Friday, July 3, 2009

Everything old is Nouvelle again: the French New Wave hits the Cinematheque Ontario

Bande à part

Ever since this past New Year’s Day I’ve been in a state of more or less perpetual amazement over the realization that 1959 was 50 years ago. Has it really been a half-century since Miles Davis released Kind of Blue, since Charles Mingus unleashed the tripartite assault of Roots & Blues, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, since Ornette Coleman revealed The Shape of Jazz to Come? Or since the first audacious, invigorating, iconoclastic crash of the Nouvelle Vague, this thing that Nigel Andrews once declared the “greatest criminal enterprise in cinema history?” The entropic upheaval of the world renders so many things aged, quaint and useless so quickly, so why is it so hard for me to believe that these landmarks have receded so deep into the past?

The 400 Blows

There are shards of time, colossal events that we automatically read as part of that grand Other we call history (sometimes even while they’re still happening). The lunar landing, the fall of the Berlin Wall, shit, even the invasion of Iraq seem somehow to be much more enshrined by history than Antoine Doinel’s frozen gaze as he stands perched at the end of his line on that lonesome beach. Something happened in American music—a topic I’ll be getting around to later—and in French film that not only changed history but also changed how we view it. The French New Wave had a winning combination: it was rigorously fun and smart. It allowed us to look at the movies not as something disposable but as as an ongoing story, referring critically, affectionately, explicitly, irreverently to the medium’s past and its accepted formal and structural inclinations—and thus breaking with them, too. They ran wild with heady literary pretensions, a pivotal investment in youth culture, a taste for at times radical political discourse and, most especially, with new technology that gave these filmmakers—many of them critics—a new freedom. The best of the movement remains so dynamic to those familiar with it, so startling to the newcomer, that it seems to live and breathe still as an ongoing event. And with a few key figures still living and working, the waves wash up around us still, however becalmed they may now be.


À Double tour

Paris Belongs to Us

Vivre sa vie

Shoot the Piano Player

Tonight, the Cinematheque Ontario launches what is probably their most anticipated summer program,
Nouvelle Vague: The French New Wave, Then and Now. There are over three-dozen titles screening, among them the essential classics, but also rarities. Crowds will rightfully flock to screenings of the most popular and definitive films of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—The 400 Blows (1959), Breathless (60), Jules and Jim (61) and Bande à part (64)—but I’m really excited to revisit Jacques Rivette’s magnificently labyrinthine, conspiracy-riddled Paris Belongs to Us (60), which feels in some sense like a prismatic reflection of the other films happening simultaneously, as well as The Nun (66), which I missed during the Cinematheque’s recent Rivette retrospective. There’s also Elevator to the Gallows (57), Jean Eustache’s Bad Company (63), Godard’s rediscovered Made in USA (66), and several Claude Chabrols—including À Double tour (59), which features a jaw-droppingly sexy Bernadette Lafont flrting with the milk man from the window in her underwear and a delightfully slovenly, drunken Jean-Paul Belmondo in my new favourite eating scene of all time.


There’s also something called Méditérranée (63), a 45-minute work made by Jean-Daniel Pollet with a lot of help from Volker Schlöndorff. It features images of medical equipment, barbed wire, seascapes, curving corridors, bull fighting, decaying ruins, Venetian canals, and a Greek party! Much of it accompanied by a portent-heavy score and captured in brooding lateral tracking shots like we’re surveying the aftermath of some stray apocalypse. There’s also a presumably helpful ongoing voice-over narration, and since I’ve only seen it without subtitles and my French is for shit I have absolutely no idea what it’s supposed to be about. I can’t wait to find out.

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