Birth of the New Wave: An Interview with Emmanuel Laurent


Emmanuel Laurent’s insightful documentary, Two in the Wave (Deux de la vague) was recently screened at the annual French Film Festival in Richmond, Virginia. The film, written and narrated by Antoine de Baecque, explores the lives of leading French new wave filmmakers and friends, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as addresses their falling-out after the politically charged events of May 1968 and Godard’ s increasing self-identification as a revolutionary.

Following the screening, I had the privilege of sitting down with Mr. Laurent, a decidedly dapper Frenchman and exceedingly gracious and eloquent interviewee, at a nearby wine bar and coffee shop to discuss his thoughts on his career, new wave cinema, Impressionism, and the state of filmmaking in France today.

Where in France are you from?

I’m from Paris. I was born and raised there.

How did you get into filmmaking?

I started as a film editor of sorts. I was a film buff like those guys [Truffaut and Godard].I went to see movies at the Cinémathèque all day long, five a day sometimes from two o’clock in the afternoon until two in the morning.

That’s a long time! Didn’t you get a stiff neck!?

[Laughter] Yes, but at the Cinémathèque they showed such different films from one another so you could watch a silent movie, a Greek film, Elvis Presley or a musical. You had a surprise every two hours.

You see, I was very bad at school. I didn’t like school at all, like most of my generation just before May ‘68. So I started as a film editor. We were able to edit a lot of different films there because it was a small company. We were four altogether so you had accessto things and worked very quickly. After six months I became an editor. And I remained an editor for 10 years even though I started to direct and edit my own films, and then produce and direct…

Editing is a very good background. You learn the basics of everything. You learned the difference between what the guy dreamt about his film and what he actually got. You’ ve got to make the film, which is not the thing he dreamt. And that is very interesting. It brings you some modesty. You should try to pursue an idea that you cannot actually film. Or sometimes people can’ t film things if it’ s something you dream about but it’ s not there. It’ s not on the footage. It’ s nowhere; it’ s in his head. You learn how to “ kill your darlings” as Faulkner has said. A scene that you love for so many reasons, but it’ s not working, so what do you do? You throw it away. And that’ s it.

And then I started with a feature, a series for television, three hours long. Something I wrote. It’ s a musical. I imagined an African ethnologist who came to France to study food habits of people in ethnological terms – how tribes share grilled meet, or beans or stew…and giving an analysis of what it means.

Like Levi Strauss?

Yes, right so it’ s the reverse of Levi Strauss who went to South America. My African went to Lyon, to France. It was a sort of musical comedy. A genre I fancy.  Actually, to go back to the new wave, one of the first films thatactually spoke about the war in Algeria for instance is a musical comedy. It’ s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by Jacque Demy, probably my favorite filmmaker of the new wave, even more than Truffaut or Godard. He wasalso very inspired by American cinema and musicals.

He did after The The Young Girls of Rochefort, a musical, with Catherine Deneuve and Gene Kelly near whereI spent my summer holidays. It’ s the first set of a movie I’ ve ever been to. It was near my grandmother’ s house in Charente near Rochefort so we walked there. And I could see Catherine Deneuve changing. My first erotic memory ever. And Francois Dorléac, her sister, who was an amazing, gorgeous, beautiful woman.

"I could see Catherine Deneuve changing.

My first erotic memory ever."

So how old were you?

Fourteen, so it had quite an effect! [Laughter]

But, initially I did a lot of documentaries. Documentary films are great for many reasons. You have a small team and you have a lot of freedom, because people don’ t care, basically. I mean, television can’ t produce miniseries all the time. They don’ t have enough money. So they have to fill up their screen with documentaries. So they leave you in peace. They don’t bother you. And you meet amazing people all around the world, you travel, and you can do whatever you want… or at least it was true up to the mid-nineties. What else can you ask for in life? Except of course sometimes it’ s frustrating, because I love to be able to set up actors and do that sort of thing. It’ s very exciting. I’m trying to go back there.

I made a few films in Africa (Mauritania, Chad). I filmed for a year in a little village in Charente, in mygrandmother's village, Saint-Sauvant. I filmed three families. And I’ ve done a lot of science films actually. Trying to make films on biology and mix that with musicals. I produced a film called Death by Design [about programmed cell death], a surprising success worldwide, considering the very dry topic!

You mentioned earlier May 1968. How old were you then, were you involved in the protests or were you too young…?

No, I was seventeen or so, so not too young, but I was not really politically involved myself. That came later through a girl I met. To seduce her I had to behave and talk about Trotsky. [Laughter] But not in ‘ 68 precisely. Even though, I was already working all the time as a film editor. So I left school, and I kept teaching myself andreading, but not what teachers said I had to read. It’ s amazing because I read the books you’ re supposed to readin school like Flaubert, but it wasn’t the teacher who told me to do it.

You did it on your own.

Yes, so I found it great actually.

I love what you said about Truffaut being more revolutionary because he was passionate about art, more decadent, where as Godard was more conventional because everybody at the time was a Maoist…

Yeah, you had to be a Maoist. Everyone around me turned to Mao. Mao-spontex. This is difficult to translate…Spontex is a small dried up sponge so that when you put it into water it blows up right away. So mao-spontex means you become a Maoist over night. So Godard is definitely a maoist-spontex.

So do you think part of why he became revolutionary had to do with the fact that he grew up wealthy? That he was trying to break with the past?

Very much so. At least it's so characteristic of what happened in France at the time. He did have to take some kind of revenge with the Monod part of the family [on his mother’ s side] that kicked him out and looked downon him when he was young. So yeah, he did have good reasons. You can understand his point of view, how much he hated this side of his family.

When he was seventeen he stole a book from the Monods, which was signed by Paul Valéry – from a "shrine" the Monods had set up for the famous poet within their house where the young Godard was staying when he was in Paris. And he sold it… just across the street and of course he was caught. So, of course the family couldn't forgive that. From then on he was the black sheep of the family. He broke with them very early, long before May '68. So it definitely has something to do with that. Also, he didn’t want people to know about hisbackground, that he had a very nice youth, that had a wealthy, happy childhood, whereas, Truffaut was a very unhappy child and had a lot of hardship.

So do you think he eventually came to identify Truffaut with the establishment?

I don’ t think so, even though he had harsh words about Truffaut being a cinéaste bourgeois, but he always admired Truffaut because he was a self-taught guy, coming from nowhere, nobody, nothing. And he was the one who brought them into the business. Truffaut gave Godard his first script (Breathless). He brought at Arts, which was a very well regarded magazine at the time. And it's Truffaut who actually was the guy everyone was talking about in the 50s. They feared Truffaut, not Godard. Truffaut could write anything and all of Paris would shake.

Which is amazing after seeing the films he made which are very seemingly soft (not provocative) even thoughfor me it's obvious that Truffaut was never reconciled with society. He went to jail not for stealing from his parents, but after running away from the army… in which he enlisted voluntarily. He tries to be part of the establishment, but he can't. You can see in Truffaut’ s films this violence, only apparently soft, very polite, very tender; let’ s put it that way: he’ s very tender about women and children. He used to say like he was making film following the French saying, “ Les femmes et les enfants d’ abord." (woman and children first) when a boat is sinking. He was an amazing filmmaker for children. Children are fragile in society, so he wanted to protect them.

05/00/1968. International Cannes film festival

You’ve drawn a parallel between new wave cinema and Impressionism. What do you see as the connections?

The Academy in both cases was very strong, more in France than anywhere else. It was the industry itself that wanted to make movies like they were making them in Hollywood. You found in France at the time independent auteurs like Renoir, but they were the exceptions, otherwise there were so many rules. You had to film in the studios, dialogs and scripts pledged to literature…

So censorship wasn’t state sanctioned.

No, no…the Academy, artistically speaking, required that you make films a certain way. It was the same with painting in the 19th century. You had a jury with very strong ideas, and you couldn’ t go into the business if you didn’ t get into the Salon, the hall to exhibit in Paris and if you couldn’ t show your paintings there, you were nothing. Same thing with the film industry, it was very hard to be part of it and the Cannes Film Festival was a good mirror of that situation. The year before 400 Blows was shown in Cannes in 1959, in 1958 Truffaut — still a film critic— was banned, not allowed to come!

So they had to fight against a very strong academy in both cases, and in both cases they decided, the Impressionists and new wave filmmakers, to film across the street instead of going to Africa or anywhere else, and to work with their friends behind the camera and their girlfriends in front of it. Dealing with today and not yesterday's.

And artistically speaking you can draw an amazing parallel, because at the time of the Impressionists the invented paint in tubes, which allowed them to go anywhere. The technology was so good; it gave them so much choice. The same thing happened with the new wave, the technology changed. You had hand held cameras and soon portable and affordable sound recording. So, the technology allowed this way of filming in a much lighter way, with new film stock and things like that. So you have not only the Academy and the group of people that wanted to fight against the Academy joined through the same love of painting or filmmaking, but also the technology that allowed this rebellion. So yes, you can make an amazing story about these two groups.

And also, it was in America that Impressionists and new wave filmmakers found a way to survive. The first impressionist exhibit was in 1886 in New York and this is how the artists were able to sell their paintings. They were not selling their paintings in France at all and for long. And the same thing for Truffaut and Co, they were quite successful abroad…

…And you said your film has been more popular here than in France. Why do you think that is?

The French are that way. I mean, they disregard their own genius, they have this complex of inferiority, despite their legendary arrogance. Arrogant with a complex. I mean, it took us decades to actually recognize that Marcel Proust was a great writer. It was only after it was translated into English and the English said, “ Wow, what a writer” that we said, “ Do we? Really?” Because Proust was dealing with the bourgeoisie, so the French lookeddown on it: “ How could you make something interesting about the high bourgeoisie? It’ s not possible!” Of course, it’ s so stupid that now people realize. It took them decades. So that’ s how we are.

I wanted to ask you, and this is of personal interest, I know there is a growing trend in French cinema of incorporating more real sex acts and explicit violence in film – I think of Irreversible and Catherine Breillat’s films – do you see any tie between that and the foundation that was established with cinéma vérité, this idea that “realness” is a French contribution to cinema?

The way I see it, the French cinema up to the 60s and maybe 70s was looked at from the American perspective as very sensual. We knew how to film a scene in a bed, or sensual relationship, which American cinema didn’ tseem quite able to do. So French cinema was viewed as very erotic, very sensual, at least. But, for action movies, of course the Americans have always been much better. So, I think now the French are trying to make these kindof action movies, with violence, but still today, they’ re not good at that. I do think they’ re trying. They’ re doing their best.

What about Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One?

That is based on an American novel actually. It’ s not bad, but it’ s still doesn’ t compare. It’ s not the kind of film we should make, that we’ re good at, in my opinion. I prefer the way the new wave did American cinema – made it their own. When Truffaut made a police detective called Shoot the Piano Player, he made it his own way. There is violence, but Truffaut’ s film has this charm… it’ s very sensual. The way Léna slides down the snowafter she is shot. It’ s more Proustian.

I’ve seen recently a film that impressed me a lot, Fighter. We don’ t know how to make this kind of movie. It’s excellent. It has all the qualities of a documentary. The actor, Christian Bale, and the actress, Alice Ward, both won Oscars. She is unbelievable. The tribe of seven sisters he has, the most frightening harpies! It’ s both very funny, terribly funny, sarcastically funny, and then dramatic of course. It’ s such a good combination of violenceand humor… It’ s sad to say but the new wave was the last time when French cinema was an example to theworld. I have see a few recent French films that are very good, amazingly different films that are not trying to mock American cinema and are doing something on their own, but it’ s only a few.

It’s interesting because I think Americans still think of French film as being artistic, cutting edge, pushing boundaries, at least in academia.

We have a strong industry; it’ s true. Most of the films are made financially through subsidies. It’ s very, very welldone. Every time you buy a ticket in France for any movie, even Harry Potter, any big American movie, thirteenpercent of that money goes back to CNC (Centre national de la cinématographie). It's a great system against American mercantile imperialism, which has killed most of the film industries in Europe.

Ultimately, do you think that helps or hurts French cinema? Obviously it helps, but it’ s also another academy. Let’ s put it that way. Few people decide, because they are part of a commission, what gets made, as far as "film d'auteurs" are concerned. That’ s exactly how an academy works.

Thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Thank you.

Emmanuel Laurent is currently working on a film project, based on his 2003 book, Mademoiselle V. Diary of a Heedless Girl (Mademoiselle V., Journal s’une Insouciante)about Victorine Meurent, the model for Impressionist painter, Manet’s, famouswork, “Olympia,” a mysterious figure who later became an artist. Laurent has produced and directed over twenty feature length films and documentaries and is one of the owners of the film production company, Films á Trois. Text and interview by Anna Wittel. Illustration by Aaron Johnson