Doubt on Film: The Existential Crisis of the French New Wave

by Katrina Bolman

The question that lies at the heart of the French New Wave– a movement in French cinema based in cinematic criticism—is based upon a doubt in the cinematic conventions of old Hollywood. What is cinema and what should cinema portray? If reality is the primary medium of cinema, what is our responsibility to the reality that surrounds us from day to day? It is this doubt that raises cinema from its roots as “mere entertainment” into the realm of art. Indeed, this doubt proves to be the very question that makes the French New Wave so revolutionary. However, before we step into the Nouvelle Vague, we have to take a step back and examine the forefathers of this movement: the directors of Italian Neorealism. It was the Italian Neorealists who led the camera out of the studio and back onto the streets, capturing the harsh realities that surrounded them, and first asked the questions that led to the breakthroughs of the French New Wave.

During the early days of the Fascist regime, the Italian film industry had exploded, due to the ever growing demand for propaganda films. However, by the end of WWII, as the Fascists realized the way of the war, the Italian studios fell to the wayside, and many filmmakers took to the streets (literally and metaphorically) to find their screenplays, actors, and sets. Cesare Zavattini, one of the leading screenwriters and film theorists of this movement, describes this as an uprising of “real men” against the abstractions presented by the Italian Fascist propaganda of the 1930s and the idealistic (and predominantly upper-class) American cinema of the 1940s.[1]For Zavattini, the director (as the author of his film) is morally responsible for the proper use of film’s two primary elements– reality and time.[2]These two must fundamentally point back to the reality from which it was derived rather than disconnecting the audience from that reality.[3]

In his seminal article “The Evolution of Film Language in Cinema,” (the article that served as the basic credo of the French New Wave) Andre Bazin expands on Zavattini’s main point: “the image is evaluated not according to what it adds to reality, but rather, what it reveals of it.”[4]Bazin’s doubt is not in the medium itself, but the way in which it has been used up until this point in order to advertise a certain kind of lifestyle and to cater to the expectations of the audience, thus creating an illusion of reality. Bazin’s cinema rejected (at least in part) these conventions and created a genre of film that allowed for the unique artistic expression that cinema offered the artist.

At the same time, this doubt was mixed with a complete faith in the vision of the director as the interpreter of the reality with which he is presented. Alexandre Astruc argued that the director is the author of a film, just as much as the writer is the author of his novel: this is the entire premise of the auteur theory. The auteur theory soon proved itself to be the rising battle-cry of the Nouvelle Vague. The goal for these directors—Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette, to name a few— was to test the limitations of film as a medium. Their convention was to doubt convention.

One director who made this doubt infamous was Jean-Luc Godard. Godard’s films— Breathless, Pierre Le Fou and Alphaville among others—  challenge the audience’s expectations of cinema. In Breathless, what we expect to be a scene between two lovers in an American-style gangster film turns into a twenty-minute long dialogue about the problems of death and morality. Pierre Le Fou—a film about a gunrunner who is trying to escape from her old life— jumps from a musical sequence to a violent confrontation between two gangsters to a dialogue about poetry; and Alphaville –a science fiction film about a town controlled by a tyrannical supercomputer— is , in fact, set in contemporary 1960’s Paris. Godard’s characters, at times, will even look directly at the camera and confront the audience on their own terms, making comments on the plot, the other characters, or the audience’s own role as spectators. For Godard, a cinema that ingratiates itself to spoon-feed the audience its own expectations as to how a story “ought to go” serves only as a spectacle, and nothing else. His job as an artist (if the director is an artist, as Bazin said) is to lead people to doubt their own conventions in order to see the world as it is, not as it ought to be.[5]He sees his job as an artist as a chance to force the audience to engage with their own reality, by means of his constructed reality: this is the entire purpose of cinema.

Again, the driving force behind the French New Wave is in the dynamic relationship between the doubt of convention and faith in the power of reality. Creativity lies in the tension between these two, and if one were to separate these opposing powers, the art loses its integrity. If the artist were never to doubt the form and content of his art, then there would be no revolution in technique, subject, and, probably, no cinema to begin with. Creative invention would be struck dead at its root.

Yet, at the same time, cinema is not merely a means of escape, but a window by which we feel the breeze of some unknown country outside of our own mind and perception. C.S. Lewis describes this idea in his essay On Stories:  “Good stories often introduce the marvelous or supernatural, and nothing about Story has been so often misunderstood as this….the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual.”[6]

Lewis’s whole argument in his essay is centered in this fundamental loyalty to reality beneath the imaginative elements of a story. G.K. Chesterton in his book, Orthodoxy, would go so far as to argue that this return to reality is essential for humanity, and even sanity. He says: “How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference!”[7]

While Godard desires to prove the world to be chaotic and meaningless at best, he constantly comes back to an unshakeable faith in the power of reality: that if he can help an audience see it they will somehow be better, truer, and more free than they ever could be trapped in their own limited and self-centered perception. Without this faith in some kind reality outside of his own, man becomes mad, and all art becomes an empty show of skill and ego—a scream into the void. On the other hand, without doubt, we cannot discover different mediums, create new techniques or prove our original principles. Therefore, let us doubt. Let us challenge ourselves to look beyond the conventions to view the infinite expanse of reality that is set before us. While Godard’s approach to convention may be enlightening for some, for the vast majority, it is esoteric, abrasive and confusing. But this is the artist’s challenge: it is our job to take up the gauntlet and follow. When you get frustrated with Godard, ask yourself, what am I expecting, and why am I demanding that he film this way instead of the way that he is filming? This is the first step to understanding the nature of film, and the doubt that leads to creativity.

[1]Zavattini, Cesare. “A Thesis on Neo-Realism”.Springtime in Italy. ed. David Overbey. Hamden: Shoe-String Publishing (1978). p. 69.

[2]Ibid. p. 68

[3]Ibid. p. 68

[4]Bazin, Andre. “The Evolution of Language in Cinema”. What is Cinema. Los Angeles: University of California Press (2005). p. 28.

[5]Smith, Gavin. “Interview: Jean-Luc Godard”. Film Comment. The Film Society of Lincoln Center. March/Spring (1996). p. 12-17.

[6]Lewis. C.S. On Stories.

[7]Chesterton. G.K. Orthodoxy. (2013).  p. 17

Katrina Bolman is finishing her senior year studying Classics and Latin at HBU. Although most of her academic work centers around the study of ancient Greece and Rome, she has an avid interest in film and film history.

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