In the 1970s, French film was in a post-revolutionary phase. Not only had the work of the Cahiers du cinema acolytes and their Left Bank contemporaries over the previous decade made the country’s output a shorthand for a new kind of cinema (every loose conflation of national cinematic talent thereafter to be known as yet another New Wave), but its radical aesthetics had also marked a clean break from the French cinema that had preceded it – a branding actively cultivated by its most prominent members. Over the years that followed, figures such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais dominated French and international art cinema discourse alike, with many of them active well into the 21st century and still capable of commanding plum festival competition spots.
By the mid-to-late 1980s, the shadow of the Nouvelle Vague had sufficiently receded to allow an entirely new kind of French cinema – led by names such as Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis – to emerge and blossom, receiving a similar level of distribution and critical coverage across the globe as their predecessors twenty years previously. But in between these periods, a generation of exciting and radical French filmmakers emerged and struggled through comparative obscurity and an at times hostile industry. A few of these figures, like Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel, have achieved some semblance of art-cinema stardom, be it posthumous or in the latter stages of their career; but many of their contemporaries remain much more obscure than they ought to be, their work of that period often commercially unavailable outside France and only sparsely written about in the English-speaking film press. It is perhaps fitting, then, that the only commonly used names for this movement – the French post-New Wave, or the Second Generation – tend to negate any specific identity, simply describing instead its relationship to what had come before. But there was nothing derivative about its output, which was often stranger, more daring and somewhat darker than the often joyful experimentation of their predecessors.
What these filmmakers shared was a chronological appearance on the scene a few years after the early peak of the Nouvelle Vague; an often combative attitude towards the French film industry of the day (as well as the upper-middle-class insider mentality that had undeniably aided the Cahiers group’s success); and what Nick Pinkerton describes as “a sense of being consigned to the periphery, of being eternally on the outside looking in”.1 In the view of Assayas, the sign of Ingmar Bergman shines brightly over this period; he describes post-New Wave filmmakers as having gone “looking for Bergman for the tools that would allow them to reconstruct a relationship not with novelistic, non-Brechtian narrative but with embodiment, at the intersection between the character and the actress or actor – a cinema that scrutinizes humanity by scrutinizing the mysteries faces reveal”.2
In this dossier, the work of ten of these directors – Pialat, Garrel, Jean Eustache, Jacques Doillon, André Téchiné, Marguerite Duras, Benoît Jacquot, Jacques Rozier, Paul Vecchiali and Catherine Binet – is assessed up close and from a variety of angles. Stefan Solomon examines the performance of young Martin Loeb in Mes petites amoureuses (My Little Loves, 1974), finding insights into Eustache’s approach to performers, and Tope Ogundare casts an eye over the cheerfully ramshackle ’70s and ’80s work of Rozier. Danica van de Velde analyses the prolific writer and director Duras’ self-adaptations; David Melville delves into Jacquot’s Henry James adaptation Les ailes de la colombe (The Wings of the Dove); Max Nelson looks at the beautiful ugliness in the films of Pialat; and Joanna Di Mattia writes about the sensitive and complex portrayals of Doillon’s child protagonists. Grant Douglas Bromley describes the uncanny experience of viewing Garrel’s trilogy of silent features, while French critic and experimental filmmaker Gérard Courant – himself a key figure of the period – approaches Garrel through two early works, in a translation of an article first published in 1979. Glenn Heath Jr. and Daniel Fairfax, respectively, survey the work of iconoclasts Téchiné and Vecchiali, and David Heslin examines the career and preoccupations of the critically neglected Binet.
The boundary between the New Wave and the Second Generation is, of course, a nebulous one – such movements are, generally speaking, critically constructed entities oriented around loose (and sometimes debatable) associations – and a few of the names covered here have been, at times, associated with the former. But what these pieces have in common is that they look at works that are, by and large, absent from the international cinematic canon – and not always easy to track down, at that. Hopefully, this series of responses will do a little to bring these important figures and under-seen films a little more into view, and direct some attention to a period of French cinema that, in terms of artistic audacity, soared as high as any before or after.
- Nick Pinkerton, “Jean Eustache & the Second New Wave,” Metrograph Edition, 2 March 2016, http://metrograph.com/edition/article/21/jean-eustache-the-second-new-wave ↩
- Olivier Assayas, “Where Are We with Bergman?,” Film Comment, vol. 54, no. 4, July–August 2018, https://www.filmcomment.com/article/where-are-we-with-bergman/ ↩