Academic journal article CineAction

Pre '59 New Wave: Polyphony and Paradigms

Academic journal article CineAction

Pre '59 New Wave: Polyphony and Paradigms

Article excerpt

Critical commentary of the New Wave tends to take the transition from criticism to directing for granted. There are exceptional cases where the criticism is read as a possible foreshadowing to the ensuing directorial careers. But even here, as shall be shown, the elaborated critique is ultimately limited and cursory. Most commentary prefers to make (or imply) a division of the two. The films of the New Wave are studied with only occasional allusion to the criticism which preceded it. Hardly ever is the allowed hindsight considered, which allows to understand how the criticism is crucially linked to the filmmaking. As we shall see, such connections easily transcend the more obvious one, often perceived: that the New Wave preached the "politique des auteurs," only later to practise it.

The purpose of this paper is to consider the connections between the criticism of the five Cahiers critics (1), who would later form what has been termed the New Wave (Chabrol, Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Truffaut), and their subsequent films, with particular emphasis on Godard and Truffaut. This latter choice is not arbitrary. For I also, conclusively, wish to elucidate the varied quality of directorial work, from one director to the other. Whereas Truffaut and Godard possess particularly inventive and ceaselessly polyphonic approaches to the film medium, Rohmer's and Chabrol's filmic styles exemplify the refinement of a particular tone, which is more contained. In terms of aesthetic sensibility and innovation, the former are arguably on a higher plane than the latter (Rivette is a case all to his own, which shall be dealt with later). This point shall be returned to. It shall therefore be a suggested contention of this paper that there are variances of quality between Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and Rohmer, part of which can be explained when analysing their 50s criticism.

Certain qualifications are necessary to be made for Chabrol. It may indeed seem misleading to speak of a "filmic style" and "particular tone" with regards to Chabrol: although there does exits a discernible consistency in style and tone, be has, during the course of some fifty films, diversified the subject matter of his work to a remarkable degree. One can say that in the past ten years, he has shown a consistent interest in the subject of women, afflicted by various forms of social entrapment (Une affaire de femmes, `88; Madame Bovary, `91; Betty, `92; L'enfer, `94; La ceremonie, `95). Though this does not acknowledge the remarkable dramatic differences of those films, nor the presence, within those years, of films centred on male subjects (the Henry Miller adaptation Jours tranquilles a Clichy, the documentary L'oeil de Vichy; even L'enfer features a central male character, though the female character is significant to its central drama and social critique). As well, the above qualification is applicable to Violette Noziere, released ten years prior to Une affaire de femmes: the topic of the socially circumscribed female is not a recently found interest for Chabrol.

Nonetheless, one can argue that there exists a general critical consensus, at least as exemplified for example in the contemporary pages of Les cahiers du cinema, concerning what is considered to be Chabrol's best work: La femme infidele, Le boucher, Violette Noziere, Une affaire de femmes, Betty, La ceremonie figure prominently on such a list. On the basis of this, one can speak of a "Chabrolian aesthetic:" an interest in socially contextual tragic narratives, with an often morbid and ironic tone, and an underlying moral attitude that is often ambivalent and at times ambiguous. Formally, such films embrace a classical mise en scene: rigorously formal camera setups, in which the succeeding shots obey a Hitchcockian characteristic to endow the film with an austere, monologic but frequently elusive meaning.

Before continuing, I turn to the case of Jacques Rivette. David Thomson has contended that "Rivette is the most important filmmaker of the past thirty-five years. …

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