The language of the cinema, the French New Wave and Agnès Varda
We can say that a filmmaker, a director, will make a visual narrative of his, her story. Instead of
words, a director, a filmmaker will communicate his, her story through successive moving shots
carefully composed in a chosen way (composition of images) and charge these images with all sort
of emotions to tell the story, to reveal characters and their conflicts, dilemma. Sometimes the
audience won't even be fully aware of the meaning but will “get the point” in a subconscious level.
Images talk to us, touch us in a particular way. It uses social, cultural, universal codes understood
by a majority of people and a filmmaker will exploit through cinematographic techniques all the
possibility an image can resonate inside of us all to communicate a certain emotion, or an idea : a
close up for example will positioned the audience really close to the character, as the audience we
will experience what his happening with empathy for the character... or not ; A low angle or high
angle will suggest different meaning whether we want, as a director, show the vulnerability of the
character or the contrary ; The composition of the image, the frame, the aestheticism (pleasing to
the eye) but as well the luminosity, the forms, the colour, the movement. Is it fast or slow ? the
direction (from left to right or vice versa), all are elements in the construction of a film, all are part
of the language of the movie through camera work and other associated elements.
There is a panel of techniques used in cinema that we obviously won't find in reading a book for
example. As it is visual and not only about words, how the image is composed or we can say how
is the camera work performed with knowledge, is really important and carefully planned out by the
director before starting shooting.
To understand what is the language of cinema, we just have to watch a movie and try to analyse
what compose a movie, what a movie is made of, what are the essentials which will make the story
work as a movie (visual) and be different than a story in a book .
As I said above, there is the image. But here we are not talking about a still image but a moving one
and the continuity, the link between the images and as well the sound recorded to produce a
meaning, an general idea of what is going on and what the director wants to talk about, the montage
(editing part) is as well a technique used in movies.
The first movies were silent, (due to certain difficulties to synchronize images with sound), it all
started before 1900 and evolved with the techniques apply alongside, for example the continuity of
action, or the break of a scene, close up, wide angle, which will be the basics of the construction of
a movie, or the film language. Filmmakers started to experiment and thanks to advanced
technology, discoveries and better equipment, each director made up his, her proper “dialect” : the
way a director will use the knowledge and techniques of film language to express his, her meaning.
Nowadays, shooting a entire film in black and white is a deliberate, planed decision of the director
since that nearly the 70s, all movies are in colour.
Black and White gives a certain style, a meaning : La Haine of Matthieu Kassowitz filmed in B/W
could well refer to the low budget of the making of the movie in sympathy with the three main
characters, which are poor and living in a dark, hopeless and unjust context. It could although, as a
French movie, refer to “the New Wave of the 50s 60's” where B/W was opposed to high budget
colour movie, and then show a certain ideology, affinity to a movement.
Schindler´s list is another example, even with partial B/W. Maybe to get the audience closer to the
event, more submerged, immersed in the context (world war II). The B/W allow the director to
emphasised scenes in colour, the little girl in the red coat for example.
Choosing Colour or Black and White is part of a movie language, and has a meaning.
The sound is another element in the language of the movie. Music plays a important role in lots of
movies, name like Ennio Moriccone or Hans Zimmer are well famous for their music composition
in movies. Music brings emotions to a scene, leading the audience to a certain aspect, drama of the
action. It's a powerful element and nearly universal, especially when there is no words. The sound
can be in relation with what is happening on the screen, the image or not. Some sounds are pleasant
to the ears, they can give a sense of tranquillity like birds singing, some other can set a atmosphere,
or even the set up of the movie, an heavy rain falling onto the window, the wind blowing really
harsh. It can be associated to the arrival of a new character, to give the audience a certain idea of the
type of person. I think here about a movie who used the sound in a memorable way : E.T and the
“Key men”, the director associated the men who wants to capture E.T with a metallic sound not
particularly pleasant, the keys. As an audience, we don't see those men, but we hear the sound of
the key getting closer and closer.
The sound can be used as well to help penetrate the intimate world of a character. The sound can
lead the way to set up where the audience has to be, for example, a character is looking at a photo
where there is the beach, on the wall, we, as the audience, hear the sound of the wave, which
suggest that we are with the character in another reality (memory for example).
Lighting is another important and impactive element in the film language, which will be used to
create a certain atmosphere, set up the action and the mood, the feel of the movie. Reflecting the
shadows on the face of a character for example to accentuate facial expression, or bring an idea of
“goodness or badness”. Light is really important and is used as well to lead the audience to interpret
some kind of action, to contrast, dramatise any character or action. Light can be in movement
Camera work,(angles of view, image composition, movement techniques like dolly shots, close up,
wide angle...), the sound, the lights, all are part of what we call the language of the cinema and are
tools that any filmmaker will use to create his, her movie. When we analyse a movie we usually
analyse the content, how, which techniques were used to develop the drama and the character, the
intrigue, conflicts of the story and the underlying message that a director want to pass along.
I will talk here about the evolution and changes of the French cinema after war world II, particularly
what was called The French new wave (La Nouvelle Vague) as it did influenced Hollywood in
some degree as well as the European cinema.
During the war, the occupation (1940-1944), most of American movies were banned, the choice was
limited to few French movies made at the time during the occupation and German movies. It
certainly did impoverish and stopped the culture, the exchange of ideas but most of all the freedom
of expression, the truth in representation, the values, as it was replaced by propaganda, lots of
regulations and censorship. Mostly every movie had to pass the censor of Germany, and lot of
American movie genre were banned (western, comedies, adventure...). This context is important to
mention to understand what was the new wave in France and where did it come from.
The thirst of freedom coming from the movement “la nouvelle vague” has it roots in those dark
time of the occupation.
After the end of world war II, when the ban was lifted (1946), French film lovers catches up
quickly with what had happened in the field of cinema around the world. It was a time of exciting
discoveries where the minds were free again to think and towards the end of the 50s, a new
generation of intellectuals film critics, anti conformists, anti academics started to redefine the rules
of the cinema at the time.
The term new wave was invented by the media to define a young generation (18-30), everything
which “was young, new, provocative and mocked the social convention of the bourgeois was new
wave”. The term was used even before the cinema made it his own and before the directors started
to make this type of movies.
The term will be taken over in articles in cinematic magazine to qualified the new young directors
coming like Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Varda, Chabrol, Astruc, Resnais...
Some advanced that the French new wave movement was a precursor of the May 68.
Their articles and critics of “a certain tendency of the French cinema” (too conservator) appeared in
the magazine, “Notebook on cinema”,(Les cahiers du cinema) 1951 directed by André Bazin
where the manifesto of the new wave will be published about (the birth of an avant-garde) the
“camera as a pen” (camera stylo) by Alexandre Astruc. The idea was that a director will be capable
to use his, her camera the same way a writer uses his pen, and therefore breaking free from the
traditional, classical narrative of a storytelling. And where the director is seen as an auteur having
his, her own personal vision, Hitchcock was perceived as a “true author”.
These intellectuals rejected the classical, traditional story telling of “happy end” and style of
filmmaking, which was usually shot in studio, with nice scenery, famous actors and actresses, with
big budget, big crew, sophisticated stories and dialogues, where the main character is always
looking for love or happiness. It was usually rigid with lot of rules and reserved to a privileged
They had a avant garde approach where freedom in all aspect of filmmaking seems to appear as a
motive. They wanted to draw attention to their own individual cinematic style as a film maker and
feel free to experiment in the field. They also inspired the cult of the director as an author (known as
They believed that cinema was far much more than an entertainment for the masses but was also an
art, where the director is the author, an artist with his, her own creative and narrative vision, same
way as a painter.
It wasn't an organised movement of members with the same vision, no. We could say that it was a
right time, in the right place where different individuals (all film lovers and lot of them were film
critics as well) were ready and eager to innovate and experiment in the cinema field. Most of them
were involved in a way or another in the magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema, where criticism and a
search of something new reached out to all.
What made that movement possible was the new technology, the progress. Making a movie was
possible on low budget thanks to lighter camera, cheaper camera, sensitivity to the natural light,
which made possible shooting outside the studio.
All those directors involved of the new wave didn't only published articles and critics but they
actually made it real and went on shooting movies which will always been know as the French new
wave movies like Breathless for example de Jean Luc Godard or the 400 blow of Truffaut or Cleo
from 5 to 7 de Varda.
What characterized the French New Wave movies, was the creativity, flexibility, spontaneity,
improvisation (well thought one) and the low budget. Everything that will break down the pattern of
the traditional French cinema of quality, which was dominant at the time (well constructed narrative
stories, but not visual enough, with high budget and aesthetic studio production). Having a small
crew, shooting outside, improvising on locations, using the natural light and sound on location,
having non professional actresses or actors and a sense of digression and subversion for the French
cinema of quality (which emphasised too much of the literary work) characterised this sort of
Breathless of Jean-Luc Godard is maybe the most famous movie of the tendency with his
documentary realism shooting style, so many jump cuts and the breaking of the rules of continuity
to make apparent the cinematic convention at the time. Inspired of the stories of classic American
film noir, the style Godard applied to the filmmaking of Breathless will be qualified as fearless
unorthodox and even revolutionary (“Jean-Luc Godard makes a film as though no one had never
made before” quote Penelope Gilliat a British critic).
Breathless of Jean-Luc Godard, with Jean Paul Belmondo and
Having very few equipment meant that the shooting was more “naturalistic and unpolished”, often
the camera was hand held (no use of tripod) which lead to long tracking shot used as a technique.
The directors favoured reality of what was filmed over manipulation through editing.
The structure of the story was often very loose and susceptible to change to accommodate and give
freedom to the actresses, actors to improvised or even change the plot.
The new wave wasn't a cinematic genre, the diversity in the stories of the different directors impede
us putting them in the same bag. Nonetheless some eccentricity appears a lot in those movies, where
modernity and an certain interest for the youth seems to be central, where intimate and individual,
personal conflicts were the centre of a plot, a plot who often was ambiguous as life can be.
It is clear that those directors wanted the audience to feel that what they were looking at on the
screen wasn't the reality but a well constructed cinematic fiction depicted the reality of life :
chaotic, imperfect and complicated.
On the camera work, abundance of jump cuts, were very frequently used. It is an abrupt transition
which suppose to add a sense of speed to a scene. The disregard of the continuity of images, emerge
from the new wave. At that time, the audience were used to smooth flow of images, a continuity in
order to be submerged by the story. On the contrary, Jump cuts, a discontinuity of images, draw
attention to the constructed nature of the film more than the story. It can show the unreality of the
film experience, leading the audience to be aware about the filmmaking in a way and be ready to
make a critical analyse. They wanted the audience to be aware of the unreal, the illusion of the
shooting, filmmaking and yet be aware as well that what was filmed was the reality of life the way
it was at the time.
The new wave movement went on for a decade only, but lot of new daring directors ready to
challenge established rules emerged from that time whether they were part of the new wave or no.
The influence persisted all over the country and even around Europe (Italy, Germany) and America.
As the audience got tired of the film d´author, the directors needed to balanced and adapted to a
more classic form or changed direction completely.
The new wave definitely redefined the concept of French cinema, and his only high budget club
reserved classical movies. Thanks to those experimenters like Godard, Truffaut, Resnais, Varda and
many more, the influence can still be seen decades after, here to inspire even more new filmmakers.
“You can’t really divorce women’s struggles in the world from women’s in the cinema. As long as
there’s hierarchy it means that women are somehow secondary or second class or less than. That’s
going to be reflected in movies because films are the most powerful medium to reflect back society’s
view of itself”.
Sally Potter, London feminist film festival
Sandrine Bonnaire and Agnés Varda, “Sans toit ni loi” 1985
I decided to elaborate more about the French cinema and choose a movie I grew up with, as it is
representative of the French cinema and the social issues at the time. It's a fairly old enough movie,
1985 which I saw the first time in the 90s. It's a movie of Agnès Varda, Sans toit, ni loi, literally,
without roof or rule, which was translated as Vagabond in English language.
Agnès Varda was part of the French new wave as well as another movement at the time. Even
though she didn't come from the same intellectual source like the other film critics directors with
Les Cahiers de Cinema, in her first long movie La pointe courte (1954) she anticipated all the
methods, aesthetic of the French new wave and she is thus considered the precursor of the
movement (the mother or grandmother of the new wave). That first movie, even though it wasn't
that pleasant to watch, had a great impact and is considered as a reference. With her second movie
in 1962, Cléo from 5 to 7, a partly fiction, partly documentary piece about 2 hours in the life of a
female singer which awaits the result of her tests for cancer, was again, well ahead at the time, and
has been internationally acclaimed, this made her one of the leader of the movement.
The style she used will be seen in the movies of Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard few years later.
Agnès Varda is a photographer before being a filmmaker, and her style is judged quiet unique. She
didn't have any particular film training, she is an autodidact.
In Sans toit ni loi, gender and social issues are central to the movie. Nonetheless A.Varda never
claimed to be a “militant” but she choose to talk about a phenomenon which was occurring in
France at the time and that nobody talked about really: more and more women where seen alone on
the road looking for their freedom. Between documentary and fiction, Varda crossed the boundaries
and proposed a beautiful realistic movie where the audience follows, as a witness, same as the
filmmaker, the last days of a young rebel woman, Mona, a drifter. And we discover, learn about
“She’s cute, she stinks, and she won’t say thank you,
Would you offer her a lift?”
Mona through the words and testimonies of the local people who met her during her journey. The
interviews revealed the feeling and biased opinion (prejudices) the locals made about the young
woman, a “stranger” : how she is dirty, unpleasant thus “lazy, temptress, opportunist...”
We will know nothing about the intimate world, the feelings of Mona and her real motive, of why
she chose this particular path of freedom.
It's obvious that Agnès Varda wanted the audience to have their own opinion about Mona and she
filmed it in a way that we gazed at Mona with the aid of the testimonies of locals who had met her
(often real people from the region, not actors, actresses). All through the film, what we gather, like
trying to collect pieces of a puzzle, is what the locals, the people who met Mona share with us, the
representation they made about her : she's dirty, young and unpleasant.
I want to mention here, that in order to write her script, Agnès Varda submitted herself to a prepared
kind of investigation or better say, an active research. She wandered around in the south of France
(The Gard , which is a pretty austere region ). She offered a lift to people, men and women who
where doing hitch-hiking, and she quoted in a interview how “impress” she was by the girls but also
“the reaction of the locals towards them, towards their look, the dirt of those women”. She
wandered in train station as well in order to try to understand their story, why they were drifters.
She was particularly amazed by the girls who told her how they had to survive.
The film starts by the end, with the death of the protagonist, Mona. So we know we are going to
look at the last days of this young woman.
A worker found the dead body of Mona lying outside in the cold and called the police.
No ID were found, nobody knew her...”She left no trace”.
The context of France in the 80s 90s is marked by an important increased of people living on the
street (SDF, : literally without fixed address) and how they are perceived by the society and tackled
by the system. We already saw men on the street but still few women at the time and A.Varda
proposed us with that movie, a gendered vision in one way, as we follow a young woman with all of
the added difficulties female drifters are faced with : street harassment and the strict role women are
suppose to embrace in the society : being a drifter, a girl and dirty is not really acceptable...
Even if it is subtle in the movie or appear to be “normal”, it's interesting to mention some key scene
: just after the opening scene where the body of Mona is found, the second scene starts with the first
persons, two young men, who saw Mona swimming naked in the sea from a certain distance. They
are in an bar where plenty of post cards of naked women are displayed. One young guy bought one
of those postcards and they joke about how they should have dare to address Mona and “ride her,
because a girl who swims naked in the sea just ask for it” instead of just lurking at her. There is
two or three scenes like that where Mona is depicted as a “temptress” or have sex with one of the
interviewer, or be made indecent, sexist proposition while hitch-hiking.
The other characters are really interesting too : the Philosopher- shepherd who offers Mona a piece
of land to work on, the teacher who gives Mona a lift, champagne and food in her car and feel guilty
afterwards about leaving her on the road again, the maid who offers a bed in the house she is
working in, the old woman with who Mona will have a good time and some truth will be revealed
about how the old woman are mistreated by her family who thinks she's blind and deaf, but is not,
the nice Arab worker who took care of Mona until his friends came back and decide that “no
women are welcome around...”, the bourgeois who is disgust by Mona's behaviour and yet feel her
despair in the same time...).
They are all very well depicted in their peculiar characteristics and the place they have in the
society and they all pass in the life of Mona without understanding her or what she is looking for as
she just embraced every relation in a survival mode (food, water, a roof, a bed, a bit of company,
affection (?) ).
“I didn't go to film school, I was never an assistant or trainee on a film.
I had not seen all those camera. So I think it gave me a lot of freedom.”
To come back a little bit about the context, the social and cultural issues of France at the time, it is
to mention that at the same time Agnès Varda started to make a movie about the phenomenon of
people living on the street for whatever reason, a notorious and well engaged humorist, Coluche
came up with an idea to create an association for the SDF (drifters) called “les Restau du coeur”
(literally Restaurants of the heart, or love which can be found as well in Belgium and Germany). It
was to offer a free soup and incite the idea of solidarity amongst us.
As for the feminism issue, France as many other countries all around the world was really slowly
entering a third wave as a respond to the second wave and trying to impact in all aspect of the
society. Up to now, there is still lot of movies and films to be made by women with a gendered
vision in order to represent women, their world, in front and behind the camera.
I suppose the reason I choose that movie is because it had an big impact on my youth as a woman
(even though I didn't realize it at the time) and depicted very well some social and gendered issues
at the time which I'm afraid are still actual. I wanted to promote a woman's work, especially in the
field of the cinema, where it is obvious that men have the supremacy of this industry and very few
women, for different reasons, have equal access to this art. I am well aware that there is plenty of
other movies of well renowned director (often male director will be cited...) worthy to discuss but
yet I was confronted with some dilemma about the content of the movie and the form, the way it
was made and how women where represented, which I think can't be omitted and silenced. Too
many director, in my opinion are praised as “masters, genius” of the art of filmmaking, no matter
how they mistreat and undermine the female counterpart in the industry, and in their representation
of women on the screen, they are “excused” because of their talent, brilliant techniques...
For all those reason, I think if as a society we genuinely want to reach a certain equality among men
and women, those has to be reflected in the culture and particularly in the cinema as it has a huge
impact on everybody.
As Sally Potter quoted, cinema is a great tool, a serious way to reflect what is going on in our
societies, our conflict, our life style, our system, our moral, values...and it does, while it is enjoyable
to watch a movie, I think it's really important that filmmakers contribute to a certain progress in our
“I would love to see more women directors because they represent half of the population – and
gave birth to the whole world. Without them writing and being directors, the rest of us are not
going to know the whole story”.