Tag Archives: Nouvelle Vague

Jules et Jim – 1962

Jules et Jim 2Widely regarded as one of Truffaut’s seminal works Jules et Jim tells the story of a love triangle spanning almost an entire lifetime. Truffaut wastes no time about being revolutionary, the very first frames of the film assault the viewer with short cuts and a racing voiceover. A friendship between the titular characters is built up from nothing into a believable bond that the viewer invests in during about 30 seconds of film. Truffaut doesn’t allow the viewer to rest during the film, the soundtrack is forceful and loud, full of eerie discords. In some sequences the film seems to portray some heightened reality, freezing and zooming in on what is important as if seen through the minds of the characters.

Unfortunately it seems that there has been a historical opinion that this film shows three people who are in love and their joint relationship. I dispute that entirely. Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) are best friends who share everything, even going so far as courting the same woman until she makes a choice. This is proven early in the film when they come across the absent-minded Thérèse (Marie Dubois) who can’t even tell the two men apart yet ends up sleeping with one of them nonetheless. The character of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) is yet another example of this airheaded female archetype that the two men share an appreciation of. Both Jules and Jim blithely superimpose their ideal woman onto Catherine. Their ideal is a fragment of statue they once saw, by mixing the ideas of the two Catherine is given a legendary importance, akin to an ancient culture. She is thoroughly undeserving of such a comparison but Catherine is all too happy to accept their attention. Over the decades that follow she will abuse them, hurt them and reject them in her desperate search for attention but they still follow her with idiotic loyalty. I suppose that their foibles are to be forgiven, after all, they are in love.

What is much more extraordinary is the robust nature of their friendship. Catherine tries with all her might to elicit jealousy from either one or to turn the two against each other, but it is all to no avail. She comes close, effectively exiling Jim from their life. It’s extraordinary that these men allow a woman to come between their friendship at all, a friendship that wasn’t damaged from fighting on opposite sides of a war. Truffaut’s omniscient narrator seems to mock these two who allow Catherine’s dramaticism to hold sway. While they puzzle over Catherine’s feelings the narration tells us directly of her selfishness. The camera hangs on her just as these men dote on her but we so not see her through lovers’ eyes and are left bemused more than enchanted. Yet beyond Catherine’s attention seeking and frivolous antics are two men who are so similar that they love the same woman. At the same time, they care so deeply about each other that they accept sharing her.

In the end this is what Truffaut has captured, Jules et Jim is aptly named, in the end it’s a friendship, not a ménage-a-trois. Jules and Jim remain friends with no ill will, even when confronted with a woman whose selfish behaviour challenges their bond.

  • Entertainment: 4/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       3/5
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Le Mépris

le-mepris-originalLe Mépris is very different from the political films of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague catalogue. Here the focus is a microcosm, the death of a relationship. Godard demands a lot from his audience. We barely see the couple in question in the hey-day of their love, only in the decline. We must take for granted what has come before. That film where a man and woman fall in love has been made a  million times. To make way for Le Mépris we must accept that they start happy, as the typical single at the start of a romance begins unhappy.

The entire second act of the film takes place is a small, open plan apartment. While the camera does cut throughout this sequence the continuity of time and space gives it a fly-on-the-wall feeling, more like a stage play or documentary than a film. The whole conversation is left whole in the film, even when the characters repeat themselves or speak tangentially to what the film is saying. The enclosed space echoes Camille’s (Brgitte Bardot) sense of entrapment in her marriage while the slightly overlong sequence gives the viewer a sense of her utter boredom with her life.

Throughout all this Camille’s estranged husband (Michel Piccoli) is working on an adaption of the Odyssey with Fritz Lang, idol and supporter of the Nouvelle Vague playing himself in a subtle twist of metafiction. The symbolism and metaphor of the odyssey story interweaves with the lives of the couple, however the metaphor doesn’t seem to quite apply. It is as mismatched and uncomfortable as the people it is describing.

Of course the film doesn’t get away without some political comment. The American producer (Jack Palance) is written as a bafoon who reads fortune cookies as if they were profound statements. He fails to understand Lang’s work, the definitive European cinema of art and beauty and tries to commercialise it, Americanise it. Interestingly Godard’s experience in making Le Mépris involved shooting an entire scene after the film wrapped because the producers believed a scene with a nude Bardot would increase ratings.

The film is slow-moving and confusing. Perhaps, however, we are not meant to understand. Just as no one can pinpoint when love fades to contempt one cannot expect the film to be definitive in anything. If the theme is the confusion of lost love shouldn’t the audience too be confused?

  • Entertainment: 1/5
  • Artistic:              4/5
  • Intellectual:       5/5

Weekend – 1967

weekendJean-Luc Godard’s self-proclaimed “fin de cinema” is probably a very good stopping point. The self-involved obscurity of Godard’s Nouvelle Vague communication reaches its absolute height. I think any film beyond this would become utter nonsense.  Without at least a sense of Godard’s previous works, Weekend seems utter nonsense.

Weekend is a parody, a dogma for social change and a critique of art and society rolled into one. At no point is the film regular or ordinary in its style. Even a conversation filmed in a conventional way is often blocked out by music, allowing only certain words to fall through, “buttocks”, “milk”, “breasts”. Not the conversation one expects from these bourgeois characters. This oblique filmmaking does not become easier to understand. An immense investment of concentration and persistence is required to make it through the first half hour of this film. For my part I felt that, after watching ten minutes of a traffic jam with symphonies of car horns, I had invested too much to turn back. I was glad I continued.

As the film progresses it becomes clear that everything has been a vitriolic criticism of the bourgeoisie. The traffic jam is only an annoyance to the viewer because the audience, like the characters has refused to see the joy in a journey or even the horror of a car accident. Normally such a thing would be written off as an annoyance, both in life and in art. Godard forces us to confront it. We realise the empty pointlessness of those travelling with a dinghy on a trailer, the cruel indifference of the family setting up a picnic just metres away from a fatal accident. These characters are careless, desensitised consumers and the film forces them to re-engage with the world. They even admit to being no better than characters in a film, finally demanding of every passer-by if they are in a movie or in real life. Here the “movie” seems to be the bourgeois society, ignoring and abetting our protagonists. The reality, even though it is savage, disgusting almost, and definitely terrifying, is more human than anything else in the film. The very fact that we find their connection with nature, animals and traditional hunting so shocking is Godard’s point. Society is far too disconnected to accept humanity.

What sets this film apart is the assault-like style. Godard does not allow the audience to rest because otherwise it would stop thinking. This short 90 minute film contains more ideas than many directors confront in a lifetime. The film cuts from scene to scene with little or no explanation, each scene seeming to be an unconnected set piece. Yet each is part of a sustained attack on society as Godard sees it. Materialism, leisure, prudishness, nothing is safe from Godard’s scorn. While watching this you will probably be frustrated, offended and even bored. But even if you disagree with every point Godard makes, you cannot help but admire the way they are made, almost like a film full of bullet points for us to make of what we will.

Masculin Féminin – 1966

masculin-feminin-1966-02-gRecently I have watched four Godard films. A Bout de Souffle, Masculin Féminin, Weekend and Le Mépris. It was only when I watched Le Mépris, which is not considered part of the nouvelle vague, that I had a breakthrough in understanding what the nouvelle vague, or at least’s Godard’s part in it was.

These films are not by any means easy to digest. They are films made by film critics for film critics so at first viewing are basically closed and inaccessible to the viewer. It was only after two films and three weeks that I felt I understood enough to attempt a third film. I will first review Masculin Féminin. The style is not quite documentary, more an exposé of cinema itself, the characters are self-aware, mocking their own performances. Brigitte Bardot even appears as herself for a cameo, so blurred are the lines of fantasy and reality. Plot goes for a burton: the whole film seems to be entirely disconnected moments in the life of young people. These instances are divided into chapters, blurring the lines between different media and allowing the more scholarly diction of literature to become a part of film. However, suddenly, we are forced back into a plot-based way of thinking at the very end as the characters have to explain the narrative we have just seen. What this shows us is that life is so much more and less than the stories we frame it as. Even telling a story gives the whims of the human heart and the winds of fate far too much credit.

As well as this already groundbreaking style the film is boldly political, as if Godard simply had too much to say at any one time. “This film could be called The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola” appears emblazoned across the screen in one of the many intertitles. These intertitles are crucial, flashing on screen with barely enough time to be read they contain the keys to understanding the film, an ironic reversal of a picture being worth a thousand words. Every so often the film cuts to a series of interviews, questionnaires on politics and sex. The questions seem to be loaded with meaning but we are never told what. We later realise that we only believed so because the characters were so passionate about these things. Yet the political activism seen in these young French intellectuals is almost pitifully insincere. Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) splits his time between spraying socialist slogans on walls and trying to be like James Dean. For all his bravado and self-determinism he is utterly and tragically controlled by his love for a woman.

It is difficult to comment on the acting performances in Masculin Féminin, one gets the impression that in truth very little acting is going on, for all we know what we are actually seeing are the conversations had before the camera started rolling. Each word and thought is so genuine that it is somewhat disarming, you feel as if you are watching a documentary of people’s personal lives and views. This counterbalances the confusing and imposing thematic and stylistic features allowing the film to be understood as a charmingly realistic story of unrequited love. But it is so much more. It is like a snapshot of being young. Each character dreams of political change, free love and a great, successful future: they will probably never achieve this but it does not matter, they are now frozen forever in this naïve and joyful state. While the places and particulars may be different the themes still affect every young person today. Yet no other generation has recorded it with such faith or such boldness.

A Bout de Souffle – 1960

breathlessA charming film which consists mainly of an extended duologue. Two people who may or may not be in love spend a few days and nights together. The camera seems to observe passively as their relationship develops. However littered throughout this carefree romance are shots of a classic cops and robbers chase. The drama and the sweetness sit together as oddly as these two bedfellows.

The first half of the film serves as a seduction scene. Impossibly a man who lies and steals for a living has found a woman even more guarded than he is. They discuss little insignificancies for hours with her rebuffing him at every turn. She is aloof, coquettish and absolutely maddening for a man with a private agenda. There is no sentimentality in Godard’s camera, it shows us a situation without drawing back or making light of it. All that you see simply is. Godard edits out the silences, replacing them with bold jump cuts as the repartee continues. Truffaut’s script is razor sharp despite it’s deliberate oblique quality. The pertinent details are never quite addressed but are made perfectly clear in these actions of these charmingly capricious characters. If it wasn’t treated so plainly and naively this would be a hyperbolic tragedy. However, with a light jazz accompaniment and a spring in its step the action blithely unfolds, barely leaving a blip in the fabric of society.

La Nuit Américaine -1973

86223693_oIn a film about making a film Francois Truffaut places himself in front of and behind the camera to express the potent mix of fantasy and reality which leaks its way onto a film set. The film tells the story of a production plagued by mishaps, crises, deaths and rewrites. The director, played by Truffaut, wishes to create a work of art and literally dreams of great cinema. His sporadic dream sequences showing him as a young child picking up scraps from directors previous to and greater than himself. One can almost imagine that the whole film was born out of a failed production which could only be saved through comedy.

While this has the potential to be a tragedy, or at least a bath of self-pity for any struggling director to wallow in, it is in fact more like a farce. The glamour of cinema is stripped back to reveal the prosaic elements, a candle with a hidden light, a balcony with no house attatched, a million money saving trompe l’oeils. You can’t help but wonder why this industry thrives, what is the human fascination with seeing people on a screen when we know of the fallacy? It’s like a huge in-joke but no one remembers how it started. Truffaut draws attention to these ideas repeatedly, sometimes showing us shots from the imaginary movie they are creating and sometimes panning back so we can see the boom mics and cue cards. One actress has suffered so greatly from this detachment of reality that she cannot cope with the make-up girl being an extra. About halfway through a woman screams directly at camera that she “hates your cinema”. The fourth wall is broken and this simple, make-up shunning woman is left asking the audience why they are even watching.

At times the film descends into montage, these sequences are self-mocking. They are framed with enthusiastic, hopeful music and everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves making a jolly good movie. This parodies everything the film itself has just shown us, the arguments, the upsets and the disasters, which eventually fade away into a generally good impression. The same actress who regularly breaks down on set laments the passing of the shooting. The whole proceedings seem ridiculous to the observer and will seem ridiculous even to those involved, as they re-observe with the passing of time. The whole thing ridicules the goal of recording a story when the real story is happening around you. In its way the film expands the existentialist ideals, everything you ever see is effectively a film set with each person watching life go by and waiting around for their moments. It is not the exact events that set any one story apart but rather the attitude with which they are approached. If you cannot laugh at your own estrangement from reality no one else will. The film wraps itself up by presenting this ultimate irony to the audience with spectacular wit and style.