Friday, August 19, 2011

Je t'aime, je déteste: Negotiating La Nouvelle Vague

Or: My Love/Hate Relationship with the French New Wave

Last Year in Marienbad
Do you know what grinds my gears? When people claim film is merely 'entertainment'. It seems so utterly defeatist: writing off an entire artform as something disposable. Yet there is a point in the argument: a film should at some level engage you. Surely the best films are the ones that remove you from reality for a few hours, making you forget about everything but the images on screen?

It's a question that popped into my mind frequently watching Last Year in Marienbad on the big screen last night. I'd be lying if I said I was entirely hypnotised by the visuals and musics of the film for the entirety of its running time. Often I was: there are moments of profound beauty & iconic imagery, and the sense of place and atmosphere are unique. There are also a handful of genuinely hilarious sequences showing a character challenging party-goers to an almost unbeatable game of wits, infrequent enough to pull you back in when needed. And yet it seemed as if director Alain Resnais was aggressively challenging the viewer; showing something bordering on contempt for an audience. Its ambiguities, the purposeful lack of clarity and a general sense of uncertainty: these are the features that often frustrated as I (sometimes unsuccessfully) searched for meaning in the dialogue between two characters that may or may not have met before and may or may not have engaged in a passionate affair. 'Entertained' I certainly wasn't. Yet in hindsight, and after reading up on various critical analyses of the film, there are plenty of rewards in Marienbad. They are not ones I immediately appreciated, however, and they definitely weren't ones picked up by the surprisingly large amount of people who walked out of the screen in frustration.

Last Year in Marienbad for me was an ideal representation of my struggles with the French New Wave to date. Of all cinematic movements, La Nouvelle Vague is perhaps the most (in)famous. It is easily defined, and overflowing with idealism: a group of film-makers determinedly breaking the rules and dismantling cinema as the audience knew it. You can tell many of the writers and directors responsible were film critics before their forays into auteurship. They painstakingly break down the established norms (often the 1950s Hollywood ones), and harshly critique and examine the very basics of how cinema works. The result are deliberately disjointed narrative structures, peculiar pacing, casual approaches to sex and violence, technical playfulness and a complete disregard for predictability. They basically took their approach to film criticism and translated it to film-making.

Arguably the most famous of the lot is Mr Jean Luc Godard; still active today having just unleashed Film Socialisme (which, appropriately for my argument, received equal amounts of praise and hostility upon release). I've seen a number of his films over the year, and I never know what to expect. I adored Week End, despised Pierrot Le Fou, admired Breathless and was entirely indifferent to Contempt. On one hand, his playful approach is often wonderfully endearing: whether it be the monster and very funny tracking shot in Week End, or the devil may care attitude of Breathless. And yet his complete disdain for well established norms can result in films that are absolutely no fun to watch. Pierrot Le Fou is actually insulting in it's refusal to provide the audience with anything resembling traditional pacing or narrative payoffs. Pretentious trash, in other words: I try my darndest not to use that horrid 'p' word, but in Godard's case it's wholly applicable. Godard is a man whose influence is easy to measure, but sometimes he's easier to admire than actually, you know, like.

I'm much fonder of the movement's other figurehead, Francois Truffaut. Unlike Truffaut or Resnais, he doesn't seem opposed to acknowledging there's actually going to be an audience watching his films. The result are movies that frequently entertain as well as enlightening. There's even the odd - gasp! - emotional moment: something in severe contrast with the non-humans that populate Godard's work. Of the lot, Day for Night is a personal favourite. Here you have everything: technical wittiness, plenty of humour, a story you can actually follow, and - importantly - a very scathing critique of the film-making process. It's one of cinema's great parodies of itself. Jules et Jim and The 400 Blows are two others I am extremely fond of: again, enjoyable & accessible stories that still embrace the rule-breaking manifest of the New Wave (a good example is the satirically jaunty music that plays over the tragic conclusion of Jules et Jim). Truffaut certainly broke the rules, and their are moments where he does indulge in audience-hating indulgences (pacing, again, is a sticking point) but only the ones that truly needed breaking.

Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Being honest, my knowledge of the other auteurs of La Nouvelle Vague are limited or non-existent. My experience with Eric Rohmer and Claude Charbol is distressingly and embarrassingly non-existent: an ignorance I intend on righting. I did fall in love with Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, however: a truly beautiful film, and one that deviates just the right amount from the Hollywood musicals that inspired it.

What I love about the New Wave is how much they were willing to challenge and break the rules: rightly asking the world if the norm was an acceptable one. They were often wildly successful in this regard, and in terms of sheer passion their are few contemporary equivalents (I guess the Dogma 95 crew could be regarded as spiritual but far less influential successors). What I hate is that they sometimes went too far: their contempt for mass produced cinema often translated into a contempt for the audience (particularly maligned was Godard's decision to subtitle Film Socialisme in broken, confusing Navajo English for those idiots who don't speak French).

There are few guarantees that you will be traditionally entertained when you watch a film from La Nouvelle Vague. Yet there are rewards: whether it be in wild visual imagination, innovative soundtracks or thought-provoking themes and ideas. In that regard, perhaps the movement is the finest symbol of all for film as an artform: sometimes anti-entertainment can be just as compelling.

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