What you learn, watching the films of the French New Wave, is that love is never as straightforward as falling for a girl in a beret or a guy who molds himself as France’s answer to Humphrey Bogart. These are tales of infidelity, love triangles and amour fou. Love stories overlap and become gloriously knotted.
You soon learn, too, that these filmmakers have a penchant for dialogue that’s slightly florid, slightly OTT. The same words uttered from your own lips would no doubt sound pompous, if not hilarious. It’s just not the same without the French accent, is it?
To celebrate Valentine’s Day this year, here’s a reminder of the many romantic insights into love and longing from those cinephiles across the Channel. The fiery passion, the youth, the romance, all encapsulated in a single image with a line that makes absolute sense coming from the Nouvelle Vague. But be warned: these sentences might not sound as sincere if plagiarised from the silver screen.
Les Amants (1958)
In Louis Malle’s early New Wave film, Jeanne Moreau plays a bored bourgeois housewife who has a passionate affair with an archeologist. Their brief encounter happens over a mere few hours and takes place under the same roof as the wife’s husband and daughter. In the wee small hours, Moreau and the archeologist escape the country house where the man is a guest. They wander around, chatting under a full moon. By the morning she’s in a car zooming across the French countryside, whispering: “I would go anywhere with you.”
In among the jump cuts and kinetic camerawork of Jean-Luc Godard’s radical debut is a long, rather tender bedroom scene. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel is attempting to seduce Jean Seberg’s Patricia in her hotel room. He’s not doing so well. They flirt, make faces at each other, have staring contests. Michel plays it cool at first, but then hides under the sheet like a lovesick puppy. Patricia, on the other hand, is not 100% committed, dodging his advances at every turn. “But I don’t know if I love you yet…”
Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987)
In Eric Rohmer’s Boyfriends and Girlfriends, a Parisian girl falls head over heels for her new friend’s boyfriend. It’s complicated, as always: a love story with many overlapping threads, many frustrations, love requited and unrequited. Blanche (Emmanuelle Chaulet), Rohmer’s protagonist, is going ‘dumb’, which for her can only mean one thing: she likes a guy. Of course, the romantic backdrop of rural France during the summer helps stir the emotions somewhat.
Stolen Kisses (1968)
François Truffaut’s third film in the Antoine Doinel series is a romcom with a Hitchcockian plot involving private investigators and stalkers. The most bizarre moment comes at the end, when this middle-aged stalker, dressed in a Bogart-style trench coat, approaches Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his girlfriend on a park bench. He knows neither of them but declares: “Before you, I’d never been in love.” Needless to say, it’s the stuff of bad poetry, yet fitting for a character in this typically offbeat love story laced with bittersweet moments.
Pierrot le fou (1965)
We’re in the backseat of Godard’s Technicolor tale of lovers on the run. Jean-Paul Belmondo constantly breaks the fourth wall, turning around to address us, the audience. Yet for all its self-conscious this-is-a-movie reminders, the spell of love between Ferdinand (Belmondo) and Marianne (Anna Karina) – France’s answer to Bonnie and Clyde – is never broken. Blood and tears. Love and death. Cinema! It’s all related in this bracingly original film.
The Aviator’s Wife (1981)
A woman is cheating on her boyfriend with another man who, in turn, is cheating on his own wife who’s expecting a baby. And, well, in Rohmer’s movies that tends to happen: you get two or three love stories for the price of one, all beautifully tangled together. “You’ve already left me,” the woman says sullenly to the married man. Who said love was easy?
Bed and Board (1970)
In Truffaut’s Bed and Board a young father has an affair with a mysterious Japanese woman. In the scene above, he calls his wife from a restaurant where he’s having an awful time with the other woman. He calls her three separate times during the meal, turning the scene into a sort of slapstick skit. Then on the final call, he tells his wife, “I’d like to kiss you.” It’s a stirring scene of longing that also happens to be very, very funny. Love, humour and tragedy are typical bedfellows in Truffaut’s world.
Lift to the Scaffold (1958)
Jeanne Moreau, in extreme close-up, purrs “je t’aime” down the phone. A cut reveals her secret lover, Maurice Ronet, on the other end. “Without your voice I’d be lost in a land of silence,” he replies. Miles Davis’s trumpet fades in and the titles appear: ‘un film de Louis Malle’. These are the uber-stylish first few seconds of Lift to the Scaffold, and it’s exactly how you wish your own love story looked and felt: a moody monochrome moment accompanied by the greatest trumpet player of all time. If only.
Love in the Afternoon (1972)
In another classic Parisian tale of infidelity, a happily married lawyer has an affair with an old acquaintance called Chloé. Their clandestine meetups take them around the streets on various afternoons when he should be in the office. Here they are on a park bench, the man completely lost at the intersection of lust and love. How to choose between his wife and Chloé?! Then Chloé drops a bomb: “You’re the only reason I can stand life.” This lawyer is in way over his head.
Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
Alain Resnais’ devastating drama frames a love story against the backdrop of 50s Hiroshima. The film opens on the naked backs of a Japanese man and a French woman, their arms encasing each other as ash falls on their skin. Later, in bed together, they discuss love in relation to Hiroshima. “You’re like a thousand women in one,” the man tells her. Like the couple, poetry, love and cinema are entwined in Resnais’ masterpiece.
Masculin Féminin (1966)
Jean-Pierre Léaud is flirting with pop singer Chantal Goya in a unisex toilet. He’s playing it casually, with his cigarette tricks and not-so-subtle stares. Goya combs her hair in the mirror, loving every minute of toying with this lovelorn cinephile. She feeds the longing in his eyes, hypothetically pondering: “If I said I’d love you one day, would it make you happy?” You can almost hear his pulse quicken as he absorbs her words.
Jules et Jim (1962)
In one of the most iconic love triangles ever committed to celluloid, Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) dance around the enigmatic Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). When Jim, above, reveals his feelings for the first time, his best friend is married to her, living with her and has a daughter with her. But then, love isn’t as clearly defined as simply “him and her” in this film. It’s more of a “him, him and her”, a three-way love affair. Opting for a less lofty declaration of love, Jim, a connoisseur of classical sculpture, compliments Catherine on the nape of her neck. And with those words, he’s no longer a third wheel.
Full Moon in Paris (1984)