Plus ça change: French New Wave directors are still tearing up the film-making rule book

The directors of the French New Wave ignited a cinematic revolution – but five decades on, how do these ageing insurrectionaries practice what they preached?

Did they know when they started out, the French directors of the New Wave, that they were in it for the long haul? Imagine a young, energetic, passionately cinephilic film-maker coming along today. Given the increasing difficulty of finding finance, generating publicity, staying in fashion, how long would you bet on him or her sustaining a creative career before burning out or caving in to the temptation of the mainstream? Five features? Ten years?

Now take the film-makers who emerged in France in the late-1950s, and who came to be identified as the "Nouvelle Vague". Of the group who made their names as critics in the film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Claude Chabrol was the first to direct a feature, Le Beau Serge in 1958. That makes the New Wave, as it's commonly accepted – a core of five also comprising Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette – 50 years old. In other words, this generation has been making films for nearly half the history of cinema. Who could have predicted that, when, as young polemicists, they were calling for the dethroning of French cinema's tired old patriarchs?

Next month, the group's 88-year-old doyen Eric Rohmer releases his latest film, The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. An eccentric pastoral romance set in an imaginary 5th-century France, the film is atypical of Rohmer's output, which has generally comprised cycles of brittle moral comedies. But Rohmer has veered off course before, most recently in Triple Agent (2004), an austere chamber drama about betrayal, and in The Lady and the Duke (2001), a French Revolution story that made innovative use of CGI, depicting period panoramas as animated engravings.

As for Chabrol, he has made 55 features in 50 years – usually faithful to his Hitchcock-inspired love of the thriller – and has now embarked on his first collaboration with Gérard Depardieu. Jacques Rivette has gone from intractably challenging experimentation, with films of sprawling duration and logic-scrambling obliqueness, to being a surprisingly approachable classicist. Last year's Balzac adaptation Don't Touch the Axe was a salon-bound romance and magnificently austere vindication of the costume genre.

Other contemporaries sometimes associated with the "New Wave", although not of their film-critic circle, have proved equally durable. Alain Resnais, one of the epoch-defining experimenters of the 1950s and 1960s, is no longer producing his most challenging work, but still commands respect and is making a new film. Then there's Agnès Varda, whose Cleo de 5 à 7 (1962) is the feminist missing piece of the predominantly male New Wave jigsaw. In 2000, Varda embraced the camcorder in her first-person documentary The Gleaners and I, a reaffirmation of the New Wave tenet that the camera could be as personal a tool for expression as a writer's pen.

That leaves two key names. One is François Truffaut, the fiery ideologue who declared revolution in his 1954 polemic "A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema", denouncing the then-dominant generation of conservative French directors and screenwriters. Truffaut died in 1984, his 21 features generally remaining true to a vision of cinema based on emulating the American cinema that he so admired. Who knows where Truffaut would be today? Still making confidently mainstream films, no doubt, although much of his work was less conventional: especially ripe for rediscovery are the melancholy, novelistic Anne and Muriel (1971) and The Green Room (1978), a Henry James-inspired contemplation of death, memory and the image.

Then there's Godard, who, of all the ex-Cahiers group, is reputed as the Promethean grappler with the contradictions of cinema and society. Godard has spent a lifetime crashing into artistic and ideological brick walls of his own making, then brushing himself down and heading off toward fresh crises.

After a torrential spate of invention, beginning with 1960's A Bout de Souffle, he entered an intractably difficult phase inspired by Maoist politics, withdrawing from the limelight to become a video pamphleteer and theoretician. He returned to narrative cinema, reinvigorated, in the 1980s, though he has run aground and revived several times since, and in 2001 staged a dramatic return to public attention with the historically argumentative, visually vibrant In Praise of Love.

Among admirers, Godard now enjoys the status of a philosopher-saint, even if his declarations have been tainted by disturbing strains of anti-Semitic rhetoric. How much more we'll see from Godard is another question: when I interviewed him in 2005, he complained of his inability to make "films" as he used to know them: "It's like being a writer who still knows the letters of the alphabet but suddenly can't form words or sentences."

What is striking is not just these directors' longevity, but also that they have largely remained outsiders, with limited finance. Compare those US film-makers who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by the French example: Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, even George Lucas, who as a student declared of Godard, "When you find someone who's going the same direction as you, you don't feel so alone." (It's doubtful that Godard took such succour from The Phantom Menace).

You might also have expected a "New Wave" to be a quick-burning phenomenon. But while Truffaut may have called for a symbolic slaughter of moribund patriarchs, he wasn't out to kill all parents: he and his peers established a different pantheon of precursors, most famously Hollywood directors such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford and Fritz Lang. There were idols closer to home, too: Renoir, Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Roberto Rossellini. These elders were themselves notable for sustaining long careers: their teaching was that, whatever challenges the film industry or world history threw at you, you had to keep filming. The New Wave generation similarly contrived to endure, to make features even when there seemed to be no money to make them with or, for that matter, no stories to tell. Rivette has made a career of pulling no-budget projects from the jaws of disaster: both Don't Touch the Axe and his hall-of-mirrors fantasia Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) emerged overnight from the collapse of other projects.

Remarkably, these directors' collective achievement has never been repeated. French cinema is forever in search of an enduring "New New Wave", but none has delivered. The self-important stylists of the early-1980s, Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson, Leos Carax, ran out of steam. That 1990s firebrand Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) was last seen directing a Vin Diesel sci-fi vehicle. Of today's enfants terribles, who'll last the course? Gaspar Noé? Too cranky, too slow. Christophe Honoré, whose recent films (Dans Paris, Love Songs) are a hymn to the early New Wave? We'll see.

No doubt what sustained Truffaut's peers was that they grew up on film as a religion, to the exclusion of much else. For subsequent generations, film has been one cultural attraction among many, so the stakes have never again been as high: you can make films or not, but life goes on. Compare Godard in 1962: "Shooting and not shooting, for me, are two different lives. Filming should be a part of life."

The New Wave directors stayed true to that imperative and avoided becoming relics. Their later work is generally as fascinating as the early breakthroughs: it's not a question of choosing between Godard's Alphaville (1965) and Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1990s), Rohmer's Claire's Knee (1970) and Triple Agent (2004). It's all part of the same long-term adventure, an achievement of marathon runners rather than sprinters. And it's not certain that the baton has yet truly been handed on.

'The Romance of Astrea and Celadon' is released on 12 September. Claude Chabrol's 'A Girl Cut In Two' is released next year

Riding the wave: Who says old dogs can't pull off new tricks?

Jean-Luc Godard

After his Histoire(s) du Cinéma video essay of the 1990s, Godard returned to fiction with 2001's Eloge de l'Amour, a diptych about the legacy of the Second World War. His 2006 installation at Paris's Pompidou Centre baffled many, but drew the crowds

Claude Chabrol

The most traditional of the New Wave directors, Chabrol continues to produce new variations on his Hitchcockian thriller template. His latest film A Girl Cut In Two is about an ingenue caught between a roué novelist and a volatile rich boy

Eric Rohmer

For years, it seemed you knew what you were getting with Rohmer. Recently, he's perplexed fans with ventures into French history, espionage and now pastoral idyll, in The Romance of Astrea and Celadon. His 2001 The Lady and the Duke saw him experiment with CGI to dazzling effect

Jacques Rivette

Last year's Balzac adaptation Don't Touch the Axe was arguably one of France's finest ever costume dramas. In 2006, fans swooned at long-overdue screenings of Rivette's little-seen 121/2-hour soap opera-cum-conspiracy thriller epic, Out 1 (1971)

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all