French New Wave: Film Movement–Artistic, Political, Theoretical, Practical?

Auteurism is the single most productive concept in film history over the past quarter century” Thomas Schatz, film historian

“I believe a work is good to the degree that it expresses the man who created it”–Orson Welles, genius director (Citizen Kane)

“We all came to the cinema by detesting French cinema and admiring the American” Francois Truffaut, co-founder of French New wave

The French New Wave, one of the most significant film movements, has revolutionized the ways films are approached, made, evaluated, and seen.

The New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) was a term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, which included such seminal figures as Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais, and Eric Rohmer.

influenced in part by Italian Neorealism and Hollywood cinema, both the mainstream studio fare as well as B-level low budget American movies (mostly crime-gangster and film noir).  Although never a formally organized movement, the New Wave filmmakers were linked by their approach, marked by a self-conscious rejection of classical French cinema, the Tradition of Quality (or “Cinema du Papa”) and a rebellious spirit of iconoclasm, which emphasized films as intensely personal and individualistic works.

Among many achievements, the New Wave called attention to the role of the director as auteur (rather than author).  Indeed, over the past four decades, auteurism has influenced the very way we perceive, think, and write about movies.  In these series of essays, I wish contextualize auteurism, both its French and American versions, and to show its pervasive effects on every aspect of the film world.  In the next several months, we’ll examine here quintessential works of the New wave, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, The 400 Blows, and Breathless, which went on to become building blocks of a new legacy, and classics of the world’s cinematic canon.

Camera Stylo

In the late 1940s, French critic Alexandre Astruc drafted the auteur theory around the metaphor of the camera-stylo, the camera as fountain pen.  Astruc suggested that film should be read as a text, and that a good film is one in which the director is the main creative force.  Accordingly, the entire production crew should be subsumed under the director’s leadership for his self-expression.  The Paris-based journal, Cahiers du Cinema, founded by Andre Bazin and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze in 1951, was extremely important in propagating auteurism in the film world.

The approach was formalized by a group of critics writing for the magazine, who fashioned the “auteur policy” as an alternative to the then prevalent sociological method of content analysis.

Francois Truffaut first postulated auteurism in his 1954 article, “Une certaine tendance du cinema francaise,” in Cahiers du Cinema.  In this seminal piece, Truffaut developed the concept of “la politique des auteurs,” in which he argued that a single person, the director, should assume aesthetic responsibility for the film’s overall look.  Truffaut’s target was the “Tradition of Quality” (“la tradition de la qualite”), manifest in French post-War films that were adapted from novels and were heavily dependent on plot.  Truffaut attacked the “psychologically realistic” films of Claude Autant-Lara, Jean Delannay, Rene Clement and others, because they were more of a writer’s than a director’s movies.

La politique des auteurs assumed immediate and specific meanings for cinema as an institution and for film as an art work.

First, it called for a strong stance in favor of some directors and against some others.  Auteurists elevated the stature of French filmmakers Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, and Jean Cocteau, and of American directors Howard Hawks, John Ford, and British-born Hitchcock.

Second, auteurism called for the reevaluation of Hollywood directors who had to overcome many more obstacles than their European counterparts.  During the studio system, directors were assigned scripts over which they had little control and had to deal with domineering studio moguls and powerful movie stars.

Searching for thematic and stylistic consistencies among the various films of individual directors, the auteurists elevated identifiable personal signature to a standard of value.  Auteur directors were defined as the creators of a personal world vision and a distinctive cinematic style.  The Cahiers’ critics perceived Hollywood as the most extreme contrast to the “refined” French cinema of the 1950s, which they wanted to destroy.  It was when the Cahiers critics applied the auteur theory to the apparently complacent functionaries of the Hollywood factory system that controversy erupted.

The feeling was, as Dave Kehr has observed, that Hawks and Hitchcock, who engaged in the commercial exploitation of “juvenile” genres, like Western and thriller, couldn’t possibly be elaborating a personal vision of the world stamped with their own marks as artists.  In pointing out how deeply the supposedly uncaring craftsmen were involved in their movies, the auteurists succeeded in unearthing numerous personal–and by their definition good–Hollywood films.


The French directors offered a foreign perspective on American film.  They were the first to recognize the artistic merits of Hitchcock, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles.

They pointed out to the manifest and latent complexities  of American studio films.

They set an example, enabling American directors to create work that reflected on itself and on its context.

They offered intellectual means, through their criticism and practical means, and through their films for some American films to stand back from their own tradition and then reenter it with different points of view.

French New Wave Directors

Philippe de Broca was unique among French New Wave directors in that he made  comedies.

De Broca’s  light touch and jaunty wit were manifest in such movies as The King of Hearts, which became a cult movie, and The Man from Rio, which was an international box-office hit.

French New Wave: Actresses

Three actresses played key roles in the French New Wave:

Anna Karina in the films of Godard (she was also married to him)

Jeanne Moreau in the films of Truffaut (and Louis Malle)

Stephane Audran in the films of Chabrol (also married to him)

Each of the founders offered a different perspective and made a different contribution:

Truffaut was the practical historian of the group. He first emphasized the work, the film as an end result, and then went backward to the process of filmmaking

Godard was the theoretical and semiological politician. For his, theory and politics came first.

Rivette was the most experimental, more interested in the process of filmmaking than in the end result of film

Chabrol was the most technically fluent and the most genre-oriented

Resnais and Roemer were the most cerebral and intellectual in the group


Updated: Jan 21, 2021