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Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave

Romy Schneider in Alain Cavalier’s Fire and Ice (1962)

A couple of months ago, we welcomed the news that the oeuvres of Jean Eustache and Jacques Rozier had been acquired and that new restorations are on their way, beginning with Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1972), which will open this year’s Cannes Classics program. Writing in the Village Voice in 1974, Molly Haskell called the three-and-a-half-hour film “a searing, painful, revealing, egotistical, irritating, often beautiful document that captures in orgies of sexual gorging and verbal disgorging, the clash among people of a certain generation and milieu, between Left Bank libertinism and an astonishingly deep conservatism—deep because it is mystical rather than political, and based on matters of life and death rather than left and right.”

A further sign of intensifying interest in a fuller history of the French New Wave that includes the work of vital figures beyond what critic Jean-Michel Frodon calls the “Magnificent Nine”—Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Jacques Demy—is Forgotten Filmmakers of the French New Wave, a program of more than forty features and shorts opening on Wednesday at the Museum of Modern Art.

Running through June 2 in New York and from Friday through June 19 at the Harvard Film Archive, the retrospective focuses on films made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a period of profound social and political change in France often overshadowed in retrospect by the upheaval of May 1968. Having led the postwar provisional government, Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 to rewrite the constitution and found the Fifth Republic at a time when the Algerian War was radicalizing both the left and the right.

“One might remember that the expression nouvelle vague was originally coined by the journalist Françoise Giroud, not in reference to filmmaking but to a much broader phenomenon of generational renewal throughout the country, especially in terms of decision-making and artistic expression,” writes Frodon in his program notes. “The critic Pierre Billard was the first to transpose the term to what was taking place in the contemporary cinema: the emergence of a new generation of directors, most of them young.”

Frodon, the editor of Cahiers du cinéma from 2003 to 2009 and the author most recently of books on Yasujiro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami, will be at MoMA on Wednesday to introduce the opening film. Alain Cavalier’s Fire and Ice (1962) stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as a right-wing militant and Romy Schneider as his wife, who discovers a bazooka in his closet. The story is inspired by an actual assassination attempt on De Gaulle. “There is no doubt that the ambiguous shadow of France’s experience in World War II lingered into the early 1960s and beyond, and that tremors of domestic social unrest and war in Algeria can be discerned hovering outside the somber, elegant frames of this film,” wrote A. O. Scott in the New York Times in 2009. “But it also seems that the movie’s main source of energy lies elsewhere, in the electromagnetic forces of desire, jealousy, violence, and cinema itself.”

On Tuesday evening, MoMA will screen three “early masterworks” by directors who would come into their own long after the New Wave had crested. In Father Christmas Has Blue Eyes (1966), starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, Eustache revisits the unhappy years he spent as a teen growing up in the south of France. Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s eighteen-minute Machorka-Muff (1963) is an adaptation of a satirical short story by Heinrich Böll that takes aim at the lingering remnants of fascism in then-contemporary West Germany. And Philippe Garrel cast his father Maurice in his first film, Les enfants désaccordés (1964), a short about two teens on the run.

Rozier’s first feature, Adieu Philippine (1962), screens on Thursday in New York and on May 21 in Cambridge with Blue Jeans, a short Rozier made in 1958. “Adieu Philippine” is a game two teenaged girls play as they vie for the heart of Michel (Jean-Claude Aimini), a Parisian about to be called to fight in Algeria. The trio’s “lighthearted yet earnest flirtations in the city lead to a shaggy-dog ramble through Corsica, but the knowledge of how it must end—with Michel’s deployment to Algeria—tinges the carefree wanderings with a worldly sadness,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “Rozier revels in the new era of rock music and Club Med, and his wondrous images raise the delicate rituals of adolescent courtship to a poignant comic grandeur.”

Frodon emphasizes that his selection can’t help but be subjective. “And yet,” he writes, “this program also hopes to give new access to many discoveries that will enrich the understanding of the decisive phenomenon that was the nouvelle vague, while showcasing rare gems that fully deserve to be discovered each for itself.”

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