Five Film Favorites: French New Wave

From Chris Marker's "La Jetée"

Almost 50 years ago the British took American rock ‘n’ roll and began reinterpreting it. The result was a fresh sound, more true to the rockabilly and R&B roots of the genre than most of what was then playing on AM radio on this side of the pond. The Beatles led the British Invasion in 1964.

A half-dozen years before that cultural tsunami, low-budget American anti-hero movies were being imitated but pushed to a new level of sophistication by a fresh-faced group of French filmmakers. (Yes, they were also inspired by Italian neorealism, among other things.)

Accordingly, certain French films made during the decade between the late-50s and late-60s are now classified as New Wave. The movement’s young directors, some of which had been outspoken film critics, showed the world that visionary auteurs would be making the most important movies for the next 20 years. Their best efforts clearly revealed that the geezers who were running the traditional studio system in America, and its counterparts in Europe, were out of touch with the evolution of popular culture.

By the late-70s, the traditional controlling interests in both industries, movies and music, had assimilated the most influential styles of the best innovators and returned to their copycat ways.

Now, deep into the age of remakes and sequels, the spirit of those New Wave films is still like a splash of cold water in the face. I just watched “Elevator to the Gallows,“ one of the titles on my list of five for this week. It still seems more authentic than most movies about desperate people making their own bad luck.

My five favorite French New Wave films, listed alphabetically, are as follows:

“The 400 Blows” (1959): Directed by François Truffaut; Cast: Jean-Pierre Léaud, Claire Maurier, Albert Rémy

“Breathless” (1960): Directed by Jean-Luc Godard; Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger

“Claire’s Knee” (1970): Directed by Eric Rohmer; Cast: Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurora Cornu, Béatrice Romand

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1958): Directed by Louis Malle; Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Maurice Ronet, Yori Bertin

“La Jetée,” (1962): Directed by Chris Marker; Cast: Davos Hanich, Hélène Chatelain, Jen Négroni

Note No. 1: Most of the time, I don’t put short films on lists with full-length features, but the 30-minute-long “La Jetée” demands to be an exception. It’s just that good! (And, hey, it is my list.)

Note No. 2: Except for “La Jetée,” I used the translated-to-English titles that are most recognizable to American readers.

Note No. 3: This post was prompted by the death of one of the most significant New Wavers, Claude Chabrol, earlier this month.

Claude Chabrol, 1930-2010

— F.T. Rea

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2 Responses to Five Film Favorites: French New Wave

  1. thstarkweather says:

    “Breathless” is my favorite out of the five on your list.

    Jean-Pierre Melville, who directed my favorite French film, “Army of Shadows” (1969), actually has a cameo in it.

  2. F.T. Rea says:

    I hadn’t seen it in a long time, so when I watched “Breathless” about a couple of months ago I was delighted with how well it holds up. As soon as I saw Belmondo run his thumb across his top lip I laughed, suddenly remembering how it all turned out. Knowing that didn’t break the spell. One of the all-time best films ever made!

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