboration with Salvador Dali Un Chien Andalou is a case in point. Although the New Wave were certainly no less intellectual in their approach to film-making, they were a generation raised on the drama and excitement of Hollywood movies. They rebelled against the traditional French cinema which they felt had become staid and false; dependent on a contrived world of studio sets and screenplays adapted from novels. Instead, they concentrated on bringing a sense of realism to cinema.

Realism in Godard’s A Bout de Souffle

In a sharp contrast to social realism in 1950s British films, which sought to portray real life through its use of ordinary characters and subject matter, the French New Wave made films in many different genres often without using normal narrative conventions at all. Their idea of realism was tied up with the use of real locations, improvised scripts, natural lighting and hand held cameras which enabled spontaneous shooting. It was about staying real and true to the very nature of film as a medium for expression. For example, in Godard’s debut A Bout de Souffle (Breathless), there is a scene with Jean Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg walking down a street, Seberg selling copies of the New York Herald Tribune. This was filmed entirely as it happened, using a concealed camera, with ordinary members of the public walking into frame and even interacting with the characters.

Hollywood Influence on French New Wave

The French New Wave made constant references to Hollywood directors, writers and films they revered. Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher (The Butcher) knowingly evokes the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Truffaut’ s Tirez sur le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist) was “a pastiche of the Hollywood B film”, and Godard’s A Bout de Souffle was an homage to gangster movies, replete with a minute’s silence in memory of Humphrey Bogart.

Innovative Film Making

The New Wave used innovative techniques and ideas to produce highly stylized films. Their aim was to get their film-making philosophy across to as many people as possible, but their budgets were minimal. They used techniques such as jump cuts, not only to move action along quickly but also to save money on film stock. It had the added advantage of confounding audience expectations. One of the things the New Wave directors wanted to do was remind their audience they were watching a film. They did not try to preserve a suspension of disbelief, but to shatter the illusion using elements such as extras wandering into shot or characters turning to address the audience directly. The use of improvisation complete with colloquialism and slang terminology, flashbacks, jump cuts, voice overs and symbolism – all mashed up together – frequently led to absurd, almost incomprehensible narratives. Despite this, the films themselves and the ideas behind them were nothing short of groundbreaking.

The Influence of the French New Wave

The legacy of the French New Wave lives on in the highly referential work of many modern film-makers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Quentin Tarantino and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Tarantino constantly and knowingly references other films he admires in his own work, just as the New Wave did. In Amelie, Jeunet had actress Audrey Tautou break from the sealed world of the narrative to talk directly to the audience. Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, who all rose to fame in the decade after the New Wave, are open about the influence the French filmmakers had on their own work. Stylistically and philosophically, the ideas of the French New Wave have had a huge impact on the face of modern cinema.

Further reading on cinema history which may be of interest:

German Expressionism


  • Armes, Roy. French Cinema Since 1946, Volumes 1 and 2. A. Zwemmer Ltd 1966.
  • Robinson, David. World Cinema, A Short History. Eyre Methuen, 1973.
  • Cook, Pam. The Cinema Book. BFI, 1985.