Les Films Imperia
The legacy of the French New Wave looms large over modern film history, yet its legacy is decidedly messy, one that refuses to fit comfortably within one stable tradition or definition. The movement became popular alongside the rise of European art cinema during the late 1950s and early 1960s, yet many of its films preferred playfully anarchistic pastiche over a reverent approach to cinematic modernism. Unlike other European postwar filmmaking traditions, the French New Wave both loved and hated Hollywood filmmaking, with its members ranging from the political dissidence of Jean-Luc Godard’s work after 1965 to the cheeky MGM-invoking festivals of radiance that were Jacques Demy’s 1960s musicals.
And there were as many, if not more, consequential French filmmakers only tangentially associated with the New Wave as there were decidedly within it, with Alain Resnais and Louis Malle’s late 1950s work often awkwardly placed as its inciting texts.
The French New Wave was a school without formal rules, without clear qualifications for induction, and without an interest in legibly framing its own legacy – its criteria required seemingly little else than a distinct expression of difference from what’s come before.
But beyond the intellectual and artistic changes the French New Wave brought upon the greater cinematic landscape, no contribution of the movement is more apparent than the term New Wave itself, a term that both reinforces and confuses the French New Wave’s legacy each time it’s applied. And while “New Wave” might be a useful shorthand for recognizing significant shifts in filmmaking style and practice across the world, it’s a term whose frequent use also highlights its diminishing relevance, a remnant of a global filmmaking context that in few ways resemble today’s.
From the recent Romanian New Wave’s portraits of ordinary life under repressive structures of wealth and power amongst the resonance of a former regime to the South Korean New Wave’s fearless – and often brutal – genre reinventions, it seems that new, starkly original, dissident cinemas are cropping up all over the world. Incredible films have been emerging from these countries over the past decade and – despite the incredible variety between their aesthetic approaches, themes and sources of inspiration – each nationally-identified group of filmmakers seem to be saying something collectively about both cinema and their nation with a seemingly connected output.
But film movements, of course, are as much (if not more) a product of discourse as they are a decisive effort by a group of filmmakers to similarly explore new possibilities. Film movements, whether coined by a journalist attempting to coin a trend or a group of filmmakers signing a declaration of loyalty for a cinematic orthodoxy, provide useful shorthands for identifying contemporaneous groups of filmmakers, changes in filmmaking practice, and points of note within film history. But unless you’re talking about ’90s Lars von Trier, any material correspondence between such blanket terms and the actual artistic and narrative goals of particular filmmakers can be a gulf apart.
This is not so say that all discursive categories related to film movements are false. “Mumblecore” may hang like an albatross around the Duplass brothers’ necks, but it also identifies a community that has actually, in pragmatic terms, collaborated and echoed one another in shared approaches to and preoccupations within the medium. Such terms can also foreground problems within filmmaking – namely, how filmmakers identify themselves in opposition to commercial film industries that dominate exhibition venues and valuable resources.
The trouble is that film movements can obscure the work of individual film artists as much as they advocate for that work to be seen. A convergence of interesting work becomes defined – and thus generalized or even stereotyped – by factors like shared national identity (instead of diverse interpretations of national identity and its myth) and limited summaries of perceived interests shared between films (rather than unique topics explored within them). Despite the dominant use of film movements to coin innovations in filmmaking, identifying film movements feeds a preoccupation with reading conformity among a select group of texts.
European movements prior to the French New Wave, like French Poetic Realism, German Expressionism, or Italian Neo-Realism, applied positive definitions alluding to political or aesthetic goals within their very titles. The French New Wave, by contrast, is pointedly identified by an expression of “newness,” a far more obscure and historically relative definition, but also a term that has made it readily transportable for coining many a national film movement sense (and has subsequently been used in literature and music).
The “newness” of the French New Wave was of primary importance. The French New Wave called for a break in tradition, away from a national podium of high culture, away from stratifying rules of representational art. What the French New Wave embraced instead (more or less) is an eradication of supposed boundaries between high and low and a violent challenge to inherited definitions of taste: referencing Hollywood cinema was as relevant as quoting avant-garde poetry, and the sexual misadventures of young people was just as worthy of a topic as American imperialism. Cinematic continuity, however, was not important at all.
The French New Wave was a film movement for leftist dissidents and radical aesthetes, and both presaged and attended a significant socio-political break with French tradition in the events informing May ’68.
But as much of a break with particular traditions of the West as the French New Wave was, it was a movement that defined itself, albeit oppositionally, in regard to a specifically Western tradition. The French New Wave was integrated into the institutions and discourses of European art cinema, and it endured a complex and ambivalent relationship with Hollywood. The “newness” assumed by the French New Wave entails a binary: between then and now, between social tradition and social relevance, between inherited politics and radical action, between dominant cinema and insurgent cinema, between “their” France and “our” France, between competing ideas of nation as the play out in art.
In the commercial movie theaters of the mid-century, it would have been easy to see this logic play out. But in the particularized and multi-platform landscape of 21st century cinephilia (as the inciting New Wave was just as much a cinephilic movement as it was a filmmaking movement), it’s difficult to apply a binarizing lens on cinema movements. As more information on world filmmaking practice becomes available, it’s hard to define filmmaking in terms as simple and linear as “then” and “now.”
Yet we still know so little about global cinema histories beyond what’s been exported and what is exportable. And that’s where the central problem of coining emergent film movements as “New Waves” comes in: it becomes ever more difficult to identify the old guard that such traditions are allegedly responding to or differentiating themselves from.
This is borne out by the fact that most recent film movements for which the New Wave title is applied come from non-Western countries – countries with less institutionalized filmmaking histories, with filmmaking histories that have largely been obscured from global audiences, or with filmmaking histories that don’t always define themselves with or against Western traditions at all. Such films come from a very different context than French filmmaking in the postwar era.
When English-speaking critics lump Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas and Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills into the “Romanian New Wave,” exactly what connections are being made between these two excellent – but in many ways very different – films, and who is the old guard they’re challenging?
This is a problem that’s existed since the initial days of the French New Wave. In regards to the so-called “Japanese New Wave” (or Nuberu Bagu) that emerged contemporaneously in the late 1950s, David Desser says of the use of an English translation of nouvelle vague as applied to a very much not-French movement:
“Superficial comparisons between the Japanese New Wave cinema and the French New Wave, typically to imply greater integrity to the latter, have served the cultural cliché that the Japanese are merely great imitators, that they do nothing original…To see the Japanese New Wave as an imitation of the French New Wave (an impossibility since they arose simultaneously) fails to see the Japanese context out of which the movement arose.”
Such erasures of context are now being widely applied to film movements emerging from countries whose filmmaking histories are already far too shrouded. Contemporary uses of the title “New Wave” have developed into to little more than a shorthand for, “this underrepresented country is making interesting movies.”
If calling it a New Wave gets a global audience interested, then I suppose there’s some use there. But a group of French filmmakers in the ’60s shouldn’t be the unceasing criteria by which we define the important and diverse filmmaking that’s continually emerging across the world.