04/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2013

When the French Spiced Up Film: Rohmer, Truffaut, Godard and Cahiers Du Cinema

I happened to meet recently with a film student from Paris who wondered why so few Americans attended a certain French film festival held recently in New York City. My somewhat involved response came with some brief historical perspective, which follows.

Just as Hollywood began losing its way in the fifties (much like today, except then their feeble response was Cinemascope, not CGE), France was becoming known for something new and different: a whole new take on how films should be made and assessed.

Eric Rohmer, who just died three weeks ago at age 89, had not yet picked up a movie camera, but had made a name for himself in film criticism when he came on board the staff of a brand new journal, dubbed Cahiers Du Cinema, in the early fifties. Soon after, several outspoken younger men joined the enterprise, including a gangly youth named Jean-Luc Godard, and twenty-year-old film enthusiast Francois Truffaut. (Truffaut, who died in 1984, would have turned 78 next week.)

Truffaut would then write a groundbreaking Cahiers article in 1953 enigmatically titled "A Certain Tendency Of The French Cinema," which laid out what became known as "the auteur theory." Simply put, Truffaut advocated for directors who sought to put their own creative stamp on films via distinctive narrative structures and cinematic techniques, over more workmanlike purveyors concerned only with committing an existing story to film as unobtrusively as possible. (The latter variety of director, for instance, was not uncommon during Hollywood's hey-day, when films had to be shot more quickly, in almost assembly-line fashion.)

Whether or not one agreed with "the auteur theory," it had the effect of getting people to talk about, and film-makers to experiment with, new cinematic approaches and conventions. It's no accident that Rohmer, Godard and Truffaut would help demonstrate this theory in action, when each of them made their own creative forays into feature films several years later.

Via their distinctive output, these men (along with other notable Cahiers alumni like Claude Chabrol), formed the nucleus of the French "Nouvelle Vague," or "New Wave," a film movement characterized by experimentation, innovation, and a new sense of artistic freedom and possibility.

The "New Wave" movement boldly defied convention and created an immediacy and spontaneity rarely captured on-screen up to that point. Watch Godard's Breathless or Truffaut's The 400 Blows from 1959, and you still feel it right there in front of you.

So with that background for context, I summed up my reply to her original question: the evolution of Cahiers Du Cinema writers to New Wave practitioners generated sufficient curiosity and excitement internationally that as more Americans considered foreign films, they were drawn first and foremost to the dynamic work coming out of France. Ultimately, French movies stood for something back then, and having seen them said something about you.

Looking at today's foreign film environment, I continued, there is nothing particularly wrong with the cinematic output of France; in fact, some of the work continues to be outstanding. But unlike the Sixties, in cinematic terms France no longer has that unspoken pre-eminence and pull among viewers that Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer helped give it way back when. For every great French title I see these days, I also find stunning entries from Germany and Poland, from Korea and Denmark. The marketplace for outstanding films feels more global than ever before.

This, of course, is a good thing for movie lovers, but for France it's a challenge. In an ever more crowded marketplace populated by increasingly distractible consumers, film industries in foreign countries need to think more strategically about the specific kinds of cinema they want to be known for, and having done so, focus on promoting the very best of these films and film-makers to the global audience. (More recent example: Denmark's stripped down, ultra-realist "Dogma" movement.)

Going back to the history, the best tribute I can give Monsieurs Rohmer, Truffaut and Godard is that they practiced what they preached. Watch their best films, and you'll detect how each in their way delivered on the auteur theory. Each director had a distinct voice and distinct spheres of interest. Whether or not you personally love their work, it is difficult to dismiss its impact, and the degree to which it helped extend the artistic boundaries of film.

To reinforce this strongly held position, here is a pungent mix of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer, with no additional seasoning required.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960) -- Former concert pianist Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) makes a living playing honky-tonk in a rundown bistro, far from the klieg lights of his onetime fame as Edouard Saroyan. But after he helps his brothers Richard (Jacques Aslanian) and Chico (Albert Remy) escape from gangsters they've double-crossed, Charlie finds himself in the limelight once again -- as a target. This quirky crime film by the great Truffaut mixes sight-gag comedy with suspense, resulting in a superbly nutty homage to the 1940s film noirs he so admired. French crooner Aznavour is terrific as the timid keyboardist on the outs with the mob. Filling the screen with inventive visuals and advancing an ad-hoc plotline with plenty of false digressions, Truffaut gives this tale the exhilarating feel of a spontaneous spoof. Based on the novel by David Goodis, Player is a brilliant tribute to the spirit of noir and the French New Wave.

Jules et Jim (1961) -- Austrian naturalist Jules (Oscar Werner) and French writer Jim (Henri Serre) are bosom buddies and constant companions in pre-WWI Paris. After visiting Greece to see an ancient bust whose mysterious smile they admire, the two men return to France and meet charming, free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), the realization of this ideal beauty. Over the years, Jules and Jim each succumb to Catherine's enchantments, but their ménage-a-trois cannot hold. A smash hit on release, Truffaut's lyrical story of friendship and unrequited love vividly captures the enigmatic nature of l'amour. Moreau is magnificent as the tempestuous object of love, a mercurial woman who won't be completely possessed by any man. Adapted from Henri-Pierre Roche's novel and shot by master lensman Raoul Coutard, Truffaut's gorgeous film captures the jubilance of youth with freeze frames, zoom-ins, and one iconic tracking shot of Moreau, dressed as a man, running across a footbridge with Jules and Jim. One of cinema's great achievements, Jules et Jim is a sweetly buoyant romantic saga with a tragic twist ending.

My Life To Live (1962) -- After a bust-up with her boyfriend (Andre Labarthe), pretty, petite Parisian shopgirl Nana (Anna Karina) leaves her job intending to become an actress, but drifts into a life of prostitution in order to cover her rent. Trouble soon brews with her pimp Raoul (Saddy Rebbot) over money matters, paving the way for tragedy. Presented in twelve discrete chapters, Jean-Luc Godard's exquisitely shot My Life to Live is an homage to Danish beauty Karina, his wife at the time, a clever treatise on film aesthetics, and an extended metaphor on capitalism-as-prostitution. Melding documentary techniques with highly stylized sequences, Godard injects the film with visual verve and a freshness that comes directly from Karina, whom he refused to give lines to until moments before each shot. The high point of this New Wave classic is an indelibly poignant shot of Karina weeping at a screening of Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, a brilliant stroke that gives Godard's My Life to Live an additional layer of emotion, just for film lovers.

Band Of Outsiders (1964) -- Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) are two handsome, freewheeling Gallic youths who enjoy acting like hardboiled characters in American film noirs. Franz meets beautiful Odile (Karina) one day in an English class, and she mentions that her aunt, with whom she lives, keeps a large stash of cash hidden in the house. Arthur and Franz concoct a plan to steal the money, and convince Odile to help them. The unabashedly quirky, exhilarating Outsiders is one of Godard's most accessible and enjoyable outings from the sixties. Part buddy film, part crime-gone-wrong drama, it tells the story of three disaffected friends whose ill-advised adventure in armed robbery is really a way for Godard to capture their devil-may-care youthfulness. Tracking the trio's romp through the Louvre (to beat the nine-minute record of an American tourist) or staging a cool, dazzling three-way dance (the Madison) next to a café jukebox, Godard is at his most invigorating here. In all, Outsiders remains atmospheric, free-spirited, and fun.

Stolen Kisses (1968) --After he's discharged from the military, 20-year-old Antoine Doinel (Truffaut's on-screen alter ego, Jean-Pierre Leaud) bounces from one odd job to another, bungling stints as a night watchman and TV repairman while clumsily pursuing Christine (Claude Jade), the girl of his dreams. Antoine gets a break when he's hired at a private detective agency, and then he falls for beautiful, sophisticated Fabienne Tabard (Delphine Seyrig) -- the wife of his client. Filmed during the 1968 riots in Paris, François Truffaut's endearing, soufflé-light romantic comedy continues the saga of Antoine Doinel, played by a grown-up Leaud, who first appeared in the director's semi-autobiographical classic The 400 Blows. As the boyishly inept Doinel, Leaud is effortlessly charming, while the radiant Seyrig also registers as a smoldering seductress married to a neurotic shoe salesman. Witty, touching, and studded with gorgeous views of the City of Lights, Stolen Kisses is one of Truffaut's sweeter confections.

My Night At Maud's (1969) -- While attending Mass, devout Catholic engineer Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant) falls in love with Francoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), whom he takes for his soulmate -- though they've never met. Later that day, he runs into old friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a Marxist professor who invites him to dine with his freethinking lover, Maud (Francoise Fabian). In the lively philosophical discussion that ensues, Jean-Louis finds his core beliefs under challenge. Nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Rohmer's Night remains one of his most cherished and well-known films. Shot in rich black and white by Nestor Almendros, this is a movie fueled by conversation and heady discussion of freedom of choice, the evidence for God's existence, and of course, the question of virtue. Jean-Louis is a man not only beset by doubts, but tempted by the intellectual and sexual allure of Fabian's Maud. Rohmer's intelligent handling of this basic scenario and the fine work of his ensemble cast make this a Night to remember.

Chloe In The Afternoon (1972) -- Frederic (Bernard Verley) is a happily married Parisian businessman who can't stop fantasizing about all the beautiful women he sees. Then, one day, the possibility of true escape waltzes into his life in the person of Chloe (Zouzou), a sexy former model -- and old school acquaintance -- who seems determined to seduce him. Reluctant to damage his life at home with an ill-advised tryst, he agrees to meet Chloe in the afternoons, hoping merely to discuss their lives. The final installment in Rohmer's "Six Moral Tales" series, Afternoon is a wonderfully acted, deeply thoughtful meditation on the idea of marital infidelity. Frederic and his alluring afternoon companion voice every possible perspective on this ubiquitous temptation, enlightening us as to whether it is a desirable choice or not, and keeping us in prolonged suspense over what will happen between the two of them. Rohmer's understated, emotionally intelligent handling of this platonic affair makes for a thoroughly compelling Afternoon.

Small Change (1976) -- This thoroughly winning feature constitutes Truffaut's ode and valentine to childhood, as the director interlaces the challenges and experiences of several characters, young and old, from various circumstances in one small French town. Exploring the interactions between parents, teachers and their children, we're reminded that kids always maintain their own special world- one made up of fear and uncertainty, but also magical innocence and unfettered joy. Though the film is mostly celebratory, a subplot concerning one neglected boy named Julien (Philippe Goldmann) adds a piercing note of sadness and poignancy. If ever a movie demonstrated one director's affinity and affection for the lives and characters of young people, Small Change is it. This subtle, intimate charmer disarms the viewer with an abundance of warmth, wit and humanity. And in creating this labor of love, Truffaut injects delightful Gallic flavoring via his talented, largely unknown ensemble cast. (Highlight: watching little Gregory go "Boum!"). A personal favorite, not to be missed.

Summer (1986) -- It is August in Paris, the time when everyone vacates the city and heads to an idyllic spot on the sea or in the mountains. For disillusioned secretary Delphine (Marie Riviere), though, whose girlfriend has just reneged on their plans to visit Greece, summertime has suddenly become very lonely, despite the well-meaning invitations of sympathetic friends. Bored and a bit peeved at her circumstances, she embarks on a restless search for good company. Rohmer's heartfelt, mostly improvised study of ennui and romantic disappointment avoids the pitfalls of most Hollywood single-female dramas: The pacing is unhurried, the dialogue spontaneous, and the revelations understated. Yet it is a compelling film for precisely these reasons. Delphine is not an easygoing character -- she complains, she vents her frustration, she rudely lectures her gracious hosts about her vegetarianism over dinner. But Riviere brings a realism and complexity to this unhappy woman that is rarely seen in the movies. Clearly, Rohmer's talent lay in his gift for empathy. Take a chance on Summer, and you'll be rewarded with a "green ray" of joy like the one that eventually lights up Delphine.

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