Many film directors today got their start making short films, and the directors of the French New Wave were no different. So before Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Pierre Resnais directed the short “All the World’s Memory” (1956) celebrating (albeit cheekily) the National Library of France. Before Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnes Varda directed “Ô Saisons, Ô Châteaux” (1958), a creative travelogue (and rare color film in this collection) celebrating the castles of the Loire Valley. Before The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut collaborated on the short “A Story of Water,” a somewhat goofy narrative of a young woman (Caroline Dim) trying to navigate a flooded Paris on her way to university. Nineteen of these short films are now available on the Icarus 2-disc set Early Short Films of the French New Wave.
There’s a lot included in this set—twenty films by thirteen directors, running 348 minutes in total—and as a group these films provide a fascinating glimpse into the early years of the New Wave. The people involved in making these films were self-consciously rejecting the conventions of French “quality” films and trying to come up with new means of expression, and the tension between received conventions and the desire to do something, anything, new is often evident in these shorts.
These films weren’t created in a vacuum—In 1955, the French government provided funding for films “to serve the cause of French cinema or to open new perspectives on the art of cinematography, or to make know the main themes and problems of the French union,” and shorts as well as features were eligible for grants. The smaller scale of short films—which meant they could be made more quickly and with a smaller budget than feature films–made them a popular choice for first-time directors, while producers were motivated to be involved in shorts by the possibility of receiving government grants if they produced a film recognized to be “of quality.”
Early Short Films of the French New Wave includes narratives, documentaries, and a few films that fall outside normal categorizations, and there’s a great variety within those categories as well. At the same time, they share certain commonalities. Most were shot in black and white, are about 20 minutes long, were shot on location (whether on the streets or in someone’s apartment) in Paris (Jean Rouch’s documentary “The Goumbé of the Young Revelers” is a notable exception), make substantial use of music on the soundtrack, and use actors who were just getting their start in the industry. Many use voiceover, sometimes to the exclusion of dialogue, and many mix conventional filmmaking with unexpected departures that hint at the New Wave feature films to come.
While the names of the directors in this collection are mostly familiar, that of producer Pierre Braunberger may be less so. Braunberger’s career stretched from 1926 (uncredited role as a producer on Jean Renoir’s feature film Nana) to 1991 (producer on Lucien Clergue’s short “D’abord la vie, ensuite les triomphes”) and included major New Wave features like Tirez sur la pianist (François Truffaut, 1960), and Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962) as well as many shorts. Prohibited from producing during World War II because he was Jewish, Braunberger got his revenge after the war by setting up shop in a former Gestapo office, where he was the first to recognize many New Wave talents. | Sarah Boslaugh
Early Short Films of the French New Wave is distributed on DVD and Blu-Ray by Icarus Films, and a complete track listing is available on the Icarus web site. Extras include Gisèle Braunberg’s 1968 short film “Directing Actors by Jean Renoir” (22 min.) and a 12-page booklet including an essay by Eric Le Roy.