5 Essential French New Wave Movies
One of the first segments of film history every movie buff learns about is the French New Wave. It was a time in the late 50s into the 60s when a small group of French filmmakers threw out the rule book and started playing with their own-rampaging through the streets of Pais in a seemingly-haphazard but artfully crafted fashion. Their favorite subjects were other movies, girls, and themselves (no wonder they still resonate with young cinephiles nowadays). Here are five movies essential to getting to know those crazy Parisian kids.
Generally considered the first film of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard's electrifying debut is also one of the best. Follow a never-better Jean-Paul Belmundo as he kills a police officer, picks up (or tries to pick up) a luminous Jean Seberg and get her to go into hiding with him, imitates Humphrey Bogart, and more. Godard pioneered a variety of stylistic tricks that would become synonymous with the French New Wave, most famously the "jump cut," which went in this movie from being something to be avoided at all costs to a good way to make your movie look cool.
"The 400 Blows"
Francois Truffaut, in addition to working on the script for "Breathless," made his debut with his story about a young boy who turns to crime, literature, and the movies thanks to a less-than-nurturing life at home. While it might seem like a typical coming-of-age story now, Truffaut's movie is in its own way as stylistically daring as "Breathless," in one scene featuring a very long tracking shot of the main character (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud who would return in several sequels over the course of his life) running away.
"Cleo from 5 to 7"
Opening on a full-color shot of a set of Tarot cards, Agnes Varda's film goes on to follow Cleo, a pop singer in Paris, in black-and-white after she gets the news that she might have a terminal form of cancer. Some viewers might be put off by the slow, roaming plot and the lack of armed gangsters, but if you can get attuned to this movie's unique wavelength you'll realize it's one of the best films of the French New Wave-it even features a cameo from Jean-Lud Godard himself (we told you this was a small group)!
"Shoot The Piano Player"
But, if armed gangsters are more your thing, this movie from Truffaut should definitely satisfy you. The plot is a not-quite-typical noir story about a dive bar piano player who gets involved in some nasty gangsters. And Truffaut pulls out all the stops behind the camera, including jump cuts, smash cutaways, blackout gags, subtitle gags, and much more. It's certainly a precursor to the kind of reflexive gangster movies Quentin Tarantino used to make.
Let's round things out with a splash of color from Jean-Luc Godard. "Contempt" is a movie about the struggle between art and commerce about a filmmaker working on a massively-budgeted film and the creative paralysis that results. As you might imagine, this is a movie about movies, and Godard sometimes lets his anger at the movie industry get away from him-although not to the movie's detriment, especially since it's filled with some of the most stunningly beautiful cinematography in any movie ever.