07 · 27 · 16

The Women of the Nouvelle Vague (Part 1)

By: Arantxa Luna (@arantxalunaa)

The term Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) refers to a group of intellectuals (especially the young critics at Cahiers du Cinema) who, beyond the formulas of the time, were interested in constructing a type of cinema which allowed for more creative and thematic freedom. This was one of the mayor turning points in world cinematography, as Dora Sales points out: “the cinema of the new wave is characterized by its narrative heterodoxy, its anarchic sense, skeptical, cynical and individualistic.”

Influenced by consecrated directors such as Bresson, Becker and Renoir, in the late 1950’s, diverse events marked the beginning of this movement: Truffaut won the award for Best Director at Cannes for The 400 Blows (1959), Resnais presented Hiroshima mon amour (1959), and Godard Breathless (1960).

Although one of the central pillars of the New Wave was the figure of the auteur as absolute creator, it would be unfair to lose sight of other elements that also made possible the twenty-something productions that incorporated new techniques in cinematography, narration and interaction with the spectator. In this way, the presence of women was an important part of the process: Would Breathless be the same without Patricia? Or Jules & Jim (1961) without Catherine? The sadness of My Life to Live (1962) without Nana? Would there be a Hiroshima mon amour without the texts of Marguerite Duras?

Establishing the limits of each cinematographic movement is complicated, the French New Wave gathered the talent of artists who happened to be in the same place at the same time. No matter the label, each of these women contributed to creating a new space for women in the cinema of the time: acting, directing, writing, and even fashion, are some of the areas that boosted a new model of woman who saw modernity as a vehicle for creation and for liberation.

Agnès Varda

The only woman behind the camera in this cinematographic movement. Although there are specialists who include her as part of the Rive Gauche, a contemporary movement to the New Wave focused on the role of writing in the cinematographic process, Varda’s first film, La Pointe Courte (1956), is the first example with the full characteristics of the New Wave: control by the auteur, street locations, the use of non-professional actors, low budget, etc. These all lead to considering the film, as historian Georges Sadoul put it, as “the first film of the New Wave.” In this way, La Pointe Courte anticipated the fundamental axes of the New Wave: the dialogue between documentary and fiction, and the neo-realistic and high culture esthetics.


Anna Karina

Considered by many as the feminine face of the New Wave by excellence. Some of her more lovable characters appeared in the seven films she made under the direction of Jean-Luc Godard, including the film that won her the award for Best Actress in the Berlin International Film Festival in 1961, Une femme est une femme. However, she also worked with important directors such as Jacques Rivette, Luchino Visconti and Ingmar Bergman. Besides her career as an actress, she directed two films, Vivre ensemble (1973) and Victoria (2008), and wrote two novels, Jusqu’au bout de hazard and Golden City.

It is in the incarnation of all of her characters where the spontaneous, romantic woman, who gets her male counterparts into trouble, is best represented. For the American critic Richard Brody: “Anna Karina did not identify with the characters, but with herself, maybe more completely in front of the camera than in her private life, to create a lasting idea of herself. Anna Karina did not become the characters she played. They became her.”


Catherine Deneuve

She is one of the most profilic, and still alive, actresses to work with various directors around the world like Roman Polanski and Lars Von Trier, but it was with Jacques Demy, one of the most representative members of the New Wave, with whom Deneuve became famous in the competitive film scene of the 1960’s with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and later in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967).

After her first big success in the big screen, in 1969, the actress worked with François Truffaut in La sirene du Mississipi and with Luis Buñuel in Tristana. Although she starred in two of the most renowned musical comedies by Demy, Deneuve built around herself an aura of mystery, “of cold beauty, perfectly in line with the spirit of this cinema of intellectuals with black turtleneck sweaters that was presented under the name of New Wave”, an image that Martin Scorsese summed up years later: “Catherine Deneuve is French cinema.”


Emmanuelle Riva

She was inscribed into the history of cinema for her character in Hiroshima mon amour (1959) by Alain Resnais, winner of the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and which earned her the nomination to Best Foreign Actress at the BAFTA Awards.

With a previous career in theater, Riva did not have an active participation with other New Wave directors, but she worked for other filmmakers like Georges Franju in Thérèse Desqueyroux (1962), an interpretation which won her the award for Best Actress in the Venice Film Festival and, years later, with Krzysztof Kieslowski in his three colors trilogy.

With a somewhat belated introduction to cinema (she was 32 years old when she acted in Hiroshima mon amour), Riva published three poetry collections, a creative characteristic which probably explains why she was chosen to give life to the text by Marguerite Duras and to the cinematographic interests of Resnais. In 2012, aged 85, her sad eyes and acting abilities regained life in Amour, under the direction of Michael Haneke.


Marguerite Duras

In this environment of creative turmoil, writing played a fundamental part in the French New Wave, as one of the pillars on which many directors leaned on. The myth of the auteur as the absolute creator in cinema can be easily questioned by mentioning Marguerite Duras, writer of thirty novels, theatrical plays and a cinematographic period composed of screenplays and the direction of more that 20 feature and short films.

Her most famous contribution to this cinematograhic movement was the script of Hiroshima mon amour, a piece of work that marked a particular moment of female representation in the New Wave and which placed its star (Emmanuelle Riva) as an independent, subversive, character that does more than just get her male partner in trouble. Duras also wrote the screenplays for films such as Une aussi longue absence (1961) by Henri Colpi and Mademoiselle (1966) by Tony Richardson, starring another female figure of the New Wave, Jeanne Moreau. A year later, in 1967, she directed her first film La música, a stage in her career which she would feed constantly until 1985 with Les enfants, her last work behind the camera.


Jeanne Moreau

For Orson Welles, she was the best actress in the world, a favorite of diverse directors like Luis Buñuel, Tony Richardson, Louis Malle and Peter Brook; with this last one, her interpretation in Moderato Cantabille (1960), won her the award for Best Actress in the Cannes Film Festival.

Not withstanding her experimented trajectory, and after working with Michelangelo Antonioni in La notte (1961), Jeanne Moreau became one of the standard-bearers of the New Wave with her appearance in Jules & Jim (1962) by François Truffaut, considered one of the most representative films of the movement. Jules & Jim would inaugurate a long list of collaborations between the actress and Truffaut.

She was, along with Anna Karina and Brigitte Bardot, one of the most popular female figures in the cinema of the 1960’s, since, as the Spanish academic Dora Sales rightly puts it: “[Jeanne Moreau was] a bit distant from the audience, with indubitable versatility, with interpretations of deranged women, unstable and enigmatic, that characterized her work in film.”