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.