The mid-1950s saw some of the first true New Wave films break onto the scene. Roger Vadim’s Et Dieu...Créa La Femme (And God Created Woman), released in 1956, is often credited as the first New Wave feature. Starring 22-year-old model (and Vadim’s then-wife) Brigitte Bardot, the film explored themes of rebellion and liberty that reflected the bold and innovative spirit of the New Wave.
Et Dieu...Créa La Femme. Source: programme-tv.net
The term “New Wave” was first coined in an article for L’Express in 1957. Though the article was not directly related to cinema, the term was nonetheless adapted by journalists writing about the new filmmakers at that year’s Cannes festival, and the title stuck. The New Wave was an official phenomenon.
François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows) is cited as the film that solidified the New Wave as a legitimate movement. The film was a smash at Cannes, winning Truffaut a Best Director award and attracting international attention to the New Wave movement.
Les 400 Coups. Source: AlloCiné
Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour was another entry at that year’s Cannes, and is still regarded as a landmark New Wave film. It was regaled for its use of the flashback to illustrate the themes of memory, time, and warfare, and was thus awarded the International Critics’ Prize.
Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) (1960) remains one of the New Wave’s most well-known and highly regarded additions. Stylistically, it exemplified much of what rendered the New Wave so unique, using handheld camerawork, jump cuts, fourth wall breaks, and disjointed editing in an attempt to break out of the Hollywood mold. The film was both a commercial and critical success, earning Godard a Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival.
À Bout de Souffle. Source: transmettrelecinema.com
Following the success of Truffaut and Godard, several directors in the 1960s began centering their stories around female characters. Louis Malle’s Zazie Dans le Métro (1960), Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960), and Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961), among others, all featured women in principal roles.
The Left Bank group, which emerged in the early 1960s, consisted of New Wave filmmakers bound together by their documentary backgrounds, left-leaning politics, and interest in artistic experimentation. Three of its principal members were Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda, the latter being one of the New Wave’s most well-loved female directors. Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1952) is a New Wave classic.
Cléo de 5 à 7. Source: Alamo Draft Cinema
The films of Jean-Luc Godard were some of the most vital for the movement during the mid-1960s. Many regarded him as the “definitive New Wave director.” Godard released numerous films during the 60s, including Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) (1961), Une Femme est Une Femme (A Woman is a Woman) (1962), Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963), and Weekend (1967), all of which showed his artistic range and political sensibilities.
The Paris student riots in 1968 were partially sparked by mounting tensions in the world of French cinema. Henri Langlois, the head of the Cinématheque Française, was fired by the Minister of Culture due to “administrative incompetence.” As a result, film students affiliated with the Cinématheque were unhappy. Combined with a general discontent for the government, this unrest escalated into a series of strikes and violent protests. Though the protests ultimately died down, they affected the Cannes festival of that year: both Louis Malle and Roman Polanski resigned from the festival jury, and Truffaut and Godard burst dramatically into a screening to stop the festival from continuing.