French New Wave
French New Wave was a time of change and experimentation through the 1960’s; it was a chance for the teenage generation to express themselves through art and film for the first time.
Three films stood out especially through this period of change and expression, Breathless, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Shoot the Piano Player, which all changed film forever, through cinematography, editing techniques and the characters that were played within these expressionistic films.
Hiroshima Mon Amour had many recurring themes running throughout the film, but many of these themes were all there for a wider view and purpose, rather than just to make an ‘entertaining watch’ for the public. One theme that stands out from the rest is the sense of interconnection which is also director Alain Resnais’s technique within the film. By combining a number of opposite themes such as war and peace, reality and memory, public and private, life and death, Resnais is able to show how psychologically life is all interconnected and we as humans can’t escape it. One scene that enables us as the viewer to experience his idea and themes of interconnection, with not only each other, but in life too is in the opening scenes when we see the two main characters Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada making love, but we as an audience are unable to make out which body part is who’s onscreen, to psychically show us the interconnection the characters have, not only psychologically and physically too.
Another theme from Hiroshima Mon Amour is anxiety about the future; due to historical traumas such as the geo-political reaction to America’s nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. The anguish concerning the future and the need to understand and keep up with the past, made people face and feel anxiety as well as uncertainty. Society was trying to forget this horrific past they had just endured, but also wanted to move on with life which was difficult, painful and resulted in a sense of guilt for people, which we can see throughout Hiroshima Mon Amour.
For example detailed shots and scenes of the effects of the Hiroshima bombings, as well as the dialogue between the two characters, who are always trying to remember and understand how the societies they were living in were being able to carry on after the way it had just treated each other. However we can see this theme also recurring in other new wave films about anxiety with the future, especially in Godard’s film A Bout De Souffle, where the plot of the film and the character Michel both represent anxiety about the future and the loss of innocence. After the war and the Hiroshima bombings, people had realised that the world had lost any semblance of innocence and the reaction to this was for society to understand and relate to anti-heroes such as Michel, as the belief of pure, moral heroes were now extinct, so the anti-hero became the alternative.
Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard also strives towards new themes and ideas in this new wave culture, especially with issues such as existential outlooks on life.
Throughout the film there are direct quotations spoken by both characters Michel and Patricia from philosophers as well as shots to famous artists and paintings. Godard is trying to show us that we are all filled with experiences, thought processes and complex dramas just by being alive. Existential outlooks are seen with the thoughts of God being dead, resulting in a sense of both the randomness of reality and our own moral responsibility as human beings. We can clearly see this within the context of the film in a scene with Michel and Patricia where she states “between grief and nothing I will take grief”, however when she asks Michel what he must choose, he states “I’d choose nothingness … grief is a compromise. You’ve got to have all or nothing.” This statement in itself just bursts with existentialism, as they are literally discussing that there really is nothing of a higher power after all.
Objectivity is another huge theme that is a key aspect of French new wave films, especially in Breathless and Shoot the Piano Player. By being objective the film creates distance between the audience and the film by drawing attention to the artificiality of film and our position as viewers, rather than allowing our reality to seem as if we are in the film with the characters. We can see this idea of objectivity clearly in the car scene relatively near the beginning of Breathless, where on more than one occasion Michel addresses the camera (us the audience) just to remind us that the film is not our reality, and snaps us back into the knowing of watching a film, disrupting our suspension of disbelief.
We can also see examples of this in Shoot the Piano Player, with cinematic techniques of extended voice-overs, out-of-sequence shots and sudden jump cuts which create a kinetic motion between the character and the audience, again showing what reality is and what is not, which we can see in the scene where Charlie hesitates before ringing the doorbell. By doing this, objectivity can create an idea that we know what is real and what is not, yet as human beings we allow ourselves to sometimes let the dream world (films) become and emerge into our reality.
The fastest and funniest of the new wave classics, Shoot the Piano Player veers widely in tone. Boldly mixing elements of several American genres (including film noir), slapstick comedy and musical aspects, Shoot the Piano Player is a great film in itself, but it also shows the strong new wave theme of melancholic realism, where characters are looking for some meaning and are longing for change. Again this is symptomatic of the traumatic times in which these films were made.
However there are more than just themes that are occurring and moulding what new wave is and defined as. Cinematic techniques and innovations also inform our understanding of this period in cinema. Within Hiroshima Mon Amour for example, is extremely experimental in its use of sound, and the strange use of dialogue, sound effects and music adds to its heady appeal.
Perhaps Alain Resnais did this to explore new film techniques in order to give us as an audience shock, confusion and a new way of understanding of what we were seeing on screen in order to provoke philosophical thought.
This was not only done for us to appreciate his style, but to send the message of what human kind had done in Hiroshima, and by changing his film techniques, it gave us this new experience that we would remember, so we would literally never forget the experience we felt when we read the messages that came out of not only these new, modern filmic techniques, but also the trauma of warfare.
Shoot the Piano Player also has many elements of experimentation. This can be seen in its cinematography which manipulates the connections between the viewer and the film. Within the film there are a huge variety of cinematic devices such as hand-held camera shots, jump cuts, split screens in addition to location shooting which constantly intervenes in the traditional notions of cinematic fiction. These elements make Truffaut’s film and the others discussed here exhilarating experiences, an energetic alternative to “cinema du papa” (grandad’s cinema as Truffaut put it) that the new generation had grown up with.