“EVERYONE’S A CRITIC”: THE FRENCH NEW WAVE AND THE LEGACY OF THE AUTEUR THEORY
Mention of the Nouvelle Vague to the casual cinema-goer will more than likely elicit black and white images of beautiful people smoking a lot and discussing existential crises in non-sequiturs. And with good reason; the mise-en-scène of New Wave directors, such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, eschewed the traditional conventions of narrative film and instead utilized montage, elliptical editing and mismatched images and sound to disrupt audience equilibrium. Their ambition was to confuse and alienate their audience by any means necessary and to break with the traditions of the past. However, filmmakers of talent working under the strict aesthetic criteria of any particular movement – such as Denmark’s Dogme 95 – inevitably tire of these constraining boundaries and move on. From Les Quatre Cents Coups in 1959 to Pierrot le Fou in 1965, the French New Wave was a movement that shone brightly, yet briefly. But French output of post-war art films marked an important turning point in the wider perception of the capabilities of film language, and had a lasting effect on public attitudes to the acceptance of cinema as art. The concept of the auteur, as advocated by Francois Truffaut and developed by Andrew Sarris, was an important distinction between film as a form of mere entertainment, and as an art form in and of itself.
Before entering the world of filmmaking, François Truffaut began his film career in 1953, under the guiding influence of André Bazin, writing for the highly-influential journal Cahiers du Cinéma. His article “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema” (1954) was a highly controversial year-zero manifesto for the French New Wave. It was a line drawn firmly in the sand; an appeal to French filmmakers to choose a side. On one side was the personal cinema of Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau, while on the other stood Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. The advent of sound initially saw French cinema imitating Hollywood conventions, without any attempt to forge a unique identity for itself. Truffaut used Aurenche and Bost as negative examples of metteurs-en-scène; competent filmmakers who, while contributing to the Tradition of Quality, brought nothing personal, bold or new. Aurenche and Bost had produced a number of highly successful literary adaptions, and their policy of “intervention without betrayal” (Truffaut, 11) was, in Truffaut’s opinion, a lesson in how not to adapt a pre-existing source into the medium of film. The effect of Truffaut’s article was twofold; it helped to give Cahiers an identity and differentiated it from the competition, and also gave his fellow New Wave pioneers a defining theology to rally around.
Les Quatre Cents Coups (François Truffaut, 1959)
With the release of his first feature, Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), Truffaut backed up his words with action, and moved from theory to practice. The film mirrors Truffaut’s early years to such an extent that biographical fallacy is all-but-impossible to avoid in any analysis of the film beyond the level of referential meaning. The dedication to Andre Bazin which opens the film stamps the personality of the director on the film from the outset. Like the young Truffaut, Antoine finds solace from the grim reality of existence in the cinema, and the prolonged reaction shots of uninhibited enjoyment of a puppet show mirrors the audience’s reaction back at them. Truffaut’s use of long, mesmeric takes draws the viewer in, and establishes a slow rhythm that allows the narrative to unfold without interference.
À Bout de Soufflé (Jean Luc Godard, 1960)
Truffaut’s venting of spleen against the cinema de papa was not a unilateral form of iconoclasm against all preexisting forms of cinema. He, Godard and other filmmakers of the New Wave had a love/hate relationship with the inescapable influence of Hollywood iconography. On the one hand, they strived to create a new language in French film, free from the baggage of the past. However, it was classical Hollywood that had instilled their passion for the medium, and its iconography proved too tempting to avoid. Godard’s love of Americana is evident throughout his entire body of work. Take Michel’s hero worship of Humphrey Bogart in À Bout de Soufflé (1960). He gazes in adoration at “Bogey’s” image displayed in a cinema foyer, while the glass reflects his own image back at him. If the connection is not clear enough, Godard uses an iris wipe in the transition between the end of the scene and the beginning of the next to reinforce the debt. Nana’s cutting edge look in Vivre sa Vie (1962) is in homage to the iconic hairstyle made famous by Louise Brooks. When examined in isolation, the numerous appearances of gangsters and shoot-outs in A Bout de Souffle, Vivre sa Vie and Pierrot le Fou seem jarringly out-of-place, but are merely Godard delighting in his cinematic playground, and realizing his homage to 1930s gangster films such as Howard Hawks‘ Scarface (1932).
Godard uses the camera, not as an invisible mode of representation, but as an active player in visual information. During the “classic letter” scene in Vivre sa Vie, the camera appears to take on the role of a third character, closely following the conversations between the two participants, and eavesdropping without participating. The camera struggles to be allowed into the scene of the opening tableau, where Nana’s conversation with Paul is shot entirely from behind. Nana is introduced in a series of front and side profile close ups, which suggest an almost painterly triptych, and reminds the viewer of the presence of the auteur from the outset. Godard’s use of intertitles to foreground the impending action is a Brechtian device of epic theatre, used to unsettle the audience and to draw attention to the artificiality of the medium. “This practice destroys the suspense in following the narrative… He interrupts the narrative to remind the audience that they are watching a movie – an artificial construct” (Campbell, 36). Nana often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the viewer directly. Godard also inserts his personality into his narratives in an actual and non-fictive way. His voiceover can be heard informing Nana of the regulations governing prostitutes, and in A Bout de Souffle, he can be seen as the police informant who leads to Michel’s death. These breaks with classical narrative convention can be seen as Godard employing modes of representation to break down barriers between director and diegesis.
Pierrot le Fou (Jean Luc Godard, 1965)
Pierrot le Fou is evidence of Godard’s willingness to leave nothing hidden from the eye of the camera, to the detriment of his relationship with long-term partner and muse, Anna Karina. The improvised feel and scattergun approach to conventions sees Godard crossing genres from comedy and romance, to political thriller and gangster film. At first glance, Jean Paul Belmondo’s character possesses may of the attributes we expect from the audience surrogate. His voiceover opens the film, and his death closes it, but is in fact, the antithesis of the classical protagonist. Ferdinand/Pierrot is denied a clearly defined title and, in contrivance of classical convention, is “a protagonist who lacks an elaborate mechanism of decision-making” (Armes, 172). Rather than instigating action, Ferdinand lurches aimlessly from one scenario to the next, using consistently illogical judgment that serves to confound the viewer. “The decisions which turn out to have been of major influence on our subsequent lives are often not thought-through, or even seen in isolation at the time, but buried in a mass of other steps which seemed important then, even if they prove trivial in retrospect” (Armes, 172). Godard’s implied interior meaning is that Ferdinand has no more control over his destiny than the viewer does.
Andrew Sarris’s Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 took Truffaut’s concept of the auteur, in contrast to the functional metteur-en-scène, and developed it into what became the auteur theory. Sarris employs three criteria, or “three concentric circles” (563) for categorization of the auteur. “[T]he outer circle [is] technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning” (563). By this token, a technically poor director is excluded from consideration, or “automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors” (562). The second premise is that the personality of the director should be distinguishable “as a criterion of value. Over a group of films, a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” (562). The final and perhaps most problematic criterion, by virtue of its nebulous definition, is that of interior meaning, or “the ultimate glory of the cinema as art” (562). When establishing an auteur’s personal style, it is insufficient to examine one film in isolation, but is vital to consider the filmmaker’s entire body of work. By Sarris’s reasoning, John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock are worthy of auteur status, while, despite their early promise, George Lucas and Michael Cimino are not.
The weaknesses of the auteur theory are illustrated in Pauline Kael’s brilliantly argued critique, “Circles and Squares,” which appeared in Film Quarterly in 1963. Kael systematically eviscerates Sarris’s theory, circle by concentric circle. She argues that the films where the director’s personality is most evident are often the weakest in their oeuvre. “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?” (Kael, 15). Sarris’s theory favours the filmmaker who repeats, and reuses the same tropes and motifs. Hitchcock is applauded, while directors such as Carol Reed, who attempt to tackle fresh subject matter, are ignored. On the subject of interior meaning, she says “[the] ideal auteur is the man who signs a long-term contract, directs any script that’s handed to him, and expresses himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots. If his ‘style’ is in conflict with the story line or subject matter, so much the better – more chance for tension” (Kael, 17).
Sex, Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderberg, 1989)
Since Steven Soderberg’s Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) helped Miramax assume the monopoly over production and distribution of practically all mainstream art films since the early Nineties, the auteur has become popular once again. Regrettably, the term is usually used most where it is deserved least. The puerile humour of Kevin Smith’s no-budget breakout hit Clerks (1994) is hardly what Truffaut had in mind, but the film’s success made Smith an instant auteur. Former head of marketing at Fine Line, Liz Manne, describes the period thus: “It felt like movies were getting made for the wrong reasons. It was the independent-director-as-rock-star syndrome. These people were getting their auteur stripes based on one film. And it was no longer Andrew Sarris writing about them, it was some dipshit on E! sticking a microphone in the face of somebody in front of the Egyptian who’s never seen a Bernardo Bertolucci film in his life, and would not know Antonioni if he bit him in the ass. It became a Mockery” (Biskind, 165).
Should one dig deep enough, and it becomes possible to employ Sarris’s theory to endow auteur status on the most undeserving of filmmakers. Regardless of any other criticism one can level at him, Michael Bay is undeniably a technically competent director. His body of work displays a distinct style, or personality, regardless of the fact that he chooses to realize this style in a manner resembling the product of a hyperactive child’s glucose-induced hysteria. By Sarris’s criteria, Bay has already made it onto the scale. It could be argued that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2007) is a commentary on the individual’s capacity for action from within a state-controlled society. The pair of giant, illiterate, Amos n’ Andy robots can be read as a post-modern reappropriation of racial stereotypes, used to provoke fresh discourse on 21st century racial tensions, rather than a reductive return to the lazy, bigoted use of blackface for lowest-common-denominator entertainment. Does this make Bay an auteur, rather than the offensive hack that he has consistently proven himself to be?
The French New Wave was unhindered by the burden of national post-war guilt of Italian Neorealism or the later movement of New German cinema, but was just as effective in defining a national identity through style and aesthetics. The initial effect that Truffaut’s concept of the auteur had on post-war cinema, was to take an emphatic stance against French cinema’s Tradition of Quality, and to create a definable alternative identity. For good or bad, the auteur theory made the non-cineaste susceptible to the concept of the director as the ultimate bastion of cinematic art. It became the norm for the director’s name to appear above the film’s title. Filmgoers stopped looking forward to the next thriller from Paramount or Universal and, instead, eagerly awaited the new Hitchcock. The man became the movie, and the identity came with a promise or expectation of a certain style. The paramount weakness of the theory is that, in its desire to elevate the director as the sole arbiter of cinematic art, it completely ignores the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking. The venerated status of Citizen Kane (1941) owes as much to the pioneering contribution of Greg Toland as it does to the direction of Orson Welles. Hitchcock’s consistent reputation of excellence is undoubtedly indebted to the screenplays of Ben Hecht and John Michael Hayes. However, it is easier for the wider audience to accept a masterpiece as work of a single individual, and the ultimate consequence of Sarris’s theory was that it made the non-cineaste susceptible to the possibility that film was capable of more than simple entertainment. If a film could be considered as a work of art, it was due to the talent of the individual artist, or director.
Armes, Roy. “The Disintegration of the Protagonist: Pierrot Le Fou.” Action and Image: Dramatic Structure in Cinema. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994. Print.
Biskind, Peter. Down and Dirty Pictures. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2004. Print.
Campbell, Marilyn. “Life Itself: Vivre Sa Vie & the Language of Film.” Wide Angle.3 (1976): 32-37. Print.
Fabe, Marilyn. “Auteur Theory and the French New Wave: François Truffaut’s the 400 Blows.” Closely Watched Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 120-34. Print.
Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares.” Film Quarterly 16.3 (1963): 12-26 pp.
Sarris, Andrew. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Cohen, Marshall & Braudy, Leo. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 561-64. Print.
Truffaut, François. “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema.” Movies and Methods. Ed. Nichols, Bill. Vol. 1. London: University of California Press Ltd., 1976. Print.
À Bout de Soufflé. Dir. Godard, Jean-Luc. Studio Canal, 1960.
Les Quatre Cents Coups. Dir. Truffaut, François. Cocinor, 1959.
Pierrot le Fou. Dir. Godard, Jean-Luc. Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie, 1965.
Transformers : Revenge of the Fallen. Dir. Bay, Michael. Dreamworks/Paramount Pictures, 2009.
Vivre sa Vie. Dir. Godard, Jean-Luc. Panthéon Distribution, 1962.