The French New Wave: An Artistic School

Michel Marie,
The French New Wave: An Artistic School.
New York & Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.
ISBN: 0 631 22658 3
172 pp
US $21.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Blackwell Publishing)

It is one of the ironies of book publication in the area of cinema studies that so much seems to be produced each year – with no signs of abatement – and yet there are still fundamental areas of film history that have not yet received even basic treatment. It is striking, for instance, to realize that although a few very partial, and very pointed, studies of aspects of the French New Wave have appeared over the last decades, there was no synoptic study in English of this important movement until very, very recently. Jean Douchet’s heavily illustrated and glossy introduction appeared in English in 1999 but it was only in 2002-2003 that the New Wave received broad scholarly treatment. Ironically, two overlapping books on the subject appeared, with the author of one (Richard Neupert whose A History of the French New Wave Cinema comes from the University of Wisconsin Press) translating the work of the other (Michel Marie whose volume is called The French New Wave: An Artistic school). Both volumes offer sharp, historically rich introductions to the New Wave movement. Indeed, where the most famous earlier study – James Monaco’s The New Wave : Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette from 1976 – offered an essentially auteur-based thematic and stylistic analysis of individual works, the new volumes clearly take inspiration from the central concerns of today’s film study where history of production, distribution, and reception matter as much as text-based criticism. As Michel Marie, for instance describes his project:
I privilege . . . an analysis organized around the economic and technical trends surrounding the appearance of these films, giving comparatively less attention to thematic and stylistic factors. This focus of inquiry fits recent tendencies in cinema history which strive to give a privileged place to economic and technical mechanisms in order to anchor more full aesthetic observations in their generating conditions (2-3).

Marie’s volume is very clearly designed as an introductory text for the neophyte. Within the publishing explosion of recent years, it serves as an example of the trend toward small books that offer easily digestible guides to areas of modern cultural concern. And it certainly fulfills its task. Marie’s is a clear, straightforward account of the New Wave. In fact, following from his above-quoted declaration of principles, Marie does not rule out thematic and stylistic analysis but argues that these should be examined from within industrial contexts, and the book itself offers trenchant comments on both film production contexts and New Wave films and their traits alike. Much of the coverage here is unsurprising. For instance, Marie traces, in useful detail, the influences on the New Wave style of both a documentary fascination with capturing the flux of the everyday and a constructivist concern to rebuild everyday meanings through montage and the cherished New Wave tic of the jump-cut. Thus, even as he studies the New Wave as a specific institutional and industrial activity, he usefully examines the impact of the mode of production on theme and style which makes his book rewarding to the student reader.

Although its clearest function is to serve as a text-book or introductory work for a general audience curious about the New Wave, there are also intellectual benefits in Michel Marie’s book for the more seasoned film scholar. Marie has always been a most competent historian of modern French cinema, and his little volume is filled with information that only an on-site researcher could have come across. For example, by a close examination of both mass market magazines and speciality journals for cinephiles (such as Cahiers du cinéma, especially and predictably), Marie is able to chart precisely how the New Wave began as a general and not exclusively cinematic concept that set out to register a contemporary inflection in the mood of French culture and then mutated into a specific term to describe new cinematic experimentation. Specifically, the term “New Wave” first came up in a survey of youth mores published in L’Express in 1957, where it indicated a new ethos of fun and vitality; only gradually did it become a name for a specific film movement that invoked this ethos but increasingly started to enframe it within narratives of despair, alienation, and growing desire for political change.

As this example of Marie’s productive use of magazines and revues suggests, there is more for the scholar who reads his little book than just facts and detail. In particular, by tracing the New Wave back to a larger sensibility of 1950s youth culture and by understanding the films of the New Wave within the production context of the French film industry at the time, Marie is able to write the history of the movement differently than, say, James Monaco’s invocation of grand auteurs does. For example, in one of his most productive analyses, Marie argues for an important antecedent for the New Wave in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (France/Italy, 1956). Vadim’s work is not typically associated with the New Wave. Either it is not mentioned at all or it is criticized as a shallow example of a cinema devoted to superficial pleasures and not pushing the language of cinema in the cutting-edge ways imputed to the New Wave. But as Marie nicely shows, And God Created Woman is a key harbinger of new concern to represent the energy and restless striving of an upcoming youth generation: the film may not have found an energetic restless style to go along with its new-found subject matter, but it was hinting at the emergence of a structure of feeling that the New Wave would more fully devote itself to. Films outside or prior to the New Wave, such as And God Created Woman, are readable, then, as creating much as a field of existing conditions into which the emergent sensibility insinuated itself.

Michel Marie’s New Wave is not a thing apart – not some sort of specially privileged art movement that transcended its moment and created cultural difference or distinction. Instead, his New Wave is fully part of French film production of the moment. The New Wave is more to be understand as an inflection within an historically established French cinema, rather than as a rejection or overthrow of that cinema. To be sure, there were declarations at the time of the New Wave’s ostensible essential otherness. Some such declarations came from those who denounced the New Wave as a corruption of a French quality tradition. Others came from the New Wave film-makers themselves who ostentatiously announced their achievement of a fresh cinema that was apart from the mainstream. Marie is particularly good here on showing how the New Wave both took up a place within French film production, benefitting, for instance, from established procedures for receiving government seed-funds, and by explicit manifesto announced its supposed independence from that industry. Here, Marie notes how the New Wave clearly fit art-historical notions of the school or movement insofar as it is the declaration of difference, rather than any necessary achievement of real distinction, that often categorizes movements in the arts.

One could perhaps wish for Marie’s notion of context to extend beyond the forces of industry and production to engage more broadly with French politics and social tensions. Despite a useful Appendix in which the release of various films is listed chronologically alongside “Major Political and Cultural Events, 1956-1963,” there is little sense in The French New Wave of the social convulsions that form one important back-drop to the cultural production of the moment. Once the idea of the New Wave narrows from that of a general youth sensibility to a specific cinematic practice, Marie tends to drop all discussion of culture and society. Politics enters into his account only when it directly impacts on the internal functioning of the film industry. For instance, Marie mentions the Algerian War (and, then, just in passing) only insofar as it had consequences for film distribution when a film like Godard’s Le petit soldat(France, 1963) was banned from release. Likewise, one would never learn from Marie’s account that there were veritable riots in Paris at the beginning of 1968 when the French government tried to depose Henri Langlois as head of the Cinémathèque française (let alone that these manifestations of discontent are commonly thought to have sown some of seeds that led to the general political disruption of May ’68). Marie’s little volume would no doubt be a great teaching tool but it would need to be complemented by more works more directly concerned with the relations of cultural production to the tensions and tendencies of the social moment. For example, it could be used with profit alongside something like Kristin Ross’s wonderful Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (1994) which quite directly reads the representational practices of 1950s and 1960s French mass culture, including cinema, as symbolic responses to social history.

Michel Marie’s The New Wave: An Artistic School reminds us of the sheer extent to which we still need to write so many aspects of the basic history of film. But it also signals that that basic history cannot be envisioned as a hermetic narrative with text and industry imagined to operate in a logical way unsullied by history and social change. In this respect, there really does remain a lot to be done in a veritable history of cinema.

Dana Polan
University of Southern California.
Created on: Friday, 30 April 2004 | Last Updated: 30-Apr-04

About the Author

Dana Polan

About the Author

Dana Polan

Dana Polan is a professor in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of eight books in film and media, including The Sopranos (Duke University Press, 2009), and The French Chef (Duke University Press, 2011).View all posts by Dana Polan →