More noise than signal

French New Wave – Cahiers du cinema

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

In an arbitrary celebration of the Auld Alliance, let’s talk about the French New Wave of cinema, widely hailed as the most influential movements that the art of filmmaking has yet seen. Today I’m looking at some of the most notable works of the Cahiers du cinema group, try and uncover the reasons for their notability, and determine if they live up to the hype.

The 400 Blows

Some of Francois Truffaut’s films first, perhaps the most prominent director of the French New Wave, and his 1959 debut feature is, for most people, the first of the New Wave films. So what’s so New about it? Well, it marked a rejection of the studio system and their tight control on the film-making process, giving the director a greater say on how the film was shot, and also written. It also sought to broaden the scope of cinema and move away from what was seen as stale storytelling techniques and tropes, as we’d call them in Space Year 2016. Auteurism, in short – not that they invented the concept, but having this level of control over production was unusual in the studio system, and reserved only for prodigal talent such as Orson Welles, briefly, or for those rich enough to buy their own studio. I’m looking at you, Howard Hughes.

The 400 Blows delivers on that last aspect, focusing on the life of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a Parisian adolescent who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble at school, which will spiral into delinquency fairly quickly. When we see his sub-modest home life, it’s easy to feel empathy for the kid – while his step-father does the best he can for Antoine, his mother treats him as little more than an obstacle to her life, and she’s more interested in her bit on the side than any of the family. While it’s unfair to say they’re completely detached from Antoine, it’s clear he’s not the centre of their lives as was apparently common at the time, and Antoine grows more estranged from them he develops from truancy to petty theft, eventually winding up taken away to a young offender’s institute for “observation”, which probably sounds more sinister that it actually is.

Now, there’s a lot to like in The 400 Blows, most obviously for me that it oozes charm, whether that’s the compelling and naturalistic performances from the leads or the locations of the film – not exactly Paris’s grimy underbelly, but not the glamorous postcard version either. It’s all very believable, and it’s shot in such a way as to largely look contemporary today, no small feat for a film approaching sixty years old.

Enjoyable as it is, there’s a few reasons that my socks were not blown off. It’s often claimed as being somewhat semi-autobiographical for Truffaut, and it seems that many of the era could identify with Antoine’s coming-of-age story, as he seems to be left to traverse life’s travails by himself, but whether it’s changing times or fortunate family circumstance I didn’t have to deal with having such an existential upbringing. I can empathise, sure, but truly relating and connecting with Antoine is a little outside of my grasp.

More gratingly for me at least is the inescapable feeling that this film doesn’t have a point, which unfortunately for me is the point of the film. There’s no forced redemption or other narrative trick to tie a neat bow on Antoine’s life at the end, and indeed the ending of the film is almost the exact opposite, a visual of him running from the past to an open future that we can only imagine. I can appreciate the difference in the storytelling for sure, but it turns out that the reason storytelling techniques have remained roughly constant since humans started telling stories – they satisfy on some deeper level than mere intellect, so while part of my brain can applaud the intent of the narrative here, other parts are protesting they’ve been short-changed. After all, “pointless” is rarely used as a compliment.

I feel I’m rather over-empathising the negatives here – for all my protestations, this is an amazingly charming film with one of the most believable portrayals of youth and family life, entirely devoid of overblown histrionics or attempts to manipulate the audience emotionally. And as a debut film? Surely one of the best. It’s certainly well worth your time, and more thought-provoking than 98% of modern cinema. What more do you want?

Jules and Jim

I must confess, I don’t know quite what to make of Jules and Jim at all. It covers the great friendship of the titular pair in a pre-WW1 Paris, an extroverted Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) and introverted Austrian author Jules (Oskar Werner), who share a love of the Bohemian lifestyle, the arts, and eventually Catherine (Jeanne Moreau).

At the outbreak of WW1 the two are put on opposite sides of the conflict, with Jules marrying Catherine and moving away to Austria. Reconnecting after the War’s end, Jules confesses to Jim that the free-spirited Catherine has not settled into home life, despite having a young daughter. Catherine had been known to have affairs, even leave for months at a time, yet all Jules appears to want is to be in her rough vicinity.

As part of what I suppose is a plan of sorts, Jules gives Jim permission to act on the previous attraction to Catherine from the days in Paris, with the three living in relative harmony. For a while, at least, before it all spirals out of control with an eventual tragic end.

There’s certainly elements I can appreciate in here – it’s well acted, and there’s a fluidity to the film that’s perhaps a common trait to the New Wave films, with handheld camerawork and cuts that are part of the everyday visual language of filmmaking now, but were remarkable for the time, and show the inventiveness that cutting away from a studio setup can give. There’s also, at least for the early running, a believable chemistry between the leads and some sharply written, witty exchanges that gave the film a solid bank of goodwill to carry into the rather less believable closing reels.

My only real problem with Jules and Jim is that I’m not buying what the narrative’s selling. This relationship may well be based on a largely autobiographical novel, but there’s not much about the relationship post-WW1 that I could find remotely believable – in stark contrast to the much better realised pre-WW1 friendship between the titular pair. By the end it’s veered into wild melodrama, although I’d rather given up on caring about the film by that point.

Certainly this is worth watching to see the evolution of cinematic techniques that we take for granted these days, which is fascinating in and of itself. As a romantic drama, I’m much less convinced of its remaining potency.


Breathless, or À bout de souffle, marks the first feature from the other leading light of the New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, and would commonly be held up as the best the genre has to offer. Which is surprising, given that I’d argue that it’s objectively terrible in several areas, but that’s perhaps getting ahead of myself.

Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) earns himself a promotion from ‘petty thug’ to ‘public enemy’ when he murders a policeman, seemingly in order to avoid a speeding ticket, which brings into question his risk/reward calculations. He flees to Paris, hoping to lose himself amongst the crowds and reclaim some money that is owed to him to allow him to escape to Italy.

He becomes reacquainted with Patricia (Jean Seberg), an American student and would-be journalist, and Michel sets about seducing her, not just for the usual reasons but to gain another hiding place in Paris. However, his romantic options are rather limited by the police’s ever-closing net as their manhunt shuts down Michel’s options.

There’s a few problems for me in Breathless, and I suppose I’ll deal with the conventional ones first – chiefly that Michel, despite his insistence that he’s modelling himself on Humphrey Bogart, has all the magnetism of Humphrey Bogart’s toenail clippings, and this unlikeable, murderous, misogynistic tool is not someone I want to see leading a film. The model may perhaps be closer to Jimmy Cagney’s gangster roles, but Jean-Paul Belmondo ain’t no Jimmy Cagney.

If the main influence that has trickled down from Breathless is the freedom to experiment with how films are made, we should at least raise the counterpoint that for a lot of the time, those things were done that way for very good reasons. Things like, for example, using filmstock that’s actually available in usable quantities, such that you’re not stuck splicing 18m lengths of Ilford HPS photo stock together before shooting. Things like using some studio lights to augment the natural light, so you’re not having to push all the ISO400 stock a stop to 800. This unorthodox choice of filmstock severely limited the camera choice, leading to my greatest annoyance in the film.

The Eclair Cameflex was the only camera able to function with this frankenfilm, and not only did it not synchronise sound recording, it sounded like an elephant skeleton falling down a metal staircase inside an echo chamber, so near as damnit this entire film has been ADR’ed. A relatively common occurrence in these New Wave films, given the penchant for guerilla, permit-less outdoor shootings, but here’s it’s done singularly ineptly. I try not to get hung up on technical flaws, but it’s such a glaring annoyance that I could not take any of the film seriously, as none of the voices sound remotely like they’re coming from the same room as the bodies, and what little Foley work is there is so badly mixed that it comes across as parody.

Likewise, Breathless may well be the start of the jump cut revolution, but it’s actual effect is something of a mixed bag. While it’s used in some car driving sequences in ways that are used so commonly today that it’s achingly contemporary, it’s also rather puzzlingly used to absolutely no effect in some dialogue scenes, which these days just gives it the feel of a badly produced YouTube vlog.

It’s not completely without merit – being the root of influence for these aspects of modern cinematic technique lend it some respect as a historical document, and there’s an undeniable energy and vibrancy to it, but overall, there’s just too much wrong with it to actually be a decent film. Important? I’d grant you that. Classic? Nope – too much of it is much too rubbish to be mentioned in the same league as your Citizen Kanes or Lawrences of Arabias. To be honest, I enjoyed it so little I can’t even recommend it on the historical level – read up on it if you like, but as a film, rather like most lower league fitba, it’s a dismal 90 minutes.

The Butcher

The most recent of the films we’ll be covering today, with Claude Chalbroul’s Le Boucher released in 1970. I’ll say upfront that I liked the film well enough, but I have no clear idea why this would be included as a noteworthy film in the New Wave movement.

In rural France, a friendship forms between our titular butcher Popaul (Jean Yanne) and local school headmistress Helene (Stephane Audran), despite his habit of complaining, understandably I suppose, about the things he’s seen at war. It seems like a romance is forming, but it’s put on hold when murders start occurring in the vicinity, and Helene gradually becomes convinced that Popaul is the perp.

The film seems to spend some time in it’s middle stretch asking us to wonder who the killer is, although a quick revisitation of Ebert’s Law of Conservation of Characters will rather puts rest to that idea. Especially, y’know, given the title of the film and that. The final reels fall into rather more familiar narrative territory, as Helene fears for her life from her devoted, stalky meat vendor.

It’s aiming to be a suspenseful thriller in he mould of Hitchcock’s, and to me in particular it seems to owe a great debt to Psycho – the same juxtaposition of horrific violence with mundane, low-key everyday life. Unfortunately for what I suspect for most people would be a positive comparison is less so for me, as I’ve never been overly taken with Psycho, and I have largely similar feelings on The Butcher.

It’s probably a better, or at least more interesting film though, with I’d argue better central performances and the war trauma that Popaul suffered in a more compelling reason for going off the rails than Norman Bates’ family problems. The early repartee between the leads is enjoyable, creating a believable relationship between two people with different needs from others.

But all that said, while it’s arguably a more intellectual thriller than most, particularly in the early running, there’s still a limited degree of credit than can be bestowed upon it for this angle given that, at the end of the day, it’s a knife-wielding nutter terrorising a woman – it’s not that far removed from Halloween.

As to it’s inclusion in the starter list of New Wave films, I’m a little puzzled. Perhaps I’m now so familiar with the way thrillers are made today and so unfamiliar with how they were before that I can’t notice the advances this made, but to me this seems like an entirely competent and enjoyable film, but one that doesn’t come close to the heights of Hitchcock’s career. Good film, yes, enduring classic, don’t think so.

My Night at Maud’s

Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film, if nothing else, proves to be much more straightforward to recap than many others that we’ve talked about today. Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) works as a mild mannered engineer out in the provinces, and a Catholic who tries to remain chaste before marriage, although being human he has had his ‘failures’, as I suppose you’d have to say from a religious point of view. While he sees a girl at mass that he’d like to get to know, the vast bulk of this film concerns a meeting with an estranged old friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez) who introduces him to Maud (Françoise Fabian).

Indeed, it’s not too much of a reduction to say that the essence of the film is a linguistic three way between Maud, Jean-Louis, and Vidal as they discuss various aspects of how Jean-Louis Catholicism affects his view on love and relationships, reducing down later to a hot one-on-one session between Jean-Louis and Maud as they get down to some seriously intense talk-action, which may just lead to Jean-Louis having another one of them there relapses.

It’s a movie of conversation and ideas, so it’s not a great choice if you’re not in the mood for great slabs of dialogue. The good news is that it’s really well written dialogue, that’s very well delivered, and makes for a very enjoyable film. It’s nice to see intelligently rendered characters talking intelligently about ideas, which is by no means unique to this film or the French New Wave, but it sure seems like something that’s influenced the films of Richard Linklater or Jim Jarmusch.

As a film, My Night at Maud’s doesn’t have the manic dynamism or flourishes that’s characterised the other films we’ve spoken about, but perhaps it reflects a different pillar of the New Wave’s ethos – crediting its’ audience with intelligence, and as it’s treating you with respect it’s rather easier to respect it. I can’t find a great deal to say about it, but it’s the certainly the most rewarding film we’ve touched on tonight on the intellectual level.

Pierrot the Madman

For around ten minutes, Pierrot the Madman seems like it will be about a man, Ferdinand Griffon (Jean Paul Belmondo) going through something of a midlife crisis in his marriage. Ten minutes after that, it’s departed so far from that expectation that it’s an entirely different film, with him bumbling across France with Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina), who I’d initially thought was a babysitter, but turns out she’s actually running guns for Algerian rebels.

Before long they’ve murdered Marianne’s boyfriend, and are being hunted by the cops and the rebels, hence the cross-France bumbling, but to be honest even this convoluted synopsis is implying a level of narrative order in the film that’s not truly present.

It’s a melange of disconnected imagery, speeches to camera, set-piece chases seemingly out of nowhere, and arbitrary voiceovers. It bounces alone in tone and, well, genre, throughout the film in a way that ought to be roundly irritating, but for me at least somehow isn’t. It has a real energy and vibrancy that powers thought the unevenness that it creates. There’s a much more charismatic turn from Belmondo in this than in Breathless, and while believable isn’t a word I’d throw around in relation to this film the interplay between Karina and he is convincing.

I don’t think I can do a particularly great job of explaining quite why I liked this so much more than Breathless, but the absence or at least curtailing of the more amateurish missteps of Goddart’s prior film makes a substantial difference.

For listeners who joined us on our look at Takeshi Kitano’s output, the best comparison we can come up with is Sonatine – although we’re bigger fans of the Japanese film than this one. We can’t quite work our way around to a recommendation, but it’s a substantial leap in quality over Breathless.

We’ll have more hot old French film action on the 20th when we cover some of the work of the Left Bank group. A haw he haw.