15 Best French New Wave Films That You Must See

The French New Wave or ‘Nouvelle Vague’ is the most famous cinematic movement in history that began around the year 1960 and ended in the early ‘70s. Techniques we take for granted today were catapulted into mainstream use by the colossal exposure the most famous artists behind the Nouvelle Vague were afforded: People like Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Agnes Varda. It remains a pivotal explosion of creativity crucial to the advancement of the medium which inspired other, perhaps greater New Waves in Eastern Europe during the 1960s.

Here is the list of 15 best French new wave films that you must see.


15. L’ Atalante (1934)

Starting off with a caveat: Jean Vigo’s 1934 film pre-dates the Nouvelle Vague by several decades, but the impact of this previously underseen work’s resurgence and co-incidental meetings with main New Wave players like Jean-Luc Goddard and Francois Truffaut qualifies its place here because it’s a key reason why this list even exists. There are countless visionaries to match Vigo in the 20s-30s and even more adept directors on the scene than he was before a tragic premature death- but ‘L’ Atalante’ assembles so many uniquely original flourishes in a wholly cohesive work of art that the influence on French directors of the 60s is crystal clear. It’s a stream of limitless possibilities realized by someone who screwed the rules and decided to shoot a simple story with a remarkable amount of cinematic charisma. From its water-bound use of haunting multiple exposure to the quietly charming wordless exchanges of its two lovers, few landmark movies can match ‘L’ Atalante’. If it had actually come out during the period, this would be a hell of a lot higher.


14. Shoot the Piano Player (1960)

Francois Truffaut’s follow-up to the much acclaimed ‘The 400 Blows’, ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ takes a uniquely passive approach to crime cinema- settling it comfortably into the liquid cool of Nouvelle Vague-era Paris and allowing the story to unfurl at its own compelling pace. It develops the keen ambition present in his debut whilst not taking it as far as later works like Day for Night– abundantly confident in its own skin and never straying too far to impress. Instead, Truffaut’s realization of a criminal world far less savage and deadly than that of contemporary Jean-Pierre Melville is intoxicatingly romantic. A key primer for the untainted boldness of the French New Wave, be it in patient studies or intense poetry. In places, ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ finds a magical mix of the two.


13. Le Boucher (1970)

Cladue Chabrol’s 1970 reaction to the quick edits and breathless storytelling of the early Nouvelle Vague, ‘Le Boucher’ follows a well-liked school ma’am who engages in a platonic relationship with the local butcher and struggles with her suspicions as the women of the town begin to turn up dead. It’s a refreshingly reflexive and patient character-piece that tackles paranoia with a vivid understatement that effectively immerses you into the mind of our affected heroine. Chabrol’s ‘Le Boucher’ refuses to surrender ground in regards to catharsis, sticking to simple cinematic technique and scarcely allowing more than the allusion that a dead body has been found, rather than presenting a viscerally bloody corpse. Instead, all we have to go on are our own sneaking suspicions and the drama is played so straight that the final outcome hangs on the knife’s edge throughout. To discover the truth in its lethal tragedy- one needs only to dive into Chabrol’s essential piece. Recommendations also go out to his earlier ‘Les Biches’ and ‘Les Cousins’ of ’69 and ’58.


11. Jules et Jim (1962)

Truffaut’s finest achievement, ‘Jules et Jim’ tracks through the complex relationship of two male friends and a woman that both divides and unites them as time goes on. The premise itself is realized to superb effect with love struggling through the ages despite disagreements, allowing its audience to indulge in a rare look at people’s growth that is also directed with a sharpness that few films focused on such a story share. The inspiration Quentin Tarantino’s snappy filmography takes from the Nouvelle Vague becomes most clear here. If you enjoy his work, ‘Jules et Jim’ is the way to go.


11. Le Fou Follet (1963)

Emerging in the same year as ‘Jules et Jim’, ‘The Fire Within’ marks Louis Malle’s first slot on this list with a serious examination of a man teetering on the precipice of suicide. Addicted to the booze and unconscionably lonely, it draws comparisons to Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’ of 1959, which was in hot competition for this place. Malle’s picture succeeded in packing its extra 40 minutes of run-time full of existential longing: A desire for any kind of change be it positive or traumatic in an effort to kick the protagonist’s dry spell of life that refuses to drown in alcohol.

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