10 great French New Wave films

As Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave masterpiece Vivre sa vie arrives on Blu-ray, we remember 10 of the best movies to come out of a movement that changed cinema forever.

13 August 2015

By Sam Wigley

Vivre sa vie (1962)

In the last of the 12 chapters of Jean-Luc Godard’s fourth film, Vivre sa vie (1962), prostitute Nana (played by the director’s then-wife Anna Karina) and her pimp drive past a cinema where a crowd is queuing to see Jules et Jim, the arthouse sensation made by Godard’s friend and sometime-rival François Truffaut, released in January that year.

In the months between the release of these two films, Godard and Karina both had cameos in Cléo from 5 to 7, a movie that confirmed the arrival of another vital filmmaker: Agnès Varda. Varda was married that same year to Jacques Demy, whose own debut, the peerless Lola, had come out in 1961. Just as Lola was dedicated to director Max Ophüls, Vivre sa vie was dedicated to B-movies (as Godard’s first film, 1960’s Breathless was dedicated to B-movie studio Monogram Pictures) – and both Lola and Vivre sa vie were shot by Raoul Coutard and scored by Michel Legrand…

And so the connections go on and on. These were years of extraordinary ferment in French cinema, when first-time filmmakers quickly became third- and fourth-time filmmakers, fired by freedom, filmic inspiration and the certainty that movies could and should be as personal as a letter delivered straight into the audience’s hands.

For them, cinema was a living, breathing cult and religion. The more famous cinema trip in Vivre sa vie occurs earlier in the film, when Nana sits in tears and rapture at a screening of Carl Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). This is how movies affected the enfants terribles of the French nouvelle vague, and their passion for the medium – both for making it and for making reference to it – remains infectious more than half a century later.

There were warning surges in 1955 (Varda’s La Pointe-courte), 1956 (Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur) and 1958 (Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge), but the French New Wave became a deluge in 1959, with Truffaut, Godard, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette following Chabrol’s route into film production from a background in firebrand film criticism at the journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour and Chabrol’s second film, Les Cousins, followed swiftly by Godard’s Breathless in March 1960, announced a kind of cinematic gold rush in which filmmakers in France (and soon the world over) were following their lead in grabbing a camera, throwing out the stylistic rule book, and taking to the streets to film the world unencumbered by the stodgy baggage or impersonality of establishment industry filmmaking.

The results in France alone amount to one of film history’s purplest patches, as we’ll find as we count down 10 (one each for the key directors) of the era’s finest films.

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Director: Alain Resnais

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

There were connections – social and stylistic – between them, but the French New Wave broke forth from two distinct groups. On the one hand, there were the critics-turned-filmmakers associated with Cahiers du Cinéma (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette); on the other, the so-called Left Bank directors (Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Agnès Varda), no less modernistic but less crazed by the love of movies for their own sake.

Resnais and Marker came from documentary, and Resnais’ first fiction feature, Hiroshima mon amour, began with a commission to make a documentary about the atomic bomb. Marker was on board as a collaborator but dropped out, while Resnais – eager to not simply repeat the effect of Night and Fog, his 1955 document of the concentration camps – turned to Marguerite Duras for a fiction screenplay. Duras, doyen of experimental fiction and the nouveau roman, penned a story of two lovers – a French woman (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese man (Eiji Okada) – whose affair in present-day Hiroshima is wracked by memories both personal and historical.

Memory, and the extent to which the past lives on in the present, was a central theme of much of Resnais’ work. With Duras’ incantatory dialogue and an avant-garde score by Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue, he made the gravest film of 1959, but one which took huge leaps forward with its nuanced portrayal of adult thought and emotion. A door opened, modern cinema got a foot in.

See also: Last Year at Marienbad (1961), La guerre est finie (1966)

Breathless (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Breathless (1960)

Coming 10 months after Truffaut’s autobiographical Les Quatre Cents Coups and nine after Hiroshima mon amour, Godard’s first picture was another tear in the fabric of film. This time, the effect was dizzying in its cool modernity: in critic Kent Jones’s words, it was free-jazz improvisation to counter Resnais’ atonal music.

The story, such as it is, involves a young criminal, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who steals a car, kills a cop, and then hides out in Paris with his American girlfriend (Jean Seberg) waiting for fate to catch up with him. It’s the insouciant way in which Godard tells it that is key. Shot with hand-held cameras by Raoul Coutard (Godard’s regular cinematographer throughout the first phase of his career), Breathless presents a thoroughgoing assault on the accepted grammar of filmmaking: cutting when the rules said it shouldn’t; filming on the streets and in natural lighting; inserting sudden, disruptive music cues; and taking every opportunity to remind the viewer that what they’re watching is a film and a fiction. It’s a picture steeped in movie lore and movie references, but one which attempted to hold up the medium by the ankles and shake it until everything we held true fell out.

See also: Le Petit Soldat (1960), Une femme mariée (1964)

Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

Director: Claude Chabrol

Les Bonnes femmes (1960)

With Godard, Claude Chabrol was the most prolific of the major nouvelle vague filmmakers. His 1958 debut Le Beau Serge was one of the movement’s early warning signals, and by the end of the 60s he’d finished 16 more features and several shorts. He was more wedded to traditional genres than some of his contemporaries, and his 60s features comprise now largely forgotten spy films alongside a series of essential thrillers that earned him plenty of comparisons to Hitchcock (of whom Chabrol and Rohmer had co-written a groundbreaking study in the 1950s).

Already his fourth film by 1960, Les Bonnes Femmes is neither a thriller nor a spy film – although there is a twist. It’s a black-comic portrait of four single Parisian women (including Stéphane Audran and Bernadette Lafont) who work in an electrical appliances shop. Each is striving for something better, professionally or via romance. Chabrol documents their assorted encounters with the film’s coterie of low-life men with a cool eye for the grim ironies of human desire and behaviour. Audiences at the time rejected the film’s pessimism, and it’s still not as well known as it should be – all the better for the unwary to experience the full shock of one of Chabrol’s best. An astringent treat.

See also: La Femme infidèle (1969), Le Boucher (1970)

Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Director: François Truffaut

Shoot the Pianist (1960)

Coming between his justly celebrated New Wave classics Les Quatre Cents Coups and Jules et Jim, Truffaut’s second film is no less indispensable. Premiered at the London Film Festival in October 1960, it’s a flimsier affair than either – closer in spirit to the pulp genre games of Godard’s Breathless or Bande à part (1964). Adapted from a novel by crime writer David Goodis, it stars Charles Aznavour as a washed-up classical pianist who gets mixed up with gangsters after taking work mournfully tinkling the ivories in a Parisian dive bar.

Freed from the autobiographical shape of his debut, Truffaut indulges his love for American cinema with a full-throttle tribute to film noir, B-movies and silent comedy, delivered with a breathless panoply of nouvelle vague tricks that invigorate to this day. It’s a comedy, it’s a thriller, it’s a film about films – but for all its tricksiness, it endures because of the feeling in Aznavour’s sadsack performance and because Truffaut imbues so much passion and sensibility into every frame.

See also: Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), La Sirène du Mississipi (1969)

Lola (1961)

Director: Jacques Demy

Lola (1961)

Jacques Demy was affiliated with the Left Bank group (he was married to Varda from 1962 until his death in 1990), but his ardent cinephilia made him a kindred spirit with the film-mad Cahiers group too.

Made when he was 30, his debut explicitly glances back to Max Ophüls’ Lola Montès (1955) and beyond to Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) – beautiful tales of women trapped in webs of male control and desire. But Demy’s tale of a cabaret dancer (Anouk Aimée) and the men who revolve around her has something new that makes it quintessentially modern and distinctly New Wave: a casual, street-level naturalism that finds movie magic in humdrum places and situations. This is a film that looks bleached white in the backgrounds, as Raoul Coutard’s glorious, overexposed CinemaScope photography makes the Atlantic seaside town of Nantes seem both vividly real and on the cusp of daydream. Demy was the dreamiest of the New Wave directors, and this yearningly romantic calling card paved the way for more fairytales of French coastal towns in which Michel Legrand’s music grew ever more lilting and essential. 

See also: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

Adieu Philippine (1962)

Director: Jacques Rozier

Adieu Philippine (1962)

In the rush to make their first films, some New Wave directors stalled or got left behind. Rohmer and Rivette both started early, but saw delays to either the production or release of their debut features. Jacques Rozier fared poorly too: his first film, begun in 1960, faced production difficulties that delayed it hitting cinemas until 1962 – perhaps too late for his voice to be heard above the clamour of acclaim for some of his peers, who were by then onto their third or fourth pictures.

Adieu Philippine remains well under the radar even now; it is by far the least well known and most difficult to see film on this list. Which is a shame, because this story of a young TV technician’s affairs and adventures with two girls holidaying in Corsica represents the movement at its breeziest and most spontaneous. Youthful, chaotic and carefree, it’s one of the era’s films that feels most like a camera was grabbed, and people and places were nudged until they fell together into a movie. Sad, then, that Rozier didn’t follow it up for nearly a decade, when he continued his interest in young people and the holiday mood in even less well-known films, Du côté d’Orouët (1971) and Les Naufragés de l’Île de la Tortue (1976), which are surely ripe for investigation.

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director: Agnès Varda

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Cléo from 5 to 7 unfolds in close to real time, in the freighted 90-minute lull between a singer’s test for cancer and the moment she receives the results. We join Cléo (Corinne Marchand) just after the test, when she is visiting a tarot-card reader in the doomed hope of anticipating her prognosis, then follow her to meetings with friends and lovers, to a rehearsal and to the shops, before a fateful stroll in the park.

Seven years after her New Wave-anticipating debut La Pointe-courte, Varda returned to cinema with this wonderful present-tense drama, which eschews its setup’s essential melodrama and sentimentality in favour of a delicate portrait of a mind and spirit in turmoil. Gently experimental in form but always firmly rooted to a sense of time and place (Paris’s Left Bank, from 5pm to 6.30), it’s also one of a number of early 60s New Wave films to flirt with the conventions of the musical. In Cléo’s run-through of a number called ‘Sans toi’, Varda’s mainly naturalistic film momentarily transforms into a stylised routine as she belts out the song to piano accompaniment. In New Wave films, genres such as the musical or the gangster film can be tried on and then discarded, like garments in a dressing up box.

See also: Le Bonheur (1965), Les Créatures (1966)

Le Mépris (1963)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Le Mépris (1963)

We said one film per director for this list, but for Godard rules need to be broken. Between his debut in 1960 and ‘les événements’ of May 1968 (after which he turned away from film narrative altogether), the man made 15 films – all vital, pell-mell refractions of narrative cinema, remaking and remodelling a tired medium with new ideas, pop-art visuals and a bullish anarchism. For seven years, all anyone else in film could do was try to keep up.

Six films in, Godard made what looked like his most conventional work to date: with a big star (Brigitte Bardot), eye-popping Technicolor, CinemaScope visuals (another nod for Raoul Coutard), and a relatively straight story. Adapted from a novel by Alberto Moravia, it’s all about a screenwriter’s suddenly fractious marital relations during filming in Italy of a production of Homer’s The Odyssey. ‘Conventional’ is relative, but it’s certainly his most emotionally direct film, taking its lead from Roberto Rossellini’s great marital breakdown drama Journey to Italy (1954) in eloquently tracing the rot that sets in between lovers. Already, the effervescent qualities of Breathless seem out of reach for Godard, and Le Mépris reveals an escalating pessimism about love and cinema. Heady stuff, then, but film heaven if you’re wired its way.

See also: Pierrot le fou (1965), Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967)

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Director: Eric Rohmer

Claire’s Knee (1970)

Eric Rohmer was among those Cahiers critics who first picked up a camera at the end of the 1950s, but his first film, Le Signe du lion (shot in 1959), was held back for release until 1962. It flopped, and Rohmer began his series of ‘Six Moral Tales’ with a couple of short films before finally making his second feature film, La Collectionneuse, in 1967.

It was only with My Night with Maud (1969) and Claire’s Knee that Rohmer’s reputation began to scale the heights of his former colleagues. The first of Rohmer’s great series cycles, the ‘Six Moral Tales’ present situations in which a male protagonist’s fidelity or resolve in affairs of the heart is tested. Claire’s Knee, the penultimate tale, is a deceptively simple yet highly ambiguous and troubling film about the nature of desire and fixation (specifically that of a vainglorious alpha male with a teenage neighbour’s knee). It’s both naturalistic and uniquely otherworldly, rather like watching a version of Les Liaisons dangereuses or a courtly medieval parable transposed to summer holiday season at Lac d’Annecy.

See also: La Collectionneuse (1966), My Night with Maud (1969)

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

In the era of online cinephilia, Jacques Rivette’s stock is perhaps the highest of all the New Wave directors (fed by cultish interest in his 13-hour film maudit Out 1). It wasn’t always like that – at the time, none of Rivette’s films had the widespread impact or notoriety of those of his peers. Though he began shooting his first film, Paris nous appartient, in 1957, it wasn’t ready for release until 1961, by which time it felt less like an earthquake and more like an after-tremor. By 1974, the time of Rivette’s fourth feature, people might well have wondered if the French New Wave was even still a thing. Godard had retreated into Marxist video experiments, Truffaut and Chabrol looked increasingly traditional, and Rohmer had finished his Moral Tales and needed a new direction.

Everything has to end somewhere, so with Céline and Julie Go Boating Rivette takes the nouvelle vague down a rabbit hole. Riffing on Alice in Wonderland, he spins a yarn about two female friends (Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto) who discover that sucking mysterious boiled sweets transports them to a strange house where a stiff period-clothed melodrama is playing out. It’s a film about spells in which the magic is everyday, and a film about narrative in which the ‘story’ seems grasped out of the air of the summer’s day when we first meet Céline in a Paris park. The New Wave may have receded, but Rivette was still intent on pushing the boat out.

See also: Paris nous appartient (1961), L’Amour fou (1969)

Your suggestions

Jules et Jim (1962)

To our list above, you voted to add these classics of the French New Wave…

  1. Jules et Jim (François Truffaut, 1962)
  2. Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959)
  3. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
  4. Bande à part (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
  5. Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)
  6. Lift to the Scaffold (Louis Malle, 1958)
  7. Bob le flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)
  8. Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)
  9. Les Cousins (Claude Chabrol, 1959)
  10. Paris nous appartient (Jacques Rivette, 1961)

The votes are counted and this week’s winner as the film you thought was the most glaring omission from our list is François Truffaut’s immortal ménage-à-trois romance Jules et Jim.

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