Fifty years ago today . . .
Godard wrote this New Wave battle cry for the April 22, 1959, issue of the French journal Arts, on the news of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows being selected to represent France at the Cannes Film Festival (thanks to the machinations of French culture minister and New Wave champion André Malraux). The year before, Truffaut had been barred from Cannes as a critic because of his Cahiers du cinéma attacks on the festival.
As soon as the screening was over, the lights came up in the tiny auditorium. There was silence for a few moments. Then Philippe Erlanger, representing the Quai d’Orsay, leaned over to André Malraux. “Is this film really to represent France at the Cannes festival?” “Certainly, certainly.” And so the minister for cultural affairs ratified the selection committee’s decision to send to Cannes, as France’s sole official entry, François Truffaut’s first full-length feature, The 400 Blows.
What matters is that for the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers that be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world. And what one can say of Truffaut could equally well be said of Alain Resnais, of Claude Chabrol if Les cousins had been chosen to represent France at Cannes, of Georges Franju and Head Against the Wall, of Jean-Pierre Melville and Two Men in Manhattan, of Jean Rouch and Moi, un noir. And the same words apply to other Jeans, their brothers and their masters: Renoir and his Testament du Docteur Cordelier, and Cocteau, of course, had Raoul Lévy at last made up his mind to produce Testament of Orpheus.
The face of the French cinema has changed.
Malraux made no mistake. The author of La monnaie de l’absolu could hardly help recognizing that tiny inner flame, that reflection of intransigence, shining in the eyes of Truffaut’s Antoine as he sports a man’s hat to steal a typewriter in a sleeping Paris; for it is the same as that which glittered twenty years ago on Tchen’s dagger on the first page of La condition humaine.
The director of L’espoir was better placed than anybody to know what this reflection meant: the principal form of talent in the cinema today is to accord more importance to what is in front of the camera than to the camera itself, to answer first of all the question why, in order to then be able to answer the question how. Content, in other words, precedes form and conditions it. If the former is false, the latter will logically be false too: it will be awkward.
In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret, Claude Autant-Lara, Pierre Chenal, Jean Stelli, Jean Delannoy, André Hunebelle, Julien Duvivier, Maurice Labro, Yves Ciampi, Marcel Carné, Michel Boisrond, Raoul André, Louis Daquin, André Berthomieu, Henri Decoin, Jean Laviron, Yves Robert, Edmond Gréville, Robert Darène . . . what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is.
And we have more right than anyone to say this. Because if your name is emblazoned like a star’s outside the cinemas on the Champs-Élysées, if people now talk about a Henri Verneuil film or a Christian-Jaque just as they talk about a Griffith, Vigo, or Preminger, it is thanks to us.
To those of us who on this paper, in Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, or Cinéma 59, no matter where, on the back page of Figaro littéraire or France-observateur, in the prose of Lettres françaises and sometimes even the schoolgirl stuff of L’express, those of us who waged, in homage to Louis Delluc, Roger Leenhardt, and André Bazin, the battle for the film auteur.
We won the day in having it acknowledged in principle that a film by Hitchcock, for example, is as important as a book by Aragon. Film auteurs, thanks to us, have finally entered the history of art. But you whom we attack have automatically benefited from this success. And we attack you for your betrayal, because we have opened your eyes and you continue to keep them closed. Each time we see your films we find them so bad, so far aesthetically and morally from what we had hoped, that we are almost ashamed of our love for the cinema.
We cannot forgive you for never having filmed girls as we love them, boys as we see them every day, parents as we despise or admire them, children as they astonish us or leave us indifferent; in other words, things as they are. Today, victory is ours. It is our films that will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that. Fifteen new, courageous, sincere, lucid, beautiful films will once again bar the way to conventional productions. For although we have won a battle, the war is not yet over.
This version of Godard’s essay was included in the compilation book Godard on Godard, edited and translated by Tom Milne.