I enjoy French New Wave cinema. My process of watching such goes something like this: I lie alone in a room of darkness (save a single screen), and for a few hours, allow my mind to dissect the nuances of an honest story. It’s like reading a great novel, but the reduced time consumption triggers a rapid stimulation of realism. Ironically, I’m watching a film, so I’m dissecting something completely fictional, but the subject matter never fails to provoke a raw sensation in my mind. That’s because the material of the movement isn’t donned with false filters – there was a conscious break from the established cinematic paradigm which had conceived a barrier between film and viewer. Let’s say a transparent barrier, the passing of which resulted in one’s transition to an alternative setting. And for a short period, the subjected conditions of their reality would be clouded. That barrier has long been present – still present – in film, and nothing is wrong with it. But the difference with films of the French New Wave period? That barrier was eradicated – cinematic convention was revamped to postmodern playfulness, with direct approaches that pretty much showcased a genuine expression of human life.
Take Godard’s debut motion picture: Breathless. There’s a scene during which the central lovers spend the afternoon in a hotel bedroom, and it runs for 25 minutes. AKA: almost a third of the film. In our current world where the young often long for fast pace, you’d think that this scene would bore. In my mind, it does the exact opposite. What occurs during those 25 minutes is nothing of severe abstractness – a man and woman simply smoke, talk, flirt and play – but stripping away the complexities of shots, sound effects and so on leaves you – as observer – with one thing: ingenuity. Ingenuity in the sense that for a substantial sector, these characters feel anything but fictional. This man and this woman are anything but actors. They’re just lovers, and the surrounding circumstances of their relationship (which is ill-fated, I tell you) become insignificant.
The film fits into the crime genre, with the ongoing run and chase of criminal Michel awning much of the overarching plot. But for the aforementioned third of the film, I instead find myself breathless from the baring display of human simplicity. There’s an ironic vitality to it, because it’s in a private sphere that we are so honestly exposed. As a filmmaker, for what reason would Godard dedicate his time to over-emphasising moments of melodrama when those are the moments that have been stressed on screen a thousand times before? To do so would be to build that transparent barrier for escapism as opposed to showing something simple and real. Indeed, these are characters of the Hollywood sort: a man forever fleeting from normality and a woman harbouring his hooligan nature. But for a considerable amount of frame-time, this is forgotten. Pure dialogue dominates, pure personality surfaces.
This is the modernity that the French New Wave genre conceived: minimum camerawork, maximum conversation. And when it’s a conversation you can in some way recall having with another – “Leave me alone, I’m thinking” “What about?” “The thing is, I don’t even know” – instead of a barrier, you pass only resonance. That’s the kind of art that I like; I enjoy feeling like there’s no division. And that feeling doesn’t just come from cinema. It extends across forms – art itself, music, fashion, literature. What an artist is to capture is an honest, solidified image of a fleeting moment, or as Baudelaire phrased it: ‘to distil the eternal from the transitory’. I run the risk of pouring out the 10,000 words I composed for my final University dissertation here, which began at that very point. But what I will say is this: for a work of art to hold a place in the annals of history, the intangible concept of human essence must be present.
This essence may sound easily obtainable, but so many in society fall subject to obedience or conformity that it becomes difficult to search for souls who wish to create something that passes the test of time. Souls that view life through a simple lens like Godard. Granted – it’s not an easy perception to acquire. I’m still striving towards such a stance, because for a long time I’ve lived with an invisible stamp of ‘overthinker’ on my forehead. But since I last posted on this website, much has occurred, and much has changed. Instead of being concerned with the surrounding circumstances of melodrama which are commonly and infinitely stressed, one should sometimes try to narrow things down to a simple question in a moment: yes or no? If the answer is no – don’t spend time waiting for your expectations to be met. But if the answer is yes – invest all of your soul and passion into it.
As I have transitioned into adulthood, I’ve found that the greatest sphere that offers such scope for me to achieve a simple outlook – as it has for so many others – is Paris. My favoured films of the French New Wave genre are frequently set in Paris. My favoured musicians – Gainsbourg, Hardy, Dutronc – were born and based in Paris. Some of my favoured novels – though conceived in the minds of Americans – were composed against the backdrop of Paris. And of course, my adoration of the fashion industry is so steeped in French craftsmanship and culture. For what reason do all of these great artists create in this city? Many are born there, yes, but many flock there too. Perhaps it’s the visual landscape – an architectural canvas of beauty thanks to Georges Haussmann’s renovation. But there’s also an indescribable pulse that runs through the streets, a pulse that permeates charm and a desire to express. Maybe my frequent acts of immersion into French-influenced art have rendered me a lost soul in idealised translation. But regardless, when I step onto the streets of Paris, I feel breathless and I feel no barrier. Any trip there feels nothing more than utter tranquility; it’s impossible for me to feel like a tourist in the city because it filters such familiarity. That familiarity is felt through the simple things. I’ll raise a few of them.
Strolling through the Marais and lying on the grass of Places des Vosges to watch the sunset. Hiking up to the bucolic setting of Montmartre which, tourists aside, still feels like a pocket of the past with its roaming painters who continue to honour its artistic history. Venturing along Canal Saint-Martin and its paralleled stream of nestling lovers. Past 10pm, an unforgettable visit to 5 Rue Daunou – Harry’s New York Bar – where saloon-style swinging doors open to reveal locals and expats drinking French 75s to the sounds of charming jazz. Following The Left Bank down to Montparnasse’s longstanding pleasure centre, where decades before, Gertrude Stein and her fellow friends of The Lost Generation socialised and cemented modernity. Much of this simple familiarity is connected to the past, so am I living in it? Obviously not, but it’s difficult to walk through Paris as an aspiring creative and not feel those ghosts in broad daylight. In any age, the role of an artist is not to ignore this history, but respect it through creation that honours its progression to the present. I like to believe that my present perception of Paris – formed from friends I have met there, fashion’s I have discovered there, and feelings formed from there – is simple and clear: it’s the city of light.
The saying is commonly uttered, but it stands in my mind because it is through Paris that I have been most enlightened. I understand that feelings of such are rare to find, almost as rare as finding a romantic being with a synonymous mindset. So what’s the answer? Should I move there? Can life be that simple? If I asked Godard, he would respond with yes. But I have not yet arrived at an answer, because when you’re 21 and still desiring much more knowledge and discovery of the world, this stands at the forefront of your mind. So for the time being, as I await my approaching graduation, I’ll be closing my curtains, turning off technology, and sticking on a New Wave film. If you’re desiring enlightenment on such a simple art form and the obtainment of that mindset, I suggest you do the same. The list is endless, but here’s my recommendations: Breathless, Hiroshima My Love, My Life to Live, Shoot the Piano Player, Pierrot le Fou, Contempt, Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, The Cousins. All will reward.
Now I display some film photos taken during my recent trip to Paris: simple shots to match the less contemplating mindset I’m striving towards. Here’s to a New Wave.