The watch list for any academic film course almost always rounds out to something like: a Chaplain comedy, some Technicolor musical, four impenetrable foreign films, two other silent-era juggernauts and Citizen Kane. Which is fine — in order to begin to form an understanding of how cinema has developed and grown and evolved in the past hundred years, it’s absolutely necessary to revisit the timeless classics time and time again.
Now, without disputing the all too well-deserved status of something like “Le Voyage dans la Lune” or “City of Lights,” there’s a simple question to be asked: How beneficial is it to force yourself to enjoy something just because of the cultural weight it holds? It’s essentially an a question of pleasure versus purpose; when I sit down to read a book, do I try to wade my way through Tolstoy, or do I reread “The Lightning Thief”? How great can something truly be if the process of experiencing it isn’t?
In my own personal experience, I’ve found plenty of both. I’ve sat down to watch classic films that I end up loving as truly great entertainment, and I’ve stood up from watching certain undisputed classics to find that the only thing I watched in the previous two hours was the same two gifs on the front page of Reddit. It’s difficult because as someone who likes to believe they are fan of cinema, to walk away from something like “Tokyo Story” feeling like I could have dozed off is disappointing — more for me than for the movie itself.
Which brings us to the French New Wave.
I wanted personally to challenge myself with learning more about cinema’s past, and everywhere I looked pointed to this seven to eight year period beginning in the late 1950s. It’s probably the most paradigm shifting movement in cinema in the past seventy years. It’s probably an era that would be mentioned by any accolade-encumbered director were they to be asked about influence and produced a great swath of truly entertaining pieces of work that will burn the whole point of writing this column to the ground.
Along with my decades-late judgment for a slate of undisputed classics, I hope to provide enough historical context for the films so that I can fully understand the implications of the movement. While the main point of this series is to look back on these films with a modern eye, learning about their place in the history of the art form is just as important. It’ll be my first time viewing most of these films as well. Putting it all together, my goal by the end is to have created something that is as readable as it is informative. A lot of the resources related to the topic already written online read like textbooks, so let’s hope this never reaches that.
In order to best understand the impetus for such a significant shift in the world of cinema, I found a good starting point in Alexandre Astruc’s 1948 essay “The Birth of a New Avante-Garde: La Camera-Stylo,” an almost prophetic essay published ten years before the New Wave exploded onto the international stage. In his essay, Astruc writes about the “tired and conventional everyday films” which “put our sensibilities in danger of being blunted,” a rather irate comment on the rote and predictable nature of early post-war cinema. Largely, this comes from, as Francois Truffaut would later write, cinema’s plague of underestimate; the majority of studio productions going to market at that time were reproductions or recreations of stories already told in some other medium, mainly literature and theater. It wasn’t until the New Wave that cinema began to develop its own language as an art form, Astruc even writing in his essay that “from this day onward it will be possible for cinema to produce works which are equivalent in their profundity to the works of Faulkner and Malraux.” It was the New Wave that first transformed cinema from “nothing more than a show” (Astruc) that sold tickets and filled auditoriums to an artistic medium capable of competing with the best. Astruc called this new era of cinema the age of “Camera-Stylo” (or Camera-Pen) in reference to the authorship filmmakers were beginning to take over their pieces of work. Film would no longer be a second thought.
It’s difficult to point exactly to the first film of the movement, as the “French New Wave” designation was created retrospectively. After a bit of research, I found that a good place to start is Claude Chabrol’s 1958 film “Le Beau Serge” (“Handsome Serge”), as it is the first of the major films by the New Wave’s six major directors. “Serge” is the story of a successful Frenchman, Francois, returning to the town of his youth and reuniting with his childhood best friend Serge, a burned-out drunk who never left.
A new coat of contemporary culture could be painted onto the narrative within “Serge” and it would work almost immediately. The story is based in a few fairly timeless themes: a successful man returns changed to his unchanged home, stagnant denizens of a small town slipping into moral, physical, and religious decay, rivalry between childhood friends who take different paths in life. Without many tweaks at all, this sort of story could be told quite successfully about some small town in middle America; it’s a story easy to empathize with as well as one easy to follow.
“Serge” ran into some problems with its secondary narrative, a love triangle between Francois, Serge and Serge’s sister-in-law, Marie. I guess every story probably has to have some love-and-strife element, but in a lot of ways Serge’s involvement in the relationship between Francois and Marie (who also happens to be Serge’s sister-in-law) gets in the way of a far more interesting relationship — the strained friendship between Serge and Francois. This is mostly felt in a pretty slow third act that drifts away from the main conflict it had established before. I would have liked to see both Francois and Serge’s developments dwelled upon more at the end. Serge has his big change-of-heart moment, but it’s just one short scene, and Francois ends fairly static.
“Serge” hit its peak almost right in the middle of its runtime during Serge’s lamenting graveyard monologue. It’s the first time Serge’s self-stifled humanity cracks through the burned-out husk of a man he was. My favorite part of the monologue is Serge’s abhorrence at the presence of his little town’s historic graveyard: He cries out at the futility his life and the lives of the people around him when a child can be buried in the same dungy plot next to his grandfather, and his grandfather before that. It also does well to seed the ending, Serge showing the pain he has felt because he was never able to leave the town and grow, blaming that on the child he never meant to conceive. It’s a fantastic sequence that was worth a second viewing for me.
Outside of themes and narrative, both Chabrol’s style of cinematography and his use of non-actors in smaller roles are very New Wave. Much of the film is composed of slow, tracking shots that try to play out through the whole scene, and I think there is only one close up in the entire movie. Chabrol actually grew up in Sardent, the town “Serge” was filmed in. In a short television piece that was aired a decade after “Serge” premiered in theaters, Chabrol talks about his close relationship to the area and how much it meant to him to bring a story relatable to the people of Sardent to the rest of the world. The baker in the film was the actual baker from Sardent, and a childhood friend of Chabrol’s.
Though the ending leaves a bit more to be desired, “Le Beau Serge” has enough relatable plot points and uniquely great moments that I think it would hold up well to the modern eye. It does well to create believable tension between the characters it presents, and for the most part follows up on that tension well. I don’t think the movie is for everyone, but overall if someone is looking for something a little more slow-paced to sink their teeth into, “Le Beau Serge” puts plenty on the plate.
“The cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it, and in particular painting and the novel. After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or a means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language.”
— Alexandre Astruc; “THE BIRTH OF A NEW AVANT-GARDE:
LA CAMERA-STYLO” (30 March, 1948)