If any movement made cinema history into a reactionary narrative, it would be the French New Wave. A batch of cinephiles, most working as critics for Cahiers du Cinema (established 1951), wanted to revive their national cinema through formalism – attention to the techniques that make sights and sounds into cinema. Thus, they turned their typewriters from magazine deadlines to scriptwriting, and grabbed cameras to transform their theories into practice. Beyond an inspiring tale of buffs turning into artists, this movement now reads as a tribute to creativity and its revolutionary power.
In the new French-produced documentary Two in the Wave (now at New York’s Film Forum and soon in limited release) we have the story of the revolution’s two fathers: Truffaut and Godard, compatriots and occasional collaborators. Both debuted with profound creative statements, and some argue their best work: the former with The 400 Blows, and Truffaut with Breathless (a restored version soon coming to the Forum). French New Wave buffs – those who are, say, hot off reading Richard Brody’s new Godard biography, Everything is Cinema – will want new insight, a reactionary reading of these much discussed filmmakers. But director Emmanuel Laurent and writer Antoine de Baecque play a safe hand: their film delivers a tribute that also serves as an introduction. I’d argue this to be a wise choice, since the film can attract as many newbies as fans. For those of us already in the know, the film plays like a passionate return to a great conversation. The joys of the first experience strengthen the current encounter.
Laurent and de Baecque know this well and keep the film brisk, weaving in familiar images with new footage of the young filmmakers. Yet the power of Truffaut and Godard’s actions is the real fuel here. Having directed short films, Truffaut entered feature filmmaking with the coming-of-ager The 400 Blows, with a style that reflects the young adolescent Antoine Doinel’s giddy dissatisfaction. It was autobiographical, as Truffaut spent his youth in various homes and wandering the streets. For the role of Doinel, Truffaut found Jean-Pierre Léaud, who’d become a muse to both filmmakers. After the film’s Cannes screening, Truffaut and company lift a nervously happy Léaud to applause, the boy transforming from an inspiration to a creative force before our eyes. Léaud’s so prominent in Two that he could serve as the “third” in the film’s eponymous conceit.
For his debut, Godard – a more fortunate son of upper class Parisians – chose disaffected lovers. As lively as Michel and Patricia of Breathless are, they’re still manifestations that help Godard realize his style. He launched an idea about “a man who thinks about death, and a women who doesn’t.” The impulse has the brevity and instinct of what is behind Truffaut’s first film, featuring a boy like Holden and Huck but within his own distinct universe. Laurent notes from where these filmmakers borrowed: the jump cuts coming from Jean Rouch’s 1958 film, Moi un noir (reportedly an accident during filming) and, through a fleeting reference, the overall loose style coming from Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive (1953, now on DVD from Kino Video and not to be missed).
Still, the styles of early Truffaut and Godard reflect their urgent inspirations, and Laurent captures this in his fast yet attentive pace. The movement continued to fly on film references revised into new works. The fissure between Godard and Truffaut came as the result of the May 1968 protests, in which both filmmakers demanded the cancellation of Cannes. Godard soon announced that filmmaking’s ends should always be political, while Truffaut maintained his art-for-art’s-sake stance. The falling out was complete by Truffaut’s meta-filmmaking, apolitical narrative Day for Night (1973). Passionate ideas served filmmaking and helped to sever friendships.
The unfortunate turn provides a sour note near the documentary’s end. Throughout, Laurent depicts how the New Wave reflected a passion for creativity. Two in the Wave thus serves novices well (and especially young viewers) by showing them the joys of refreshing their own worlds of art by “making it new.” Meanwhile, it reminds us of why we love films and filmmaking in the first place.
Two in the Wave is released by Lorber Films.