“Photography is truth”, argues Jean Luc Godard in his Le Petit Soldat (1963), “…and the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second”. The search for truth is central to the work of theorists associated with the creation of auteur cinema in the post-war France. Jean Luc Godard and other film critics standing behind the creation of La Nouvelle Vague, The French New Wave movement, tried to redefine the role of the film director as the author. Through a very detailed research of American films which flooded French cinemas in 1950’s and 60’s the new generation of French directors started to rediscover possibilities of cinematic experience as a form of art. Their search for truth was a search for their own identity in the cinematic universe; it was a search for alternatives to the Hollywood industrialised standards of creating films and defining what we nowadays recognise as “European cinema”.
Knowing how Godard and his affiliates came to be the founders of the French New Wave is to understand the essence of the movement and its primary objectives. Almost all of the authors whom we now know as the most prominent French directors of the post-war era started their careers by actively writing on film. Possibly the most important and influential figure of the times was Andre Bazin who according to David Sterritt “had invested much of his critical capital in the idea that realism is the essence of cinema”. Bazin who at the time was the editor of Cahiers du Cinema gathered a group of passionate people who shared his view and saw cinema as much more than an ephemeral form of entertainment. As Godard stated in one of his essays, films by Dreyer or Gance were never considered equal to the writings of Kleist or Goethe and such disregard to cinema needed to be changed. The people associated with the Cahiers scene have investigated for many years how the cinema industry worked. They ignited a very interesting rhetoric among the cinema-oriented theorists and begun to turn their ideas into practical use with an extremely successfully effect. The originators of the French New Wave first learned to understand how cinema operates in its economical and aesthetical methodology and then defined the possible solutions to the issues they encountered. While writing for Cahiers they gradually expanded their diagnosis of what was wrong with the cinema at the time and provided their auteur theory as the definite solution. The French New Wave was supposed to serve as a cure to the misconduct of the cinematic spectrum by Hollywood producers. Following Bazin’s desire to reflect on reality as closely as possible Godard began directing his intense dramas that were considerably cheap to make and allowed him to take enormous risks and divert the popular trends in filmmaking.
The creation of the auteur in the cinematic universe meant a drastic change in the way films were regarded by the audience. After the war ended the French cinema experienced a torrent of numerous films brought from America which were previously unknown to the French viewers as they have been proscribed during the German occupation of France in the Second World War. The Cahiers group argued “that just because American directors had little or no say over any of the production process bar the staging of the shots, this did not mean that they could not attain auteur status”. The conclusion of the debate over the role of an author in the production process defined the film director as the only person who should take full credit for the outcome of a film – either its success or failure. This complimented a theory created by another thinker Alexandre Astruc who claimed that the director is a writer and the camera is his pen.
Godard very rigorously started proving his theories by making films independently and completely according to his own vision. His first major success called A bout de Souffle (1960) broke every possible convention that was dominating at the time and turned it into an insightful, personal drama about a young couple struggling through the merits of their relationship. The film can be seen as a romantic performance, a gangster piece, film noir or a feminist film. The director mixes together different conventions and ideas and while doing so stays very focused and devoted to the characters he portrays. The Bazin’s realism “as the essence of cinema” is vigorously preserved in Godard’s film and becomes one of the main reasons for the movie’s success. “A Bout refrained from the decade’s tendency to diagnose the generational malaise”, argues Weiner in her Enfent Terribles. The film more than anything else gives us an ironically distant portrait of the young generation obsessed with automobiles but abstains from a tragic tone represented in other contemporary films taking upon such subjects. The film is a reflection of Godard’s own fascination with youth and the times of cultural change of the 1950’s. The dramatic outline of the story could not be possible if the film was produced within the American studio system and that difference is underlined multiple times throughout the movie.
Given the huge commercial success of the film Godard was convinced that the cinema of the auteur had its demand and the audience needed a personal point of view on social and cultural issues troubling the nation. Another great example of Godard’s art house cinema is Vivre sa vie (1962) which was yet another huge success in portraying an intense story while utilising some ingenious and innovative aesthetical choices. The movie contains of 12 “tableaux” – a series of unconnected instalments, each presented with a short introduction. The film is very original in its choice of character - a Persian woman who unwillingly descents into prostitution. Not only is the main character a racial minority but her social and economical status is not considered to be a popular choice for a subject either. The film surprises the viewers by its unusual execution of the storyline. The 12 episodes explore different aspects and situations of the main character’s life and are directed in an almost theatrical Brechtian style. The director portrays his muse quite thoroughly but tears her story apart into small pieces to allow the audience separate themselves from the woman and analyse the story presented in the film. Vivre sa vie is very socially involved as it presents the woman’s economical disadvantages with detailed precision and examines the consequences of such difficulties.
The mise-en-scene is also very unusual – there are characters whose faces we never see, voice-over like sequences with people talking from behind the shot and takes of the backs of people’s heads. Godard takes full advantage of the liberty independent funding gives him. He experiments with every aspect of cinematography and sound to emphasise on his character’s emotional state of being. Also, by the time Vivre sa vie was released Godard’s name became quite famous and the unexpected way of filming was something the audience desired – it became a trademark carried with Godard’s name. His very distinctive style adopted many theories in projecting his vision of auteurism: post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism and deconstruction. The inter-textuality of Vivre sa vie is yet another step in defining the role of the auteur in film and how his function affects the ideological context of the piece.
Godard’s films happen to be made in a very interesting period when political instability takes its peak and revolutionary tensions shake the nation. The political apprehension of the mid-1960’s emerged as America went to war with Vietnam, Russia begun its cold war with the West and Chinese Cultural Revolution dictated the rhythm in the Far East. There was an increasing tension between the public sector and the French government resulting with student riots in May of 1968. The cinema of the 60’s reflects on these social tendencies and helps give the audience a personal insight into these problems.
Godard’s La Chinoise (1967) is one of his most politically charged pieces, concerned with national identity and personal freedom of expression. The film utilises very raw stylistic features sketching an ambiguous portrait of the generation of young people who are faced with the issues of 1960’s politics. It is hard to say where Godard’s opinion on revolutionary movements stands as he gives no definitive answer to a matter of plotting a terrorist attack as a possible solution. What the director certainly puts emphasis on is the freedom to discuss and express someone’s opinion. The moment the class is over the dream of revolution ends – in a way Godard wants to tell us that his film probably won’t change anything, but it is important just by raising awareness of the issues it touches upon.
In terms of directing political dramas the creative independence is an enormously important part in delivering the director’s thought truthfully and believably. In La Chinoise Godard once more refuses to submit himself to any clear type of genre or cinematic convention. He expresses his political uncertainties both through his text and trough the aesthetical semiotics of his piece. The rough way in which he presents his film tells us more about the difficult times he had to live in than anything else. Similar freedom of expression would not be possible in the American studio system as the mainstream cinema rarely takes high risks of presenting political dramas on the screen because of their unpopularity among masses. Godard proved that there is a way of making an extremely political piece of filmmaking without having to compromise its entertainment values.
The search for truth twenty four times per second seems like an enormous challenge, but Godard demonstrates that it can certainly be done in a big style. Each of his films is giving us truth about the author himself as well as about his country. The cinema of auteur gives us an incredible insight into the nation’s state of mind, their political and social dilemmas, general outlook on reality. Godard’s reach portfolio of film subjects varies from small relationship dramas to great masterpieces combining elements of different genres and styles into an amalgamation of multi-layered inter-textual pieces. The director’s refusal to fall into a single genre helped define the post-war European cinema as a cinema of personal experiences and create an alternative to the simplistic storytelling of Hollywood productions. Thanks to the Cahiers group the cinema was elevated from the meaningless entertainment to an intellectually challenging form of art.