The Politics of the French New Wave

Paris Riots 68

“The world in the 1960s was a world on fire with change and revolution. It does seems strange, then, that when discussing the French New Wave the point of politics often receives only the lightest brushstrokes. Many are familiar with the Left Bank Group and their political leanings towards socialism and the radicalism of the left. Most fans of the Nouvelle Vague are aware of Godard’s radicalisation later in his career. But what about Truffaut, Chabrol, or Godard before 1968? Were they really, as is sometimes murmured in academic circles, right-wing radicals and fascist sympathisers? How could they be fascists, when their films were so humane? What happened to Godard in the late 1960s? And if the Cahiers directors were so preoccupied with truthfully representing life, how could they do this without having some consciousness about the political world around them? … In film, this boiled down to the question: which is more important? A socially progressive film? Or an aesthetically progressive one? Politics had drawn a line between the filmic camps of ‘content’ and ‘style’. While The 400 Blows breakout success at Cannes in 1959 is often cited as the official start of the French New Wave, most consider the first film of the Nouvelle Vague to be Claude Chabrol‘s Le Beau Serge (1958), a film about a man, Francois, who returns home to his village after a long absence, only to find everyone still living in poverty and misery. Francois attempts to transform the lives of the villagers by organising them, and although he succeeds to some small degree, it is without much cooperation from the villagers themselves and most of the characters are left in the end to contend with their own stupidity. Leftists like Luis Bunuel and philosopher Roland Barthes immediately leapt on this film as right-wing propaganda – claiming that it imposed a static image of man and, specifically, a static and uncompassionate image of the poor. … But more than opposing the content of New Wave films, the Left opposed the anarchic style of the films, and they hated the way the Cahiers directors often seemed to prioritise style over substance, or rather to derive their substance from style itself. The Cahiers group were not exploring grand moral themes, they were exploring ‘little themes’ and ‘micro-realities’ and they were drawing few conclusions about what they found there. This, to the 1950s french bourgeois Left, was irresponsible and a reprehensible occupation for art. …”
New Wave Film

Claude Chabrol

About 1960s: Days of Rage

Bill Davis - 1960s: Days of Rage
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