Mike Leigh on fifty years of Nouvelle Vague

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It's the 50th anniversary of the French film revolution known as the Nouvelle Vague – when critics such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut picked up cameras and took to the streets. Trevor Johnston reflects upon the revolution and, with the help of Mike Leigh, examines the effect films such as 'À Bout de Souffle' had on British cinema

Fifty years old and they’re still calling it the Nouvelle Vague. We refer, of course, to the surge of mould-breaking French filmmaking talent which well and truly announced itself to the world when 27-year-old François Truffaut won the best director prize at Cannes in 1959 for his début feature, the fresh and frank story of troubled boyhood ‘Les 400 Coups’ (‘The 400 Blows’).

Cinema programmers love an anniversary, so the combined forces of BFI Southbank, Barbican and the Ciné Lumière will be mounting a fulsome season to mark the occasion. Certainly there’s no shortage of celluloid enterprise worth celebrating, since that year’s Cannes programme also listed Alain Resnais’s slinkily time-skipping ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ and in the summer of 1959 Godard was on the Paris streets shooting his epochal low-slung crime pic ‘À Bout de Souffle’. Moreover, his fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critic Claude Chabrol beat all his critic-turned-director mates to the punch when his sinewy character study ‘Le Beau Serge’ opened in Paris that January. When you also factor in the release of Eric Rohmer’s first feature ‘Le Signe du Lion’ (about a struggling American artist on the Left Bank) and the fact that Jacques Rivette began his conspiracy story ‘Paris Nous Appartient’ during 1959, it’s clear that there was something remarkable going on. This lot went on to dominate French cinema and loom large on the international arthouse scene for the greater part of the next five decades.

That there are diverse sensibilities here almost goes without saying. Godard, in his early work at least, takes his movie maniac’s knowledge and makes mischief with it, whereas Truffaut prefers to muse on the bittersweet fortunes of his youthful characters and Chabrol casts a trenchant eye on the social manners and mores of the day. What made their work as bright and bracing as just-shucked oysters and Sancerre was something revolutionary then but rather commonplace now – with the new lightweight cameras you could hit the streets, forget the previous generation’s stuffy rules about film grammar, and get right to it. Without the Nouvelle Vague, there would be no ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, with Danny Boyle experimenting with the latest digital technology on the streets of Mumbai. Align this with a remarkable constellation of gifted individuals determined not to blow their chances and soon critical mass was forming on a once-in-a-lifetime cinema movement, the Nouvelle Vague.

It’s not just the stuff of dusty cinephile reference books either, since Wong Kar-wai, for instance, claims their influence (there’s a lot of Godard in ‘Chungking Express’ after all), Tarantino named his production company after JLG’s caper movie ‘Bande à Part’ and surely the Dogme gang, which galvanised the digital film revolution in the late ’90s, was also aiming for the back-to-basics appeal of the Nouvelle Vague’s invigorating early releases?

And what of the influence on British cinema of this much-lionised Gallic crew? Well, unfortunately the key practitioners of that era – think of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson – are no longer with us to answer that question directly. Among today’s leading British filmmakers, one distinguished individual is well-positioned to offer his sage opinion on the achievement of the Nouvelle Vague and the traces it left on this side of the Channel. Mike Leigh arrived in London in September 1960 when ‘À Bout de Souffle’ was still in the cinemas, and was to come of cinematic age in the following years when the radicalism of the French found an echo in the class-conscious dramas of the British New Wave.

‘Before I arrived down here, I’d never seen a subtitled film,’ Leigh recalls of the period when he left Salford to attend Rada and pursue acting in the capital, ‘so suddenly I had this massive discovery of what we now call “world cinema”. With Godard’s “À Bout de Souffle” in particular, it was the real, fundamental, anarchic, status quo-challenging, breathing-real-air aspect of it which resonated with me. It keyed into an aspiration I’d had for some time – seeing Jack Clayton’s “Room at The Top”, stagey though it now seems, certainly fed into this – that you could have a film where the people were real and the film was like real life…’

For Leigh, Truffaut’s ‘Jules et Jim’ also represents the quintessence of the Nouvelle Vague. ‘That moment where Jeanne Moreau’s character does her musical number, just allowing the reality of that actress singing the song to become the reality of the film… Just a few minutes later there’s an incredible helicopter shot, so you have this chemistry between things that breathe in the moment and elements that are more classically cinematic. What Truffaut’s brilliant at is tapping into a nostalgia, in the true sense of the word, for life, even if he did once say that British cinema was a contradiction in terms – for which he would probably deserve to get his legs broken.’

Leigh refers to Godard’s ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ (with his muse Anna Karina as a Parisian call-girl) as ‘one of my all-time greats’, and commends Agnès Varda’s ‘Cléo de 5 à 7’ (two hours in the life of a pop singer awaiting crucial medical results) ‘for showing me just how little you needed to leap in time just to deal with something’. Varda’s name comes up in the context of another moment underlining the gulf between British and French standards of celluloid achievement. ‘For three days I was in a Michael Winner film, in this non-part which ended up on the cutting-room floor. Every day at the end of the shoot, I’d race down to the NFT for their season “Left Bank, Right Bank” and see these wonderful Varda shorts. To me, it encapsulated what cinema was and wasn’t’.

Not that everything produced in Britain at the time can be tarred with the same brush. ‘Coming from Salford and seeing the credits sequence in Tony Richardson’s “A Taste of Honey”, where Rita Tushingham rides round Manchester by bus, was just so real and exciting and Nouvelle Vague-ish – it’s the most cinematic thing in the film because it leaves the original play behind.

'What’s commendable about Richardson, and Karel Reisz’s “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, and Lindsay Anderson’s work is that they tried to challenge the status quo, but in the end they still really keep one foot on the bottom of the swimming pool in terms of studio-style film-making. All those guys would acknowledge the influence of the Nouvelle Vague, but perhaps the best film to come out of it was when that was all over – Lindsay Anderson’s “If….”, where he plugged into the depths of his own perfectly valid English experience and created something more radical and powerful than any of them.’

In assessing the subsequent traces of the Nouvelle Vague on these shores, one might point to the stylistic insouciance Richard Lester brought to his Beatles films and ‘The Knack’, perhaps even the more concise expressivity of Ken Russell’s best BBC work (‘Elgar’ and his Delius film ‘Song of Summer’), and maybe even compare Nic Roeg’s quicksilver editing with Alain Resnais’s innovative reconfiguring of cinematic time. Leigh draws our attention to Ken Loach’s formative years: ‘There’s definitely a sense that when Ken and Tony Garnett got hold of the lightweight cameras and went out into the streets for those early “Wednesday Plays” such as [1967’s] “Up the Junction”, they were following in the footsteps of the Nouvelle Vague, and they’d be honest about that. Beyond that, it’s perhaps slightly pretentious even to talk about that influence coming down through Ken and myself to Shane Meadows, for instance, because these things really work by osmosis.’

And his own work? One wouldn’t on the surface make any link with the Nouvelle Vague, but Leigh insists it’s there. ‘There was a time when my very veins were pulsating with “Jules et Jim”, but then a decade later I made my first feature, “Bleak Moments” and it’s a very static piece of cinema. The truth is that by that point I’d assimilated the Nouvelle Vague, and Pinter and Beckett, and I wanted to make a radical film. The French got it. It ran for months in Paris, which I’ve always been rather proud of.’

Such British exports remain the exception, though, since we’ve been importing Nouvelle Vague cool for the past 50 years. Truffaut, Godard and cohorts shot from the hip on the streets they knew, and yet the films never feel old. It’s another instance, surely, of the timeworn cinematic truism that embracing the particular somehow makes it universal, as these stories of De Gaulle’s France and Gauloises still play beautifully for generation after generation worldwide. Maybe there’s a lesson there for British cinema after all.

The 400 Blows’ opens at Barbican, Curzon Mayfair, Everyman Hampstead and BFI Southbank on April 10 and Barbican will host a Truffaut retrospective from April 12 to May 31. The Nouvelle Vague season is at BFI Southbank throughout April and May. The Ciné Lumière’s 'Nouvelle Vague Influences' season runs from April 14 to 23.

Author: Trevor Johnston



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