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Combining an irreverent approach to genre cinema with literary influences proved a fruitful technique for New Wave and other directors in France in the late 60s.
The filmmakers of the French New Wave did not reject mainstream cinema: they embraced the bits of it they loved, and cast away the stupid stuff. While the first films of the movement often celebrated these genres (especially through the neo-crime flicks of Godard, Malle and Truffaut), with the raw energy of their early films spent, these directors’ work became more focussed and critical. The rigid structure of a genre movie was a great tool for questioning the rigid structures of society.
If genre filmmaking developed from the congealing of popular, instantly recognisable conventions and the calcification of once-original techniques from a handful of visionaries, it was overdue for a new look.
Time is the substance of which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along. But I am time. It’s a tiger, tearing me apart; but I am the tiger…
Lemmy Caution, regular antihero of Peter Cheyney’s super-trashy detective novels, is translocated by Godard into the future: Alphaville is a dystopian city where poetry is outlawed and emotions will get you executed. What results is, through Godard’s critical lens, a fragmented sci-fi noir.
A critique of modernist tendencies of societal conditioning, ‘Alphaville’ is also just terribly cool. The futuristic city is filmed entirely in a carefully framed contemporary Paris, establishing a stylish retro-futurism that pre-dated ‘Blade Runner’ by nearly twenty years.
Caution’s mission – to find a missing agent and overthrow the malevolent computer that controls the city – weaves in impossible love, absurd set pieces, and philosophical speculation. It’s a unique revitalisation of the noir and sci-fi genres.
You and I and the kids, we’re like an apple orchard, a square field. Then I notice an apple tree that grows outside the field and blooms with us. More flowers, more apples. It adds up, you know…
The characters in Varda’s early films are easy to love if you’re another character, but not if you’re sitting in the audience. Her 1965 ironic romantic tragedy is the sugarsweet tale of a happily married man who falls in love with another woman, and believes he can have both. He truly believes hat they both adore him, even while he spouts lines such as the above.
Of course, with Varda, it’s never as simple as it seems: while Francois is the central character of the story, the women have to make their decisions, compromises and betrayals in relation to his desires and unspoken status. His role in the film reflects his role in their lives, but Varda’s ever-curious camera and agitated portrayal of time legitimize and re-contextualized the presence of the ‘supporting’ actresses.
It’s a feminist film without a capital-F Feminist agenda: it asks questions, acknowledges the possibility of futility, and offers a few difficult answers.
I believe in what I own. I love money. I hate death…
Before Matt Damon, there was Balthazar. Although ‘Au hasard’ is considered one of the greatest movies ever made, it remains somewhat obscure outside of arthouse circles – perhaps because Balthazar, the central character, is a donkey.
Bresson’s quasi-biblical tale follows the plight of Balthazar as he is passed from owner to uncaring owner, proving to be a dignified and hardy conduit for the proclivities of human nature. Simultaneously, we watch his original owner, a young girl, as she grows up and must likewise bear the burden of powerlessness in a cruel world.
Bresson was one of the most principled filmmakers that cinema has ever offered us, and those principles often ran counter to what mainstream convention or even the popular avant-garde favoured: carefully reconstructed subjective sound design, minimalist performances from non-professionals who were told not to act, an elliptical storytelling form, and so on. It makes for an elemental form of filmmaking, both hypnotic and enlightening.
American-born fashion photographer William Klein’s still image work has a verve and stylishness that fitted in nicely with the pervading zeitgeist of 1960s Paris. Although not directly connected to the dwindling Nouvelle Vague, this – his debut feature – feels absolutely part of the French filmmaking revolution, even as it retains a sense of his American outsider’s eye.
Polly Maggoo is a fictional model, the ultimate It Girl, negotiating the trials and absurdities of the new age while variously fending off and playing up to a team of documentarians in search of answers to the question of the title: ‘Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?’
Inventive, ridiculous, even monstrous – yet somehow always chic – ‘Polly Maggoo’ is an overlooked oddity of its time.
Forever inhabiting a cinematic universe of his own, Borowczyk’s feature film career began on the ‘isle of love’: a forgotten, tragic island cut off from the outside world where an almost medieval, mythical kingdom has evolved.
Cruel and perverted, this strange society is ripe for revolution, though our hero – Grozo the slave – prioritises his own twisted desires. The almost theatrical set and staging of the drama hints at the influence of wildly absurdist French playwright Alfred Jarry, but Borowczyk’s use of space and sound make for an utterly original cinematic effort.
Just be wary if you decide to follow Borowczyk’s career any further… this is arguably one of his ‘tamer’ ones!
Whether you’re a sci-fi geek, sucker for a romance, or fashion fanatic, French cinema offered a new way to look at your obsession in the late 60s.
Kickstarting a segue from modernist to post-modernist filmmaking, these sophisticated directors were truly ahead of the pack.
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