What Are the Key Influences That Shaped the French New Wave?

The French New Wave, also known as Nouvelle Vague, significantly reshaped the landscape of global cinema by introducing innovative storytelling approaches and revolutionary film techniques.

Apr 10, 2024By Theo Kapetanakis, MA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & Communication

french new wave key influences


Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave, is the ultimate revolutionary movement in film history. It emerged in the late 1950s and thrived during 1960. This cinematic movement introduced a fresh approach to storytelling on the silver screen. By breaking norms and challenging the status quo, the New Wave gave birth to a new era of filmmaking that influenced numerous filmmakers. The movement itself was Influenced by classic American cinema and philosophical existentialism. Its movies continue to captivate cinephiles to this day.


The French New Wave: The Story of a Cinematic Revolution

Pierrot le Fou by Jean-Luc Godard 1965. Source: Criterion


The French New Wave was a revolutionary film movement that flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It embraced a fresh spirit that pushed the boundaries of audiovisual storytelling and cinematic aesthetics. The resistance to cinema’s commercialization and the liberation of cinematography from conventional methods and practices set the stage for this new era of cinema. In the post-war cinematic culture, the director was the dominant figure and the primary creative force in film production. The director had complete control over a film, much like an author does over a book. The importance of the figure of the director helped the French New Wave movement become the most famous cinematic movement to ever appear in the history of film. Let’s see which authors influenced the famous Nouvelle Vague.


Influences: Alfred Hitchcock (1890-1980)

Alfred Hitchcock on the set of his movie Psycho. Source: IMDB


The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, was a British film director and producer known for groundbreaking cinematic techniques in thrillers, adventures, and psychologically suspenseful films. Through silent and sound films, Hitchcock rapidly built a highly successful career in British cinema. In 1939, he transitioned to Hollywood, and in 1955, he became an American citizen. Hitchcock’s first color film was Rope (1948), an experimental and groundbreaking film entirely shot using a single camera, with no cuts in the editing room. After the commercial success of his cult classic film Psycho (1960), Alfred began directing films less frequently.


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Alfred Hitchcock consistently preferred blonde leading actresses for his films. They became notable trademarks seen in almost all of his works, next to his famous cameo appearance. Hitchcock’s innovative camera movement and non-linear narratives that aimed to show psychological depth were essential to his profound influence on the French New Wave movement and its directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and Francois Truffaut. The innovative directors of this revolutionary film movement adopted Hitchcock’s experimentations, as well as his passion for cinema.


Italian Neorealism (1943-1952): Raw Everyday Life

Europe ‘51 by Roberto Rossellini, 1952. Source: Movements in Film


Italian Neorealism was an Italian cinematic movement that developed in the 1940s and 1950s. It focused on stories set among the working class—portraying the conditions of everyday life intertwined with poverty, oppression, injustice, and despair. The themes present in Italian Neorealism relate to Italy’s challenging economic and social conditions after World War II. These films were shot using real locations rather than premade studios. They often featured non-professional actors as main characters. This unfiltered approach gave a touch of authenticity by emphasizing realism. Italian Neorealism deeply impacted the world of cinema, motivating filmmakers across the globe to explore similar themes and narrative techniques.


Italian Neorealism left an indelible mark on the French New Wave by influencing its storytelling approach and perspectives. Many New Wave Directors, such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, emphasized raw realism and everyday life in a similar way. A prime example of this influence is the French New Wave’s connection with Cinéma Vérité (French for truthful cinema), a unique style of documentary filmmaking that captures reality as it unfolds in front of the camera lens.


Film Noir (1940s and 1950s)

Film Noir. Source: Caramia Louise Blog


Film noir is a cinematic movement that thrived from the early 1940s until the late 1950s, defining a specific style of Hollywood crime films. These films were characterized by morally complex storytelling, often drawn from American detective novels of the Great Depression era. The stories of the Film Noir era are marked by murder, betrayal, fatalism, infidelity, greed, and jealousy.


The term Film Noir was coined in 1946 by the French film critic Nino Frank, although it became widely known later, in the 1970s. Film Noir had a significant influence on the French New Wave movement. The visual style, its complex characters, and the use of sound as a plot device motivated and inspired many New Wave directors who created famous cinematic masterpieces.


The Man Who Wasn’t There, by the Coen Brothers, 2001. Source: American Pulps


The visual style of Noir features a distinctive blend of low lighting, intentionally imbalanced compositions, and black-and-white solid contrasts that contribute to its cinematic magnificence. The unique atmosphere of tension and mystery is characterized by dramatic lighting and chiaroscuro effects, which emphasize the strong contrast between light and dark areas within a frame or scene. In terms of cinematography, frames with mirrors and poetic shots through glass surfaces are frequently used with symbolic significance, enhancing the compelling nature of this genre.


The Woman in the Window by Fritz Lang, 1944.


Film Noir characters are prisoners of their moral dilemmas and their flaws. Romance, jealousy, and cynicism are strong motivators that often expose a character’s vulnerabilities. Detectives and enigmatic femme fatales are emblems of Film Noir. These character archetypes play a crucial role in the global success of Film Noir and its influence on the world of cinema, unearthing some of the most primal aspects of the human psychological instincts on the silver screen.


Out of The Past by Jacques Tourneur, 1947.


The use of sound as part of the narration plays a pivotal role in shaping the aesthetics of every film noir. The soundscape transfers the tension to the audience through sound elements such as screeching car brakes, women’s heels, creaking doors, enigmatic voices, and gunshots that highlight crucial moments. Lastly, flashbacks are frequently employed as plot devices to reveal previous actions and backstory moments, giving complexity to the film plot. All these auditory elements are an inseparable part of the Film Noir journey.


Anti-Hollywood Aesthetic: Breaking the Fourth Wall 

Hollywood sign by Martin Jernberg, 2017. Source: Unsplash


French New Wave directors are renowned for their innovative and unconventional film techniques including jump cuts, freeze-frame effects, and breaking the fourth wall. Many directors of the movement experimented with audiovisual storytelling and editing styles, willingly breaking away from Hollywood conventions, with a deep desire to explore new forms, practices, and methods. More specifically, the storytelling technique known as Breaking the Fourth Wall, where characters in a film or play directly address their viewers, had a tremendous influence on the French New Wave movement. This technique blurs the line between fiction and reality, aligning with the New Wave’s exploration of the visual boundaries between fantasy and reality.


Funny Games by Michael Haneke, 1997; next to wall cracks by Vincent Burkhead, 2016. Source: Unsplash


Breaking the fourth wall came as another bold departure from traditional cinematic norms, fostering a sense of directness and emotional connection by making the audience members become active participants in the film’s plot. Ultimately, it became an enigmatic way to question the very nature of the seventh art itself. These techniques were used to challenge traditional cinematic norms and open new paths of expression for both filmmakers and cinephile audiences.


French New Wave: A Cinematic Legacy 

Portrait of Jean-Luc Godard Source: Cineccentric


Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker whose name became a symbol of innovation, played a central role in this progressive cinema movement. His provocative storytelling style, along with his experimental approach and visionary direction, earned him worldwide recognition as the top director in his field. Godard is still regarded as an avant-garde genius who reshaped the way audiences perceive cinema and visual storytelling completely.


The New Wave movement exceeded borders and influenced generations of visionary filmmakers. Its revolutionary spirit and new perspectives on things resonated with filmmakers worldwide. Renowned directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and Wes Anderson have all drawn inspiration from the aesthetics and practices of the French New Wave.

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By Theo KapetanakisMA Film Studies, BA Cultural Technology & CommunicationTheo is a filmmaker and author with tremendous passion for storytelling. He holds an MA in Film Studies from Middlesex University, London (1st Scholarship Award), and a BA in Cultural Technology & Communication from the University of the Aegean. His work includes, film directing, audiovisual arts, video editing, and scriptwriting. Furthermore, Theo is a Graphic Designer & Media Editor at TheCollector. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.