The resurgence in French filmmaking known as the New Wave, now being recollected in an anniversary series at the Biograph, "20 Years of the French New Wave," could have begun in 1956, 1957, 1958 or 1959, depending on the milestone one elects to start from. Roger Vadim and Brigitte Bardot created an international sensation in 1956 with "And God Created Woman," and while it would be stretching things to group this film with the first features that emerged a bit later, its success evidently encouraged producers, struggling to reverse a box-office slump, to take chances on other young directors.
A year later 23-year-old Louis Malle directed his first dramatic feature, "Ascent to the Scaffold," an award-winning suspense thriller featuring an actress named Jeanne Moreau and photographed a cameraman named Henri Decae. They were immedaitely reunited for "The Lovers," the most celebrated French erotic hit since "And God Created Woman."
Important as Malle, Moreau and Decae would become, they had too much professional experience and recognition to qualify as New Wave insidres. Malle, for example, had been trained formally at the national film school, IDHEC, and had served as Jacques-Yves Cousteau's co-director on "The Silent World."
The New Wave inner circle was composed of a group of aspiring filmmakers who prepared for their eventual careers by writing film criticism, principally for the magazine Cahiers du Cinema. Claude Chabrol was the first member of the group to complete a feature, financed by money from his first wife. The picture, "Le Beau Serge," 1958, was not a great success, but it is generally regarded as the first New Wave feature proper, and it led to "The Cousins," which was a critical and financial success the following year.
The great breakthrough came in 1959 when "The 400 Blows," a first feature by Francois Truffaut, a 27-year-old Chaiers critic, won the best direction award at the Cannes Film Festival and "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," a first feature by 37-year-old Alain Resnais, an IDHEC graduate who had been directing shorts since 1950, won the International Critics' Prize. This double triumph opened the, if only a few years. Two dozen French directors made first features in 1959, and 43 more bowed in in 1960, Jean-Luc Godrad and Philippe De Broca most conspicuously them.
New Wave restrospectives are bound to proliferate at revival houses and film festivals for the next few years. By taking the lead the management of the Biograph may help to make some of the subsequent tributes more comprehensive. It appears that several notable titles are no longer in theatrical circulation in the United States: Chabrol's "The Cousins" and "A Double Tour" and De Broca's "The Love Game" and "The Lover."
Chabrol is represented by four films, including the neglected but powerful early feature "Les Bonnes Femmes," a study of the sexual vulnerability of four bored, dreamy shopgirls.
It's a shame that "A Double Tour," called "Leda" in England and "Web of Passion" here, has slipped into limbo, since it was the most stylish and entertaining of the Hitchcock imitations made by any of the Cahiers crowd, which idolized Hitchcock above all other directors. If it's ever restored, the distributor should take care to restore Decae's luscious Eastmancolor photography, which accounted for much of the film's glamor.
De Broca is represented by the ubiquitous "King of Hearts" and the inexplicably neglected boudoir farce "The Five-Day Lover," an erotic comedy as lyrical and enchanting as Berman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." DeBroca directed three features in 1960, of which "Five-Day lover" was the third and best. Its disappearance is difficult to fathom, like the scarcity of revivals for American comedies of the caliber of "The Lady Eve" and "Roxie Hart."
The Biograph has generaously overlooked the deadly works of one Cahiers pioneer, Jacques Rivette, although the inclusion of Jean Eustache's 219-minute "The Mother and the Whore," sort of the interminable terminal station of the New Wave, may make one wonder why. The only other celebrated missing figure appears to be the ethnographer and documentarian Jean Rouch. The most individualistic documentary filmmaker associated with the New Wave, Chris Marker, will be represented by a program of three shorts including the rarely revived "Letter from Siberia," circa 1957, and "Cuba Sit," circa 1961.
The rest of the Cahiers group - Truffaut, Godart, Chabrol and Eric Rohmer - are adequately covered, along with such important outsiders as Resnais, Marker, Malle, Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda. In addition, the series incorporated several classics that influenced New Wave directors: Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct," Jean Renoir's "The Crime of Monsieur Lange," and "A Day in the Country," Carl Theodore Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc," Max OPhuls' "La Ronde," and Jean Cocteau's "Beaty and the Beast."
The series begins this weekend with an excellent bill of "Zero for Conduct," "The 400 Blows," and Truffaut's begiuling dramatic short "Les Mistons." In addition to establishing the reputation of Traffaut, who has remained the most table and likeable film artist to emerge from the New Wave, "The 400 Blows" seems to have given impetus to a number of productive careers. Decae was the director of photography and Jean Rabier his operator. De Broca was the first assistant director, Bernard Evien, the set designer, would soon collaborate with Jacques Demy on a radically different kind of decor for the romantic "Lola," "Bay of Angels" and "Umbrellas of Cherbourg."
Even with such omissions as "A Double Tour," "The Wild Child," "La Chinoise" and "Weekend," the series indicates what a varied and formidable body of work the movement inspired or aided: "The 400 Blows," "Shoot the Piano Player," "Jules and Jim," "Zatie" (the prototype for so many comedies of the '60s, including Richard Lester's Beatle films and the Clive Donner-Woody ALlen "What's New, Pussycat?"). "Breathless," "Band of Outsiders," "Masculine Feminine,""Two or Three Things I Know About Her," "Cleo from 5 to 7," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "The Five-Day Lover," "Les Bonnes Femmes."
If Truffaut was the most durable talent, the most original and exciting was Jean-Luc Godard, destined to become a self-inflicted casualty of his ideological obsessions as the Vietnam war escalated and the '60s ran down. Before he theorized himself into an esthetic dead end, no one was more astute about his own work and the nature of the business. These excerpts from a 1962 interview, collected in the book "Godard on Godard," which also preserves such mementoes as a log-rolling rave for "The 400 Blows," may induce a peculiar wave of nostalgia among moviegoers whose tastes and expectations were influences by the New Wave:
"As a critic, I thought of myself as a filmmaker. Today I still think of myself as a critic, and in a sense I am, more than ever before. Instead of writing criticism, I make a film, but the critical dimension is subsumed. I think of myself as an essayist, producing essays in novel form or novels in essay form; only instead of writing, I film them . . . There is a clear continuity between all forms of expression. It's all one. The important thing is to approach it from the side which suits you best.
" . . . The public is neither stupid nor intelligent. No one knows what it is. Sometimes it surprises, usually it disappooints. One can't count on it. In one way this is a good thing . . . The cinema audience has divided into two: those who go at the weekend, and those who seek films out. WHen producers talk about audiences, I tell them, 'I know what the're like because I go to all sorts of cinemas and I pay for my seat; you never go anywhere, you don't know what's happening.'
"Like 'The 400 Blows,' 'Breathless' was a misunderstanding: Through a concatenation of circumstances, it became much too successful. Today, 'Breathless' would do less well. Success depends on thousands of things, and you can't know everything.
" . . . Generally speaking reportage is interesting only when placed in a fictional context, but fiction is interesting only if it is validated by a documentary context. The New Wave, in fact, may be defined in part by this new relationship between fiction and reality, as well as through nostaligic regret for a cinema which no longer exists. When we were at last able to make films, we could no longer make the kind of films which had made us want to make films. The dream of the New Wave - which will never come about - is to make Spartacus' in Hollywood on a 10 million budget . . . "
The Biograph series runs through Dec. 11 with bills changing each Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A complete program, with extensive background notes and ocmments by Joel E. Siegel, is available at the threatre.