My summer column “Riding the New Wave” began with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek introduction alluding to the dry and predictable intro-to-film-study watchlist that a student would be given in any film school anywhere (probably, I didn’t actually do very much research on that part). I think any angst I had about those sorts of unsurprising required viewings came from a long-held belief that there should be room in the arts for a more nuanced discussion on what it means to view a “classic,” and what the goal of those 90-or-so minutes might be.
Because a lot of the time, no matter how much of a pillar of cinema — no matter how influential, inspiring or affecting — the film may be, it just might be a bit boring, a slow watch in the eyes of the stimulation-seeking modern viewer. At that point the divide between those who watch for nothing more than entertainment, and those who think of themselves as champions of “high-art” begins to rear its ugly face. I think locking someone into one side of that divide is terrible, and the column was my attempt to begin to bridge the gap, diving into the New-Wave back-catalogue to try and find a selection of films that might satiate those on both ends of the spectrum. A starting point for those who want to watch something with some historical weight but might not have the cinematic stamina to make it through “Roshomon.” (As an aside, I made a few name-dropping remarks like this in the other bookend of this series that didn’t sit well with a reader. I think the criticism of my criticism of criticism pushed the column to be more review-like and semi-academic, which wasn’t what I necessarily wanted on the outset. I had hoped to make it a little looser and more readable, but I guess receiving diminutive feedback is the price you pay).
Now, that was the goal, not necessarily the execution.
I think there are two central flaws to the premise I just laid out. One being that, though I tried my best, I am not immune to my own preference, meaning I just plain didn’t like some of the movies that I watched, no matter how cinematically important they proport to be. I think, had I brought along with me a team of similarly motivated writers into the depths of the New Wave, we together would have been able to compile a more diverse list of films that can both hang with the “Casablanca”s of the world and manage to entertain in their own right. Specifically looking back at the series, I think the genres that Godard operates in just don’t excite me like they might someone else, making my hot-“Breathless”-takes worthless.
The other central flaw was the lack of representation. I ended up watching around a dozen midcentury French films over the summer, which just isn’t enough to fully put a finger to the pulse of the movement. This issue would have had a similar solution, enlisting some other writers to watch and critique with me, but this was supposed to result in a column, so that just wasn’t going to happen. However, I don’t want to spend this entire conclusion on the pitfalls of “Riding the New Wave” — at some point I need to start talking about the films.
So, without further ado, let’s begin with this fated fun and educational French film list. Clocking in at number one (one through three really) is the work of director Eric Rhomer. Rhomer made a series of six films in the late ’60s and early ’70s called “Rhomer’s Six Moral Tales,” and I watched the later half of the sextet for the fifth installment in the series. I think Rhomer’s films might be the best starting point for anyone looking to dip their toes in the New Wave, because they are very recognizable character studies that deal with somewhat flawed and adrift protagonists. The interpersonal dramas he places on screen have a lot of familiar and accessible elements that don’t lose anything over time. They’re also just wonderfully shot and paced (I think “Claire’s Knee” might be a five star film), and watching one after another has a cool effect, since Rhomer reuses the same basic story beats in each one — all of the moral tales are, in some way, about a man who drifts away from a love, only to return in the end.
The work of the two Left-Bank group directors that I watched would probably slot next in line. The Left-Bank group was a collection of directors who were separate from the original “Cahiers du Cinema,” the filmmakers who all got their start as critics at the same magazine. I wrote more about the similarities and differences in the sixth article of this column. The Left-Bank films I watched, “Cleo from Five to Seven” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” are fairly different, but they noticeably set themselves apart from the “Cahiers” films. “Cleo” and “Umbrellas” seem more attuned to sensitivity than the works of Godard and Truffuat, the two leading Cahiers. The Left-Bank films deal with less violence and criminality and end up feeling a lot lighter in general.
It feels strange placing them so low on my personal totem pole, but I just don’t think “Breathless” and “Jules and Jim” really hold up. They’re movies that have plenty of worth if viewing them in a specifically academic setting, but for the purposes of this column, I don’t think they’re the way to go.
I hope in some strange way my previous eight-thousand disembodied words on classic French film has guided you towards a life of well-rounded cinema taste and appreciation. I hope that I haven’t dissuaded you from enjoying Godard or hating Rhomer —as it turns out, creating a list of films that is supposed to work for everyone is something I can’t do, because I am not everyone. Nonetheless, there is so much more past this column to discover and explore, and I would feel accomplished if I had motivated you to continue in even the smallest of ways.