February 05, 2010

Golden New Wave

Just as the history of human evolution is marked by anthropological milestones like the invention of the wheel and others, certain ‘movements’ have had path-breaking influence over the evolution of cinema over the decades. La Nouvelle Vague or the French New Wave is one of those path-breaking developments that shaped modern cinema. It was perhaps one of the most marvelous explosions of cinema talent. More than 150 new filmmakers arrived on French cinema scene between 1958 and 1962. The best among the lot were the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Rasnais, Agnes Varda, and Eric Rohmer. They had several similarities. Many of them were film theorists and critics and hailed the works of French, Italian and American masters. They were against traditional narrative and eager to break conventions. And most importantly, they believed in the ‘auteur theory’ of cinema: Cinema, like the novel, is a medium of personal expression, and the filmmaker, like the novelist, must have a personal style. So each of these filmmakers tried to go beyond genres and evolved their unique personal expressions, at times by combining genres surprisingly, in their prolific careers. The peak of this movement is considered from 1958 to 1967. I have seen only a handful of these films. The 400 Blows, Hiroshima mon amour, Breathless, Shoot the Piano Player, Cleo from 5 to 7, Jules et Jim, Pierrot le fou, and The Soft Skin.

It must be remembered that the New Wave was not an organized movement. It was as spontaneous as an anthropological advancement but was similarly very much ‘waiting to happen’. Each of these filmmakers worked independently, but sill managed to develop some similar and deeply influential aesthetic innovations. The protagonists of many of these films were not ‘typical’ heroes. They were men and women with existential self-doubt and weaknesses and eccentricities. They did strange things, like breaking the ‘fourth wall’ by looking into the camera and talking directly to the audience. And the narrative was hardly conventional with some totally unexpected scene transitions.

Limited resources forced innovations that later became aesthetic tools. They shot on real locations in natural light using mobile and hand-held cameras and sync sound recording. Often they had long, tracking shots that lasted for several minutes, and on the other hand, they invented the ‘Jump Cut’. Actors often improvised their dialogues with lots of colloquialism and slang terms. They even went to the extent of consciously changing characters and using incomprehensible symbolism to ‘remind’ the audience that it is ‘just a movie.’ There was this youthful rebellion that made cinema from a ‘dictatorial’ medium to a medium to play with, possibly giving birth to the concept of ‘independent cinema’. That the French New Wave is one of the most significant movements in cinema history, is evident from these words by Martin Scorsese: ‘the French New Wave has influenced ALL filmmakers who have worked since, whether they saw the films or not.’ The films of this period, now celebrating glorious fifty years, stand among the most cherished gems of movie-culture.


  1. waiting for new wave in indian especially hindi cinema:) ... with guys like anurag kashyap, dibakar banerjee to name a few , i feel there is hope floating around .. just one thing ...you mention the period of 1958-67 ..i have always wondered if these pathbreaking makers and movies got accredited almost at the same time or they had to bide time before getting their due for changing the parameters .. bcoz i feel satyajit ray got the deserved reverence in india only after the oscar ( might be totally wrong here though) .. do you think any of the indian filmamkers from 80's or 90's might cut it as a pathbreaking auteur once they get the proper recognition ? hear about guys like adoor gopalakrishnan but hvnt watched any of his movies ..

  2. Your points can initiate a great discussion. I'll tell you what I know and feel, briefly.

    These French filmmakers got instant critical, and to some extent, even commercial, success. Their films were impossible to ignore, especially for the Classic Hollywood style people. These movies were almost outrageous in their intent and execution. And everyone around the world was actually interested: Ye kya ho raha hai French cinema mein bhai!!!

    Although I have immense respect for some of the great filmmakers of India, at least in Hindi films, I can name none who was so good. We hardly have auteurs here. Bhansali is an anuteur. See, how people react to his films. It is very difficult to have a personal expression, be technically sound, and innovate. We have never had people who could innovate. India has never contributed to the evolution of world cinema. (Sorry, read Hindi films).

    Satyajit Ray was an instant success abroad, with his first film itself. He received the Oscar in 1990-91. By then he was already a legend for World Cinema lovers. In Bengal too, he definitely was revered. He was a huge cultural phenomena there already in the 70s.

    Rest of India still does not know Ray. Just as I have not seen a single Adoor Gopalakrishnan film. I have not yet explored the regional cinema treasure. If there have been some filmmakers there, possibly, but in Hindi cinema I do not see anyone rising upto the stature of these French filmmakers, not yet.

    We will need a dozen filmmakers like Anurag, Dibakar and others to cause an Indian New Wave. It is really tough. But, then, we should keep hoping. Insha Allah!

  3. I think in India the national trend in films, is not the aesthetics of it, but the economics of it. At least Bollywood, is defined by the box office. It's only a few ingenious guys like Kashyap who have the mettle to stick to their guns. Gulal! The guy has done a fantabulous job of it. But I doubt many people will see or appreciate the brilliance of the narrative.
    I like coming here, it refreshes my memory of viewing these films in forgotten college classrooms and goads me to pick up a few yet again!

  4. @ overturned blue shoe
    keep reading
    and keep encouraging brave cinema...