All the Boys Are Called Patrick, Jean-Luc Godard
Courtesy of Icarus Films

‘Early Shorts of the French New Wave’ Breaks Through Stolid Filmmaking

These 18 short films in Early Shorts of the French New Wave showcase a consistency of personal expression, handheld style, and filming in the street.

Early Shorts of the French New Wave
19 September 2023

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the French New Wave caught the world’s attention as an official Thing triggered largely by young critics and cineastes who wanted to bring their personal perspectives and aesthetics to what they saw as a stolid system. This New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague, wasn’t only a force in features but also produced plenty of short films, and Pierre Braunberger was a guiding spirit behind them.

Braunberger was a titan of French production going back to the silent era. His faith in these young filmmakers reminds us that the New Wave wasn’t so much a break with the past after all, although these films make a fetish of modern handheld technique in the streets. The majority are shot silent and post-dubbed, free of big-studio impedimenta. While New Wave theoreticians contrasted these works with a staid “cinema of quality” practiced by studios, these films, too, were rewarded with funding on a basis of “quality”, and some of these filmmakers would settle soon enough into the studio system.

These 18 examples, lovingly restored by Les Films de la Pléiade and Les Films du Jeudi, are gathered on two discs in Icarus Films’ new Blu-ray set,Early Shorts of the French New Wave. The Blu-ray presents them in chronological order, but we’ll do it differently.

Jeanne Barbillon

The biggest surprise to many viewers will be the work from a virtually unknown woman filmmaker. In The Botanical Avatar of Mademoiselle Flora (L’avatar botanique de Mlle Flora, 1965), writer-director Jeanne Barbillon leads a crew of heavyweight talents. Master photographer Raoul Coutard shoots in sharp, low-contrast black and white. The post-dubbed film is edited by Marguerite Renoir and scored by Michel Legrand and Jacques Loussier.

The sprightly playfulness and the female narrator have an affinity with films of Agnès Varda, but Barbillon provides her own take on the existential ennui that was going around. Our bored and enervated narrator, Flora (Bernadette Lafont), mostly hangs around with nothing to do. She feels taken for granted by her boyfriend (Louis Mésuret). She cheerfully calls him ugly; perhaps that’s his most interesting quality to her. His status as a soldier refers to the fact that young Frenchmen were required to do military service, and possibly this saps his attention and energy. Flora certainly feels she’s not getting enough of what she needs.

In fact, she’s bored by the modern world, which pushes Flora’s situation beyond the standard feminist critique. As per her name, Flora feels an affinity for plants, so her fate becomes a subversion of the Greek myth where Daphne flees the advances of Apollo and gets “saved” by turning into a tree. What begins as a cheeky snapshot of the contemporary dilemma becomes a mysterious fable.

The year 1965 was busy for Barbillon. She wrote and directed another short, L’affaire des poissons (“the affair of the fishes”), starring the same Louis Mésuret. She also acted in a short by Jacques Espagne, Le pauvre bougre et le bon génie, which roughly means “the poor bugger and the good genie”. We’d like to see those, but they’re not here.

Agnès Varda

Speaking of Agnès Varda, she accepted a 1958 commission to showcase medieval castles in the Loire Valley. Sounds tolerably dull, doesn’t it? Well, either the tourist board didn’t reckon with Varda’s playful creativity, or they counted on it, and the result is O Seasons! O Castles! (Ô saisons, ô châteaux).

Shot in vibrant Eastmancolor by Quinto Albicocco, the short is hip from the get-go. It opens with four gardeners in choreography to music by André Hodeir’s Jazz Group of Paris. Rather than waste footage on aristocratic residents or official spokesmen, Varda tends to show the workers who maintain the grounds. To underline that O Seasons! O Castles! is from a woman’s perspective, veteran actress Danièle Delorme serves as Varda’s narrator and avatar.

The film’s title is from a poem by Arthur Rimbaud. Antoine Bourseiller recites poetry by several men associated with the castles, such as Francois Villon. As a matter of record, 1958 happens to be the birth year of Rosalie Varda, daughter of Varda and Bourseiller. O Seasons! O Castles! is a model of turning a potentially dry assignment into something personal while achieving its official goal.

Jacques Doniol-Valcroze

While Varda worked for the tourist board, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze accepted a commission from the Social Security and Health Education bureaus. Working with writer François Truffaut and composer Georges Delerue, he fashioned The Overworked (Les surmenés, 1958), a warning not to drain your strength and become less productive workers.

Before the opening credits, the first five minutes of stock footage and historical lecture declaim that humans used to be in tune with the sun and the seasons for a harmonious balance of work and leisure. I’m not sure when this paradise occurred since most civilizations were taken up with conquest and slavery before people dropped dead early.

Be that as it may, we’re assured that modern automation renders us frazzled and fractious. “The pace of modern life is accelerating. Having thus broken with the mode of existence to which his atavism had prepared him, mankind is running out of steam, and overwork has become the disease of the century.”

Now that the audience is in a proper panic, we get the story of 20-year-old Catherine (Yane Barry), a restless country lass who has won a typing contest. She comes to live in Paris with her sister and brother-in-law, who’s about to collapse from lack of sleep because he’s obsessed with jogging after his night job.

Even before going to work as his typist, Catherine is already engaged to marry her boss Bernard (iconic star Jean-Pierre Cassel). I guess that’s a French thing. Then she meets fun-loving PR guy Jimmy (another major star, Jean-Claude Brialy) and goes dancing every night until her typage starts to slip. It turns out Cassel can cut a snazzy rug, too. Catherine learns some kind of lesson before an odd happy ending. Incidentally, The Overworked provides proof of interracial dancing in late ’50s Paris.

As an in-joke, the boss jumps at a phone call from “the president” Mr. Chabrol. Claude Chabrol was a burgeoning filmmaker and produced many of his friends’ efforts. Our next film is an example.

Jacques Rivette

One of the earliest films in the set is Jacques Rivette‘s Fool’s Mate (Le Coup du Berger, 1956), a wry comedy starring both Doniol-Valcroze (acting under the name Etienne Loinod) and Jean-Claude Brialy. As a bonus to make film buffs reach for the smelling salts, a party scene shows us Chabrol, Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard rubbing elbows.

Chabrol co-wrote and co-produced Fool’s Mate as a light variant on the dramas of middle-class adultery he’d make as a director. Virginie Vitry plays Claire, whose problem is concealing her lover’s gift of a fur coat from her clueless husband. 

Viewers might assume that Chabrol reworked the story from “Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat”, a very similar episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents written by Roald Dahl and directed by Hitchcock. After all, Chabrol loved Hitchcock. However, that assumption would be wrong. Dahl wrote his story in 1959 from a popular old anecdote, and Hitchcock dramatized it in 1960. Therefore, Rivette and Chabrol anticipated Hitchcock by four years.

François Reichenbach

As much as a decade older than most of the New Wave, François Reichenbach has created more than 70 documentaries for television and cinema, mostly profiling people and places. These include several music videos for Brigitte Bardot. He’s a candidate for a major retrospective, especially since he’s not nearly so well known as some other filmmakers in the set. By the way, he was Pierre Braunberger’s cousin.

Another film scored by Delerue, The Marines (Les Marines, 1957), was made with the permission of the U.S. Army at Parris Island, South Carolina. The opening card states: “This film was made to show the training methods of the modern army – an army devoted to defending the liberties that make showing a film like this possible.” However, this restoration has already informed us that we’re watching the director’s original, unreleased version because the army insisted on changes after Reichenbach’s narration responded to a tragic event. The Marines wasn’t quite shown with liberty.

In what was apparently a major news item of April 1957, six recruits drowned during a night march because the sergeant didn’t realize a river was ten feet deep. There’s no footage of it, but the narrator (Gerard Oury) discusses the incident in the context of analyzing the impulse to enlist as a sign of existential restlessness and the desire to define identity in a world of spoiled comfort. This can hardly be true for the African-American recruits in the recently integrated army, but youth’s desire to assert itself can’t be discounted. The narrator discusses the paradox of breaking down individual thought and resistance to create a new sense of unity.

In Memory of Rock (A la mémoire du rock, 1963) and The Little Cafe (Le Petit Café, 1963) are also verité documentaries, one about a rock concert and one about the little non-doings in a cafe. Both are mainly about editing. The concert film opens and closes ironically with classical music: Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and a Bocherini minuet. In between, we have footage of an erotic musical spectacle (the music isn’t heard clearly) until the police start chasing the youth away. Restless youth is one of the set’s consistent themes.

Maurice Pialat

Although a few years older than most of the New Wavers, Maurice Pialat didn’t make his feature debut until 1969’s L’enfance nue. The fact that Truffaut co-produced it seems to certify Pialat’s New Wave creds, although Pialat never claimed much association with them. His emergence in the ’70s and ’80s – waving a personal handheld naturalism of digressions and ellipses that evoke affinity with John Cassavetes – makes us think of him as post-New Wave. Even so, Pialat honed his craft on black and white shorts of the early ’60s; two are here.

Love Exists (L’amour existe, 1960), whose title never quite explains itself, begins with godlike images of dense human and motor traffic before providing us with 20 minutes of seemingly random footage of life in Parisian suburbs, sometimes with a traveling camera, sometimes with highly poetic visuals like a reflection in broken glass, now and then a few staged moments, all scored with graceful lilt by Georges Delerue.

Pialat builds a film essay in the manner of Chris Marker, and his subject is the fashionable one of deploring the dehumanizing suburbs and modern construction. Over images of geometrical high-rises, we hear, “The age of barracks for civilians has arrived. Concentration camp living in easy installments, urban planning as a maze of roads, shoddy materials that fall apart before construction even finishes.” If we ignore the point that residents of concentration camps would rather have been in such places, we get what he means, especially the assertion that the architects show nostalgia for Nazi brutalism.

Janine (1961) is a closer anticipation of Pialat’s features. To the extent that it’s a narrative with a contrived shape and ending, it reflects writer Claude Berri, who would make his own films and who stars here. To the extent that Janine is about two guys walking and talking and existing in space in that moment, it feels like Pialat.

We’ll learn that Janine (Evelyne Ker), who lives with her mother and daughter, divorced her abusive husband and now makes a living in prostitution. She’s unconcerned with lovelorn clients like the one played by Berri. By a coincidence we anticipate, the bitter friend (Hubert Deschamps) that he passes time with turns out to be Janine’s ex, and he’s still hung up on her.

Everyone’s making a living, but only Janine feels emotionally free. She uses men as clients but doesn’t need them for moral support, as they pathetically need her. Janine, therefore, connects to other analytical, non-judgmental prostitution films of the Nouvelle Vague, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie in the same year, or his Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967).

Guy Gilles

We’ve mentioned film essayist Chris Marker. Paris, a Winter’s Day (Paris, un jour d’hiver, 1962) opens with a quotation from him: “Nothing is more beautiful than Paris, apart from memories of Paris.” Here is another film constructed from random moments, sometimes shaped for black-and-white beauty, with personal narration and a few snippets of interviews with citizens — the final minute bursts into soft impressionist colors.

Unlike those poor fools trapped in Pialat’s suburbs in Love Exists, Parisians dwell in grace. “Seeing Paris all the time, we can forget how curious and beautiful it is to live here, strolling every day in a postcard.” However, one parallel with Pialat’s suburbs is that both films compare life with the cinema, which seems to comment on an increasing sense of artifice in our lives or perhaps disconnection from the real. The young recruits in Reichenbach’s The Marines had the same malaise ascribed to them.

Still, the Parisians of Gilles’ camera don’t belong to the world of Doniol-Valcroze’s The Overworked or the alienated night owls of Pialat and Berri’s Janine, or Barbillon’s ennui-saturated tree-hugging heroine. His gentle vision knows it’s already nostalgic in the moment. The editing reflects his impressionist editing of Reichenbach’s The Little Cafe.

Perhaps Gilles’ attitude is linked to Patrick Jouané, the pretty young man graced with several closeups, including as a big-hatted bohemian out of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. He’d appear in many of Gilles’ films. We must call him a muse, making Paris, a Winter’s Day a quietly queer lyric. Speaking of lyricism, the lovely score is by Gilles’ cousin and frequent collaborator, Jean-Pierre Stora.

According to IMDB, Paris, a Winter’s Day is among nine shorts made by Gilles from 1956 to 1966, with his feature debut as Love at Sea (L’amour a la mer, 1965). He made many features, shorts, and television programs before his death from AIDS in 1996. Clearly, he’s another low-profile subject for further exploration.

Jean Rouch

Jean Rouch, whom I discuss in PopMatters with “Ethnofiction and the Films of Jean Roch“, was a sensitive maker of documentaries and ethnographic fiction who collaborated with his subjects and encouraged many to pick up the camera for themselves.

The Goumbé of the Young Revelers (La goumbe des jeunes noceurs, 1965), shot in color, demonstrates his insistence on his subjects’ permission and participation. The subject is an Ivory Coast youth organization devoted to song and dance. First, the leader methodically names the members, who are then shown in their daily work, a cross-section of activity. We get that these are individuals with lives, and when they demonstrate their new dances, we know they do it for themselves after a day’s work, not to please outsiders. The credits list an African name as the sound recordist and name the musicians and dancers.

The Fifteen Year Old Widows (Les veuves de quinze ans, 1966) brings Rouch’s anthropological eye to Parisian high school girls. This naturalistic drama follows two upper-class friends with diverging views and sexual experiences as they navigate the world of boys. One girl purchases the magazines Elle and Spirou at a kiosk; one is high fashion for women, and the other is kids’ comics. Maurice Pialat plays a photographer who interviews a model. One scene devolves into still photos. I believe this is the most quietly radical and brilliant film in the set.

Jean-Luc Godard

These diversions, in which light or non-existent stories showcase stylistic tics, have been the most frequently available of the New Wave shorts. For example, Criterion has packaged them as bonus features on various discs.

A Story of Water (Une histoire d’eau, 1958) is commonly credited to both Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who seems to be mainly the writer. Jean-Claude Brialy and Caroline Dim meet during a flood and do nothing much in a film mostly about editing tricks, such as periodic cutaways to helicopter shots (from a newsreel?) scored by percussive rhythms.

The events are presented from the woman’s POV via her narration, which is very Godardian and littered with intellectual and pop-culture references to comic strips and writers. While praising digression as an organizing principle, she name-drops Louis Aragon, Petrarch, Raymond Chandler, Arthur Gordon Pym (an Edgar Allan Poe character), Matisse, Baudelaire, and Balzac. A neighbor called Franju is a nod to filmmaker Georges Franju.

Since the couple goes boating, the over-viewed may be reminded of Jacque Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (Celine et Julie vont en bateau, 1974), and perhaps even backward to Jean Vigo’s idyllic L’Atlantide (1932). Vigo, like Franju, was among the old-timers whom the New Wavers permitted themselves to like. A Story of Water is dedicated to Mack Sennett.

All the Boys Are Called Patrick (Tous les garcons s’appellent Patrick, 1957) is written by Eric Rohmer and forecasts his entire output of men and women meeting and talking. It also forecasts Godard’s tendency to have couples chatting in bedrooms, although the chatters are both women in this case. Anne Collette and Nicole Berger play roommates independently hit on by the same aggressive womanizer or drageur (the eternal Brialy).

Those bedroom scenes also forecast Godard’s penchant for cluttering the image with signifiers: a poster of James Dean, Picasso replicas, books, records, etc. A man reads Mickey Mouse at a cafe. Collette half-conceals her face with a paperback of Patrick Quentin’s The Fate of the Immodest Blonde, as that cover’s screaming blonde becomes a playful counterpart to her own impassivity.

Charlotte and her Boyfriend (Charlotte et son Jules, 1958) is a sequel in which Collette plays the same young woman; her old roomie is mentioned in passing. Jules (Jean-Paul Belmondo, with a voice dubbed by Godard) lectures and insults Charlotte (Anne Collette), who silently mocks him and giggles when he pushes her around.

Since Godard’s filmography could be defined by scenes of lovers talking in a room, we here discover a crucial debt to Jean Cocteau, to whom the film is dedicated. Charlotte and Her Boyfriend functions as a gender-reversal of Jean Cocteau’s famous one-act written for Edith Piaf, Le Bel indifférent (1940), in which her character berates a silent lover. In fact, Jacques Demy directed a short of Cocteau’s play in 1957, so Godard’s film is undoubtedly in dialogue with that as well. It would be nice if Demy’s film were here to compare, but Demy isn’t consistently called a New Wave director, unlike his wife, Agnès Varda. 

Additional Films Included in Early Shorts of the French New Wave

Two documentaries from Alain ResnaisAll the World’s Memory (1956) and The Song of Styrene (1957), are discussed in “Alain Resnais’ Short Films on Art, Plastic, and Institutional Hypnotism” here on PopMatters. Melvin Van Peebles 500 Francs (1961), also on PopMatters in “Good Thing Melvan Van Peebles Ignored All That Dumb-Ass Safe Advice”.

As if all this weren’t enough, Early Shorts of the French New Wave also includes bonus documentary in color from Gisèle Braunberger (Pierre’s widow), Directing Actors by Jean Renoir (1968). Renoir was among the few “old wave” French filmmakers the New Wave upstarts respected. This film is an intense master class in teaching Braunberger’s method to perform a  monologue.

As we’ve indicated, this collection doesn’t gather every short by everyone associated with its movement, but it’s a great start. There’d be plenty left for a Volume Two, so let’s hope this set moves enough units to encourage the making of Volume Two.