Monday, May 25, 2009

Bon anniversaire! Nouvelle Vague

As the 2009 Cannes International Film Festival concludes, I'm reminded of perhaps the most important Cannes festival, 50 years ago. 

The story of that year's festival begins in 1958. Mikhail Kalatozov's The Cranes are Flying won the Palm d'or (first prize) and sparked a cinematic awakening to Soviet film (indeed, there was great films being made behind the Iron Curtain after Eisenstein). Cranes success would have been minimal if after Cannes it was not picked up for distribution. On the advice of his film critic son-in-law (who he barely knew beyond the often scathing reviews he wrote about films he had been distributing for a half-dozen years or so), French film entrepreneur Ignace Morgenstern released the Soviet film, contributing not only to its success but also to the onrush of art films (you know, foreign films) playing in small venues for eager international audiences in movie houses all over the world.

As it happened, Morgenstern's son-in-law, Francois Truffaut, would be the toast of Cannes himself the following year. Althouigh Truffaut won only Best Director for his first film, Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows), he and the film sparked perhaps the most important and enduring critical and filmmaking movement in the cinema's 114 year history--la nouvelle vague. The French New Wave. 

We can argue endlessly about when the French New Wave began (I'll post those thoughts another time). But it's hard to dispute the effect Truffaut's semi-autobiographical remembrance of a troubled childhood had on world cinema. Truffaut had been a rock star of cinema criticism, having free reign at Cahiers du Cinema, the journal started by Andre Bazin in the winter of 1951. There, in 1954, the 22-year-old army deserter, school drop-out and frequenter of women of the night penned the highly controversial "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema," which blasted the entrenched filmmakers and filmmaking system in France at the time. While the article enraged those it attacked--and even went too far for Truffaut's friend and mentor Bazin--it generated a lot of heat in Parisian film circles and made Truffaut famous. Arguing for a cinema that was personal, modern and free of the limiting constraints of the business of entertainment, Truffaut and his fellow travelers at Cahiers--Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer--mounted a relentless assault on the so-called Tradition of Quality film that had represented the best of French cinema since the end of the Occupation. Cinema du Papa was the old geezers relying on classic sources to visualize (beautifully in most cases). 

What Truiffaut and the Young Turks of the Cahiers wanted was something new, fresh. Truffaut, building upon the foundation laid in 1948 by critic/novelist/filmmaker Alexander Astruc, believed strongly that film was an art, and could be an art as well as just entertainment. But as art, it required a single author, as a novel had, or a play, or a musical composition or a painting. And that, to him and his colleagues, was the director. Their perspective became known as les politiques des auteur--the policy of authorship. 

And they particularly admired and championed Hollywood cinema, specifically the genre film. Before the early 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, and a few others, were considered by the studios--and themselves--as cogs in the motion picture wheel. Truffaut, Rohmer and Chabrol "discovered" Hitchcock and anointed him an auteur. Hitchcock was flattered. Hollywood was impressed that their business was considered art by the gladiators of what was new in cinema. The others were amused, yet were the subjects of the first books about directors' work and workings.  

In 1958, the first among the Cahiers critics to make a feature in the mold of their auteurist critique was Chabrol, who had inherited some money at the death of his wife's grandmother and started a production company. He made Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge) and Les Cousins (The Cousins) and released them a month apart in 1958. The films were shot with largely unknown actors on location with little money and a small crew and cast made up largely of friends and family. These were the tenents established by the Cahiers critics for what a new cinema should be: real, honest, shot quickly, about modern concerns, by a filmmaker who controlled himself the entire production soup to nuts. 

Of course the established French film industry and the critics who supported them (like Cahiers great "nemesis" the journal Positif) thought Cabrol was nuts. The film lacked "polish," the actors were amateurish, the story was inconsequential. Both films performed well among young audiences in Paris, but neither were particularly distinguished financially. But he was the first among the Young Turks of the Cahiers to put his film where his criticism was.

Truffaut had been the leader of the pack of the Young Turks. By 1959 he had become a rock star among film critics, writing prolifically for Cahiers and the more broadly circulating Arts magazine. In 1958 his fiance convinced her father to fund a short film by her boyfriend; Morgenstern was leery. He didn't particularly like Truffaut and didn't appreciate his constant hammering of his films. But he loved his daughter, so in 1958, he funded Truffaut's short film Les Mistons (The Brats) about a pack of 10- to 12-year old boys who don't know how to express what we know was their lust for an 18-year-old neighbor girl over a summer than to terrorize her and her boyfriend. They are mischievous in a silly way, she (the pouty and endearing Bernadette Lafont) is nonplussed, and it all ends very poignantly, a beautiful reflection of adolescence rarely seen in cinema to that time--and after, to my mind. Once Truffaut was married to Madeleine, Ignace helped his son-in-law start his own film production company, Les Films du Carrosse, and he set about to make the film that would change cinema as we know it.

It's not that The 400 Blows is such an amazing film, although it was so different from what was on the world's screens at that time. But it is an astoundingly unblinking look at a troubled kid trying to get by in a world from which he feels detached. And as important it was a box office hit, which is what legitimized it, Truffaut and the nouvelle vague. And so in that crease in time, it gained such steam that Truffaut and the theory that fueled his practice spread like wildfire. The next year at Cannes, Godard's A bout de souffle (Breathless) won the Prix Jean Vigo, usually given to a young director for his or her independent spirit. More than 100 young directors made their cinematic debut from 1958-1960. It was a new wave in film. Sadly, most of these films fared poorly with audiences and critics, while at the same time, the French cinema establishment continued to make wonderful, if less extraordinary, films throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

So, although Truffaut and his fellow Cahiers critics-turned-directors did not do what they set out to do in the 1950s--eliminate the old fuddy-duddy cinema post WWII generation grown tired and sappy--they did create a mindset that singled out the director as the author of film, and encouraged these cinematic storytellers to tell their own stories, exploring their own themes and cinematic style throughout their life's work. Make their art their expression, with an eye on being able to remain solvent enough to make the next picture, and the next,

This year's Cannes Festival marks the 50th anniversary of Francois Truffaut's emergence and the solidification of la politiques des auteur. To me it is the birthday of the rise of the film director, the birthday of the proliferation of film schools and cinema studies--which would soon veer far from what Truffaut was thinking about. May 4, 1959 is the birthday of the French New Wave and an appreciation of film and filmmakers that has rooted a generation in all that film is and can be.

For a wonderful history of the French New Wave, I encourage you to read Richard Neupert's A History of the French New Wave. An invaluable a sturdy and hardcover exploration of the movement by someone who lived through it is French New Wave, by Jean Douchet (the man caught kissing young Antoine Doinel's mother in The 400 Blows.

And Truffaut: A Biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, is a great biography, but there are other very good books about FT.

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