The film critic and writer Peter Biskind has observed that every bygone age is lit by a retrospective glow of nostalgia; for American filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, the New Hollywood of the seventies was a golden age, “the last great time.” So it is with those who witnessed the arrival of the first movies made by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and their colleagues from the French nouvelle vague in the early sixties. David Thomson, in a column whose headline–“Sit Down, Child, and I’ll Tell You About Jean-Luc Godard”–indicates how distant we are from that time, reflected, “If you are 35 or less, even if you’ve heard of Jean-Luc Godard, you won’t appreciate the aura he had in the early 1960s.”
When Hollywood set its attack hounds on the French film industry during the last GATT round, we were reminded of this distance. Rallying filmmakers like Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to the call of “artistic freedom,” Jack Valenti’s Motion Picture Association of America, with the help of the Commerce Department, tried to bully France into removing the French film industry’s remaining protectionist mechanisms. Hollywood’s actions helped clarify a tribute paid to Truffaut, in the wake of his untimely death from a brain tumor in 1984, by Jean-Luc Godard, who declared: “Now we have lost our protection.” How prophetic. Big Hollywood would have undoubtedly behaved similarly if Truffaut were alive; it is questionable, however, whether the MPAA would have been able to engage Scorsese and Spielberg. The New Wave had an electrifying effect on these young filmmakers. Moreover, it was Truffaut, as the New Wave’s international diplomat, who did the most to cultivate and befriend this community, to the extent that Spielberg cast him in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Though France prevailed during the GATT quarrel, the consensus was that Hollywood was winning the war. Irrespective of a tariff here or there, Tinseltown held dominion over the international film industry with an 80 percent market share. And both critics and supporters have pointed to a malaise in French cinema that the GATT round illuminated: an industry heavily subsidized, losing market share to Hollywood and becoming internationally insignificant. Moreover, a range of voices in France and the United States accuse the French New Wave of nurturing the forces that corrupted French cinema.
The auteur theory, first popularized in the fifties by Godard and Truffaut while employed as film critics for Cahiers du cinéma, proposed that true films of distinction bear the mark of their director. The theory is blamed for enthroning a director-as-king ideology in which everything else, including audience, is secondary. The epithet nombriliste–navel-gazing–has been flung at French art cinema by many in France. David Puttnam, the English producer of Chariots of Fire and The Mission, devotes two rather shrill chapters in his recent book Movies and Money to charging that the New Wave’s legacy was “dangerous artistically as it was damaging commercially.” Even from the left, the upstart Danish filmmaker’s collective Dogme 95 has called the New Wave a political failure, hopelessly compromised from the start, “a ripple that washed ashore and turned to muck,” its slogans of freedom and individualism, and the auteur concept itself, “bourgeois romanticism.”
So much for the Black Book of the New Wave. The New Wave, like so much else from the sixties, if it isn’t recommodified, is invoked as a dangerous place where youngsters ought not to prowl. Two recent books, however–Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana’s Truffaut and Jean Douchet’s lavish study The French New Wave–rescue it from caricature and what E.P. Thompson called “the condescension of posterity,” bringing us closer to its retrospective glow, retrieving and illuminating what Godard described as the “last uprising.” A cinematic social movement of sorts emerges; perhaps that’s what agitates the New Wave’s detractors, many of whom would be only too glad to sign manifestoes championing the rights of studios’ accountants and shareholders.
What we now know as the New Wave was a relatively short-lived affair. A close-knit group of filmmakers who had been France’s most precociously brilliant film critics in the fifties had, by decade’s end, graduated to filmmaking. Nineteen fifty-nine was the watershed: Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless catapulted the group to international attention. The box-office bonanza that this new streetwise, low-budget cinema generated, with its infectious yet bittersweet romanticism, youthful swagger and asphalt-aimed, handheld camera, enabled others from the entourage, like Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, to share the limelight. A thousand gardens bloomed, and innovators outside the immediate Cahiers circle who had toiled in making documentary shorts–Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda–were also given greater exposure.
And then by 1962 it was all over. A series of box-office flops had removed the spring in their step. Then a libel suit filed by Roger Vadim against Truffaut, after Truffaut had accused him of breaking the auteur’s moral code on the set of his friend Jean Aurel’s movie, created a sensational atmosphere that delighted the New Wave’s enemies. When Vadim won, the pundits were describing the New Wave as “dead and buried.” Godard noted how the camaraderie had gone: “We’ve each gone off on our own planet, and we can’t see each other in closeup anymore, only in full shot. The girls we sleep with separate us each day even more, instead of bringing us closer.”
The contours of this story are well-known. Though some critics have described Truffaut as “workmanlike” (admittedly, we don’t get the full scoop about him and Catherine Deneuve; neither is it a particularly interpretive or innovative work), it offers up a fascinatingly full account of the filmmaker’s life. From this raw material we can reconstruct Truffaut’s political and artistic trajectory and show how important the Nazi occupation, postwar Gaullism and the vigorously Stalinist and nationalist French Communist Party (PCF) were in shaping his and the New Wave’s politics and aesthetics.
Douchet suggests that the young Cahiers cinephiles embraced American cinema because the French industry was involved in a state-sponsored abandonment of reality: “French film confined itself to the studio and wallowed in a pessimistic and morose vision of daily life.” The major films about the French Resistance projected a national, collective fantasy designed to hide a “sense of hidden and burning shame,” promoting a national policy of reconciliation that was designed to absolve French society of its wartime collaborationist tendencies.
Because it had a few skeletons of its own to hide, the PCF largely subscribed to these myths; but its involvement in the film world alienated many Cahiers intellectuals. As the cold war solidified, the PCF’s intellectual rigidity and hysterical anti-Americanism spilled over into its growing influence in the French Federation of Cinema Clubs. The trade paper L’Ecran francais, which it once controlled, expelled André Bazin, Truffaut’s surrogate father, from the paper for being a “Catholic leftist.”
Cahiers critic Jean Domarchi sketched the Stalinist position: “What is Soviet is good, what is American is bad. Note nevertheless one deliberate distortion of the postulate: French cinema, although bourgeois, has the right to every kind of accommodation.” The PCF and its attendant organizations, far from posing a revolutionary threat, had accommodated to the corporatist structures of Gaullist France. In the film industry the PCF embraced and enforced this arrangement through its trade union allies, who were a junior social partner in an “umbrella of government control and bureaucratic mechanisms” that was established by the state-directed Centre National du Cinéma (CNC).
The CNC developed a financial structure that monitored box-office sales and plowed the taxes from foreign films back into the French industry. The system had its obvious strengths: Market forces were contained and a measure of job security was created, along with an “elitist journeyman” system, in which only those judged competent by other film professionals could work in the industry. On an artistic level, however, Douchet claims it had unwanted consequences: “The system, especially the work card, quickly became a constraint, for it restricted creativity by promoting academic repetitiveness and a sense of imitation that would conform to professional standards of ability.” To direct one had to endure a lengthy system of apprenticeships “that enslaved [the apprentice] to an aesthetic that was at best popular, and at worst reactionary. The process produced neither revolutionaries nor resistance fighters, simply artisans, occasionally good ones, but rarely artists.”
Within this system it was the screenwriter, not the director, who was king. As Truffaut noted impertinently, “When they hand in their scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scene, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures to it.” As opposed to this studio-bound and rather theatrical cinema, the Cahiers crowd championed the work of such French mavericks as Jean Renoir, Jean Cocteau, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati and Max Ophuls, real “men of cinema,” who imposed their creative vision on their work, irrespective of source material, subject matter or genre. Scandalously, the Cahiers crowd also looked to America’s dynamic studio system and to directors no one had given the critical time of day before: Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Nick Ray, filmmakers who transgressed “the artificial vision of the world offered by Hollywood” and imposed “a point of view about the truth of that world.”
The official French left hated the Cahiers group and the New Wave, branding them as petit-bourgeois dilettantes who fetishized individualism, unpatriotic provocateurs who defended Hollywood movies, cultural dandies who “challenged the Marxist, and Marxist-oriented, left-wing culture subscribed to in intellectual circles.” The company young Truffaut kept cannot have endeared him either: upper-class, conservative patrons who delighted in his insouciance; former Nazi-sympathizing film critics exiled in Franco’s Spain. Even his fellow editors at Cahiers had to caution him about the sexist and homophobic turn of some of his writing.
But Truffaut was contradictory as well as contrary. When he was charged as an army deserter his prosecutors described the company he kept as “anti-militarists, Communists and homosexuals.” Truffaut was friends with Jean Genet and–importantly –Bazin, a deeply committed Christian socialist who probably believed that Truffaut’s extreme views were weakly held. If anything, Truffaut had a “mistrust of all forms of proper, decent, righteous, official discourse.”
The New Wave’s reaction to corporatism was a “cinema of poverty” made outside the system and, in the case of Chabrol and Truffaut, funded from the fat of their wives’ dowries. This was a cinema that finally allowed Paris to breathe, engaging with a young consumer culture. It was apolitical, yet the political would find it. As Douchet–a member of the New Wave crowd from the beginning–observes: “It was inevitable that the joyous spontaneity of 1958 would one day have to confront politics. And this is exactly what occurred ten years later, when the streets were again full.”
At first the political was confined to the question of cinematic form. As the Godard aficionado says to a skeptical Marxist friend in Bernardo Bertolucci’s New Wave-ish Before the Revolution, “A dolly shot is a style and a moral fact.” Though Godard’s second film, Le Petit Soldat, was banned by the Gaullist censor because it dealt ostensibly with the taboo subject of the Algerian war, arguably, with its spies armed with cameras roving throughout Geneva, it is more an autocritique of the New Wave’s obsession with cinematic truth than an act of political engagement. But Godard’s films began to develop a political consciousness of their own. A Brechtian influence can be detected. As Susan Sontag suggested, language and image collide in his work–signs, texts, stories, monologue and interview undermine the flow of images, distancing us emotionally, especially during moments of pathos. We never forget this is cinema (or its end, as Godard proposes in Weekend.)
Godard’s protagonists are often drenched in American pop culture; its cinema, books and cars obsess them, to the extent that Godard probably spoke for a generation when he suggested that Masculin-Féminin could have been retitled The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola (a description that resurfaced during May ’68). Other dichotomies–cultural and musical, political and racial–persist throughout his work, but his films are primarily activated by sexual tensions in which resolution is rare.
Gunshots are heard throughout Masculin-Féminin–usually offscreen, almost as musical accompaniment. They gesture to the toxic state of sexual relations (two men are shot dead by women in the film), but they are also a premonition of a radical political culture that was beginning to challenge the prevailing sterility of consumer culture. Almost all of Godard’s films from Les Carabiniers onward refer to this rupture: In Weekend it reaches apocalyptic pitch with its hippie-guerrilla-cannibals, but La Chinoise, a remarkable film about a cell of young Maoists, anticipated May ’68 and the PCF’s complicitous role in bailing out de Gaulle, even though at the time of its release the characters’ plans to close down the universities was dismissed as fantastical.
The February 1968 rallies outside the Cinémathèque Française protesting the ouster of director Henri Langlois, a New Wave mentor in many respects, were, as Truffaut’s biographers suggest, the “first taste of territorial struggles waged against the administration and the Gaullist government” that would culminate in May ’68. It was also a New Wave reunion. Truffaut, Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, Pierre Kast–they were all there, united again, scuffling with the police. Truffaut, whose career was going through a lull, found the whole experience rejuvenating. The protests were the answer to a question he had once agonized over: “Is cinema more important than life?” It was then, but life, and the injunction to change life, would return with a vengeance three months later.
Although authority figures are challenged in Truffaut’s films, his movies are more obsessive about the physical, emotional and literary dimensions of love, and hence his output was never directly political in the Godardian sense. Truffaut moved recognizably to the left when he began to direct films; he put his career on the line by joining the likes of Sartre and de Beauvoir in signing the Manifesto of the 121 in 1960, a “Declaration on the right to insubordination in the Algerian war,” which many regarded as treasonous. It certainly cut him off from the right-wing company he used to keep. And in May ’68 he was instrumental in closing down the Cannes film festival.
Truffaut could never bear the pious “good conscience of the left,” though, and he shunned the official, Communist trade union-sponsored marches in May. He did take part in the last major student demo of the period in Paris’s Latin Quarter, and his comments reveal how its festive and unofficial nature dovetailed with his traditional dislike of orthodoxy:
What moved me about the students was that they were returning the blows they’d received from the police. I followed their entire movement; I even marched, though I had never marched before. I feel an enormous admiration for young people who are capable of chanting “We’re all German Jews!” I never thought we’d ever see intelligence, humor, strength, justice in the street at the same time. That is what stirred me.
But when May ’68 passed Truffaut returned to his vocation: Cinema was still cinema for him and not an ideological state apparatus, as many on the left saw it. In many ways Truffaut’s work in the immediate, post-’68 period was his best–The Wild Child, Day for Night and the magnificent Two English Girls. His work insulated him from the disillusioning experience of defeat many of his more radical colleagues, who wanted to rid cinema of its “reactionary structures,” had to endure. They had to grapple with the question Robin Wood posed: how to “nurture a radical voice within a culture that doesn’t want to listen to it.” Cahiers was temporarily transferred into a rather dreary Marxist film journal that asked all the right questions about class and ideology but shed the love of cinema that had once made it so essential. For Godard, the struggle continued, even though there are few takers these days for the films he made with the Dziga-Vertov group. “He feels that since May ’68 it’s impossible to make the same kinds of movies and he resents people who still do,” Truffaut observed. The Brechtian street theater of Tout va bien (starring Yves Montand and Jane Fonda!) attempted to link the unofficial, shop-floor strikes of that period (1972) with May ’68: While rank-and-file workers undoubtedly still faced intransigent bosses and dozy PCF trade-union officials; while intellectuals were enjoined to start from zero and rethink what it meant to be a leftist intellectual, it probably isn’t a stretch to suggest that Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore was far more representative of the milieu of the post-’68 generation, its postrevolutionary sadness consumed as it was with cynicism, lechery and suicide.
In Godard’s recent self-portrait JLG/JLG, scenes from La Chinoise flicker on a distant television set while Godard mourns that he and his leftist colleagues hadn’t realized that the injunction to make “two, three, many Vietnams” would result in the creation of “two, three, many Americas.” His recent films strike a similarly plaintive tone: Godard enjoys a Prospero-like existence in his Swiss hideaway while he observes that the profane world of material objects is challenged by the natural and spiritual world. These films are beautiful, difficult and immeasurably sad.
While time simply passes in these films, in Douchet’s gorgeous book the past and present converge. Its content, really a scrapbook of reflections on the New Wave, is animated by the book’s thick coffee-table format, with bold, splashy stills that recall the color and rich, tragic sensuality of films like Godard’s Contempt and Varda’s Le Bonheur, Belmondo’s rough, exuberant physicality in Breathless; Anna Karina’s furtive wink in A Woman Is a Woman and her unforgettable and much imitated dance in Band of Outsiders. But Douchet’s book isn’t just eye candy. As he retrieves what has been lost, he suggests that “it is the same today as it was for the directors of the New Wave”: Where the American cinema of the postwar years “liberated the tastes, vision and the imagination of the young rebels” and pointed to the sclerosis of French quality cinema, “today, it is American film that is diseased, and filmmakers from all countries, Americans included, must struggle against it.” For nearly a generation our leaders have told us there is no alternative, as America’s free-market ideology becomes a world ideology. The same could be said of world cinema.
In lieu of radical challenge to this, in an environment where immediate commercial success is the sole criterion of judgment and where, as Douchet puts it, in the name of competition “one must submit to the rules established by an enormous [commercial] machine designed to pulverize,” any attempt to impose contrary cinematic visions–whether auteurist, collective agent provocateurist, or even within the system–is more than just a necessary evil, it is an imperative.