5 French New Wave Films


In the last couple days I’ve been having a great time watching all new-to-me French New Wave movies. I started with “just” Jules and Jim (1962), and then couldn’t stop until I ran through two more by François Truffaut, then two by Claude Chabrol, which gives you an idea about how impressed and entertained I was.

The 400 Blows (1959) is about an unwanted, unlucky, smart and spirited teen Antoine Doinel (played by amazingly natural and playful Jean-Pierre Leaud). He’s bored in school, gets in trouble that escalates from harmless pranks to a sentence in juvenile detention, and from his unhappy parents he gets more bribes and threats than loving communication. It may sound bitter and miserable, but in Antoine and his escapades there are such authentic, lovingly depicted and often joyful adventures, and his intentions are often motivated by curiosity and precociousness (not to mention his love of cinema). Everything feels heartfelt and charming: the cramped apartment Antoine and his parents must navigate like they’re playing twister; the rapt faces of the children at the puppet show; the parade of students taken around town for gym class that gets smaller as the kids escape around every car and corner, and the way that bit is shot from up high; the comically fruitless but meaningful English lesson involving pronunciation of “beach,” and “where is the father” (the man raising Antoine isn’t his real dad); and that final freeze-frame of the boy, having escaped from juvie, facing new sights and an unknown future.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is a very fast, unpredictable and enjoyable thriller based on a David Goodis novel, about concert pianist Edouard (Charles Aznavour), who’s retreated from failures and tragedies to hide out as the nightclub performer “Charlie.” He’s right to feel some vague dread on top of all his regret and depression, because between his dimwitted crook brothers and a jealous bartender, Charlie will again get sucked into trouble and tragedy. Aznavour’s deadpan, world-weary style fits his character’s noir/Hitchcock mess as well as Truffaut’s inventive story-telling. I loved the device of having Charlie give himself pep talks via internal monologue and then chicken out to do the exact opposite–it’s the paralysis of depression and the self-fulfilling disappointment. It’s hilarious when he finally works up the courage to express his true feelings to a woman only to turn and find she’s vanished; it’s heartbreaking when, in flashback, we discover a similar hesitation had fatal consequences for his wife. The two gangsters hounding Charlie, who also kidnap the little brother he raises, provide comedy with their frank conversations about women and their pride in accessories of outlandish origin. When one thug swears on his mothers life, we see her drop dead. Those great touches of comedy balance comfortably with romantic yearning, existential doubts and the final tragedy that plays out during an epic shootout in the snow.

Jules and Jim (1962) is the intense and delightful look at how two best pals, the Austrian Jules (Oskar Werner) and the Frenchman Jim (Henri Serre) deal with their friendship being tested by time, separation, WWI and most strenuously by the woman they both love, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). Mercurial, demanding, inspirational, Catherine is the irresistible ideal for both the laid-back, devoted Jules and the sharp, independent Jim. She’s able to be all things to both men, and impossible to possess or please by either, because she lives voraciously and desires a freedom that’s bound to disappoint all three. Again the wry commentary and characters’ antics and throwaway statements bring plenty of comedy (I never expected I’d laugh out loud so much), their tangled affairs are magical, and the romantic impasse inevitable but still shocking. (Having just watched Cameron Diaz hysterically drive Tom Cruise off a bridge in Vanilla Sky, it doesn’t hold a candle to the eerily calm way a similar event happens in Jules and Jim.)

Two Chabrol films starring Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain, both examining the contrasting lifestyles and values of the men they play:

Le Beau Serge (1958). Francois (Brialy) returns to his rural hometown to recuperate from illness, and is dismayed to find his old friend Serge (Blain) drastically changed, now a bitter alcoholic and loser with no love for his pregnant wife. Though most assume Francois to be mocking them with his big-city ideas and urge him to leave, he senses Serge’s terror, regret and despair, takes to heart the Priest’s complaints about his dwindling flock, and resolves at great risk to his health to stay and be the saviour and guiding example for this incestuous, dead-end village. Engagingly told, with a vivid picture of a town strangled by its grudges and open secrets. I enjoyed the ironies of Francois returning to rest and restore himself in the place that’s nowhere near as peaceful and warm as he remembers, and the way the sickly one ends up helping cure their moral disease with the fresh air of loyalty and possibility.


Les Cousins (1959) flips that setting and situation, so that law student Charles (Blain) stays in the city with his vastly different, well-to-do partying cousin Paul (Brialy). By exam time, Charles has his bright innocence and idealism ruined by Paul’s shallow and mean-spirited circle of so-called sophisticates, and the pain of being the unrequited side in a love triangle. Chabrol creates an ominous tension with Paul’s ridiculously wild parties, and the living situation makes it impossible for Charles to focus on studies or deny his feelings for Florence (Juliette Mayniel). The bleak ending is nicely foreshadowed and the lead up brilliantly captures the sting when the undeserving so easily, almost unintentionally, get rewards others take more seriously and work harder for. Guy Decomble, the nasty teacher from The 400 Blows, here plays a wise bookshop owner who encourages Charles to keep at his studies and more importantly, hold on to his decency and lofty ideals. Enjoyed him in Bob le Flambeur too. Glad I watched these two Chabrol movies together, not just to appreciate the thematic reversals, but also to be introduced to what Brialy and Blain (who reminded me a lot of Monty Clift, maybe a little James Dean) were capable of in such different roles.


29 thoughts on “5 French New Wave Films”

  1. I’ve seen 400 Blows and Jules and Jim. Both so lovely. I really love how much care Truffaut put into his characters. I really need to re-watch and watch these other titles you’ve mentioned. Great post!

    1. Definitely, the characters are so real, relatable, and complex. Hope you enjoy the rest as much as I did, this was a real bunch of discoveries for me. Thanks so much

  2. Glad you enjoyed these so much! I really enjoyed hearing your thoughts as a first-time viewer. I actually watched Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins back to back too, and I agree that they complement each other perfectly. Blain is also in Truffaut’s short Les Mistons, and Brialy turns up in a lot of French New Wave movies, including a brief cameo in The 400 Blows. (He’s the guy who chases Antoine away when he tries to help the woman — Jeanne Moreau, also in a brief cameo — find her dog.)

    1. aha! So glad you mentioned that, I’ll have to look at that scene again since I didn’t know Brialy yet. Also liked the nod to Rivette in Le Beau Serge, and in 400 Blows they go to see Paris Belongs to Us… cool references. I am going to reread your Doinel posts as I work through the rest of those movies! I didn’t expect that I would laugh so much with the Truffauts, there are some hilarious moments mixed in with the tragic. I had a really good time discovering these and look forward to exploring more. Thanks!

      1. Thank you! Brialy is easy to miss in that scene, since it’s shot from a distance; I don’t think I realized it was him until at least my third viewing, probably after I saw it on IMDb. I liked the Rivette bit in Le Beau Serge too. The funny thing about the Paris Belongs to Us reference in The 400 Blows is that Rivette’s film was already in production but wasn’t released until 1961. (It reminds me of Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman, where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character asks Jeanne Moreau — in another cameo — how the yet-to-be-released Jules and Jim is going. Marie Dubois also shows up for a nod to Shoot the Piano Player.) I’m glad you enjoyed the humor in Truffaut’s movies. He said that his films always turned out sadder that he intended, but there are usually humorous moments even in the more serious ones. Hope you enjoy whatever you watch next!

        1. Those are fun, filmmakers’ inside jokes and nods to each others’ works in progress must’ve been fun at the time and really connect the “scene.” I need to see more French films, haven’t seen any of the Godard yet! The fun and sad moments really balance out well, are authentic just like life’s ups and downs, and add irony or optimism, without which these might have been downbeat. I can see why so may people count these among their favourite movies.

  3. Fun reviews. If you get a chance, sometime check out Zero de Conduit (1933), Jean Vigo’s anarchic sendup of repressive boys’ schools. While it lacks the deep characterization of Truffault, I’m sure he had it in mind when he made “The 400 Blows.”

  4. I’ve been real hesitant on getting into French New Wave. Of this list, I’ve only seen The 400 Blows which is a masterpiece. I guess I need to go on and take the plunge.

    1. I can understand that, I used to think they’d be too “arty” too dense or just dull but I had a great time with them. Your mileage may vary, but safe to say, if you like crime/pulp/noir then definitely try Shoot the Piano Player, I bet you’d enjoy.

  5. I should like to recommend: ‘Breathless’,’The Soft Skin’, ‘Le Petit Soldat, ‘My Life To Live’, ‘I Am Curious Yellow’, ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ and – even although it may not technically fall into the category of La Nouvelle Vague – ‘Just Before Nightfall’.

    1. Thank you, I really appreciate suggestions on where to go next. I saw Breathless a long time ago and might watch again as I work through these. Marienbad is a priority since I’ve heard so much about it, have seen none of the others.

  6. These are excellent films, it is funny how many of the French New Wave films sound as if they could be serious minded issue films but are actually filled with some very light, fun moments Truffaut was particularly good at that. Claude Chabrol made some wonderful films throughout his long career including the two you mention and I would recommend ‘Le Boucher’ and ‘La Femme Infidele’ in particular.
    If you want to dig deeper into the New Wave Agnes Varda’s ‘Cleo From 5 to 7’ and Jacques Demy’s ‘Lola’ are great films. I am a big fan of many Eric Rohmer films as well. The New Wave films can be rather addictive I find, love your enthusiasm for the 5 you have written about.

    1. Exactly, just writing out these blurbs it struck me how depressing they might sound, and even I was surprised at how funny some of these were. The scene in J&J where Moreau jumps into the Seine, is followed by voiceover saying “it was so shocking that the next day Jim drew a picture of it and he doesn’t often draw” or the rotten Framboise song in Shoot the Piano Player, stuff like that totally appealed, and endeared these to me. Thanks for the suggestions, they’re going in my notebook, and I’m sure it was you who also urged me to see the Melville movies which I also enjoyed. I love learning more and finding new films to get into.

  7. When I wrote about 400 BLOWS, I tried to look at it from the parents’ perspective a little bit more, even though these particular ones probably weren’t cut out for the job. Antoine’s childhood does sound worse than it actually comes across as, though.

    1. That’s interesting, they weren’t bad, just flawed, and everyone is pretty sympathetically depicted so it is easy to relate. I loved the bit where they all went to the movies, and the whole picture has the feel of memory, like when you look back and remember the highs and lows.

  8. I need to see the Chabrols (have seen some of his others), but saw the others first (mostly or all) thanks to the Janus Film Collection folks in Boston, before Criterion was founded, striking a deal with New Hampshire Public Television to offer a PBS THEATER weekly package…I was twelve or so when I first saw, for example, THE 400 BLOWS (and FORBIDDEN GAMES and ORPHEUS…and…and…) thus, Sorry you were scared away for so long! MARIENBAD is a different sort of film, in many ways, than these (that I’ve seen)!

    1. Marienbad is one I’m very eager to see, always hear interesting things about it! In a way I’m glad to finally get into these now when I’m older and can appreciate everything going on in them. I’m a broken record on this subject but movies are so rewarding–always new avenues to explore and it’s fun (not intimidating or boring) to do so.

  9. I finally had a good chance to read this tonight. I too enjoyed reading your first time viewing responses–these are movies I’ve known most of my moviegoing life and have seen many times in the case of the Truffauts (Le Beau Serge was elusive earlier on but now it has been awhile since I saw it).

    To strike what I hope is a thoughtful note for a moment, it does seem like most of the time when you venture into cinematic territory new to you, you find it rewarding. With that in mind I’d encourage you to see a lot of New Wave films–because I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy them.

    I’ll recommend a few things. First, any of the earlier films (through the 60s) of Alain Resnais, one of the greatest of all directors (he died about a year ago–and was good until the end but you want to start with those). Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad are probably the place to start but for me, Muriel and the haunting sci-fi drama, Je t’aime, Je t’aime (underrated for years but it’s come into its own now) are even better.

    And Kristina, I really believe Eric Rohmer is made for someone of your tastes. The movies that made him, Six Moral Tales, are all available. The first two are shorter (but the first one sets the tone very well) and La Collectioneuse has always been kind of difficult for me but My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee (this arguably has the best ever performance of Jean-Claude Brialy) and Chloe in the Afternoon are all great and I’m certain you’d love these.

    Finally, you really want to get to Godard for sure. A transformative figure if there ever was one. Start with his first film Breathless and maybe Band of Outsiders. And A Woman is a Woman is very entertaining too. Another one that is personally close to me (and it has Jean-Pierre Leaud a little older). Finally, I’ll leave it on this note. Le Mepris/Contempt is a magisterial one–cinema is marked by it. If you do see this and write on I promise to comment along those lines.

    It is a joy to see someone discovering more great cinema and appreciating the things about it that you do.

    1. I will absolutely be exploring further so I’m noting all these suggestions, thank you and feel free to leave more anytime. It really was a joy to discover these, they were refreshing, exciting and fun, along with sad and tragic, in such a wonderful balance that it seems like a magic trick they work so well. I guess I had the misconception they’d be dense or dull and was surprised at the accessible and fantastic film-making and storytelling. I saw Breathless years ago so that might be a good rewatch, and recently saw Hiroshima, liked that very much.
      I’m on a mission to see more foreign and arthouse classics, a real big blind spot for me! A couple or three Ozu are on my schedule soon, by the way. Thanks again!

      1. I kind of remembered you’d seen Hiroshima, Mon Amour and had a good response to it but I wasn’t sure so left that one in anyway.

        Ozu is a whole world to discover and it’s quite wonderful. Don’t forget the other greatest Japanese classicists down the line, meaning Mizoguchi and Naruse.

        1. Hiroshima is a deep one I would happily watch again. Just enjoyed my first 2 Ozu and started on the third, liking them very much! Obviously I just love exploring and eating up movies, and almost don’t want to stop to write anything until I’ve had time to read up and think. But I will, because first impressions are worth noting too.

  10. “Another one that is personally close to me (and it has Jean-Pierre Leaud a little older)…”

    Sorry I missed that. The title of it is Masculine-Feminine. I’d love to see you write on that movie, Kristina. It’s pretty special.

  11. Interesting list. I keep wanting to do a review of the 400 blows, but never seem to get around to doing it. I still have to watch the rest you’ve mentioned.

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