What is the French New Wave?

Modern film is significantly influenced by the French New Wave of the past century. This movement sought to bring a change to the way cinema was executed at the time. 

The French New Wave looked to revitalize filmmaking by straying from conventional principles into newer and more innovative tactics. 

This movement had a profound effect on how movies are made. It has influenced a diverse cadre of filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Sofia Coppola to Wong Kar Wai.

Before its emergence, directors didn’t have as much control and freedom over their work as they do today. La Nouvelle Vague, as the movement is known in French, broke shackles and handed creative authority to those at the helm of moviemaking. 

Directors got more say over their films as a result. Basically, the French New Wave tore up the preliminary guidelines of filmmaking in favor of more improvisational and creative techniques. It also dusted and improve upon existing strategies for more life-like moviemaking.

History of the French New Wave

We’ll turn back the clock to the 1950s for the birth of the French New Wave. The mainstream media in post-war France was a little constricted and lifeless. Cinephiles and critics were not too happy about how movies were made back then. In their opinion, the movies of the day were not an accurate reflection of the society around them. 

They were out of tune with how people lived and basic human interactions. The dialogue and plots felt static and rehearsed, unlike the unpredictability of everyday life. People don’t always have the smartest things to say at the right moment. Things aren’t always perfect. 

Indeed, the dialogue could be improved to be less contrived.

Character development could be better.

Fate doesn’t simply align to favor a string of questionable good luck. In a nutshell, the critics had a considerable number of reservations against the prevailing films.

A revolutionary way of filmmaking

They caused a huge stir in the industry when they made their feelings known in the famous French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. The critics pulled no punches discussing how film had lost sincerity and the ability to connect and relate with audiences. 

They felt the movies were a far reach from reality. Mainstream media had become contrived and trite. Consequently, they inspired a revolution to try something out of the box. To inject life into a prestigious cinema scene they felt was underwhelming.

To try something new beyond the mundane limitations of traditional filmmaking rules. This rebellious attitude meant a new way of approaching plotting, character development and the use of mise en scène.

Having criticized and undermined industry ideals, the critics sought to make their own works in line with their beliefs. Big studios rejected their philosophies and they had to dig into their own pockets. They got creative, working on a tight budget, and their experimentation is responsible for the underlying elements and styles that made famous the French New Wave Cinema.

The French New Wave encouraged new approaches to filmmaking. It experimented with new production techniques, themes and styles.  A new crop of young directors such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Louis Chabrol, and Jean-Claude Brialy, to name a few, embraced the new ways. 

Between 1958 and 1964, these anxious directors, eager to stretch the imagination, shot several feature-length movies. It wasn’t long before the movement took on a life of its own, stretching its popularity beyond the cradle of Paris. 

Elements of the French New Wave 

Free camera filming

Before the movement, big studios controlled how film was made. Directors were mere puppets on strings. La Nouvelle Vague severed those strings, tore up the rule book, and ushered in revolutionary new tactics of film production. 

For example, handheld cameras became the norm instead of cameras on tripod stands. This style of filming was meant to simulate the authenticity of real-life movements which weren’t as well replicated in steady frames. 

In particular, horror movies have been impacted by this style. Found footage movies rely on free camera filming.

Even movies filmed on an iPhone derive its stylistic roots from free camera filming.

The movie Tangerine uses many free camera filming as it was filmed with an iPhone:

Rocky and wobbly shots became a trademark characteristic of French New Wave Cinema. The movements captivated viewers by replicating the point of view of a sneaky eavesdropper.

Jump cuts

The movement also popularized jump cuts. At the time, continuity editing was preferred to create that smooth flow. Hollywood and other big studios around the world would have pulled their hair out at the thought of elliptical or jump cuts. 

Here’s a collection of famous jump cuts in cinema history:

These offer the opposite effect, creating sharp disruptions in the frame, and they’re uncomfortably unmissable. The French New Wave directors leverage this disruptive effect to continually hook viewer’s attention so they remain focused. Also, they did so to reduce a film’s runtime if it became longer than intended.

Random location shooting

Random location shooting was also quite popular. If the director was just driving around town and thought a location was nice for shooting a certain scene, he would have it done there. There was no process for location shooting. 

The places were chosen at random and even the director himself rarely knew where he would be shooting the following day. Additionally, these movies were often shot in natural locations as opposed to studios.

Deemphasized plot

French New Wave cinema didn’t emphasize plot and dialogue. The problem with mainstream media of the day was that it had lost its touch. Everything felt too scripted according to the aforementioned critics. 

Hence, they inspired filmmaking strategies that were spontaneous and unpredictable. It wasn’t necessary to have a comprehensive script before shooting. Often there was no concrete plot to pick out.  There wasn’t a start-to-finish kind of mapping out of the storyline. 

The 2003 movie Coffee & Cigarettes which featured a set of vignettes. It had no unifying plot. It’s only common aspect: the intake of coffee and cigarettes in every scene, depicting everyday life:

In a movie with a de-emphasized plot, the dialogues, like a lot of other aspects, are improvised as opposed to being predetermined. Actors are encouraged to come up with the lines in the moment. This improvisation is meant to give audiences that feeling of anything can happen. 

Instead of plot, the French New Wave directors focused a lot more on the mise en scene.

Natural light, sound, and long takes

The lighting isn’t always perfect in real life. Lighting conditions change depending on the time of day. French New Wave directors sought to capture this authenticity of everyday life into their movies. Hence, they steered clear of fancy studio lights and other equipment. 

Instead, they opted to shoot in nature’s raw elements. Background sound was often left as is instead of being manipulated to bring out character dialogues. Long takes were also popularly used to enhance the naturality of scenes. 

4 Modern Movies Influenced by the French New Wave

Birdman (2014)

At the 87th Academy Awards, only The Grand Budapest Hotel matches the awards and nominations that this drama flick starring Micheal Keaton amassed. A fading actor who found success in a superhero role attempts to revive his career by producing a Broadway play. 

The fascinating movie that coincidentally mirrors Kenton’s struggles after Batman bears fingerprints of the French New Wave all over it. Its intricate plot weaves multiple storylines and protagonists onto a singular stage. The filming regularly derails from who you’d think to be the lead character, delving into the story arcs of supporting characters to great detail.

The French New Wave advocated for the de emphasis of the plot to take focus away from a single character and spread attention to others. Birdman compellingly does that without jumbling things up. Several conflicts play out simultaneously and there’s rarely a dull moment. Also, there’s an abundance of long takes in the movies that mimic the styles from Paris.

Long takes were among the revolutionary new filming methods pushed by auteur French directors. They add more emphasis to the storytelling and background and make scenes play out more powerfully.

Birdman features several long takes. Emmanuel Lubezki was in charge of the film’s cinematography. He is famous for his long takes and he makes use of his skills to reel other characters into the conflict. For instance, the camera regularly drifts off the protagonist’s actions to show what’s going on with other characters. It mimics how the casual observer would turn his head to view another point of interest, in the same take.

Cloverfield (2008)

The French New Wave encouraged the concept of a free or handheld camera, to replicate the shaky authenticity of a real-life onlooker who is moving to keep up with the action. Filmmakers these days have taken the shaky camera to new heights. 

Directors use the technique to add a sense of chaos to scenes. Steady shots were among the requirements for Hollywood movies for a long time. Studios believed it gave film its balance and professional look. La Nouvelle Vague laughs in their faces, as does Cloverfield.

Here is a scene from the movie:

This 2008 science fiction film is about an alien attack on New York. It follows the action through a handheld camcorder initially meant to capture the proceedings at a farewell party. The movie wasn’t actually shot with free cameras but it was edited to portray these effects. Hence, the audience is taken through the happenings from the point of view of one of the characters. 

This strategy gives the movie its very immersive and eerie feel. It sets the tone and heightens the emotional tension throughout the plot.

The documentary style-approach of filming serves to reel in viewers. Although a science fiction movie, the handheld camerawork makes the happenings seem very real. It almost feels as if you’re watching something that happened sometime in the past. The film also features a lot of jump cuts, as expected with home recordings. French New Wave directors would certainly be proud. Generally, the movie is an excellent watch for lovers of horror.

Tangerine (2015)

Unlike Cloverfield, Sean Baker’s dramedy was really shot by handheld cameras. Specifically, three iPhone 5s were tasked with the filming. Like the innovative French New Wave directors of back then, the makers of Tangerine had a small budget to work with. They didn’t have the resources of a big studio so they had to get creative.

They improvised with innovative shooting techniques and enlisting friends to play the various roles of the cast. Its originality of production impresses, adding to the growing collection of the phone filming community.

Here’s an interview with the director/DP Sean Baker:

Unable to afford big movie equipment, Tangerine made the most of natural conditions for the lighting and mise en scene. The director attests to having to bide his time when the weather was not perfect until the conditions were in line with the tone and mood he wanted for his film. Most of the movie is shot during the magical hour to give it that feel-good factor.  

Working with a crew of two, including himself, Baker’s Tangerine envisions the French New Wave spirit that you only need a great heart to tell a big story.

The camera movement is unsteady and you can feel its presence across scenes. Back in the day, La Nouvelle Vague directors would sometimes improvise tracking shots using shopping carts. Tangerine implores the services of a bike to capture long tracking shots. 

Additionally, the movie’s theme wasn’t premeditated. The director didn’t set out for the transgender conflict that drives the plot. What’s more, the actors regularly had to improvise their lines across scenes.

The Revenant (2015)

Acclaimed British cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki brings his French New Wave inspiration to the set of 2015’s resounding Western success, The Revenant. The movie is inspired by the cinematography success of Lubezki’s Birdman and seeks to recreate the same tone. 

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu reunites with Lubezki for another epic. He opts for minimal cuts in the film, favoring long takes to immerse the audience in continued peril and adventure.

Here’s an interview with the cinematographer of the movie:

The Revenant is loosely based on true events as a frontiersman struggles for survival after abandonment and betrayal by a friend during a hunting trip. It’s mostly set during the harsh winter and snowy locations in Argentina and Canada were chosen for the backdrops. Lubezki wanted to kill the artifice and break the rules of Hollywood and he thought he couldn’t do that on studio stages. He purposed to make the locations feel as real as possible. 

The best way to do that, he thought, was by going for natural light. Scenes were shot during optimal times of day depending on the intended feel. No artificial lighting was used to spruce up the outdoor shooting, except for the campfire scene that featured light bulbs. Generally, the natural light amplified the believability of the character’s harsh experience.

Not a single camera dolly was used in the shooting. For tracking shots, the director went with natural human movements. The plot also mostly plays out on a single camera in classic French New Wave cinema style. Scenes and actors were carefully choreographed and rehearsed to ensure the flawless execution of long takes.

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