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Breathless Context Notes

November 29, 2010

Download Link: FS5 WORLD CINEMA_New_Waves_Context_French









  • The French New Wave occurred during the late 50’s until the mid 60’s. Breathless was from 1960.
  • It was instigated by a group of Cinephiles (avant-garde film intellectuals) who had been writing for a famous film magazine called ‘Les Cahiers Du Cinema’, as reviewers and critics.
  • Key figures of the new wave included: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer, many of whom are still prominent directors today.
  • With their writings, this group of film lovers began to develop a theory which reappraised film as art as opposed to just entertainment and positioned the director as the creative force behind such work; the director was the artist. This became known as ‘Le Politique des Auteurs’, Auteur theory in English.
  • This theory and the subsequent New Wave emerged out of two key factors: The lackluster output of the French National Cinema industry, and what they perceived as dynamic and exciting in the American Film Industry.
  • During the Second World War, American films had been banned from France. When the war ended, the entire backlog of films made during that era were released, as well as the new ones. They found these films far more exciting than the contemporary French ones, Especially the films of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford.
  • In watching these film they realized that the some American directors had developed their own styles and signatures, an identifiable style of filmmaking, despite working within the very rigid Hollywood production system. The Cinephiles suggested that if a director like Hitchcock, who had very little creative control in his films, films that were designed to just entertain audiences, yet still managed to produce work that was both artistic and bore his own personal style or way of seeing, then he must be an Artist-Auteur.
  • The French cinema industry at the time, though financially healthy, wasn’t producing any dynamic filmmaking. The output of the time tended to be either lavish literary adaptations, or big-budget European co-productions. The filmmakers utilized the Hollywood conventions of linear, goal-driven 3-part narratives as well as continuity editing. The mode of production was similar to America’s in that films were made in studios, with large production crews and used stars. The writer was seen as the primary creative force.
  • In 1954, Francois Truffaut wrote a seminal essay, ‘Une certaine tendance de la cinema francaise (a certain tendency in French cinema), for the magazine. This essay can be almost seen as a manifesto for the New Wave that ensued, much in the same way as Dogma 95.
  • In the essay, he made a significant distinction between two types of director: the metteur-en-scene who simply illustrates a screenplay, or the Auteur who brings his personal vision to the production through the use of distinctive mise-en-scene. The former is mereley a skilled technician, a professional, whereas the latter is an Artist who uses film to express.
  • In this essay he also criticized the French cinema of the day calling it ‘Le Cinema Du Papa’ (The cinema of the father0 because it was backwards and not progressive enough. He criticised especially the mode of production in which films were made, arguing that it perhaps restricted creativity.
  • Despite these high-minded theories, the New Wave could not have taken off without two significant external factors: Government Subsidy and Technological advances.
  • It was ironic for a group apparent radicals that the French Government should agree with them. The Government hade set up a subsidy for French film whose primary motive was creativity and originality in 1953 known as the ‘prime de la qualite’ (the Quality subsidy). This helped many of the New Wave directors make their first shorts. In 1959, a system in which filmmakers could get and advance on future ticket sales was introduced, enabling the part-financing of feature-length productions. So the Government, through subsidy, was instrumental in allowing the New-Wave to emerge.
  • The technological breakthtoughs of lighweight, hand-holdable cameras, portable sound-recording equipment as well as fast film stock to enable shooting in natural light, all enabled the Cahiers directors to shoot using an alternative mode-of production which was relatively inexpensive.
  • This mode-of-production constituted the first form of opposition mounted by the French New Wave. They challenged the ways in which film were made. Known as an ‘Artisanal’ mode of production, it featured the following:


  1. On-location shooting and sound recording (no studio shoots)
  2. Small crews.
  3. The use of available light (hardly any artificial lighting)
  4. short shooting schedules
  5. The use of either non-professional actors or unknown ones (no stars)
  6. Improvisation, by both director and actor, features heavily.
  7. The director is the key figure, no longer the writer.
  8. Handheld Cameras and on-location sound
  9. Informal compositions and irregular framing
  10. Fast film stocks to capture with available light


  • The French New Wave therefore arose out of a combination of cultural, economic and technological factors. It all took place during the early sixties, at a time when young people were about to change everything. The ‘Artisanal’ mode-of production they created became a key feature of almost all subsequent New Waves, especially the ones we will have studied.

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