“The cinema is not a craft. It is an art.” — Jean-Luc Godard

Fitting for a movement bent on defying conventions, French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) cinema can be tricky to define — especially without a bit of historical context. During the German occupation of France, foreign and even previously released French films were banned as part of Nazi censorship campaigns. After the liberation of Paris in 1944, cinephiles flocked to theaters to see films by Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles — all directors known for their uncompromising styles. This welcome influx energized a new generation of avant-garde filmmakers, many of whom were associated with the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Co-founded by film critic André Bazin, the monthly publication emphasized “auteur” theory, which argued that directors were creative forces with the same power as authors — and that their cameras were essentially writing instruments.

In addition to penning essays that helped establish the tenets of the French New Wave, Cahiers du Cinéma critics — including François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol — began making their own films. Working with shoestring budgets, these architects of the French New Wave threw out the traditional rules of filmmaking. Costly sets were eschewed in favor of gritty, real-world locations captured with handheld cameras, complete with ambient noise and shifting daylight. Predictable plots gave way to non-linear narratives rooted in rebellion, disillusionment, existentialism and ennui. And actors were often asked to improvise dialogue and even wear their own clothes, which gave their characters an effortless cool exemplified by Jean Seberg in Godard’s iconic 1960 crime drama Breathless

Equal parts intellectual and experimental, French New Wave cinema can be challenging but well worth the trouble and its enduring influence can be seen in the work of admitted fans such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. 

— Bryan Rindfuss

The ‘New Wave’ is neither a movement nor a school, nor a group, it’s a quality — and that quality transcends beyond technique. It’s mirrored in the characters, too. They’re cool, detached, anti-establishment and of course, effortless. — François Truffaut