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A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin Studies in Film)

A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin Studies in Film)

by Richard Neupert

ISBN: 9780299217044

Publisher University of Wisconsin Press

Published in Calendars/Movies, Calendars/Foreign Language

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

Cultural Contexts: Where Did the Wave Begin?

In 1958 and 1959, my buddies at Cahiers and I, having moved into directing, were promoted like a new brand of soap. We were "the nouvelle vague." ... But if the popular press spoke so much of us it was because they wanted to impose a formula: De Gaulle equals renewal, in the cinema like everywhere else. The general arrives, the Republic changes, France is reborn! -CLAUDE CHABROL, Et pourtant je tourne

A number of guys arriving from very different places ended up finding one another at Cahiers du Cinema, like metal shavings attracted to and then organized around a magnet. -PIERRE KAST, in La nouvelle vague 25 ans apres

The French New Wave was much more than a tally of titles or an encyclopedic list of directors. The New Wave was first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, resulting from economic, political, aesthetic, and social trends that developed in the 1950s. Changes in the other arts, including literature and theater, anticipated some of the shifts in cinema, and the role and even domain of art criticism shifted during this time as well. The New Wave cinema was shaped by forces as abstract as the growth of film criticism that stressed mise-en-scene over thematics and as concrete as technological innovations in motion-picture cameras and sound recorders. This chapter investigates some of the most profound mechanisms that influenced the rise of the New Wave. For instance, the excited reception of movies like Louis Malle's Les amants (The Lovers, 1958) or Claude Chabrol's Le beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1958) can only be fully understood in relation to the conditions that fostered and rewarded these unusual productions. France was undergoing unprecedented industrial growth and self-evaluation, both of which put new pressures on the cinema and its place in the larger national sphere. Moreover, the average moviegoers of 1960 were already quite different from those of 1950. Political conservatism, consumerism, television, cine-clubs, popular film journals, and a new generation of movie producers all affected the stories and styles that would mark this daring movement. To understand what it meant to "be" nouvelle vague, it is essential to consider the social, critical, economic, and technological backgrounds that helped determine the films and their significance. Thus, rather than starting with the cinema, one must begin with the social realm; by getting a clear sense of what French life and culture were like in the 1950s, one can comprehend better why this unique event in world cinema took place when and where it did, while the rest of international cinema could only look on in curious awe at the revival of French cinema.

A New Society, a New Audience

France had changed dramatically in the late 1940s, and these far-reaching transformations continued into the 1960s. Obviously, every nation involved in World War II was deeply affected by it for some time afterward, and France, in particular, came out of the war afflicted with widespread war damage and debt. But the French also shared a strange mixture of national shame for France's military loss and Vichy collaboration and an exaggerated national pride in their country's role in the resistance and ultimate victory over Germany. Further, all the conflicting views of France held by the international community at the war's end-France as a helpless victim, a lazy and ineffective military force, a valued ally, a crippled industrial power-were also felt within its own borders. For historians of this era, it is often tempting to fall into simple personifications of France as a unified, biological entity; it is easy to find articles and books devoted to postwar reconstruction that refer to France "standing up," "awaking from its slumber," or "shaking off its recent past." These sorts of metaphors were common in popular history texts, but they also came directly from the political and cultural discourse of the days. Most political parties struggled quickly after the war to prove that they, more than all the other competitors for power and national respect, had fought for and helped regain France's liberty. The political discourse of the day was built on themes of reviving past glories and moving France triumphantly forward with purpose, unity, and pride. Every politician and newspaper seemed to want to speak to and for a unified France, and the French people were often addressed as a single team that now had to get back to basics in order to simultaneously make up for lost time and join the modernizing world.

Thus, the years after World War II saw a France desperately trying to assert, or reassert in the eyes of many French citizens, its cultural, political, and even economic clout in Europe and beyond. From the day the Germans were pushed out of Paris, on August 19, 1944, the French film industry literally rushed to reclaim its domain from the collaborators and to foster a newly reborn cinema that would regain the glory of the 1930s, the golden years of Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, and Marcel Carne. With the liberation, the famed offices of the Vichy government's Comite d'organisation de l'industrie cinematographique (COIC) were ransacked and claimed by the cinematic arm of the resistance as the last Nazis were being chased from the Paris streets. Legend has it that the omnipresent Henri Langlois, cofounder of the Cinematheque francaise, even took over the desk of the former COIC director and pounded his boot on the desktop, calling for executions in the name of French cinema. The era of purification and revitalization of the film industry had begun in earnest.

The tale of the dynamic changes in French cinema, however, cannot begin without first taking time to understand how the demographics, economics, and general cultural climate of France developed during this era. The prospects for the film industry as a whole, as well as for individual filmmakers, writers, and producers, were motivated and also constrained by the larger generating mechanisms of the society at large. France was undergoing a tense era of change with its left-center coalition Fourth Republic, which gradually took shape from 1944 to 1946. And while political infighting forced the nation's overall political trajectory to move in often contradictory fits and starts until Charles De Gaulle's Fifth Republic came to power in 1958, there was nonetheless a real sense of urgency to rebuild every facet of French life, from constructing more electric power plants to exporting more perfume. As Jill Forbes writes, "After the war, Paris was determined to regain its position as the leading center of fashion worldwide, and to counter the growing competition from Britain and the U.S." The various interest groups that desired a stronger cinema fit squarely within this national sense of destiny. As the 1950s progressed, France underwent fundamental, far-reaching changes that would eventually help establish a "New Look" in fashion and, by 1958, favorable conditions for the rise of new faces and production practices in the French film industry; these changes occurred at roughly the same time that the nation was getting its new Fifth Republic-a "coincidence" that was lost on almost no one.

At the close of World War II, France's population was just 39 million people, or nearly the same as it had been in 1900. The two world wars had killed and displaced vast numbers of young men and disrupted innumerable families; the relative drop in the number of children born in France during the 1930s also decreased the number of potential filmgoers during the war years and just after. Between 1945 and 1960, however, the population increased more than it had in France's previous one hundred years. Thus, while the United States, a nation built on immigration and rapid population growth, could lay claim to having undergone a post-World War II baby boom, "le boom" in France was indeed unprecedented. According to Maurice Larkin, the dramatic population increase was not simply a result of a predictable, immediate rise in births among traditional young French families, from new marriages, or from the reunion of young couples separated by the war. Rather, sample maternity hospital surveys in the 1950s "revealed that a third of pregnancies were unwanted, and that without them there would have been no population increase at all." Larkin argues that throughout the 1950s, birth control in France was minimal (paralleling shortcomings in many technical, health, and household commodities), and thus the lack of widely available contraceptives serves to highlight very real tensions between contemporary women's lives and the social norms of traditional France. But a much more telling statistic is that another one-third of the population increase resulted from France's growing immigrant population. The large numbers of Italians, Portuguese, and North Africans living and working in France to help fuel its economic revival accounted for ever higher percentages of the French population. By 1960 an estimated 10 percent of Portugal's entire population was working in France on a seasonal or full-time basis.

Nonetheless, the political discourse of a France getting back to work and moving forward was not entirely hollow campaign rhetoric, for a steady economic boom accompanied "le baby boom." By 1950, France was operating with a perfectly balanced budget (thanks in large part to a devalued franc and war debt that was excused by the United States). In 1951, France's gross national product was only two-thirds that of Great Britain, and its exports only one-half of Britain's. By 1965 (the end of the New Wave period), France had surpassed Britain in every category, including average wages paid. But as Larkin explains, "Contrary to the hopes of many contemporaries, the economic changes of the postwar decades saw no particular upswing in social mobility." The foreign labor force remained at the low end of the pay scale, and France became increasingly stratified into several distinct social ranks. Even the public education system continued to enforce two very divergent tracks from the earliest grades on: some students were channeled toward professional and intellectual fields, while most were directed toward practical jobs without hope of pursuing education in specialized lycees, much less universities.

Nonetheless, as many institutions within France struggled to modernize and rebuild, the standard of living of all classes improved steadily, thanks in part to strong labor unions and the active roles played by the Socialist and Communist Parties, even though the gap between upper middle class and lower middle class widened. As Forbes and Kelly observe, economic progress brought a new era to France, one borrowed mostly from American and British business models: "The economic boom of the 1950s was a remarkable achievement.... Production grew by 41 percent between 1950 and 1958, fulfilling the targets of the [Fourth Republic's] Second Plan a year ahead of schedule. France entered the consumer age of detergents, plastics, private cars, washing machines.... The 'jeune cadre dynamique,' or thrusting young executive, was becoming a familiar figure, with a commitment to business success, modern (American) managerial attitudes, and a life-style of personal development and conspicuous consumption." Not only was this new copycat spirit lampooned by Jacques Tati in Jour de fete (1949) and Mon oncle (1958), but American and British cultural influences provided unsettling backdrops for many of the subsequent New Wave films as France entered into a long era of love-hate obsessions with American and British culture and lifestyles.

If the dramatic changes resulting from this rapidly growing economy produced a general trend for 1950s cinema spectatorship in France, it was, ironically, to create a gradually smaller, more elite audience. This study will investigate the specific economic and industrial changes in the cinema itself later in this chapter, but it must confront here the connections between large changes in French society and the resulting shifts in the audience. While overall economic conditions were improving throughout Europe, there was nonetheless a shared crisis in motion-picture attendance during the 1950s. Immediately after World War II, a boom in exhibition had occurred when American films and other domestic and international motion pictures, long banned from French, German, and Italian screens, came back with a vengeance, allowing Europeans finally to witness such already famous movies as Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1940), and Casablanca (1943), as well as the recent films noirs and others. But by the 1950s, as Europe's national industries were cranking out increasing numbers of high-quality films to compete with American imports, cinema-going ran head-on into other competitors for leisure time. With the expanding economies of the mid-1950s, European film attendance peaked in 1956, a full decade after it did in the United States. France reached its highest box-office numbers in 1957. From 1956 to 1961 Western Europe's film audience declined by 473 million spectators. France alone saw a drop from 412 million tickets sold in 1957 to 328 million by 1961, and this during the largest increase in French population in a century.

Movies were losing nearly one-third of their audience for a variety of reasons, but the most important competitors were two consumer products: the automobile and the television. The number of people buying automobiles in particular was a "marker of changes in lifestyles and spending habits," according to Jean-Claude Batz. He does not propose that people who bought a car were simply too busy driving around to stop for a movie, nor that they were necessarily so broke from buying a Citroen that they could not afford to see M. Hulot's Holiday. Rather these new purchases indicated an upwardly mobile family with many more options for leisure time, beyond watching TV or driving. The potential film audience was able to go on more frequent and longer vacations, attend more sports events, or spend more evenings in restaurants and nightclubs. Increased disposable income and the parallel increase in manufacturing and imports also led to people spending additional money on new appliances, ranging from radios for every family member to washers and dryers, or even on a second home in the country. As Colin Crisp argues, "The period of the fifties saw a dramatic increase in all forms of consumer spending related to the individual and to the home and it was those forms of spending related to public or community activities which showed decreases. This move away from a population which expects to go out for its services and entertainment, and toward a population which expects services and entertainment to be delivered to the home ... was one of the essential factors in the steadily growing pressure on cinema throughout this period to transform itself." The trade paper Variety concisely summed up the problems confronting Europe's film industry in the title of a 1963 article: "Box Office Foes: Cars, TV, Prosperity."

Studies in both England and the United States in the late 1940s, when film attendance in these countries began to drop rapidly, showed a perfect symmetry between the increase in automobile ownership and the decline in film attendance. American studies suggested that 42 percent of the decline in attendance was attributable to car purchases, which was almost as much as for television. Accordingly, Italy, with the smallest percentage of cars per citizen in Western Europe, saw the smallest decline in film attendance during the 1950s. France, by contrast, which saw the number of automobiles and drive-in campgrounds double between 1955 and 1960 (reaching nine people per car in 1961 versus twenty-four in Italy, but only three in the United States), followed the American example by losing movie attendance swiftly after 1957. In fact, France's concerned film industry spent a great deal of time looking over the border at Germany, whose fascination with the automobile was quickly becoming a national craze. Germany provided an example of what France was trying to avoid: over two hundred German theaters closed in 1960, another three hundred in 1961, and twenty-five hundred more were considered near bankruptcy. A 1960 front-page editorial in Le Film francais titled "Autos et 'deux roues' concurrent no 1 de cinema" ("Autos and Mopeds Are Cinema's Number 1 Competitor") argued that the French film industry needed new initiatives to ensure that this newly "motorized public" would remain faithful to the cinema in winter and summer alike. The authors realized that new affluence, unfortunately, did not necessarily translate into more money for the cinema's coffers. The automobile had a dramatic impact on France; in 1963, Roland Barthes wrote that the French were so obsessed with the automobile that within popular discourse and family relations in France, it ranked as the second most common topic, trailing only the more traditional debates concerning food. Barthes even suggested that Oedipal struggles between father and son were now being played out over selection and control of the family's automobile purchase!

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Wisconsin Studies in Film)" by Richard Neupert. Copyright © 0 by Richard Neupert. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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