The Top 10 French New Wave Films

By Martin Keady · February 24, 2015

For many years, I didn’t know what the term “nouvelle vague” meant. A new kind of vagueness, or uncertainty? Even when I learned that it literally meant “new wave,” I still liked my original mistranslation (or too-literal translation), because it was suggestive of the movement’s emphasis on a new kind of cinematic storytelling: alive, explosive, and, yes, ultimately uncertain of anything except the unique power of cinema itself.

Historically, the movement grew in the late 1950s and 1960s out of the famous French film magazine, Cahiers du cinema, whose editor and co-founder, André Bazin, was an endless source not only of inspiration but of actual employment for many of the key figures of the French new wave, including its twin titans Godard and Truffaut. The likes of Godard, Truffaut and Rohmer began as writers, critics and editors who were dissatisfied with the largely staid and self-satisfied style and subject matter of much French post-war cinema (and indeed much of Hollywood’s output at the time) and became filmmakers themselves, putting their ideas about a new kind of cinema (young, urban and intent on escaping the studio with the new, lighter and more mobile cameras that were being developed at the time) on the big screen.

It has always been virtually impossible to precisely define all of the main nouvelle vague filmmakers, or the period to which the term applies: the films on this list include some filmmakers, such as Louis Malle, who, despite working at the same time, are not usually included in the new wave group, and some films made nearly a decade after the movement’s supposed heyday. Perhaps it is best to think of nouvelle vague less as a formal movement and more as a state of mind – a definitive break with old ideas and old movies, whose influence can still be felt today.

10. La Jetée (The Jetty) (Chris Marker, 1962)

Rarely, if ever, has one river (and its two banks) produced so many great filmmakers as Paris’s River Seine in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The right, or northern, bank of the river is the side most closely associated with the nouvelle vague filmmakers (partly because the office of Cahiers du Cinema was located on that side), whereas the left, or southern, bank (the rive gauche) became synonymous with other, largely older filmmakers including Alain Resnais, Jean-Pierre Melville and Chris Marker.

At less than half an hour long, Marker’s La Jetée remains perhaps the most extraordinary, and influential, short film ever made. It was effectively expanded and remade in America as 12 Monkeys (first the superb Bruce Willis-starring 1995 feature, and now the TV series of the same name), and has been a major influence on other time-travel movies such as Looper. However, nothing quite matches the head-spinning nature of the original.

The “jetty” in question does not straddle water but air: it is actually an observation platform at an airport, from which a young boy witnesses a bizarre and, yes, vague incident. It is only years later, after he has been used as a time-traveller by a post-apocalyptic present to journey into both the deep past and the far future, that he realises he has witnessed his own death.



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9. Claire’s Knee (Éric Rohmer, 1970)

As part of the BFI’s recent retrospective of Éric Rohmer’s films, Rohmer was described as the most enduring master of the new wave, and there is much truth in that description: he may have taken longer than many of his contemporaries to come to the party, (only making his first films long after Godard and Truffaud had achieved global fame) but once there he produced a consistently beautiful body of work that is perhaps unsurpassed by any other new wave filmmaker.

Claire’s Knee may be the definitive Rohmer movie. Like many of Rohmer’s masterpieces, such as Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray) and Conte d’hiver (A Tale of Winter), its story is slight, indeed almost negligible: a middle-aged man falls in love with a young woman, and in particular finds himself fascinated with her beautiful knees. The strange nature of this fascination is summed up by the image on the original poster, showing the man staring up at the young woman as she ascends a ladder. At first glance, it appears that he is looking up her skirt, but then it becomes apparent that he is actually transfixed by, of all things, her knee.

From this slight, even bizarre, premise, Rohmer fashions a typically masterful film (luminously shot by the great Spanish cinematographer, Néstor Almendros) about romantic obsession, as the man first flirts with Claire’s younger sister before realising that it is actually Claire (and her remarkable knees) that are the real object of his desire.



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8. Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) (Jacques Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy was the great musical filmmaker of the new wave, re-imagining the classic Hollywood musical in a distinctively modern and European setting. He made several musicals and music-indebted movies, including Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young Girls of Rochefort), which featured the all-singing, all-dancing King of Hollywood, Gene Kelly, in probably his last great role, but it is Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) that is his greatest achievement, and a truly singular film.

Les Parapluies is a tragic tale of love lost, as two young lovers (played by Nino Castelnuovo and Catherine Deneuve, in the role that would make her a star) are driven apart by the young man’s departure for war before the young woman realises that she is pregnant with his child. The young man’s failure to communicate with the young woman eventually leads her to conclude that he is no longer interested in her, and so she marries another, wealthier suitor. There is no happy ending as they only meet again years later, when they realise that they have both settled for other, less satisfactory relationships.

However, what elevates the story above pure tragedy is the music, which, in true musical tradition, is the only outlet for the otherwise unexpressed (even repressed) passions of the characters. It was written by the great Michel Legrand, one of the finest European composers of film music, and like the film itself it soars above the often ugly and always mundane reality of the Atlantic seaport where the story is set.



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7. Le Boucher (The Butcher) (Claude Chabrol, 1970)

From dancing umbrellas to bouquets of beef, the French new wave truly had something (and usually something extraordinary) for everyone, and Le Boucher is the best possible proof of that. It is a dark thriller, in which a small-town schoolteacher, Hélène, meets a man, Popaul, at a wedding, and begins a relationship with him.  Everything seems to be going well, until a number of young women in the local community are brutally murdered, and Hélène begins to suspect that Popaul, a war veteran who has inherited his father’s butcher’s shop, may be chopping up humans as well as animals.

Chabrol was known as “the French Hitchcock” and Le Boucher is the best example of his continuation of the suspense genre that Hitchcock had perfected. Like Hélène, the viewer is never quite sure of the butcher’s motivation, until the devastating ending of the film, where the apparent roles of the two main characters are reversed and Popaul himself becomes a victim while Hélène is revealed as being possibly complicit in his crimes.

6. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

The new wave filmmakers reinvigorated, indeed reanimated, classic cinematic genres, such as the musical (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg), suspense (Le Boucher) and even sci-fi, and Godard’s Alphaville just edges Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 as the great new wave sci-fi flick. What is fascinating, however, is how similar both films are, including an obsession with books and their possible destruction: Fahrenheit 451, of course, is the temperature at which paper burns; while one of the many oddities of Alphaville, the futuristic city where Eddie Constantine’s grizzled detective, Lemmy Caution, is engaged on a mysterious mission, is that dictionaries are constantly being updated because more and more words are being banned. Having been writers themselves for Cahiers du Cinema and then adapted novels for the screen, these two great cineastes were also clearly lovers of literature.

What also marks both Alphaville and Fahrenheit 451 as unusual sci-fi movies, certainly for the time they were made, was how ordinary they made the future look.  Godard, in particular, famously used his limited budget to create a futuristic city that hardly looked futuristic at all; in fact, it was all-too-contemporary in its sheer grimness and greyness. His sci-fi movie was not about rocket ships and other unimaginable inventions but instead the everyday technology that has come to control our lives, particularly computers, and the often stultifying effect that they can have on human emotions.



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5. Le Feu Follet (The Fire Within) (Louis Malle, 1963)

Louis Malle is normally not grouped together with the nouvelle vague filmmakers, partly because his background was very different to theirs (he came from a wealthy family), partly because he always worked in film rather than writing about it first and partly because his brilliant debut, Elevator to the Gallows (or Lift to the Scaffold, as it is also known), was made in 1958 and thus pre-dated the supposed birth of the nouvelle vague in about 1959/1960. However, if Lift, a superb thriller elevated (if you will excuse the pun) to greatness by Miles Davis’s stunning jazz score, is somehow considered as being outside the usually accepted parameters and time period of the French new wave, Le Feu Follet demands inclusion in any serious consideration of the great French films of the 1960s.

It is the story of Alain, a recovering addict (he is an alcoholic in the film, having been a heroin addict in the source novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, which was written in 1931 and based on the true story of his friend and fellow writer, Jacques Rigaut) who is desperately trying to find a reason not to kill himself. He visits his old friends, but finds himself increasingly disconnected with them: they seem to have resigned themselves to an almost unfeeling attitude to life, as the only way to survive. Finally, unable to convince himself that there is any good reason to remain alive, Alain takes his own life.

Music was often central to the great new wave films: having grown up in post-war France, the likes of Godard, Truffaut and Demy were absolutely saturated not only in French popular music but American pop and jazz. Malle is a particularly deft user of a soundtrack, with the landmark score for Scaffold only being surpassed in his films by his use of the great French composer Erik Satie’s music in Le Feu Follet. Satie himself effectively went mad at the end of his life, placing one piano on top of another to try and generate new sounds, and perhaps Malle recognised a kinship between his music and the state of mind of the increasingly disillusioned Alain.  Certainly, Satie’s ambient, “barely-there” piano is the perfect soundtrack to Alain’s slow, and ultimately permanent, withdrawal from the world.



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4. Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)

Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic output in the 1960s is one of the best examples of a truly great artist first reflecting and ultimately shaping the period in which they worked, up there with Shakespeare’s plays in the early 1600s and Mozart’s operas and symphonies in the late 18th century. He made so many great films in the decade, including Le Mépris (Contempt), Pierrot le fou and Week-end that it would be perfectly possible to compile a “Top 10 Godard Movies in the 1960s.” Bande à Part makes this list just ahead of those other extraordinary movies because it is the ultimate example of Godard’s crazily deconstructive energy as a filmmaker.  Ostensibly the story of a small-time heist, it is really a love-letter to cinema itself, featuring, as Quentin Tarantino (who named his own production company after the movie) put it, the first great amateur (as opposed to professional) dancing in a film, and even a slightly mocking, self-referential ending that promises a sequel to the original story.



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3. Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

If any one film is the first French new wave picture (the crest of the wave, as it were) it is surely Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) by Francois Truffaut, and to many people it remains the greatest new wave film, because it is the most overtly emotional and moving. It is partly autobiographical, based on Truffaut’s own experience as an adopted child, and tells the tale of Antoine Doinel, a young boy who is extremely sensitive but as a result is unable to fit into school or the rest of society. The title refers to the seemingly unending series of blows, or obstacles, that Antoine has to endure as he tries to escape, first from his unfeeling stepfather and then from the borstal-type detention centre that he is despatched to. Finally, he does escape, to the ocean he has always dreamed of visiting, and the sight of him plunging in and out of the sea, filmed from a succession of angles by Truffaut, is truly exhilarating and uplifting: at one and the same time, it is a boy playing in the surf and suggestive of troubled mankind returning to its ocean birthplace to rediscover its lost essence.



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2 & 1. À Bout de Souffle (At the End of Breath) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960) & Jules et Jim (Francois Truffaut, 1962)

I still cannot separate them: for me, they remain the twin peaks of the new wave, and arguably of post-war European cinema. While in many ways they are stylistically very different (À bout de souffle is based on an original screenplay, Jules et Jim an adaptation of a novel; À bout de souffle is self-consciously iconoclastic, Jules et Jim more classical in many ways), they both share the same sense of energy and artistic regeneration. In this way, the term “new wave” is incredibly fitting, because the greatest French cinema of the early 1960s was like a wave, and a tidal wave at that, sweeping away all before it as it sought new cinematic means of telling stories: jump cuts; direct addresses to camera; and a deliberate self-referentiality about film.

Godard and Truffaut actually collaborated once on À bout de souffle, with Godard developing the script from an original story outline by Truffaut (and an uncredited Claude Chabrol). But in essence, theirs was an endless collaboration and competition throughout the 1960s, as they spurred each other on to ever greater artistic heights. And that was never truer than at the beginning of the decade, when Truffaut saw what Godard had done with his original story about a gangster on the run (transforming it into an adrenaline rush of a movie, which Martin Scorsese has called “the axis of cinema” as it marks the break between old and new styles of filmmaking) and effectively raised him with his masterful adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s love-triangle novel set during WWI.

Just as Shakespeare benefited from close artistic proximity to Marlowe, and Mozart inspired Beethoven, so Godard and Truffaut drove each other on to new heights – and those heights were never higher than in these two dazzling, dizzying masterpieces.



As I suggested at the outset, the French new wave is as much a mindset as a movement, and it continued to inspire filmmakers around the world long after its original birth in the sixties, from the great 70s American filmmakers (Hopper, Scorsese, Coppola et al) who were directly inspired by it to create an “American new wave,” to the Scandinavian Dogme filmmakers of the 90s and early noughties. Above all, it is the “new” in “new wave” that is the key: all filmmakers must always attempt to find new ways to shoot, and tell, their stories. That is an endless lesson for us all.