The curators of the series “Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave” have set more than one trap for themselves with their provocative theme. As cinema studies have increasingly moved to expand the canon by incorporating works that were once treated as minor or marginal, if not altogether ignored, the criteria for evaluating a film’s aesthetic worth or a director’s historical importance have greatly changed. Revisionism reigns in the field, but to characterize, as “Forgotten Filmmakers” does, a vast number of auteurs from perhaps the best-known and most chronicled movement in film history as disregarded or unremembered certainly courts dispute—forgotten by whom?—and not just among the many connoisseurs of arcana who populate the precincts of cinephilia. The series includes several directors who will be familiar to anyone who frequents repertory or art house cinemas and film museums—Georges Franju, Alain Cavalier, Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat, and Jean Rouch, for example—and some whose careers largely came after the period usually identified with the New Wave. The redoubtable film critic Jean-Michel Frodon, lead curator for the series, seems almost recklessly generous in his determination to expand the standard parameters of the movement by invoking an early definition: “Anyone who made his or her first film between 1957 and 1963 [in France] was de facto part of [it].”
A more crucial snare lies in defining the French New Wave, a term that can become as vague and capacious as “film noir,” especially when its purview gets radically expanded, as it does in “Forgotten Filmmakers.” Frodon includes Machorka-Muff (1963), a caustic anti-Adenauer satire shot in Bonn in German and based on a text by Heinrich Böll that was the first film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, figures more associated with German cinema, as well as Claude-Jean Bonnardot’s anomalous Moranbong, une aventure coréenne (Moranbong, a Korean Adventure, 1960), a sentimental war epic filmed in North Korea and mostly in Korean, which suggests just how heterodox the remit of “Forgotten Filmmakers” is. (Again, one cavils at that rubric, since Straub-Huillet’s films have long been revered among cinephiles and accorded countless retrospectives.)
Scholars continue to disagree about which filmmakers fit under the New Wave designation, what the salient characteristics of its films are, and how long it lasted. James Monaco’s classic study The New Wave (1976) established both the roster of directors who have traditionally been considered the movement’s progenitors—five critics from the journal Cahiers du cinéma who were intent upon becoming filmmakers: Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Éric Rohmer—and the year of its inception as 1959, which Monaco calls its annus mirabilis, when most of his subjects made their first features. Though he gives no precise end date, Monaco infers the considerable influence of the New Wave directors in the protests during the winter of 1968 against the French government’s dismissal of Henri Langlois as the head of the Cinémathèque française, which prefigured the violent political demonstrations of the following summer.
Two recent books indicate the degree to which many film historians depart from Monaco’s conventional outline (and Frodon’s unorthodox one). Douglas Morrey, in his important but frustrating The Legacy of the New Wave in French Cinema, notes that “in the strictest definition, [the movement] only lasted from the beginning of 1959 until the end of 1960,” which he sensibly finds too confining. The contributors to the handsome coffee-table book French New Wave: A Revolution in Design, which convincingly argues that the cinematic insurgence of the New Wave inspired an “explosive and groundbreaking” new movement in the design of film posters, push the termination date all the way to 1970 to include Godard’s Le Vent d’est (Wind from the East), long after the director had made his radical transition to Maoism and collective filmmaking with the Dziga Vertov Group.
Both books extend the New Wave to include Agnès Varda, whose work unquestionably evokes its spirit and freewheeling means. In her concept of cinécriture, or “cinema writing,” Varda expressed a desire to shoot films with the unencumbered ease and stylistic intensity with which an author writes a novel, making literal the premise of a 1948 essay frequently cited as the founding document of the French New Wave, Alexandre Astruc’s “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” in which he noticed
that something is happening in the cinema at the moment…. Cinema is in the process of becoming a new means of expression on the same level as painting and the novel…a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel. This is why I would like to call this new age of cinema the age of the caméra-stylo.
A movie camera as light and portable as a pen, able to record consciousness and interiority, was a central New Wave tenet that Varda ardently shared, but she diverged from the sometimes misogynist and often right-wing New Wave in both her sex and her politics and can be more comfortably situated with her husband, Jacques Demy, and their cerebral confreres Alain Resnais and Chris Marker in the progressive Left Bank Group, an important distinction that goes unremarked by Morrey.
Morrey’s study, which traces the movement’s influence on various post–New Wave French auteurs, from the generation that immediately followed in the 1970s to a slate of contemporary directors, relies too heavily on the opinions of others. Many paragraphs are clogged with citations, his eight-page introduction alone requiring eighty endnotes. It is unfortunate that he seems not to trust his own judgment, because he is keenly perceptive, especially when he turns to materialist analysis.
Morrey’s comments about the rarity or availability of certain works are sometimes uninformed. He notes that the early films of the morose solipsist Philippe Garrel are “rarely seen,” though a large retrospective that included many of those works in new restorations traveled to North America and many international cinemas five years ago, and was also available to stream in the UK, where Morrey lives. He rightly claims that Garrel’s legendary documentary Actua I, which Godard pronounced the best film about the events of May 1968, was lost, but seems unaware that Garrel found the negative in 2014, and that the film was subsequently shown at the Cannes Film Festival and released on DVD, and is currently available on YouTube.
Morrey positions Garrel as an inheritor of the New Wave, especially of the director’s idol, Godard, while the curators of “Forgotten Filmmakers” include Garrel in the movement itself with his first film, Les Enfants désaccordés (1964). Garrel’s febrile short, shot when he was only sixteen, about a teenage couple who flee their parents, steal a car, and end up playing games in an abandoned suburban château, provides a veritable checklist of New Wave themes and strategies, including its title, which suggests a winking homage to Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants terribles (Cocteau was Garrel’s other idol). Like Jean Eustache and Maurice Pialat, who are also featured in “Forgotten Filmmakers,” Garrel began in the New Wave, briefly partook of its ethos, and moved on.
The series, co-organized by the MoMA film curator Joshua Siegel, pays generous tribute to the New Wave’s chief inspirations and precursors—Astruc, Roger Leenhardt, and Georges Franju—with a selection of films that either anticipate its freedoms or, in the case of Franju, share contemporaneously in its spirit. Leenhardt—a philosophy student turned film critic whose theories of cinematic realism so greatly influenced the New Wave that Godard featured him in Une femme mariée (A Married Woman, 1964) as a character who returns from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials and delivers a famous discourse on the nature of intelligence, and Truffaut accorded him a small role in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977) as a publisher—is represented by his debut feature, Les Dernières vacances (The Last Vacation, 1948).
The film opens in a schoolroom as the teenage student Jacques daydreams over a photo of his family at their country house in the South of France. Jacques dotes on the photograph because it represents a past that has suddenly vanished, leaving him unmoored and vulnerable. The film flashes back to the final summer Jacques’s clan gathered in the house, where the increasingly impoverished amateur photographer and widower Walter lives with his young daughter, Juliette, and his eccentric sister, Délie. When the children discover that their beloved summer home is to be sold, they conspire unsuccessfully to prevent the sale. Jacques’s sense of impending loss is compounded when his girlfriend, Juliette, begins to flirt with the architect who has arrived from Paris to plan the renovation of the house into a luxury hotel.
Leenhardt later made over fifty short documentaries about French writers and artists, and Les Dernières vacances reveals both his literary sensibility and his painterly eye. The script relies heavily on the motif of fire, repeatedly invoked to express both the incendiary nature of youthful ardor and the imminent threat of disaster. A festive display of Venetian lanterns suddenly bursts into flame. The architect berates the children for lighting a bonfire in the midst of a dry forest. A sickly boy contemplates a “devouring fire” as he surveys a large box of matches and later lights just such a conflagration in a crumbling tower full of hay in an attempt to trap the architect, an “accident” that Walter suspects is an act of spontaneous combustion.
Leenhardt’s modesty and concern for “didactic clarity,” as he once put it, occasionally turn Les Dernières vacances toward literary convention. But the film clearly presages the New Wave in its self-references (Walter represents Leenhardt’s long-held interest in photography), its lyrical location shooting in the Gard countryside, and especially in its celebration of youthful rebellion. Jacques’s sense of perpetual chastisement and his wounded disillusion with the adult world—“It’s all fake! It’s all fake!” he cries—foreshadow the figure of Antoine Doinel, Truffaut’s troublemaking alter ego in his own feature debut, Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). A film that anticipates not only the New Wave but, further afield, Bertrand Tavernier’s Un dimanche à la campagne (A Sunday in the Country, 1984) and Olivier Assayas’s L’Heure d’été (Summer Hours, 2008), Les Dernières vacances richly deserves renewed attention.
Astruc’s medium-length Le Rideau cramoisi (The Crimson Curtain, 1953) opens with a portentous quote from the Marquis de Sade—“THE CRIMES OF LOVE…. Heinous crimes, unblemished by steel or poison”—but its elegant tale of passion ending in death is more suggestive of Stendhal and Poe. During the Napoleonic Wars, an arrogant young officer is billeted by an older couple, whose daughter Albertine, played by Anouk Aimée, later a favorite actress of the New Wave directors, suddenly appears one night like an apparition. With her pale visage as impassive as a statue’s—she is frequently compared to marble—Albertine remains inscrutable even as she plays games of coquetry with the soldier at the dinner table. In a long white gown, the ethereal young woman glides like a specter through the shadowy hallways, shot in soft, dreamlike tonalities by the cinematographer Eugen Shüfftan.
At first the soldier attempts to assume a similar indifference, “to oppose marble to marble, coldness to coldness,” but he discovers that when Albertine finally submits to his avidity “that first night, she gave herself to me with unspeakable violence.” (A shot designed to deliver a Sadean frisson captures her bare foot pinned under his gleaming military boots.) Largely nocturnal and free of dialogue, Le Rideau cramoisi is one of many films in the series that relies on voice-over narration, a technique that Robert Bresson had just perfected with Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951).
Astruc’s Éducation sentimentale (Sentimental Education, 1962), made at the apex of the New Wave, seems to head back into the airless environs of “the Tradition of Quality” despised by the Cahiers critics, despite featuring Jean-Claude Brialy, an actor favored by Chabrol, Truffaut, and Rohmer. Ostensibly a modern update of the Flaubert novel, though the parallels appear increasingly remote as the film progresses, Éducation sentimentale stars Brialy as Frédéric, a retiring and unsophisticated young student who falls in love with Anne, a bourgeois woman married to a suave and abusive swindler who moves through the worlds of fashion and finance cloaked in mystery.
Shot in glistening black-and-white widescreen, the film transpires in a series of swank settings—elite nightclubs, apartments stuffed with ancien régime furniture and objets, a country château—and fervently checklists its signifiers of affluence (Chanel, Veuve Clicquot 1947, Alfa Romeo), but its luxe aura turns oppressive. Unlike Flaubert’s novel, which so brilliantly limns the revolution of 1848, Astruc’s film all but ignores politics, except for a brief moment when Frédéric discovers that the beach where he and Anne are enjoying a morning tryst contains several monuments to the war dead. History suddenly intrudes upon their romance, but not long enough to matter.
Georges Franju claimed that he learned everything he needed to know by the age of fifteen “with the following literature: Fantômas, Freud, and the Marquis de Sade.” The influence of the first two is abundantly apparent in the contrasting Franju features in the series. La Tête contre les murs (Head Against the Wall, 1959), shot largely in a mental asylum for the sake of authenticity, stars an anguished Jean-Pierre Mocky, who originally planned to direct the film himself, as a leather-jacketed delinquent who ends up incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital after burning some legal dossiers belonging to his tyrannical father, whom he despises as an incarnation of bourgeois propriety and blames for his mother’s death. Godard best captured the delirious tenor of La Tête when he called it “a madly beautiful film” and claimed that “maybe Franju doesn’t know how to direct his actors. But never have Jean-Pierre Mocky, Anouk Aimée, Paul Meurisse, Pierre Brasseur been better…. They’re not acting. They’re trembling.”
Franju’s crime caper Judex (1963), a fond homage to the serials of Louis Feuillade, particularly its 1916 namesake and Fantômas, opens and closes with an iris shot, in which the camera’s aperture slowly expands or contracts so that the image appears in an increasing or decreasing circle surrounded by black—a favorite device from silent cinema employed by the New Wave. This surreal adventure, pitting the avenger and magician Judex against the kidnapper and escape artist Diana Monti, a nefarious cat burglar disguised as a demure governess, offers some of the most lavishly imagined sequences in Franju’s daunting canon, especially a costume ball during which Judex, in elaborate avian disguise, pulls the deadliest of tricks. Franju’s haunting oneiric imagery confirms the director’s contention that “Judex is a film of formal purity and, I hope, pure form.”
Franju once claimed “that every film is a documentary, even the most poetic.” The New Wave imported documentary into fiction and vice versa, inspired by Franju’s early nonfiction films and by the ethnographic films of Jean Rouch, represented in the series by three interlocking works—Moi, un noir (I, a Black, 1958), La Pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961), and La Punition (Punishment, 1962)—which attempt to collaborate with their subjects, mostly young inhabitants of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, to transform intimate records of their everyday lives into what would become known as “ethnofictions.”
Ethnographic in its own idiosyncratic way, François Reichenbach’s essay film L’Amérique insolite (America as Seen by a Frenchman, 1960) appears equally influenced by Chris Marker and Roland Barthes. (Marker wrote a voice-over commentary that Reichenbach rejected.) Reichenbach’s musing study of America attempts to be coastally comprehensive, opening at the Golden Gate Bridge and concluding among the skyscrapers of Manhattan. Reichenbach joins other Gallic commentators in viewing the United States as a territory of ceaseless simulacra: a caravan of nostalgic Texan cowboys recreating a Wild West past, or a Mississippi paddleboat called the Mark Twain passing a Native American–themed village amusement park where, according to the ironic narrator, the cabin aflame “does not burn” and the local Indians “do not scalp.”
The filmmaker visits a prison whose inmates are all dressed in impeccable whites; obsesses over majorettes, whom he deems a “national tradition”; observes a Harmony Wedding Chapel, located in a parking lot to accelerate the matrimonial ceremony; and visits a Red Cross class in New York where fathers-to-be learn to bathe and feed a baby. Everywhere Reichenbach discovers grotesque consumption: a freckled youngster devours a mammoth banana split, while triplets gorge on hot dogs only slightly smaller than themselves. The director even finds in Americans’ mania for photography—the nation’s Sunday painters at work, in his sardonic view—an insatiable reflex for ingestion.
Inevitably, given the New Wave’s sexist nature, “Forgotten Filmmakers” includes only one feature by a woman, Paula Delsol’s La Dérive (The Drifting, 1964), though several films in the series focus on women’s lives. Nico Papatakis’s exhausting Les Abysses (The Depths, 1963), described as anarchic but experienced as histrionic, recounts the true story of Christine and Léa Papin, sisters working as domestic maids who took revenge on their employers in a murderous spree in 1933. Two films are based on scripts by Marguerite Duras. Henri Colpi’s Une aussi longue absence (The Long Absence, 1961) reflects the influence of Resnais, for whom Colpi worked as an editor, in its portrayal of a woman (the formidable Alida Valli) held captive by the belief that her husband who disappeared many years before has returned as an amnesiac vagrant. Though the film opens in typical New Wave fashion, with rocker boys cranking up a café’s jukebox and playing pinball, it quickly settles into a Durasian exploration of memory and loss; that jukebox soon gets restocked with opera records as an aide-mémoire for the distracted tramp.
The protagonist of Marin Karmitz’s Nuit noire, Calcutta (Dark Night, Calcutta, 1964) is male but in every other aspect is obviously a self-portrait of Duras: he is writing a work about the French vice-consul of Calcutta (evidently a version of her India Song), suffering writer’s block, succumbing to alcoholism, and exhibiting a strong fondness for felines. (It was perhaps not the best idea for Karmitz to juxtapose Duras’s final statement about artistic paralysis with an image of a kitten adorably asleep above the writer’s head.)
Marcel Hanoun’s masterpiece Une simple histoire (A Simple Story, 1959), a film much admired by Godard, recounts the journey of a woman who travels from Lille to Paris to look for work and ends up homeless with her little girl after exhausting her meager savings. The film’s stark poeticism becomes almost liturgical in passages accompanied by the music of Vivaldi and Cimarosa. Unaccountably, the films in “Forgotten Filmmakers” often resort to baroque music, Bach especially. Even José Bénazéraf’s soft porn L’Éternité pour nous (1961), which lives down to its English title, Sin on the Beach, relies on frequent bursts of Handel to gild its trashy tale about a composer manqué performing as a lounge pianist in a seaside hotel. (Frodon selected the film for inclusion in the series, but a showable print could not be found.)
Some of the best works in “Forgotten Filmmakers” deal with the Algerian War (1954–1962), the major political event of the period in France. Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1962) hews closest to the traditional definition of a New Wave film in its larky account of a television technician romancing two women who happen to be best friends. With its nonprofessional actors, vigorous street shooting, and emphatic visual devices (jump cuts, soft vertical wipes), Adieu Philippine captures both the Americanization of French culture—the women vacillate between Schweppes and Coca-Cola in a café—and the enforced hedonism of mass tourism when the trio ends up at a Corsican version of Club Med. All is not youthful exuberance, however. Adieu opens with a text, “1960 sixth year of the Algerian War,” and as in Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), the colonial conflict shadows every moment of joy and freedom in the film, as the young protagonist awaits his inevitable summons for the draft.
The perennially rediscovered Les Oliviers de la justice (The Olive Trees of Justice, 1962) by the American James Blue, which was banned in France for many years, suggests a confluence of Albert Camus and Robert Bresson in its austerely lyrical chronicle of a young pied-noir’s reluctant return to Algiers to tend to his ailing father. Oliviers repeatedly plaits past and present, employing conventional flashbacks to portray the son’s paradisal childhood on the family farm with his Arab sidekicks, one of whom later becomes a fighter in the struggle for independence.
Based on a novel by Jean Pélégri, who played the police inspector in Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) and stars here as the expiring patriarch, Oliviers clandestinely captures evidence of the war—tank convoys, barricaded streets, a policeman searching an abandoned shopping bag for a bomb—as the son traverses the avenues and markets of Algiers. Blue said that his intention in the film “was to avoid any kind of fabricated emotion,” and the film reaches an intensity of affect in a long take near the end in which an Algerian farmworker complains about being cheated by a racist boss who attempted to pay him one tenth of what a Frenchman would have been given for pruning her trees. “A country should be for everyone,” he says, “otherwise there is no justice.”
René Vautier’s documentary Algérie en flammes (Algeria in Flames, 1958), an agitprop paean to the Algerian fighters against French colonialism, concludes with imagery of massed corpses, while Alain Cavalier’s stylish thriller-romance Le Combat dans l’île (1962) takes a much more oblique approach to portraying the conflict. Jean-Louis Trintignant, lean and glinting, plays an industrialist less interested in his position as the scion of a powerful family than in playing war games with a shadowy right-wing group, never named in the film but quite clearly associated with the paramilitary OAS.
Cavalier grafts the politics of the Algerian War onto a classic love triangle. When Trintignant is forced to flee France after a botched assassination attempt, his wife (a radiant Romy Schneider) takes up with his sweet-natured childhood friend (New Wave stalwart Henri Serre), a bookbinder who lives in the country, and resumes her career as an actress, which her controlling husband had forbidden. As the film’s English title, Fire and Ice, indicates, Cavalier schematizes the two men as polar opposites, down to their sartorial choices—the fascist industrialist given to tight-fitting suits and upturned trench coats, the leftist artisan to loose, hand-knit sweaters—so that the combat that concludes the film becomes an overly symbolic clash between opposing values.
Cavalier’s next film, L’Insoumis (The Unvanquished, 1964), based on the true story of Mireille Szatan-Glaymann, a Communist lawyer who defended Algerian militants and was kidnapped in Algiers by the OAS before being freed by one of her captors, dealt so overtly with the politics of the Algerian War that it ended up being severely censored. In Cavalier’s fictionalized version, the sympathetic jailer is played with glacial aplomb by Alain Delon, who also produced the film. Szatan-Glaymann sued for violation of privacy, and a court ordered twenty-five minutes of the film to be excised, effectively rendering it incomprehensible. (The print in the retrospective is fully, splendidly restored.) Tersely efficient—the kidnapping takes place over the course of one minute to a taut, unnerving beat of percussion—L’Insoumis begins as a war film before becoming an existential drama, a political thriller, and a road movie, until it finally turns, in one of cinema’s greatest homecoming sequences, into a western.
Whether “Forgotten Filmmakers” effects a substantial reconfiguration of the French New Wave or merely provides a momentary provocation with its liberal expansion of the movement’s lineaments, the series proves most revelatory when it renews critical scrutiny of several films that, if not unremembered, remain neglected.