This dissertation is a labour of love, the result of a month of daily visits at the Cinémathèque Française, oh how I loved this place…April 2013, Paris.


The search for truth. The influence of cinéma vérité on the film style adopted by the French New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s


Before the New Wave in French cinema little attention was paid to the truth or evolution of society and films did not seek to take account of or record the changes in behaviour that were taking place after the Occupation. Most of the films still portrayed a retrograde bourgeois society with its outdated values of sacrifice and frustration and most of the established French filmmakers from the “Tradition of Quality” such as Henri Georges Clouzot, Yves Allégret, Julien Duvivier were out of touch with the values of the young generation. Although the predominant film style was deemed as “elegant” and technically very accomplished, this was an appearance without substance as the films all resembled each other and were deprived of all creative energy. Thus it is not difficult to understand why these films did not appeal to the new generation of filmmakers who were looking for inspiration elsewhere.

The directors the New Wave filmmakers most admired were those who, in their opinion, simply showed the world. Thus their films were greatly influenced by a wide range of works and directors, from the Italian neorealism and in particular the films of Rossellini, to Welles, Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Melville and Vadim’s Et Dieu créa la femme. In terms of film style and language however, the filmic revolution incarnated by the New Wave  would not have been complete without the technical freedom brought about by Rouch and his cinéma vérité. This paper will look at the influence of cinéma vérité on the French New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s, with a particular focus on Rouch and Morin’s Chronique dun été (1960), Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) and Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).

Cultural Context

Due to the deprivation experienced during the post-war period, the New Wave generation was animated by a desire for pleasure that was very rarely acknowledged in the cinema of the “Tradition of Quality”,  and if acknowledged at all it was only in order to condemn, judge and punish the characters animated by such desires in films such as Manon, Manèges, Voici le temps des assassins. The plot of such films was usually based on conventional, outdated intrigues, the acting was uninspired, manneristic, consisting of a tired repertoire of poses, gestures and facial expressions, the dialogues were completely out of sync with the reality of the time, full of clichés and the representation of reality was stereotyped. As the young critics at Cahiers du Cinema remarked: “Une fille et un garçon de 1958 ne se parle pas comme dans un film de Duvivier.” (Douchet 1998: 190). Fed up with the uninspiring melodramas that dominated the French screen immediately after the war, the “young Turks” writing for Cahiers du cinéma set out to make more exciting films that portrayed a more truthful vision of French life in the 1950s and 1960s. In his review of Et Dieu créa la femme, Truffaut states: “Plutôt que d’imiter d’autres films, Vadim a voulu oublier le c pour “copier la vie”(1956:3). Or in the words of Claude Chabrol, the first of the Cahiers critics to direct a feature, “[au cinéma], il n’y a pas de thèmes majeurs ou mineurs, il n’y a que de vérité”(1959:41).

This notion of truth was anchored in a particular conception of realism whose greatest proponent at the time was the renowned French film critic André Bazin to whom the Cahiers group was strongly indebted. For Bazin film was the perfect art due to its ability to engage with reality, to represent the very movement of social life. Bazin’s aesthetic is rooted in phenomenology: reality was the world as it presented itself to consciousness and the filmmaker’s role was to shape this perceived reality in such a way as to make its truth visible (Bazin 1985). As such Bazin praises films that maintain an illusion of non-intervention, that spark the “épiphanie du réel tangible” (Bonizter 2001: 89), allowing spectators to experience events in the same way as they would in life. In “The Myth of total cinema”(1946), Bazin envisions film as being the result of a deep need for mimesis, film as a total and complete representation of reality. But Bazin’s view of reality is complex and this is best shown in his defence of Citizen Kane. Praising the “profondeur de champ” as a method that does not impose an already articulated version of reality on the viewer, allowing him to articulate that reality for himself, Bazin defends the idea that the task of the artist is to render reality in all its contradictions rather than to mould it to an externally determined model. And this desire to embrace the real and reveal its contradictions will guide Rouch and the New Wave filmmakers in all the projects they initiated throughout the 60s, a period in which, in tune with the anti-colonial struggles dividing the French society, the notion of truth held a definite aesthetic value.

Thus, as is always the case in the history of art and aesthetics, a change in subject matter and perspective upon the world triggers a change in form and style. Interestingly, the need for a renewal of film style and language in French cinema was predicted more than a decade earlier by the critic and filmmaker Alexandre  Astruc in “The Birth of a new avant-garde:La Caméra-Stylo” (1948), the essay that would became a true manifesto for the Nouvelle Vague ten years before it came into being.

Astruc and the theorisation of a new film language


Astruc’s essay had a tremendous influence on the new generation of filmmakers. In it Astruc calls for a cinema that reworks the very language of narrative with lively, experimental new techniques, “a cinema of authors, of creators who “wrote” in images“ (Astruc in Neupert 2002:47). By this he meant that cinema should be seen as an individual expression of artistic work, in opposition to “old Hollywood” or the highly-stylised French cinema (the “Tradition of Quality”), and gave Bresson and Melville as examples. Melville’s raw, low-budget style, mixing documentary technique with almost parodic artifice offered the New Wave a wealth of stylish filmic devices to adopt. His film Bob le Flambeur features beautiful documentary-style images of Paris, something that New Wave filmmakers later emulated.

More precisely, Astruc’s concept of “caméra-stylo” refers to the directness with which the tools of the cinema (image, sound, editing) should be used in order to create a new cinematic language that would take cinema beyond the mere presentation of a dramatic scene, enabling the filmmakers to directly translate their thoughts to the screen, in the same manner that writers use words on paper to create literary works. Astruc realised however that his call for a new language and the spontaneity, subtlety and flexibility it implied would not be possible so long as the filmmaker was still burdened with the tyranny of heavy camera equipment and elaborate technical set-ups. In order for his vision to become feasible, a technological revolution towards smaller, more discrete tools of film production needed to take place.

Although Astruc addressed his manifesto to post-war filmmakers and film critics engaged in fiction filmmaking, the first who turned Astruc’s theory into a reality for the screen was the documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch (ten Brink 2007: 240) in his African ethno-fiction films throughout the 1950s and 1960s and, more crucially, in his path-breaking documentary Chronique d’un été (1960), the work that pioneered the use of cinema vérité techniques that had a tremendous influence on the New Wave group as this essay will show.

Rouch and cinéma vérité

Up until 1960, it was difficult to capture live sound and image simultaneously outside controlled studio environments and consequently films were generally overdubbed during post-production. With Chronique d’un été Rouch proved that this process was unnecessary. Assisted by important technological innovations, he used the camera in true “caméra-stylo” fashion for the very first time in France, marking a radical departure in terms of style from everything that was done before. Using a lightweight sound recorder that was synched to an equally lightweight and completely soundproofed 16mm reflex camera rather than the glossier 35mm camera, and hand holding it (or shoulder mounting) as opposed to having it fixed on a tripod, Rouch recorded on-the-spot synched dialogue that introduced the complexities of spontaneous speech generated by regular people in ordinary situations to a commercial cinema that had been characterised by mannered, literary dialogues delivered by trained actors in studios. This imparted an incredible sense of reality, spontaneity and veracity to the filmed material and the camera with which it was shot, known as the Eclair-Nagra, became the system of choice for documentary filmmakers for the next twenty years, until its replacement by video and nowadays the digicam

If cinéma vérité marks a radical change in documentary film-making in France, this is not to say however that in the 1950s the documentary form was stagnant or uncreative. In keeping with the assertion that cinema is a tool of subjective expression, Chris Marker, Alain Renais and Roberto Rossellini developed a personal, poetic style of documentary. Their early films were shot as silent documentaries and given “literary” commentaries at the editing stage. Marker’s Lettres de Sibérie (1958) was very innovative, being called by Bazin “an essay in the form of a cinematographic report on Siberian reality past and present” (Bazin quoted in ten Brink 2007:240). As innovative was Renais’s Nuit et brouillard (1955).

jean_rouchRouch’s work was different though, possibly because Rouch was an ethnographer and had a scientific approach predicated on getting as close to reality/truth as possible. To this effect, as early as Moi,un noir (1958), Rouch introduced reflexivity in his film by inviting his subjects to participate in the making of the film, more specifically to improvise an accompanying narration based on a rough cut of the filmed images. This method made critics remark that for Rouch cinema constituted a vital ethnographic tool that allowed him to engage in a “true dialogue” with his subjects in order to achieve the “irreplaceable quality of real contact between those who film and those who are filmed” (Rouch in Predal 1996:43) Thus it is clear that the outmost concern of the filmmaker lies in capturing not only the daily life of the protagonists but also their inner world, their conceptual universe, their “thought systems”, to borrow an ethnographic term.Through more and more complex and intertwined layers of documentary and fiction, the people in the film get to act out their deepest fantasies, producing something that is at once totally unreal and the most concrete expression of who they are. On the subject of the complex layers of theatre and reality, “truth” and “fiction” in the film, Fieschi argues that Rouch is the first to have filmed “no longer behaviour or dream or subjective discourse but the indissoluble mix which binds one to the other (1973:260).  On this subject, Rouch himself was of the opinion that fiction is the only way to penetrate reality, there being almost no boundary between documentary and fiction films. This idea was to have a tremendous influence on the French New Wave filmmakers, as this essay will show further.

Rouch’s original camera and editing technique in Moi,un noir led to striking innovations. Deleuze argues that with Rouch, the role of the camera changed, and talks about “a camera-consciousness, which would no longer be defined by the movements it is able to follow or make but by the mental connections it is able to enter into” (1989:22). Thus, using the camera as his writing tool, the filmmaker engages himself in the active creation of the world in front of him, becoming the creator and producer of truth, because “truth is not to be achieved, formed or reproduced; it has to be created” (Deleuze 1989;146).

Chronique dun été

Rouch’s search for the truth would culminate in Chronique dun été (1960), the film that he and Morin described as “une expérience de cinéma vérité” – “an experiment in cinema truth”. Inspired from Vertov’s “Kino-Pravda” experiments in the 1920s to “catch life unawares”, the term cinéma vérité hints at the open, straightforward connection the filmmakers tried to established with the people they filmed and with the audience. As such, the film attempts to craft a “true” representation of everyday life in Paris, thus responding directly to Bazin’s dream of  transparency, of a “Total Cinema”.

chronicle of a summer sceneChronique‘s importance to French cinema is incontestable:it is the first French feature to debate the Algerian war openly, it poses pertinent questions about decolonisation and it contains an early instance of Holocaust testimony. Also, far as film theory is concerned, Chronique had far-reaching consequences, its attempts at transparency setting off virulent debates at the time about the relationship between cinema, reality and truth (Dilorio 2007:25).

The film is organised around a group of young, generally leftist protagonists largely composed of the filmmakers’ friends and acquaintances. With the help of Canadian cameraman Michel Brault and Raoul Coutard (who later became Godard’s cinematographer) and starting with a simple question such as “Comment vis-tu?”, which was also the working title for the project, Rouch and Morin encouraged their interlocutors to talk  about themselves to the camera in a way not possible before (Feld 2003: 230).The new technology allowed the interlocutors to speak directly to the directors, to each other and to the viewer, achieving the “true dialogue” that Rouch always desired.

Rouch and Morin filmed their subjects for more than six months, accumulating over twenty-four hours of raw material which was edited into a ninety-minute feature. Much of it is composed of lengthy conversations in which the protagonists admit satisfaction or, more frequently,  confess profound discontent with the present, the past and the future. These sequences are organised around close-ups which indicate the film’s intimate focus and privileged access to their private lives, a technique later adopted by Godard in Vivre sa vie. In terms of film style, Chronique inaugurated a documentary aesthetic built around improvisation, handheld equipment and synchronised sound that was very close to Astruc’s notion: “At last we had a technique […]. It was the “caméra-stylo” that you […] write with whenever you want, […] and wherever you want“. (Rouch 2003:167).

But Rouch’s improvised technique was unconventional for that time, the proof being that the distinguished technician initially hired for the project, Albert Viguier, not only quit almost immediately after joining but also asked the producer Anatole Dauman to remove his name from it in order to preserve his reputation. Rouch replaced him with the Canadian cameraman Michel Brault, whose 1958 film Les Raquetteurs made a strong impact on Rouch due to its unusually fluid camerawork, certain sequences having been filmed while walking. Thus Chronique contains two categories of scenes: the initial fixed-camera sequences Viguier shot with a tripod-mounted Arriflex camera, and the later mobile ones filmed by Brault with the Coutant-Eclair. As such, the film constitutes a precious document of French cinema in a state of change.

Although similar “experiments” were being done in Canada and USA under the name of direct cinema, for the most part Rouch’s fellow filmmakers posed very few questions about the truthfulness of their films which they almost regarded as a given (Nowell-Smith 2008: 86). Rouch however was more critical of what he produced, both in theory and in practice. Committed to the authenticity of the encounters before the camera, Rouch worked to surprise or disorient the film’s participants (e.g. the scene in which he questions Landry about the camp number tattooed on Marceline’s arm) and at the end he interrogates the “truth” of the film by having his subjects watch the interviews and express their reactions to it. Questions such as “What do you think about your own performance? Were you truthful or acting for the camera?” tease out very different responses, the participants contradict each other and sometimes someone who is acting appears the most “real” and vice-versa.

Adding layer after layer of self-reflexivity to the film, these scenes suggest the presence of multiple “truths” and point to the inseparability of “appearance” and “reality”(Greene 2007:41). Thus the central issue of the film is neither truth nor falsehood but the permeable border between life and art. Aware that it is camera techniques and editing choices that created the sense of “truth” that emerged from cinema vérité, Rouch and Morin give their own opinions of the film which can be summed up with Rouch’s paradoxical statement, that “the only truth is that of cinema itself”, the same conclusion that Vertov arrived to thirty years earlier.

Although Chronique can be situated within a tradition of non-fiction filmmaking that starts with Flaherty’s Nanook of the North(1922) and Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera(1929), its closest domestic counterparts were the early features of the New Wave, with their similar focus on the “Parisian tribe” and the same desire to draw technically and metaphysically ever closer to the city. By popularising the term cinéma vérité, Rouch and Morin helped strengthen the somewhat ambiguous New Wave rhetoric about truth. Great admirer of Rouch, Godard remarks that Rouch searches for truth not because “elle (la vérité) est scandaleuse mais parce qu’elle est amusante, tragique, gracieuse, loufoque, peu importe. L’important c’est que la vérité est là” (Arts 1959). Godard firmly believed that all great films are characterised by the mix of documentary and fiction and would later incorporate themes and techniques found in Moi, un noir into his own feature films.

The New Wave

The term Nouvelle Vague was used for the first time by Francoise Giroud, a jounalist writing for L’Express, in an article that dealt with the need for change in French society but it was Pierre Billard in February 1958 that applied it to the cinema to refer to the young filmmakers animated by the same desire for change.

Nouvelle Vague GangAccording to Douchet however, the birth of the New Wave can be traced to 1956, the year of Le Coup du Berger, directed by Jacques Rivette. The film was shot in Claude Chabrol’s apartment, who also contributed to the script and co-produced it with Pierre Braunberger (1999:164).The latter, who in the past worked with Jean Renoir, Bunuel, René Clair, had a tremendous role to play in the history of the New Wave, supporting the new generation of cineastes and producing the very first films of Rouch, Renais, Truffaut, Godard, Pialat, Reichenbach, Doniol-Valcroze, Rivette, Lelouch.

Before cinema vérité burst onto the scene in 1960, the New Wave filmmakers were still struggling with equipment that prevented them from realising their vision fully, from showing “things as they are”. The cameras were too heavy, the microphones too delicate and although they proposed to lead the cinema into the streets of Paris, they were working in a similar way to the “Tradition of Quality” they disliked: films had to be planned out shot-by-shot, scenes needed to be properly lit and rehearsed, sets needed to be prepared, movements blocked. Filmmaking was still based on the reconstruction of a proper scenario rather than as a spontaneous response to developing events in the real world (Dilorio 2007:31).

Chronique was thus a true challenge to this paradigm and the New Wave filmmakers, totally enthral to the sense of freedom it afforded, quickly and enthusiastically embraced the new technology and techniques associated with cinema vérité: the use of a hand-held camera and synchronous sound, shooting on location in natural light, the presence of direct unscripted interviewers and non-professional actors.  Nowadays the hand-held camera look is a distinctive marker of New Wave images: “Aesthetically, a new and unexpected style exploded across the screen and added a sense of buoyancy to otherwise serious issues […]. An intentional technique of making the camera shake to convey veracity was introduced.” (Neupert 2002:40). As a consequence, film shooting became casual and fun, witnessing a return to the early cinematic practice of a two-person crew: the cinematographer and camera-operator. This unfortunately attracted the criticism of “amateur films”, a very unfair label since the New Wave filmmakers deliberated tried to assume the role of amateur in order to regain a certain spontaneity and sense of innocence: “Far from (being) a sign of incompetence, their attitude required increased skill – the ability to adapt one’s technique to the subject” (Douchet 1999:122).

In terms of production values, both the cinema vérité and the New Wave filmmakers were keen to use their friends, friends of friends and passers-by in their films, which lent an impression of spontaneity, freshness and truthfulness to their films. They took to the street and shot their films there, offering us a genuine record of Parisian life in the 1960s when France was on the brink of an economic boom that made everyone enthral to the new rave of consumerism. Thus the subject matter often involved money (Vivre sa vie – Godard, 1962; La carrière  de Suzanne– Rohmer,1963; Bande à part – Godard, 1964) and the sentiment of “being free and living life fully” (Douchet 1999:123) which led to the depiction of a generation that was eager to share in the pleasures offered by the newly-found economic growth (Les Cousins – Chabrol, 1959).

Thus for a period of time, the aesthetic of cinema vérité and that of the New Wave became almost identical: “the history of cinéma vérité was grafted upon that of la nouvelle vague that, for a time, it accompanied and, most of all, nourished” (Prédal 1991:184). They both responded to the needs of their historical moment, Cinéma 55 speaking at the time about “the need to find…a revolutionary rethinking of storytelling and directing ideas…”, and asking for “more ambitious films…projecting the real face of France to the world” (Neupert 2002:37).

Godard and his obsession with “the real”

jean-luc-godardGodard, like most of the other New Wave filmmakers, was very loyal to the Bazinian aesthetic of the “real”. To this purpose, most of the time he worked with an extremely small crew which enabled him to capture the fleeting moment and the effect of “reality” that he was after.  Although Breathless was shot silent, the sound and dialogue being added later in a mixing studio, Godard’s first film already contains “l’esprit du direct”, of cinema vérité. But Godard’s seemingly effortless improvised aesthetic was the result of a great deal of work. The camera used on the project, a 35mm Cameflex, was noisy, relatively heavy and easily visible. Thus, to shoot Belmondo and Jean Seberg on the Champs Elisees, Godard had to hide his cinematographer Raul Coutard inside a mail-delivery pushcart and physically drag him up and down the street. From a technical point of view, Coutard’s role could not be overemphasised. Coutard was a war reporter, which meant that he knew how to seize images in a split second and was familiar with the fastest and the most light-sensitive of stocks.

Even when tackling a musical comedy, the most unrealistic of genres (Une femme est une femme), Godard chose to shoot in the most realistic of settings: in the apartment of an old couple in Strasbourg Saint Denis, one of the less fashionable quarters of Paris. In the end, due to the couple changing their minds at the last moment, Godard was forced to shoot in a studio (MacCabe 2003:133). As studio shooting could not be further from a Bazinian aesthetic, Godard decided to reproduce the conditions of location shooting in the studio. Thus the apartment he initially wished to shoot in was meticulously reconstructed, with immovable walls and ceilings and a real door. As to the sound, Godard recorded the real sound of the crew working and added it to the soundtrack, which again shows his great determination to capture reality in his films.

Godard’s insistence on the “real” comes from the fact that he wanted to be a filmmaker of the moment, like Rossellini and Bergman whom he so much admired. Like them, he is interested in capturing the fleeting moment, the very thing that makes cinema so beautiful and the reason for which it was invented. The aesthetic decision to capture life as it happens explains the “look” of many of Godard’s films. And this is the quality he most  admired in Chronique and cinema vérité.

Cinema vérité allowed Godard to fully realise his aesthetic vision. Rouch’s 16mm sync-sound camera was smaller, lighter and more inconspicuous than Coutard’s Cameflex, allowing its operator to follow random movement with near-total freedom. To the Rouchian observation of Paris, Godard added a hatred of perfection in shooting: he would knock the camera sideways if the shot had the appearance of a perfectly organised shot (MacCabe 2003: 165), perfection being obviously at the opposite side of the spectrum of a realist aesthetic.

But does cinéma vérité and “life captured” equal “truth”?

As already mentioned, Chronique is based on the Vertovian belief that cinema is truth, an idea that is introduced at the beginning of the film, but only to be subversively questioned at the end. Thus Chronique very seriously questions all attempts to claim truth status for representations of seen and heard phenomenal reality, including those of direct cinema to have automatic access to reality.

This dilemma points to the existence of two philosophical traditions that are divided on the subject of truth: in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, the prevailing conception of truth is equated with “fact” or “the facts of the case” whereas in continental Europe this commonsense attitude is complicated by the view that truth is not just there to be grasped (in other words “seen”, “heard”, “recorded by a camera”), truth can only be elicited by a process of critique (Nowell-Smith 2008:89). From this point of view, any work of art includes its own critique, its own interpretation and biased understanding of reality. This makes the concepts of naturalism and realism, that are based on the idea that art can express the objective truth, seem inadequate or even a fallacy.

Rouch’s scepticism that the tag cinema vérité could be applied to direct cinema was shared by other filmmakers. For instance, Antonioni believed that the truth can be better served by intelligent fiction than by recording factual reality. Varda was also very much against cinema vérité as this essay will show. However a distinction should be made between the truth of something that already happened and the truth caught on the wing, as it expresses itself in the present, this latter notion being what the New Wave filmmakers wanted to capture above all.

The coming under scrutiny of realism came about as a consequence of  political and cultural changes in French culture during the 1960s and Rouch, Godard, Varda were obviously aware of these changes: existentialism was giving way to marxism, there were new theories of culture (Levi-Strauss) and of modern capitalist society (Barthes), there was an attempted fusion of structuralism and Marxism (Althusser) and of linguistics and filmology (Metz).

As early as 1960, Cahiers devoted a special issue to Brecht’s theatre and the challenges it provided to the phenomenological realism inherited from Bazin. In an article called L’Oeil du Maitre, J. Losey sumps up the particular qualities of Brecht’s theatre that had a direct impact on the cinema:”Le dépouillement de la réalité et sa reconstruction précise à travers un choix de symboles-réalité;l’importance de la précision du geste, de la texture et de la ligne dans les objects; l’économie de mouvement, acteurs et caméras, ne rien faire bouger sans but; la mise au point de l’oeil par l’emploi exact des objectifs et des mouvements de caméra; la fluidité de la composition; la juxtaposition des contrastes et la contradiction, grâce au montage et par le texte, c’est la façon la plus simple d’obtenir le tant célébré “effet d’éloignement”; L’importance du mot, du son, de la musique exacts; L’exaltation de la réalité pour l’ennoblir; L’extension de la vision de l’oeil individuel.” (1960 no. 114:31).

With his insistence that the raw material of any fiction must be drawn from the historical record and that the transformations of that material must form part of the subject matter of the work of art, Brecht sketched out one of the most powerful of modernist aesthetics. In essence modernism consists of “laying bare of the device”, of foregrounding its own processes or practices, and this is a technique that Godard consciously used in Vivre sa vie (1962), a film that is in appearance very realistic but through the technique of “distancing” questions its own truthfulness and in particular the realist tradition in art and cinema.

Vivre sa vie – between a realist and modernist aesthetic

vivre-sa-vieChance and accident have an important role in Godard’s work. As early as 1956, Godard stated a basic idea that informs all his films: “Montage will give back to the pris sur le vif all its ephemeral grace; it will metamorphose chance into fate.” (Roud:86) Vivre sa vie is an excellent example of this aesthetic vision.

Inspired from Rossellini’s Fioretti de Saint Francois d’Assise, the film is an extremely rich and complex text. Godard called it a “realistic” film and many critics praised it for its very accurate and detailed portrayal of a young woman’s decent into prostitution. While it is true that the film draws heavily from realist and naturalist traditions to the extent that some critics even called it a “documentary” of Nana’s image (Danks 2000), at the same time it blurs the boundaries between life and art, between the real world and the world of performance in the same way that Rouch did in Moi, un noir and Chronique.

Godard casts his then wife Anna Karina in the role of Nana, and it can be argued that the film is equally a portrait of the actress as the artist sees her, the “Oval Portrait” sequence being very revealing in this respect.  Also Godard repeatedly insisted that the film is not about a prostitute, it is a film about a woman, prostitution being used as a metaphor for social situations and social exchanges in general (Bergala 2006:102). Thus, Nana, the name itself an allusion to Zola’s naturalist masterpiece and to Renoir’s film of the same title, tries to “live her life” in a truthful way by staying true to her desires and ideals, hence the decision to break away from her bourgeois life with Paul and follow her aspirations as an actress. She will fail however to do so and this is not a coincidence.

In any work of art, form and content inform each other and work together to express the same idea and in a perfectly realised work of art, form is content. This principle is perfectly illustrated in Vivre sa vie: if on the level of form Godard turns the realist technique of “painting the world” (that is allegedly capable of capturing the “truth”) into a self-reflexive tool in order to question the reality and truthfulness of its own construction, on the narrative level, Nana’s failure to live up to her expectations and her ultimate death reflects the very same idea, the impossibility of attaining “truthfulness”, in life as in art.

When we look at the film in more detail, other nuances that point in the same direction become apparent. The film starts with a quasi-still sequence that focuses on Karina’s face filmed in extreme close-ups from different angles. This gives the viewer an incredible sense of intimacy and it also brings to mind Bruno’s words from Le Petit Soldat: “To photograph a face is to photograph the soul behind it. Photography is truth and cinema is truth twenty four times a second”. In keeping with this credo, the opening scene in the café, in which Nana and Paul are portrayed from behind and their conversation is drowned out by the surrounding noise, was recorded live, “cinema vérité” style, in a real café, without any lights. However, despite its “authenticity”, the scene denies us the very intimacy it promises as it immediately delegates the viewer to the position of an eavesdropper, an uninvited presence, and posits “reality” as an opaque surface, impossible to decipher. Thus the sense of intimacy is subverted and gradually replaced by a feeling of detachment, both of the main character and of the spectator. Through his editing choices and camera techniques, Godard went against the conventions of mainstream cinema whose tendency is to facilitate the viewer’s access to the fictional world and offer the comforting allusion that we, the audience, know what is going on.

Therefore, if the role of art is to convey the “truth”, the truth is to be found not only in what is being conveyed but also in how it is being conveyed. In contrast to Hollywood film and the “Tradition of Quality” in French cinema that offers the audience an already interpreted and digested version of the story (mainly through continuity editing techniques), Godard chose to structure his film in twelve Brechtian tableaux that, although logical in their cause and effect succession, leave gaps in our understanding of the story, gaps that the audience is implicitly requested to fill. The audience thus participates in the production of meaning, in the same way that “reality” requires a similar participatory response. Realism and the search for “truth” takes on new meanings in Godard’s work: the artist’s role is no longer to render an “accurate” portrayal of the world, this assumption being actually exposed as a fallacy since the artist himself is subjective and unavoidably inserts his own biased critique of reality into his work. Instead, the artist’s role is to deliver “fragments of reality” to the viewer in as faithful and truthful a manner as possible. Among these fragments of reality are the documentary sequence filmed “à la sauvette” on the streets of Paris showing details of daily life and the incredibly accurate sequence about prostitution that is based on certain paragraphs of the book Où en est la prostitution? written by Marcel Sacotte. This creative mix of fiction and documentary, in the manner of Rouch and Rossellini, highlights Godard’s preoccupation with “truth” and his faithfulness to the “real”, even if, philosophically speaking, this quest is doomed to failure. In Godard’s own words: “I construct with the pieces that reality gives me. I like to think that I am a workman.” (Roud:82)

vivresavie-theconversationTo this effect, another sequence is extremely revealing: the scene between Nana and the philosopher Brice Parain, invited to play himself and who therefore appears in the fiction as himself. Not only does he tell Nana a funny story that explains some of the traps that lie in the path of the unwary in their search for truth, but his whole scene is a mixture of scripted monologue and Parain’s own philosophical ideas and concepts. Bergala sums up this method as one of multiple variations between “le cru (la personne elle-même et son discours) et le cuit (les éléments préparés, voire écrits à l’avance)” (2006:115).

Thus, in Vivre sa vie, far from reproducing reality, Godard uses the apparent objectivity of the camera as a way to create cinematic “doubles”. One way of achieving this is by having an actor read out loud Poe’s short story The Oval Portrait (1842), in which the narrator recounts how his ability to capture life in art led to the death of his wife. The voice actually belongs to Godard himself who addresses Anna Karina directly: “Shall I go on?”. Poe’s text is a very clever parody and subversion of realist aesthetics and Godard uses it in order to deliberately blur the lines between reality and fiction, internal and external, personal and impersonal. Similarly to the conclusion reached by the participants at the end of Chronique, Godard demonstrates that within the frame of the camera it is impossible not to act, which calls into question the authenticity of any subject. To be “natural” or “realistic” is rendered impossible by the “gaze of art” (Mathews 2006:51).

The soundtrack in Vivre sa vie is also treated in a very unrealistic manner. However, the film was entirely shot with direct sound, both dialogue and noises, being the first “commercial” film made outside a studio without any kind of sound montage (Roud 1970:74). In the first sequence in the café, only one microphone was used to capture both the dialogue and the atmospheric noises of the place, and the juke-box scene, unlike in most films, was recorded live. Throughout the film, Godard used music in a very interesting way and and an analysis of the timing of the visual and aural sequences suggests that he aimed to give his raw material a high degree of form, to impose abstraction on realistically shot material e.g.  the rhythm in which the music is interrupted and resumed in the credit sequence and opening scene, the pendulum-like movement of the camera from Nana to her future “protector” later in the film. This carefully worked-out choreography for the camera is abstract in the sense that it does not correspond to any dramatic or expressive necessity.

Godard, who from his very first film perpetrated aesthetic transgressions, his editing style and desired framing always breaking classical norms, becomes more and more influenced by Brecht’s artistic perspective. From Vivre sa vie onwards Godard does not content himself with simply capturing and glorifying everyday life. To Bazinian realism, that emphasised the real objects in front of the camera, Goddard added the reality of the position of the camera, thus making the “reality” even more complex. And the fact that he chose to film in black and white with the Mitchell camera that is known for its stability and fixity (and a symbol of the classic American cinema) is another indication of a move towards a more abstract form than the “life captured” feel of Rouch or his earlier films.

Vivre sa vie is also a “film fondateur” according to Bergala (2006:104) in that it inaugurates a series of films made up of fragments (“modèle parataxique”), each sequence bearing a number or being separated by an intertitle (Les Carabiniers, Masculin, Féminin). This reflects Godard’s aesthetic perfectly: “Le récit ne doit pas procéder par développement naturaliste d’événements mais par brusques mutations, de construction platonicienne. Il faudrait avoir tout déjà prêt comme des blocs de granit taillés, à disposer à  volonté…” (Godard quoted in Bergala 2006:104).  These “granite blocs”, as Godard calls them, are not invented, he found them in reality, with their peculiarities, their unique density and all he had to do was to put them together for the material to organise itself: “J’ai pris un matériel brut, des galets parfaitement ronds que j’ai mis les uns à coté des autres, et ce matériel s’est organisé” (Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1962).

However, the spectator of a Godard shot is always aware of a shot as a shot, as a particular angle on reality and from this point of view Godard’s films are implicitly a criticism and a theory of the cinema. Roud explains Godard’s aesthetic most persuasively when he compares him with the painter Vermeer who was equally interested in immortalising a moment in time, usually a gesture or movement (1970:81). The critic’s conclusion is that neither of them is a naturalistic artist: the power of their art comes from transforming the everyday into an artistic creation through abstraction. Like all great artists, Godard is successful at reconciling these opposites, reality and abstraction, and his greatest films are built on the unavoidable tensions between the two (Roud 1970:82).

Writing with the camera. Varda’s “cinécriture” in Cléo de 5 à 7

agnes-vardaStrictly speaking, Varda does not belong to the New Wave group, she was neither a cinephile, nor was she formed at Cahiers du cinéma through film criticism. However, the extremely personal tone of her first film La Pointe Courte  (1954), which is both a reflection on a couple and a documentary about a fishing village, as well as its production values on the margin of the commercial circuit, make it a typical “auteur film” before the fact, a reason for which Varda has often been dubbed the “mother” of the New Wave (Powell 1986).

Similar to Rouch and Godard, Varda also strongly believed in the power of the real. When asked to give a three-day cinema training at an university in LA, Varda advised the students to go on location, set up the camera in a corner and first of all observe life through the lens of the camera, life as a series of images framed by the camera: “Regardez comment la vie se met en scène et se met en place. […] Et vous allez voir que les choses se placent d’une façon géniale. […]On a presque envie de dire que si on laissait une camera tourner à un endroit x , il y aurait au moins cinq ou six moments de la journée qui seraient mis en scène comme on est même incapable de le faire, c’est a dire avec génie. La vie se met en scène elle-même” (Varda in Baecque 2007:128).

At the same time, Varda did not believe in the ability of cinema vérité to capture the truth. She was more of the opinion, the same opinion that Rouch arrived at later on, that it was only through fiction that truth can make itself known: “C’est toujours le réel du mensonge qui m’intéresse. Je suis contre le cinéma vérité, toujours faux, puisque la camera se place à un endroit subjectif, choisi par le réalisateur. It faudrait cinq cameras qui marchent tout le temps et filment tout.[…] C’est le cinéma-mensonge qui traque la vérité, si on filme la fiction en pensant au réel.” (Varda in Devarrieux 1988: 50).

One of the trademarks of Varda’s style in the construction of narrative and character is non-identification. Varda keeps her distance from her characters, providing them with no more psychology than that available to the onlooker: “I try to be honest with the untellable…the core of emotion is not tellable.” (Audé 1988: 5). This derives from her natural inclination for documentaries. As with Rouch and Godard, Varda’s films oscillate between documentaries and fiction films, the latter containing elements of the former. Her films are solidly anchored in reality, she pays attention to the way people live and seems on the lookout for revealing details of their lives. This lends an objectivity to her feature films and makes them reflect contemporary issues and concerns.

Cléo de 5 à 7 was shot in black and white 35mm film (except for the credits sequence, which is in Eastmancolor) in June and July 1961 and came out in April 1962 when the New Wave was no longer at the height of critical favour. The film was greeted favourably by the critics who  praised the “intelligence of the gaze”, “the quality of the writing, its precision and rigor.” (Macabru in Sellier 2008:61), the latter comment referring to the fact that Cléo is a story told almost in “real time”, which indicates Varda’s concern with form and structure: the plot begins in the credits sequence at 17.00 and ends in Chapter 13 at 18.30, the film’s running time being exactly 90 minutes. Moreover, many scenes were shot at the exact diegetic time, which means that the light was as realistic as possible e.g. if a chapter states that the action takes places between 17.45 and 17.52, there is often a street clock showing that time.

Because the film is structured around the formal constraint of measurable time, the presumed equivalence of screen time and narrative duration suggests an immediacy of actions in the present, “of recording life as it is lived” (Forbes 2002:84). However, the film contains ellipses, tropes, extensions and compressions, breaks in shot continuity and linear chronology that disclose this immediacy as represented rather than recorded (Ungar 2008:33), e.g. Cléo’s ride in Dorothée’s car is speeded up, as are other scenes in the film; the enigmatic repetition of a shot of Cléo’s face as she descends the stairs from the fortune-teller’s apartment, which may suggest that her perception of time expanding at that precise moment, or may just be a playful stylistic intrusion on the part of the filmmaker.

Apart from these artifices and authorial intrusions, the film is divided into sequences, in a similar way to Vivre sa vie: Cléo comprises a prologue and thirteen chapters, each one being marked by the starting and ending times and the name of one or more characters that are the focus of that sequence. This unusual essay-like structuring of the film into chapters clearly breaks with the “illusion of the real” and shows that both Godard and Varda departed from the Bazinian aesthetic, but only after fully incorporating it on the level of content.

Space is also as faithfully recorded, in relation to which Predal remarks: “Les déambulations du personnage n’ont donc rien à voir avec du laisser-aller de mise en scène. Tout est prévu, cadré, monté avec précision, mais chaque détail est tellement juste, les comportements si riche d’humanité, que tout ce naturel savamment organise parait improvisé” (1991:150). Varda cleverly sets Cléo’s subjective perception against a documentary-like depiction of urban Paris. The attention to spacial detail in the geography of Paris is close to topographic, Cléo’s itinerary through Paris being a near-loop that contains no fewer than 48 locations: the film starts in a district on the Right Bank then moves across the Seine to the Left Bank neighbourhoods of St Germain des Près, Montparnasse, the Parc Montsouris and ending at the Hôpital de la Salpétrière, near the Jardins des Plantes and Gare d’Austerlitz. Also most scenes reveal details of urban architecture, clothing and cultural activities that marked the moment and the period.

This gradual disclosure of the city through details of daily life make the film a genuine ethnographic document. Varda herself referred to Cléo as being a “subjective documentary” (Ungar:98), the subjective aspect deriving from the fact that there is a gap between Cléo’s Paris and the “deep reality of the moment” (Sadoul’s expression). This is first expressed in the radio broadcast and then in the character of Antoine. The radio news broadcast in the taxi sequence was indeed broadcast on the day of the filming and Varda used a recording of the actual radio broadcast on Europe no. 1 (Nelson 1983:737). Its function is to document the daily life and the historical moment to which Cléo belongs but ironically Cléo is not aware of the march of history. However, Cléo’s lack of self-awareness as a historical subject makes this reality even more potent and situates the Algerian war as a structuring absence that is both invisible and ever-present. Thus, Varda uses point of view in Cléo as a commentary on France during the Algerian War.

As such, Cléo is a document of its historical moment, which makes a comparison between Cléo and Chronique very pertinent.  Unlike Varda’s film in which the Algerian war is presented almost obliquely, Chronique is openly critical of French policies during the final years of the conflict and a fuller sense of the problems involved emerges from it. The core group of young adults that Rouch and Morin interviewed – including Regis Debray and Marceline Loridan – were  openly opposed to France’s role in Algeria. Interestingly, because Cléo was regarded as a work of fiction, it was not censured for its reference to the Algerian war whereas a number of films by Rouch, Renais, Marker were initially only screened at film festivals.

Regarding sound, as Bogart has noted, Varda’s film is again quite revolutionary: “In the history of sound recording in French cinema, Cléo plays an important role in the evolution from post-synchronised sound to on-location shooting” (2001:240). This is all thanks to Rouch and his technological experiments that made the improved portable Nagra tape-recorders readily available to all filmmakers. Thus, with the exception of a few scenes that had to be post-synchronised due to poor sound quality (e.g. the sequence in Dorothée’s car on the way to Raoul’s cinema), almost every image has its corresponding real-life sound e.g. birdsong, the kittens meowing in Cléo’s apartment, snatches of conversations from passers-by. This is very important since the film’s documentary aspect relies heavily on realistic sound (Orpen 2007:11).

All the formal and technical aspects discussed so far exemplify Varda’s concept of cinécriture, a concept very close, if not identical, to Astruc’s idea of the caméra-stylo. Rejecting the script as the sole foundation for the film, like Astruc, Varda considers editing, lighting, choosing the music as the very essence of cinema writing. For Cléo, Varda  went even further than deciding on the music, she wrote the lyrics to all the songs which became a hit on the film’s release (Orpen 2007:12).


The change in film language and aesthetics advocated by Astruc was prophetic and its repercussions were felt both in the world of fiction filmmaking as well as in the documentary form. The years 1960-1962 in particular were very fertile for French cinema. The films produced in this period,  Chronique dun été, Vivre sa vie, Cléo de 5 à 7, as well as Demy’s Lola (1960), Renais’ s L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), Marker’s La Jetée(1962) opened up new avenues for filmmakers.

Although a generation older than the Young Turks of Cahiers du Cinema, Rouch can be considered both a precursor and a “fellow traveller” of the New Wave in the sense that his films influenced and shared many similarities with the New Wave cinema: both challenged conventional genres and categories such as the dividing line between fiction and documentary and were also profoundly influenced by the Bazinian desire to embrace “the real”. Rouch’s aim was to capture not only the external life of his subjects but also what he called their “imaginary world”, their unexpressed feelings, fantasies and desires. In order to do so, he had to abolish the distance that separates the observer from the observed and with it, the barriers that separate documentary from fiction. This critical notion served as a structuring principle and guided Rouch in all his major works as illustrated with Moi, un noir (1958) and Chronique d’un été, and proved a tremendous influence that reverberated throughout the New Wave, the New Wave films being also a mixture of fiction and documentary as this paper showed. Concerning the technological revolution brought about by cinema vérité, Godard will soon adopt the new technology and shoot in sync like Rouch, and in keeping with the Bazinian precepts he often sourced his sound within the image. Similarly, Varda will create in Cléo the perfect combination of documentary and fiction, a film whose effect is both archival and close to ethnographic, the science from which Rouch’s experiments initially departed. As far as the “search for truth” is concerned, all three filmmakers shared a strong desire to incorporate the reality of their time into their films, with all the contradictions that entailed. And the fact that the truth of this reality is constantly challenged makes the films even more complex, pointing to a subtle transition from a Bazinian to a Brechtian aesthetic,  with its distancing effect and technique of “mettre à distance” that characterised the period in which they were made. Vivre sa vie in particular not only reveals this transition but is a perfect synthesis of both, being at the same time the most realist and the most abstract of films.


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