Thinking of the development of cinema without historical background is impossible. Cinema developed both in accordance with cinema history and social, political and cultural history. In this paper, I am going to evaluate French New Wave and the most significant film of that period ‘Breathless’ directed by Jean Luc Godard. Before doing this, I want to give a brief description of the atmosphere of late 50’s and 60’s. Then, I will explain how French New Wave emerged as a movement in cinema in that atmosphere. In the second part of my paper, I am going to give the basic features of French New Wave and explain why it became the way it was. In order to explain these features more deeply, I will give some examples from the film ‘Breathless’. At the end of my paper, I am going to give some other examples from the Truffaut movie ‘Jules et Jim’ which are going to support my arguments on French New Wave and ‘Breathless’.
In the late 50’s, the most important invention which directly affected cinema was television. Television provided cheap entertainment to the audiences so especially in America, cinema attendance declined rapidly. In order to change this situation, producers started to make new kind of films which are mostly erotic ones. On the other hand, after the war in the Western Europe a new youth culture started to grow. The new youth culture brought radical changes to social and cultural conventions such as sexual liberation, rock music, and new fashions with the help of raising economic standards. The new youth culture became the determinate factor in all arts and sports including cinema. Especially in France, in the post war period, the new generation was apolitical, obsessed with consumption and leisure time. In order to represent that kind of a generation in cinema, new and young directors emerged.
These new and young directors grew with the neo realist tradition and also art cinema of 1950’s. These movements required no tripods for cameras which provided freedom to camera. With the developing technology, film stocks started to need less light so on location shooting became easier. Cameras were not bound to studios like in Classical Hollywood Cinema anymore. Filming with direct sound was also another development of that time and helps to make films more and more realistic. Portable cameras provided new directors to shoot quickly and cheaply. The usage of them was also easier than the old ones. With the coming of 1960’s, Direct Cinema documentary became more dominant which emerged the use of long lenses, shot reverse shots and close ups.
French New Wave has occurred in that kind of an atmosphere. Influence from those developments in cinema and also that period leads French New Wave to adopt different techniques. The most significant difference of French New Wave from previous movements is the usage of discontinuity in editing. Normally in Classical Hollywood Cinema discontinuity in editing is unacceptable. Continuity in editing is required in order to make the audience feel comfortable while watching the film. That is why Hollywood films were designated as escapist entertainment. Discontinuity in editing annoyed the audience, distracted their attention and prevented them to get lost in the movie. The second big difference of the New Wave is in the development of narrative. Normally, in Classical Hollywood, all the action took place in a cause and effect relationship. If a scene is put in a film, it will definitely affect another one in the film. However, in the French New Wave, the concept of objective realism of chance events was developed. It was actually emerged at the time of Neo realism but influenced the directors of French New Wave. Events which are not in a cause and effect relationship are shot on location with either non-actors or actors who were not so famous. All these differences lead directors shot personal films which challenge conventional cinema industry. The weird thing is that French New Wave became main stream just like Classical Hollywood Cinema ironically. Moreover, it affected Hollywood studio system and young directors emerged in Hollywood too.
Cahiers du Cinema critics became the main directors of this movement. They created the idea of ‘Auteur Cinema’. For them, director should reflect his point of view about the world both thematically and stylistically in the film. Use of long takes which are the stylistics of post war era are cut by sudden close ups. The place of the climax, which is normally at the middle of the film, changed by New Wave directors. For example in ‘breathless’ the film starts with the murder of the police officer by Michel, and all middle of the film takes place in Patricia’s hotel room just by talking, at the end of the film, with the betray of Patricia, film rises to its climax again.
As a result of auteur tradition, directors reflect their inner world, philosophy or tendencies in life to their films. This provides them to have thematic differences in films. Normally, just by looking at the surface, ‘Breathless’ may be seen as a mixture of film noir, love story and gangster film. However, it includes a lot of different pinpoints which cannot be seen by everyone directly. The interesting is that either you understand those hints or not, you can still enjoy the movie. Godard uses these hints so much in his films. He is very keen on existentialism in philosophy. He often reflects this theme in his films. Actually this is a common theme in French New Wave movement. François Truffaut also uses it. Both in Truffaut’s ‘Jules et Jim’ and Godard’s ‘Breathless’, female characters have existentialist problems. The way they act can neither be expected nor be understood. We did not expect Patricia’s betrayal to Michel. Similarly, we did not expect or understand why Catherine shot Jim at the end of the movie. One character’s end is always bound to another’s. By giving this sense, directors of both films seem to question the existence and importance of free will. The audience may blame Patricia in the death of Michel. But on the other hand, if he never be a criminal, he would never be caught by police and get killed. These are not determinate facts about the world but every choice we made is going to bring some consequences. Ambiguity in the films belongs to French New Wave movement are sourced from these concepts. Directors reflect their inner experiences to the films and every viewer takes them differently. Another existentialist theme appeared in both films is the importance of individual over society. Both films stressed the conventions required by the society such as monogamy in ‘Jules et Jim’. The impossibility of love is clearly inferred from both films since they both end with the death of the characters.
Another thematic difference of these directors from previous movements is that they use a lot of references to the literary or cinematic things by which they are affected. In ‘Breathless’, there are a lot of direct references to film noir such as Michel’s obsession with Humphrey Bogart who is the star of ‘The Big Sleep’ which is a cult film in film noir movement. Especially the scene in which Michel mutters ‘bogie’ and runs his thumb across the skin of lips is a direct reference to ‘The Big Sleep’.Godard, himself appeared in the film as an informer who recognizes Michel in the street. American iconography also used in ‘Breathless’ as the obsession of Michel’s American cars such as Cadillac.
Direct Cinema documentary techniques are also visible in French New Wave. Although Godard’s use of realism is very similar visually to that movement, his message is very different from it. Instead of reflecting the life as it is, Godard tries to underline the fact that the thing we are watching is cinema not real life under the heading of realism. He deliberately wants to make people notice that they are watching a film. That is why his usage of discontinuity editing serves his aim in cinema.
Jump cuts are the most significant examples of Godard’s and also whole French New Wave’s way of filmmaking. In ‘Breathless’, jump cuts both support both the narrative and the style of the film. Michel speaks very fast. He should also be very fast in his life since he is a fugitive. Even when he tries to convince Patricia to sleep with him, he makes it in a hurry. Using jump cuts in these scenes also give the sense of hurry. The audience feels literally breathless while watching them in such a hurry. Normally, in continuity editing, time and space should continuous. With the use of jump cuts, Godard breaks that tradition too. At the beginning of the movie, when Michel was driving the car, though time was floating, we see different places (00: 01:53). Godard’s first edition of the film was about two and a half hour. In order to be a commercial product, he is asked to shorten the film to 90 minutes. Instead of taking of some scenes or shot, he cuts within scenes and shots. So, what we see as an aesthetic mean is actually done in accordance with practical reasons. In some scenes, the dialogues seem to continue without taking breath since Godard cut unnecessary details among the dialogues (00:07:17).
Shooting on location provides French New Wave director many advantages. First of all, cameras become much free in the streets, secondly there stays no need for three point lighting like they used in studios. Both on location shooting and using natural light as the light source of the film give the Godard’s films a documentary like effect. This in one sense make the audience feels what is on the screen is very close to the reality. It is also acceptable for Truffaut’s film ‘Jules et Jim’. They are both like newsreels. On the other hand, what is on the screen thematically is not so common in daily life. They are actually showing the absurdities of life in a very normal way. This makes the audience question their lives again. Godard also uses unambiguous dialogues and visuals opposite to Classical Hollywood system. In the Hollywood system, everything should be clear and easy to grasp. There can be nothing preventing us in hearing or seeing the main characters. In ‘Breathless’, there are a lot of environmental sounds that make the viewer hear characters’ conversation very hard. There is also another rule used in continuity editing, 180 degree rule. Godard breaks that rule too in ‘Breathless’. There is one scene in which Michel was chased by the police officers the audience really cannot understand what the real is left and right side of the character.
Michel crosses in front of a wall on which there is a writing says that ‘live dangerously !till the end’. It is almost at the beginning of the movie and gives the audience the sense of Michel’s life. It is a direct reference to the end of the film. Michel has the chance to run away but he chooses to be arrested by the police. Another recognizable thing is the character’s direct talking to camera. While Michel is driving his car, he directly turns to camera and says something to audience (00:02:17). This is very weird if you are just accustomed to Hollywood Cinema since it had never done in it.
Godard explicitly uses the very opposite techniques that Hollywood uses. That is why it is very meaningful to designate Godard’s cinema as ‘Counter Cinema’. French New Wave found its very essence in Godard’s cinema. Undoubtedly, Godard uses the very core elements of French New Wave movement effectively in ‘Breathless’. Shooting techniques and themes are very close both in Godard’s and Truffaut’s films. Especially, acting is very similar in both films.