Check It Out: Film history with a French twist

As the 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival comes to a close, perhaps you’ve been inspired to learn a little more about film and cinema history. There’s no better place to start than the Newport Beach Public Library and its collection of French New Wave films.

The French New Wave was a highly influential cinema movement in France beginning in the late 1950s and continuing through the mid- to late 1960s. At its core was a rejection of the classical nature of French films at the time and what their makers felt was a lack of personal expression.

Some of its more important directors wrote for the film journal Cahiers du Cinema, where they criticized contemporary French films for the aforementioned reasons and where they critically reassessed and championed directors who they felt were able to express their own style. This came from their subscription to the auteur theory, which is the belief that the great directors are the real creators (or authors) of their films. When it came time for these writers to make their own films, they backed up their criticisms by making films that were innovative — in narrative and technique — and fresh.

Perhaps the most famous of these directors was Francois Truffaut, whose first feature-length film, “The 400 Blows,” is not only considered one of the greatest films of the movement but also one of the best films ever made. It is a partly autobiographical film, concerning a boy with a troubled home life and uncaring teachers and his dip into petty crime. It ends with one of the most iconic shots in film history, leaving the viewer to ponder the future of this young man. Most of Truffaut’s films are worth seeing, but also of note during this period are his “Shoot the Piano Player” and “Jules and Jim.”

While Truffaut is more famous, Jean-Luc Godard is the director most associated with the New Wave, and he made the film most associated with the movement, “Breathless.” The film is a nod toward Godard’s love of film noir and B movies in that it concerns a hoodlum running from the law, but Godard doesn’t make that the focal point of the film, only coming back to it briefly throughout. Instead, he concentrates more on the crook and his interactions with his American girlfriend. Like Truffaut’s, all of Godard’s films during this period are worth seeing, especially “Band of Outsiders” and “Vivre Sa Vie.”

Agnes Varda wasn’t part of the Cahiers gang, but her film “Cleo from 5 to 7" is another great from that period. It concerns a self-obsessed pop singer wandering around Paris, meeting friends and strangers, while waiting for her cancer test results and fearing the worst. Varda was the only female director in the New Wave, and some consider her “La Pointe Courte” to be the first film of the movement.

Alain Resnais created a critically divisive film with his “Last Year at Marienbad,” which concerns a man trying to convince a woman that they had met the year before. This beautifully shot film’s slow pace, temporal shifts and lack of any major plot has created countless arguments about its merit. The film’s questioning of memory and reality make it feel like a puzzle with the answer open to interpretation. Also check out his “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which shares some common themes.

For a bit of surreal wackiness, be sure to watch “Zazie dans le Mètro” by Louis Malle. A precocious young girl visits her uncle in Paris and has an adventurous time exploring the city. Zany hijinks, slapstick gags and clever editing make “Zazie” a comedy gem of the era.

All of the directors discussed here continued making films long after the New Wave period, and they are definitely worth checking out as well.

CHECK IT OUT is written by the staff of the Newport Beach Public Library. All titles may be reserved from home or office computers by accessing the catalog at For more information on the Central Library or any of the branches, contact the Newport Beach Public Library at (949) 717-3800, option 2.