Godard, Truffaut and the New Wave of French Cinema

Godard, Truffaut and the New Wave of French Cinema

October 12, 2016

At SPRESSO, we have a passion for many things: travel, fine dining, music, and of course luxurious compression socks. But there's something magical about cinema that means it holds a particularly special place in our hearts.

This month, we’ve been thinking about the unique power of the French New Wave, and how influential its films remain for writers and directors today. Emerging in the 50s, the movement was defined by a preoccupation with modern social issues, and fought against established filmmaking techniques.

In simple terms, it was a movement for the young and the adventurous.

The Beginnings: Cahiers du Cinéma

In post-war France, the young generation, newly freed from the limitations of the German Occupation, were starting to get excited about cinema. With many films banned by the Nazi regime during the war, the late 40s and early 50s became a period of rejuvenation for the French film industry. The trend was reflected in the founding of Cahiers du Cinéma. Launched in 1951, this magazine ushered in a new era of film criticism that rejected tradition and turned against mainstream cinema. On the writing team? Two young film buffs called Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut.

Auteur Theory: The Director as Author

In 1954, a 22-year-old Truffaut penned a controversial essay for Cahiers entitled "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema", which challenged the "safe", visually uninspired literary film adaptations coming out of France. It was in this essay that Truffaut coined a term which would go on to shape the New Wave movement, when he spoke about "la politique des auteurs". What Truffaut was referring to was the notion that a film director should be equivalent to the author of a novel. He felt that the key creative force behind a film should rightly be its director – and not the screenwriter or producer as people thought at the time. With just four simple words, Truffaut redefined what it meant to direct films. However, it wasn’t until five years later that he stepped up to the plate and made his own debut as an auteur.

The 400 Blows & Breathless

Today, Truffaut’s masterpiece debut, The 400 Blows, is considered one of the defining films of the French New Wave. The film follows the story of an unhappy teenage boy who is misunderstood and mistreated by everyone around him. It was both a semi-autobiographical character study, and an exposé highlighting social injustices, and received an ecstatic critical reception. A year later, Truffaut’s co-writer on Cahiers, Jean-Luc Godard, released Breathless, a film which follows the exploits of another disenfranchised young man. Like The 400 Blows, Breathless was widely praised and went on to become one of the most influential French films ever made. 

Together, Truffaut and Godard helped to usher in an era where unknown directors could make films about young people and the real social issues affecting them. The more extreme experimental films of the New Wave may be mocked now, but at the time they were nothing short of revolutionary. What’s more, classics like Breathless and The 400 Blows still hold a surprising relevance when watched today – the mark of truly great filmmaking.