The Right Bank
The Zeal of the Critical
One of the most obvious ways of demarcating the French Nouvelle vague (New Wave) of the late fifties/early sixties would be geographically: to see that some of the filmmakers were Right Bank filmmakers, others of the Left Bank. This is a simple separation between the two banks of the river Seine that runs through Paris and has been useful for distinguishing filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, who congregated around the Cinematheque on the right bank, from Alain Resnais, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker and Jacques Demy, who were seen to occupy the Latin Quarter on the left side of the river.
What we want to concentrate on here though are Godard et al, most of whom were not only regulars at the Cinematheque, but also critics for the magazine Cahiers du cinema. Often as writers they were polemical critics, partisan in their tastes and eccentric in their judgements, and yet also hugely influential. As they defended filmmakers including Welles, Hitchcock, Lang, Fuller, Hawks and Ray in the States, and Bresson , Tati, Renoir and Rossellini in Europe, they were great taste makers, and many of their opinions, no matter how subjectively held, have remained significant. Vital to their work was the promulgation of what was called the Politique des auteurs, a view of film that saw it as an art form created by artists, and that the artist happened to be the director. As Eric Rohde said in his History of the Cinema, summarizing the generally held Cahiers perspective: "the director as the ultimate authority and the sole arbiter of a film's meaning...they required one consistency only: that the director should have a strong personality and that he should be able to project his convictions." This countered much movie criticism that believed film couldn't be an art form of ready expression because it was so collaborative a medium and an industry, and even some Cahiers critics were less than enamoured by the notion of director as king. Fellow Cahiers critic Pierre Kast would say "the filmmakerwho thinks that, in the current system of production, it is possible to express himself is not only massively deluding himself but is also, however pure his intentions may be, defending and protecting the mystifications which the cinema generously distributes to its spectators." Cahier's editor, Andre Bazin, questioning the theory and its proponents, believed, "I fall in with them more reluctantly in the case of their hostile reactions: often they are very harsh with films I find defensible - and I do so precisely because I find that the work transcends the director..." Rohmer, Truffaut and the others who would become director themselves disagreed, with Rohmer claiming that mediocre directors would inevitably be mediocre and the great monumental. Disagreeing entirely with Tolstoy's claim, quoted by Bazin, that even Goethe and Shakespeare "created not only beautiful works, but things that were less than mediocre, quite simply awful," Rohmer insisted, "Having once cited these great names [Titian, Rembrandt, Beethoven...] I would wish then to propose a form of criticism which would not concern itself with 'beauties' or 'faults', but which would uncover the rationale underlying a development whose thread had eluded us..."
This auteurism would usually be seen to possess two main components: the theme and the form, with the latter more significant than the former. As Luc Mollet noted when writing on Sam Fuller in Cahiers. "Young American film directors have nothing to say, and Sam Fuller even less than the others. There is something he wants to do, and he does it naturally and effortlessly." There might be dandyish provocation in such a claim, but it would prove powerful nevertheless. Where in Britain Sight and Sound would write about the social problems of a film like Rebel without a Cause, Cahiers would be more interested in its tragic dimension, with Rohmer insisting director Nicholas Ray was a poet and that the film, in its form, "was a tragedy in five acts". If Cahiers could often seem oblivious to social realities, no one could deny the magazine would go on to impact on the reality of cinema. Though Bazin was a fine analytic critic, given to probing enquiry over hasty judgement, and a realist more than an auteurist and whose careful considerations have held up much better than his young reviewers' quick formulations, had he lived longer (he died at thirty nine in 1958) he wouldn't have been able to deny their influence.
But has much of this influence come not especially from the criticism, but of the quality of their own filmmaking work? Truffaut may have written in the mid-fifties a critical piece that is still often read today, 'Une certain tendence du cinema francais', a piece on what he calls 'cinema du papa', on films that were outmoded, often literary adaptations, but it is a caustic account, and might have eventually lost the power of its critical zeal were it not for Truffaut's own career, especially the early, great films we will say more about in a moment. Not that they were mediocre critics - Chabrol and Rohmer wrote a book on Hitchcock that contains important insights still used today, while Rivette's critical acumen, whether while interviewing Rossellini, or in a round-table discussion on Hiroshima mon Amour, remains of great value. However, few would disagree that they are finally of import for their films over their criticism, and it is to the work we will now turn.
Truffaut was the first to have a great success, and despite the tone of his criticism, which was often harsh, the mood of his films was often gentle. His debut The 400 Blows was a film that only possessed harshness on the film's edges as it examined the isolated life of fourteen year old Antoine Doinel, a boy with a difficult home life who becomes a petty delinquent. Truffaut seeks out the tone not of delinquency but the privileged moments for which he would become famous. There is for example a beautiful sequence of Antoine wandering the streets of Paris at night, staying out and up until morning as he steals a bottle of milk and passes through Jardin du Luxembourg. A great director of melancholically lyrical modes, of feelings that Truffaut captures but at the same time gives us a sense of their passing, he famously reckoned that his films seemed much sadder in execution than in conception. This lies partly in the meaningfulness of the privileged moment, in scenes where the sequence isn't so much a building block of narrative, but an accumulation all the more effective when recollected from the position of the film's ending. The scenes of the central character and his lover in Soft Skin making love are all the more affecting within the context of the whole film, which ends tragically. Where often a couple getting together is merely a narrative component towards a still happier conclusion, Truffaut's scenes of lyrical melancholy seem to contain within them a hint of tragedy before the event. Some of the scenes in Jules et Jim where the titular characters and Catherine go for a cycle and lie on the beach possess momentary happiness rather than the sort of arced content many films move towards. When Catherine says "one is never completely in love for more than a moment", it reflects the aesthetic sense in Truffaut's films that the moment must be privileged because life is in flux and the tragic can befall it at any time. This is why there are shocking events in a number of Truffaut films: Catherine's demise at the end of Jules et Jim, the central character's murder by his wife that concludes Soft Skin, the character jumping out of a window to her death in Shoot the Piano Player, and even the sudden freeze frame that concludes The 400 Blows. Life in Truffaut's films are made up of moments that can be countered with completely contrary moments shortly afterwards. This gives his work a sense of discrete, affecting scenes which are all the more full of feeling for not functioning as ready narrative components. Truffaut would go on to become a more conventional filmmaker in the later sixties and the seventies, before an early death in 1984, but though one feels his best works are The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules et Jim and Soft Skin, Stolen Kisses, The Wild Child, Anne and Muriel and Day For Night are all films containing evidence of the characteristics for which Truffaut became briefly an important filmmaker.
If Truffaut was suspicious of building a narrative, Godard more than most wanted to destroy it. "A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end", Godard insisted, "but not necessarily in that order". Yet his debut film, Breathless, seemed quite narratively robust on paper, but then Godard was never one given to writing scripts, and Breathlessrelied on the help of Truffaut and Chabrol. Consequently it remains Godard's most plotted film as Michel shoots a policeman on his way from the South of France to Paris, hides out in the city trying to persuade his American girlfriend to leave the country with him, only for Michel to be shot by the police after she betrays him to the cops. Godard cares little here for the conventions of time and space, with Michel bouncing around the city with the aid of Godard's jump cuts, a device that is described, in David Bordwell's and Kristin Thompson's words, as "an elliptical cut that appears to be an interruption of a single shot." (Film Art: An Introduction) This means that the nonchalance of the character is mimicked by the insouciance of form as Godard doesn't so much tell the story but film it. Generally speaking, before Godard and the new wave these were one and the same thing: the director's purpose was to film the story so as to tell the story.
But Godard started to question this assumption, and if numerous Godard films thereafter (Vivre sa vie, Le Mepris, Masculine feminine, Pierrot le fou) lacked a script it was because Godard wanted to find the story in the telling, not film the story as preconceived given. "The terrible thing is that in the cinema it is so difficult to do what a painter does quite naturally: he stops, steps back, gets discouraged, starts again, changes something. He can please himself." (Godard on Godard) There are scenes in Vivre sa vie where the camera drifts from the main characters towards peripheral conversation, while in Le Mepris at a moment when most filmmakers would be concentrating on a drive the screenwriting central character's wife takes with the film's producer, Godard instead shows us statues of Ancient Gods. In Pierrot le fou, what initially seems to be a story of a couple on the run, grinds to a narrative halt as Godard shows more interest in the sensuality of the southern French locations, and the beauty of his actually then estranged wife, Anna Karina, playing one of the film's leading characters.
In Godard's work film has frequently been caught between storytelling and documenting: he has never quite ignored the story, but always insisted on filming rather than telling it; and often in the filming ignored the necessity of the telling. When his cinematographer Raul Coutard reckons many of Godard's films are boring but there are always brilliant bits in between, we might say this is often the risk a filmmaker will take when he explores questions beyond the story.
Godard wants to use film to explore the nature of reality, not tell stories of human nature. There is very little that would pass for conventional psychology in Godard's work, and in some of his films he'll deliberately eschew the psychological just as he will bypass the narrational. In Breathless the motives behind Patricia's betrayal of Michel are of little interest, but the way she sells the New York Herald and Tribune, the manner in which she and Michel lie in bed, will endlessly fascinate the director. This refusal of realism often creates wry comedy, evident in Weekend, where Godard has a child talking about people attacking the Dauphin, commenting on the make of car rather than simply saying the car has been vandalised.
If Truffaut created melancholy within film narrative through his capacity to dawdle over moments that would possess retrospectively a cumulative significance, and Godard was interested in filming stories rather than telling them, Jacques Rivette became one of cinema's great chronophages (time-wasters), a director who like Godard and Truffaut wanted life to enter the frame, but also wanted to test a certain sense of cinematic endurance. His first film was a tale of paranoia and conspiracy in Paris, Paris nous appartient, that was longer than other new wave films of the beginning of the sixties, taking two and half hours to unravel. But by the late sixties and into the early seventies, the films, which were much more infrequent that Truffaut's and Godard's, became longer still. L'amour fou was over four hours long, while Out 1 was notoriously almost thirteen, though a shorter four hour version also exists. If Truffaut was interested in accumulating moments that he could release melancholically in the backwash of his denouements, and Godard film the very time that was passing as if he were Cezanne, who succinctly announced in relation to painting "things are looking bad. You have to hurry if you want to see anything. Everything is disappearing", then Rivette was interested in duration, in the notion of cinematic endurance. There has always been in relation to cinema the simple fact that one sits around, a point a character in the Spike Lee, Richard Price written film Clockers openly acknowledges when saying he never goes to films because it is just "ninety minutes of sitting there". But the point and purpose behind most films is to make one feel that one isn't just sitting there, and so the film works against the idea of duration as endurance. Rivette wants instead for the viewer to acknowledge this endurance of duration, the inevitability of just sitting there. However, what comes out of this type of cinema isn't boredom (though it is always a possibility and certainly a risk) - more a different relation with time, a feature that has been picked up by numerous filmmakers in modern cinema.
Whether it has been Andy Warhol, Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopoulos or Bela Tarr, what we might call 'enduration' has become a feature of modern film. This is long-hand filmmaking where the sequence isn't so much narratively determined as spatially explored and emotionally developed. What do we mean by this? Take a scene from L'amour Fouwhere we see Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier on the bed before Kalfon starts ripping at various items of clothing he wears. It is more than a minute after he starts tearing the items before Ogier actually says "stop it", a while afterwards when she reiterates her comment, and not until three minutes after he starts ripping his clothing that she actively tries to stop him. It is not especially that the takes are long (there is some cutting), more that the action/reaction relationship reverses the narrative expectation where the film's purpose is to take the shortest possible route to achieve maximum narrative gain. In Rivette's cinema, he creates spaces for enquiry that have little to do with the furthering of the story, but instead with the investigation of the situation as cinematically experiential. In one scene of primal theatre in Out 1, a group of actors become increasingly immersed in their activities, and most filmmakers would register this immersion without showing the very process in the entirety of its duration. "No one has done more to experiment with narrative and duration than Rivette" David Thomson claims in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. Yet this experimentation has nothing to do with playing with time so brilliantly present in Alain Resnais films like Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. It is instead a case of playing for time, testing the viewer's patience in relation to the slow and steady accumulation of insight. As Rivette says of L'amour Fou, "the shots I kept, which were only a small proportion of what we filmed, in 35mm or 16mm, are put together in approximately chronological order; but one's main impression is of a progression in the fatigue of the actors."
In relation to time and space, in terms of storytelling and image making, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol might seem conventional. But while this is often so with Chabrol, Rohmer is in his own quiet way as innovative a filmmaker as any nouvelle vague director. Debuting in 1960 with The Sign of the Lion, his innovations became most apparent in the late sixties, with La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee. Here was a filmmaker very interested in telling stories, but his originality lies in the capacity to internalise the narration so that the events he depicts as narratively momentous are nevertheless representationally minor. Take for example Claire's Knee, where the film's plot hinges not on getting the girl, but merely getting the opportunity to touch the title character's titular body part. Much of the film's narrative purposes resides in this knee touching, but it is an event that Claire needn't even know anything about. As far as she is concerned a man touches her knee; from his it is the equivalent of a monumental victory: he has theorised this moment and finally gets the chance to realise it. Where for the girl's boyfriend it is a lazy gesture of affection when he himself touches Claire's knee, for the older central character who has for much of the film been observing the aloof young Claire, it is a chance to make manifest but utterly contain his burgeoning desire.
In La Collectionneuse central character Adrien wants to spend a quiet time in the south of France at a friend's villa, but an attractive and flirtatious female turns up and his wish for the quiet life is mildly disrupted by his ambivalence desire towards Haydee. Again, though, the film's purpose is to contain, control and question yearning, to allow the story always to be contained by a character that believes they can sublimate their feelings. This is also the case in My Night at Maud's where Jean-Louis Trintignant's main character stays faithful while over at a beautiful woman's house, as he has idealised the person whom he believes he will marry.
Though Rohmer's work has a huge respect for characters capable of sublimating their feelings, equally he accepts that subjectivity is all very well, but the world is bigger than one's own contained impulses. Often his films work in an ironic coda where for all the character's will power and intellectual acumen, other forces have been at play. At the end of Claire's Knee we realise (though the character does not), that he misconstrued a key moment that nevertheless led to his touching Claire's knee. In My Night at Maud's, the woman whom Trintignant will marry has a past of her own. She is not the paragon Trintignant might have hoped she was.
If Rohmer gives ironic subjectivity to the stories he tells, they are still couched within the context of storytelling, but equally they are far from generic. Rohmer may be indebted as some claim to the French playwright Marivaux, but they have a singularity of perspective that shows a clear interest in both stoic and existential thinking. His characters seem to share certain notions by Epictetus and equally by Sartre: whether it happens to be Epictetus's claim that "a hypothetical proposition is an indifferent thing; but your judgement concerning it is not indifferent, but is either knowledge, or opinion, or delusion" (The Discourses), or Sartre's ideas on emotional behaviour. "Emotional behavior is not on the same level as ordinary behaviour, it is not effective. Its purpose is not to act really on the object as such by utilizing particular means. Emotional behaviour tries to confer on the object, without modifying it in its real structure, another quality, a diminished existence, or a diminished presence (or an enlarged existence etc)." (The Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre)
Chabrol however is a filmmaker who often works within the givens of form, and even of genre, as many of his films are loosely thrillers, even if his first three films, Le beau serge, Les cousins and Les bonnes femmes are more character- oriented than suspense-driven. However, Chabrol's distinctiveness probably lies in combining subtlety of characterisation with a categorical plot, or more appropriately, taking into account our comments on Rohmer, categorical event. Chabrol and Rohmer may have co-written a book on Hitchcock, but it is as though Rohmer took from Hitchcock his interest in the mental relations between things, while Chabrol drew upon the director's ongoing fascination with homicide. Indeed Hitchcock once wrote an essay about what makes for an English murder and Chabrol could easily have written as essay on what is distinctive about a French one. In Les biches, La femme infidele and Le boucher, all made in the late sixties, Chabrol explored motive-filled murder more than mindless violence, and set his films in distinct environments to see how murderous events come to pass. In Les biches it is mainly the south of France in winter, in La femme infidele, Paris and the suburbs, while Massif Central is the location for Le boucher. In each instance murder as event seems finally secondary to murder as psychologically symptomatic. In Les biches, Why kills the woman whom she feels has played with her mind and her feelings. In La femme infidele, a husband murders his wife's lover. Le boucher concludes with the revelation that it is the town butcher and war veteran Paul who has been murdering youngsters in the village of Tremelon. In each instance Chabrol makes the killers central characters, and thus we can speak of symptomatic murder over murderous incident. In the former we often have scrutiny of behaviour, in the latter, murder as syncopated event: so many serial killer films and action movies demand from the murderers flimsy motives for maximum mayhem. Chabrol was usually interested in maximum motive for minimum mayhem, often allowing the deeds to take place off-screen, as in Le boucher, or if on screen, as in La femme infidele, paying as much attention to the removal of the body as the removal of the life. In many a film with extreme violence, deaths are like sweetie wrappers dropped on the floor - somebody else will tidy up afterwards.
All five of these major Nouvelle vague filmmakers refused, with varying degrees of radicalism, conventional form and feeling, and its significance can of course be felt in much cinema that has come since, with Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Hal Hartley and Wong kar-wai just five of many whose work shows the influence of a filmmaking movement that was certainly radical in its form, even if some have asked why it wasn't more radical concerning politics. (Godard's le Petit Soldat being one of the few early New Wave films with a clear political agenda.) Was this relative apoliticism a failing? For some critics undeniably: In Masculine Singular Genevieve Sellier damns the Right Bank filmmakers for their political conservatism and what she sees as their misogynistic outlook. But it could be claimed equally that certain developments of form are also developments in political potentiality. When Godard made a comment about tracking shots being a question of morality, this was long before he would politicise the very shot in Weekend (67), with its long tracking shot of a traffic jam, and the lateral track in the supermarket in tout va bien (72). These are films that are nothing if not political works, even if they happened to come out long after the initial crashing waves of the Nouvelle vague.
© Tony McKibbin