Scriptwriting and the French New Wave
I’ve been re-reading Michel Marie’s book, The French New Wave: An Artistic School (1997; translated by Richard Neupert). Marie is professor and department chair of film studies at the Sorbonne and, according to Dudley Andrew, a “legendary cinephile and scholar of French cinema.”
Even though it’s a slim 140-page text, this book is packed with “bloggable” ideas. Let me focus on one: the role that scriptwriting played in the aesthetic of the French New Wave. I’m often drawing from and paraphrasing Marie below.
In 1948, Alexandre Astruc, in the hugely important essay-manifesto, “The Birth of the Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” declared that a prerequisite for auteur filmmaking was that “the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.” The influence of this essay on the future French New Wave is well known, but was this principle really borne out in practice? As it turns out: not quite.
Some facts. Chabrol’s first film, the loosely autobiographical Le Beau Serge, was one of the few early New Wave films written solely by the director. Soon after, Chabrol began a long scriptwriting collaboration with Paul Gegauff. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is autobiographical as well but he hired a professional TV scriptwriter, Marcel Moussy, to collaborate with him. For the rest of his career, Truffaut worked steadily with a small core of scriptwriters. The first features by Rohmer (The Sign of Leo) and Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us) also had help from other writers, Paul Gegauff and Jean Gruault respectively. In fact, Gruault also collaborated with Godard (Les Carabiniers), Truffaut and Resnais (multiple films each).
Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy were exceptions; they wrote their early films alone. Godard used collaborators and pre-existing material that he adapted for his films, but in fact he’s the one who took the idea of the director-as-scriptwriter furthest. The source material of his films is usually unrecognizably transformed, and even the classical notion of a script doesn’t quite apply to his late 60s films.
Still, it’s interesting to realize that the proportion of original scripts actually declined from 1956 to 1963—the period of ascendancy of the New Wave—while that of literary adaptations rose. Marie writes:
Directors, producers, and writers thus continued to adapt novels, but less and less were they the sort of novels by Emile Zola and Stendhal that had typified 1950s French production. By the early 1960s, those sorts of adaptations were gradually becoming the subject-matter for television projects. There was a shift from the dominant naturalist model offered by René Clement’s Gervaise or Yves Allégret’s movies toward a model more influenced by Balzac, though it was greatly transformed by Rivette, whose Out One, for instance, was inspired by Balzac’s Story of 13 and La Belle Noiseuse by The Unknown Masterpiece. Truffaut and Chabrol also cite Balzac in The 400 Blows and Les Cousins. The naturalist model privileged costume dramas, social class conflicts, and a strong “typage” of characters, bordering on stereotyping. The Balzacian model dealt more with a critical description of contemporary society, underlining the contradictions that determined the conflicts that were as much psychological as social.
Francis Vanoye proposes two opposing conceptions of the script: the “program-script” that situates story events in a fixed structure, rendering the script ready for filming; and the “plan-of-action” script that is more open to uncertainties, chance and improvisation. The latter is strongly favored, at least in theory, by the New Wave. Here’s Marie:
But, although the program-script dominates “classical” cinema, it is far from absent from some New Wave films, since it governs productions by Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy. The films of Truffaut and Chabrol oscillate from one pole to the other, although the program-script clearly dominates their output.
The plan-of-action script is an ideal that the New Wave often attempts to achieve, but it reigns supreme in the aesthetic approach of Jean Rouch and Jacques Rozier. Rouch’s experiments, even those that seem less convincing in regards to their outcome, never cease to haunt the creative imagination of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer. At the opening of The Human Pyramid, Rouch, seated in the grass, explains to the young students he had gathered together that they will write the “script” at the same time as he directs it. In Punishment, the director “unleashes” a young actress whom he asks to play the role of a high school girl who is shut out of school one morning by her teacher and now heads off to Luxembourg Gardens where she encounters three young men hanging out there. While Godard wrote the dialogue for his characters in All the Boys are Called Patrick in a very personal manner, Rouch, by contrast, let his actors improvise their lines completely.
Crucial to this discussion is Truffaut’s landmark essay and infamous salvo, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” (1954). In effect, Truffaut charged that “Tradition of Quality” filmmakers and scriptwriters didn’t trust the original literary material enough. They found visual “equivalences” between the original material and the cinematic adaptation, thus either hiding or trying to ‘improve upon’ their literary sources for cinematic purposes. He derisively called their works “scenarists’ films.” A few excerpts from his essay:
In adaptation there exists filmable scenes and unfilmable scenes, and that instead of omitting the latter (as was done not long ago) it is necessary to invent equivalent scenes, that is to say, scenes as the novel’s author would have written them for the cinema. […] What annoys me about this famous process of equivalence is that I’m not at all certain that a novel contains unfilmable scenes, and even less certain that these scenes, decreed unfilmable, would be so for everyone.
[…] I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema [sic]. Aurenche and Bost [the screenwriters who were a primary target of Truffaut’s attack] are essentially literary men and I reproach them for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve done the maximum for it by embellishing it with subtleties […] When they hand in the scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scène, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures…
According to Marie, two alternative film adaptations proved to be models for the New Wave: Melville’s The Silence of the Sea (1949), and Astruc’s The Crimson Curtain (1953). Both films remained faithful to the details of the original texts without attempting to supplant them with ‘more cinematic’ equivalents; the author of the latter text, by the way, is Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was adapted by Catherine Breillat for her latest film, The Last Mistress.
In addition to this faithfulness to the text, it was also common New Wave practice to draw generously from and pay homage to it in the film by reproducing the text as voice-over commentary, interior monologue, dialogue or intertitles (e.g. the way Jules and Jim alternates Georges Delerue’s music with large sections of Michel Subor’s voice-over). Marie writes:
The New Wave advanced the notion of a mise-en-scène of the voice. Three decades after the coming of sound, it allowed directors to exploit all the possibilities in the soundtrack, and especially speech. It offered a cinema that was not afraid to speak, helping dismiss the out-of-date myth, imposed by theorists in the 1920s, that located the primacy of the cinema in the image.
Let me conclude with a quick personal detour. The early French New Wave films were my first exposure to foreign (i.e. non-Indian) ‘art cinema’ and thus formative. I’ve seen many of them multiple times over the years. But reading the Marie book reminds me that there are a number of films of the era (not just New Wave but also preceding it and related to it) that I’ve hunted for years without success. That wish list includes: anything at all by Jacques Rozier, Alexandre Astruc, Roger Leenhardt, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Pierre Kast. And the one film from that period I most want to see is Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1963).
pic: A loose adaptation of a wall-hanging in Alain Robbe-Grillet's "L'Immortelle" (1963)