How Did the French New Wave Influence American Cinema?

In the history of cinema, there have been a couple of inspiring movements that have gone on to reshape the industry. One of those was the French New Wave. It was inspired by the earlier decade’s American noir and also iconic movements like the Italian Neo-Realism as well.

Somewhere around the 1950s, a group of young French directors set out to destroy cinematic iconoclasm. They scrutinized the norms of filmmaking, rejecting years of film tradition for something new and unique.

French cinema was previously under the thumb of Nazi censorship. After World War II in 1946, the Nazi influence ended but it was replaced by a flooding of foreign films. A group of young French directors at the time weren’t too happy about the state of the country’s cinema.

What started as a simple criticism of the prevailing cinema in the day, grew into something much bigger. A scathing piece on Cahiers du Cinema, a French film journal, would kickstart a movement whose influence is still felt in many modern movies.

The new wave liberators didn’t always see eye to eye with the country’s leading directors. However, a few iconic names eventually got on board namely, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Demy, among others. The new wave and its influence would eventually cross borders, spreading like wildfire across continents.

The 1953 comedy Little Fugitive, became the first American film made in the infancy of the French New Wave. There have been countless more since then, and today we take a look at how the FNW contributed to the American film industry. 

How the French New Wave influenced how movies were made in the U.S 

The indie generation and the “New Hollywood” era

Before the French New Wave, indie films weren’t very popular, at least not indies as we know them today anyway. They were few and far in between, and often engulfed by the propaganda of big studios who sought to hog the limelight and snuff any attention directed elsewhere. It was time to take back the power of film as a revolution wrestled it from the grasp of cinema heavyweights.

Little Fugitive, one of the first truly Indie American films, showed new wave directors that filmmakers could be successful outside of big studios. 

That inspired the French to follow suit. New wave director Francois Truffaut walked the same path resulting in French indies such as The 400 Blows. After that, the new wave over time became associated with independent filming.

If you want something done right, you have to make movies yourself. That was the idea for many new wave directors who felt French cinema had lost its touch and needed a little correcting.

Filmmakers would produce movies out of their own pockets, which meant they had to work with a shoestring budget and a lot of improvisation. Contemporary set designs were too expensive hence these directors would often shoot with no pre-constructed sets.

Also, the FNW looked up to the Neorealists and how they would shoot on location and replace fancy studio lights with available and natural sources for a more authentic feel. Films shot like this seemed casual and easy-going. They would randomly film on location, using natural settings (including direct sound and sunlight) with little changes in the mise en scene.

New wave directors would drive around for hours looking for great shooting locations that would be used as-is. Alternatively or additionally, they could set up minimalistic sets that fit in with their budgets.

With an excellent vision, you don’t need expensive equipment to make a great movie. That was the idea that the new wave directors were trying to put forward. It became an important philosophy of the American New Wave that rose from French inspiration, somewhere around the 1960s.

Crucial inventions such as portable cameras also played a huge role in enabling these types of films to thrive. Independent movies would eventually find a place and were well received in “New Hollywood,” even earning previously rare nominations for awards.

Some iconic American directors who made huge leaps in their careers with independent film launchpads include Robert Aldrich and Stanley Kubrick. 

The FNW inspired cinema verite style of filming 

In the past, studio movies adhered to unwritten laws about genre. Filmmakers would make movies that strictly adhered to certain traditional niches. If they didn’t, critics would have a field day with the cast and crew, poking fun at plot holes, a lack of identity, among other perceived injustices.

These days it’s a lot common to find movies with chameleon themes that make it hard to group them in one category or the other. The French New Wave movies opened up that can of worms, showing that film could still thrive without a focus on a niche. Hence directors had the freedom to tell everyday stories, relatable to the common man.

Cinema verite is a documentary style of filmmaking often with a disregard for niche groupings. It doesn’t bog itself down with genre classifications but instead focuses on everyday human drama, which doesn’t always involve explosive shootouts and world-saving mysteries.

Handheld videography (i.e. found footage) meant frames didn’t look all that professional as well, which added to the believability factor.

Television and mainstream cinema overlooked social milieus, which both deemed not interesting enough to get screen time. The new wave pointed a flashlight at these “mundane” issues as film rose above the story to elevate the character. Audiences began identifying with the characters they saw on film.  

The FNW popularized long takes, fourth wall breaks, and jump cuts 

The New Wave introduced the world to the concept of long takes, or rather made it popular, and showed its numerous benefits for film. French directors at the time felt movies were a little disconnected from audiences. The stories seemed like they were happening in an alternate reality and came off like fantasy.

Long takes became popular in films, as they made the plot play out more organically and engagingly. Viewers could now be there in the moment with the characters, experiencing the scenes in real-time, like an observer at a stage play.

Directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles were huge admirers of the FNW. Even Martin Scorsese believed in its ideals and took inspiration from its principles. He once said that every filmmaker around the world who has worked since the FNW, regardless of whether they’ve seen the movies, has been influenced by it. Scorsese described the new wave as a tidal wave that submerged cinema in every place it touched.

The long take is a concept that Hitchcock, Welles, and Scorsese put to good use in many of their movies. Welles, for instance, implores a long opening take to hold suspense for this 1958 noir, A Touch of Evil. By not breakaway from tense events in the scene, he is able to use suspense like a magnet to keep viewers hooked.

As the new wave gained momentum, so did jump cuts. Previously a no-no in mainstream cinema in favor of continuity editing, which was obviously a lot smoother, filmmakers began thinking “why not?”

Jump cuts became especially rife in the cinema verite niche, where they further cemented the reality of the events playing out on screen. The new wave showed American cinema that free editing could be useful. It no longer just served for comedic effect or to speed up time, it became an important narrative tool with many other purposes.

In addition to discontinuity editing, the FNW also regularly broke cinema conventions, setting the trend in American cinema. It became common for characters to directly speak into the camera as if sharing a room with the audience. Center framing became popular as well.

For example, The 400 Blows by Truffaut features a beach scene in one of the film’s closing moments when a character hauntingly stares into the camera for a while. By breaking the fourth wall, FNW directors felt that they established a bond between audience and filmmakers.

While it made the audience aware that they were watching a movie, it addressed cinema disbelief and created a more personnel experience for the director and viewers. 

Top American Movies Influenced by the French New Wave 

Little Fugitive, the movie that introduced the new wave to America 

Little Fugitive was one of the first American films born out of the revolution of the French New Wave. It gave to the FNW just as much as it took. American director Morris Engel, one of three directors behind the indie comedy, was fascinated by the concepts of the new wave.

His contribution proved pivotal to lay the entry of radical French ideas into Hollywood.

He was so integral to its success in the American film industry that Francois Truffaut, an iconic French director of the 1960s, said that the new wave wouldn’t have gotten as much influence in the U.S without him. In an interview with the New Yorker, Truffaut stated that Little Fugitive was the stepping stone for the French movement into America.

Morris Engel is considered one of the pioneers of modern independent films in American cinema as well. He made Little Fugitive outside of big studios on a budget of about $30,000 at the time. That translates to about $300,000 in 2021.

Just like the new wave advocated for, Engel’s independent production got away from generic industry themes and techniques. The Hollywood industry at the time wasn’t as expressive and open to new ideas as it is now. It was formulaic with its plot and spirit, and there was little room for filmmakers to experiment. The film allowed the director to wield his more creative side, which shows in how he shoots the movie, among other aspects.

Little Fugitive details the story of two brothers, namely Lennie and Joey, and how a practical joke between them goes horribly wrong. Little brother Joey is never taken seriously by his older sibling and his gang due to his stature. The latter play a joke on Joey by staging a toy gun shooting to seem as though Joey has shot and killed his brother. He flees to Coney Island to escape the police after Lennie’s friends tell him that the authorities will surely be out to get him now.

However, Joey soon forgets his troubles in an amusement park, spending the day on pony rides, eating cotton candy, and sampling the arcades. Lost brothers eventually reunite after a frantic search. They make it home just in time to convince their mother, who had been away visiting, that everything was fine in her absence.

The movie takes us through life from the eyes of a young boy. A shoulder-strapped camera enabled Engel, who did a lot of the shooting himself, to blend in unnoticeably with the crowds. One of the goals of the FNW was to capture the authenticity of real life.

Filmmakers would shoot in random locations, in crowds of everyday people and unaltered backdrops. Engel follows in those footsteps, creating what in hindsight may have been a prototype for the Steadicam, to enable filming without raising attention.

He sneaks in among the people to retain the flow of normalcy, mixing illusion with a huge slice of reality for a convincing plot. Engel’s career as a still photographer, where he often camouflaged unseen to capture life’s raw moments, translated to how he viewed filming and how he made the movie.  

Speaking of the plot, Little Fugitive, couldn’t have had a simpler story, yet it thrives for the genuine effort put into the production. The movie takes away emphasis from the plot in French New Wave fashion, instead channeling attention more to the characters and the “how” instead of the “what.”

Hannah and her Sisters (1986) 

In the American film industry, Woody Allen is as big a name as it gets. The comedy king has 24 nominations and 5 Oscar wins to his name. He also holds the title of the funniest screenplay on WGA’s compilation of all time.

Here’s the trailer:

Allen is one of the New Hollywood directors, an American film movement that was inspired by the French wave a few years earlier. Most of his films reminisce over the FNW and you can feel its influence in how he makes his movies. From shattering the fourth wall to illusionary editing that deceives with long takes, many of his films bear the new wave symptoms.

Woody Allen time and again channels an important new wave concept called “la camera-stylo.” This was one of the building blocks of the new wave, where FNW directors believed filmmakers should use the camera the way a writer does his pen. What that means is that films should be more expressive, especially in terms of portraying what characters are feeling. That could be in the way of a narrator or by some means of depicting internal conflict.

For instance, Hannah and Her Sisters features lots of monologues as characters wrestle aloud with their inner struggles. We as viewers are therefore able not just to experience the external conflicts but also what makes the characters tick.

Allen directs and stars in his acclaimed comedy-drama Hanna and Her Sisters. The plot unfolds in between two thanksgiving parties, and across three primary story arcs. Three sisters struggle with sibling rivalry and complicated relationships. Hannah is married to a financial advisor called Elliot. She is the go-to for advice and the example of success in the family.

Holly is an unemployed actress trying to make meaning of her life with various self-employment ventures. Elliot falls in love with the third sister Lee and he struggles with his feelings and coming clean. The film explores the intricate web of stories from the complicated lives of all three sisters.   

A “God is beautiful” title gets things rolling. When the words are gone, a beautiful woman comes into view in a closeup. A party is in full gear and she is standing in the doorway, engrossed in conversation. Soon after we cut to a middle-aged man who has been ogling her for some time now. He’s also been narrating his feelings for her all scene long.

This use of subtitles and narration to get underneath the mind of characters is rhetoric New Wave quality. One that Allen continually uses throughout the film, most notably when Woody’s character contemplates suicide and an internal back-and-forth eventually sees him back out.  

Long wide shots are a perennial favorite in Woody Allen movies, which feel more like a play for the amount of time some takes run on for. Gentle-flowing camera movements keep up with the uninterrupted dialogue and action, enabling the lens to disappear from memory. Scenes, therefore, feel more real.

Hannah and Her Sisters is an example of the creativity of Woody Allen, and how he does so much with so little in terms of budget. The movie cost about $6 million to make, which adjusts to about $14 million in 2021. A rather modest budget considering that the average studio budget for a movie is $65 million. 

Lost in Translation (2003) 

Another New Hollywood star, Francis Ford Coppola was one of many modern filmmakers to have drawn inspiration from the FNW. He rose to fame in the 1970s alongside other late 90s new wave-motivated directors like Quentin Tarantino, who was a huge fan of the movement. He even dedicated Reservoir Dogs to Jean-Luc Godard and named his production company after a French film he loved.

Here’s the trailer:

Coppola’s daughter Sofia grew up in a filmmaking household. She stared in her father’s film The Godfather as an infant, and later as Mary Corleone in the third installment. She has since made a name for herself as a screenwriter, actor, director, and producer. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as she follows in her father’s new wave footsteps with Lost in Translation.

Bob Harris is a movie star who has seen better days. He flies to Tokyo for a whisky ad and there he meets Charlotte, a young graduate who’s accompanied her husband on a job. Both feel detached from their relationships, living a life that’s not their own.

Harris is exhausted from a 25-year marriage while Charlotte is unsure about hers as well. For a while, the pair find rejuvenation and meaning once more in each other. However, it is only short-lived as they, in the end, return to their individual lives.

Sofia Coppola used a small crew and portable equipment for the movie. Free-flowing camera movements were an important part of her vision so as not to distract with a noticeable camera presence. She also assembled most of the crew locally, which was quite a challenge because most Japanese crew only understood the native language. However, a bilingual gaffer and assistant director would ease communication between both parties.

Coppola had a tight schedule and budget to work with, often stealing street shots without permits/permission. To further trim costs, bystanders would fill in extra duties.

Dialogue improv was also an important part of time and cost-saving. Actors Bill Murray and Scarlet Johannsson, especially Murray, would regularly add to their lines to spice up the script, in true FNW fashion. The actors, therefore, had a lot of freedom to be expressive, channel their own personalities, and get into the minds of their characters. For example, a bit of improv fueled by Sofia’s intervention in the moment occurs as Bob is taking pictures for the whisky ad.

Unknown to Murray, Coppola had asked the photographer to say random names like “Roger Moore” to him. Before that, the director had requested the actor to react spontaneously to the photographer but he didn’t expect the direction the conversation would take. Here’s the hilarious scene, and how a bit of improv and FNW inspiration made for excellent comedic relief.

What’s more, Coppola also had few rehearsals for scenes and liked to leave enough room in her schedule for random location scouting. If she was just wandering about somewhere and noticed the location had elements that served her story, she would readjust shooting plans to fit in the new location.

Additionally, the cinematographer admitted to mostly relying on natural light or the city’s nightscape and hotel lights for filming.

There’s also no significant plot as such to Lost in Translation. Instead, there’s more of a focus on the characters as two actors bring their charm on-screen in a limited backdrop. No happy endings or the need to conform to a certain pattern of storytelling, just life running its course. Two alienated characters find comfort in each other and sharing simple moments.

Francois Truffaut would be proud.

Other popular American movies to have drawn inspiration from the French New Wave include Reservoir Dogs (1992), Bird Man (2014), and Pulp Fiction (1994), among countless others. Protection Status