“Riding the New Wave” revisits the seminal films of the French New Wave movement in cinema that helped to redefine the art form in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series aims not to question the films’ places on cinema’s highest pedestals, but rather to view them with an eye for the modern audience to determine if they could still entertain today.

The French New Wave extended past just the filmmakers associated with the magazine “Cahiers du Cinema.” The next most distinguished sect was called the “Left Bank,” a group with shared progressive political leanings and documentarian pasts. The “Left Bank” filmmakers’ relationship to film was also anchored differently to that of the five “Cahiers.” It was a collective “Cahier” impulse to steer French cinema away from film as an extension of literature, and toward the development of a cinematic language that stood for itself. The “Left Bank” group was far less radical in their motivations, the principle directors working frequently with some of the most popular French novelists of the time. And while I have noted the experimental feel of some of the “Cahier” films, the “Left Bank” filmmakers historically pushed the boundaries even past that; for an example, in Chris Maker made “La Jetee” in 1962, a science fiction story told completely in still photographs.

This week, I started my look into the “Left Bank” with director Agnes Varda, the most well-known female filmmaker associated with the New Wave, who might sound familiar from her academy-nominated documentary “Faces-Places” she made just last year. Varda, though not one of the original “Cahiers,” played a significant role in defining the technical qualities of a New Wave film. She was the first director within the movement to do most of her principle filming on location, the first to hire a mix of professional and non-professional acting talent and the first to deal with the pressures and potential of a shoestring budget. Absolutely opposite to her cinephile “Cahier” contemporaries, Varda claims she had seen just one film, “Citizen Kane,” before shooting her first feature.

I chose Varda’s most recognized work, her 1962 feature “Cleo from 5 to 7,” to be my first venture into the Left Bank’s work. “Cleo” follows a young, female singer in Paris as she spends her evening waiting for results from a cancer screening, results which she fears may bring dire portents. The film really does exist only from “5 to 7” – “Cleo” is shot in real time, though since it’s runtime is just a hair over ninety-minutes, a more apt title might have been “Cleo from 5 to 6:30.”

New Wave stories and characters, especially those I’ve seen of some of the “Cahiers,” seem content drifting into misogynistic territory now and again, making a film from a feminine viewpoint like “Cleo” more than a breath of fresh air. In a movement so completely and utterly dominated by men, Varda uses her platform well to tell a story from the other half of the population. It doesn’t feel expressly feminist — I don’t think it’s a movie about feminism — but it’s inclusionary, and it doesn’t feel the need to pat itself on the back for checking that box.

“Cleo” feels like a movie cut in two. There is a clear shift from the first half to the second — the former focusing more on the constricting reality of Cleo’s budding life in the limelight, the latter humanizing Cleo, bringing back a sense of normality as she sets out onto the streets of Paris on her own. There is a great visual cue for the film’s tonal shift, Cleo shedding her miles of white-dress-draper and her helmet of a blond wig, dressing down to a regular looking woman, leaving the pageantry of her profession behind.

I enjoyed post-tone-shift “Cleo” far more than the movie’s frantic first forty-five. It was difficult to stick with Cleo for some of the first half, her neurotic superstition and superficiality making her seem more of a caricature than a character worth any empathy. Since this Cleo disappears so suddenly in the second half, I tend to believe Varda created first-half Cleo as the happenstance of her habitat, as a creation of the stress and new-found glorification that can reach a young starlet’s head.

While I think a film that follows many of the story beats present in “Cleo” would work very well today, I don’t think Varda’s version has front-to-back modern appeal. The whole beginning half of the movie is pretty campy, and while the film eventually gets past that (and does well enough to earn it’s strange first part), I don’t see a lot of general audiences making it all the way to the end. The first half felt a lot like Godard’s “Breathless” just in the pacing and the feel of the story, though I think I liked “Cleo” better. I would say that “Cleo” is must-see for anyone working through the New Wave’s back catalogue. It is a nice departure from all the rest of the very male-centric films that make a New-Wave-Beginner’s-Guide type list.

(Also, as something slightly outside of the scope of the series, “Face Places” is a really endearing documentary that is great casual viewing. Varda is still alive and kicking at eighty-eight, and plays a great straight man role to her documentarian counterpart, a muralist named JR. It’s the perfect complement in a Varda double-feature.)

“I didn’t see films when I was young. I was stupid and naïve. Maybe I wouldn’t have made films if I had seen lots of others; maybe it would have stopped me. I started totally free and crazy and innocent. Now I’ve seen many films, and many beautiful films. And I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

Agnes Varda, AV Club Interview

June 30, 2009

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