5 of the Most Beautiful Scores of The French New Wave

By Clare Nina Norelli · April 30, 2018

In post-World War II Paris there emerged a group of revolutionary filmmakers and cinephiles. Collectively known as the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), these filmmakers ushered in a new age of filmmaking, introducing exciting technical innovations and ideas that would go on to inspire and influence subsequent generations of movie makers. The Nouvelle Vague pushed the auteur philosophy of cinema, which decreed that one person, the director, should be responsible for controlling all aspects of a film so as to garner a singular artistic vision. However, these auteurs still had many collaborators, including a handful of incredibly versatile and imaginative composers.

Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) (Truffaut, 1959)

Composer: Jean Constantin

In 1959 Francois Truffaut, a prominent film critic who wrote for French film magazine Cashiers du cinéma, debuted his first film Les quatre cents coups at the Cannes Film Festival. Widely considered the first film of the Nouvelle Vague, Les quatre cents coups concerns the trials of a Parisian boy called Antoine Doinel and was inspired by Truffaut’s own troubled boyhood. Jean Constantin’s score for the film conveys a bittersweet nostalgia through his lushly orchestrated melodies, and he contrasts this with fast-paced, Latin jazz passages that embody Antoine’s youthful boisterousness.

À bout de souffle (Breathless) (Godard, 1960)

Composer: Martial Solal

Cool jazz weaves in and out of the soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s stylish debut feature film about a suave, Humphrey Bogart-fixated criminal and his American lover. Composed by Martial Solal, the choice of a jazz score was fitting given the music’s pre-existing cinematic associations with gritty urban environments and crime. But it’s not all hard-boiled: Solal’s swooning love theme weaves in and out of the soundtrack, evoking the giddy reverie of a young couple in love.

Cléo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7) (Varda, 1962)

Composer: Michel Legrand

Agnes Varda’s 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7 follows ninety minutes in the life of Cléo, a beautiful but capricious pop singer who is waiting to hear the results of a medical test she suspects will be dire. Varda’s camera follows Cléo as she wanders the Parisian streets and Michel Legrand’s score follows along, emphasizing the passing of time as Cléo counts down the minutes until she receives her prognosis. In the film’s heart-wrenching climax, Legrand even makes a cameo as Cléo’s jovial accompanist. He presents her with a newly-composed song that is very different to her usual fare and she sings along mournfully, its solemn lyrics forcing her to confront her mortality directly.

Le mepris (Contempt) (Godard, 1963)

Composer: Georges Delerue

For Godard’s 1963 film about a disintegrating marriage, Georges Delerue wrote a stunning theme for Bridget Bardot’s character Camille. The theme conveys all of the sadness and longing that plays out on screen in Le mepris, functioning as a requiem for lost love, and its haunting beauty rivals not only Bardot’s but that of the spectacular coastline of Capri where the film is set.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (Demy, 1964)

Composer: Michel Legrand

In 1964 Jacques Demy’s musical Les parapluies de Cherbourg was released to wide acclaim, winning the coveted Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in the same year. Unusually, every line of dialogue in the ambitious film is sung. Composer Michel Legrand returned to work with Demy after previously contributing a score to 1960’s Lola, writing evocative music to accompany Demy’s dialogue. The film’s stirring signature song “Je ne pourrai jamais vivre sans toi” (“I Will Wait for You”) is an ode to lost love that swells and dives in imitation of heartbroken sobbing and is heard when the film’s central couple Guy and Geneviève part ways. The song has remained beloved over the fifty plus years since it was first composed, with numerous singers including it in their repertoire.

Clare Nina Norelli is a composer, musician, teacher and writer. She currently writes Scores on Screen, a column on film music for MUBI’s Notebook and in February of 2017 her first book Soundtrack from Twin Peaks was published as part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series. You can follow her on twitter @clarenorelli.

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