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Listening to the French New Wave

The Film Music and Composers of Postwar French Art Cinema


Orlene Denice McMahon

As perhaps the most studied film movement in cinematic history, the French New Wave has been analysed and criticised, romanticised and mythologised, raising the question of whether it is possible to write anything new about this period. Yet there are still gaps in the scholarship, and the study of music in New Wave films is one of the most striking.
Listening to the French New Wave offers the first detailed study of the music and composers of French New Wave cinema, arguing for the need to re-hear and thus reassess this important period in film history. Combining an ethnographic approach with textual and score-based analysis, the author challenges the idea of the New Wave as revolutionary in all its facets by revealing traditional approaches to music in many canonical New Wave films. However, musical innovation does have its place in the New Wave, particularly in the films of the marginalised Left Bank group. The author ultimately brings to light those few collaborations that engaged with the ideology of adopting contemporary music practices for a contemporary medium.
Drawing on archival material and interviews with New Wave composers, this book re-tells the story of the French New Wave from the perspective of its music.
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Chapter 1: Music and Cinema in Postwar Paris: A Cultural History


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Music and Cinema in Postwar Paris: A Cultural History

New Novel. New Cinema. New Wave. For ten years, we are in the new. Never, perhaps, in the history of letters has there been such wilful deliberation to free oneself from tradition, to break with the past, to create an absolutely original form and spirit.

— RENAUD MATIGNON, Arts, 19631

The 1950s were not only modern; they were assertively new.

— FORBES AND KELLY, French Cultural Studies2

In 1957, Françoise Giroud, co-founder of French news magazine L’Express, set out to explore what characterised the youth of the postwar era.3 The magazine circulated a sociological questionnaire among young people ranging from the ages of eighteen to thirty throughout France, which questioned the social, political, and cultural concerns of this postwar generation. Published in L’Express between October 3 and December 12 of that same year, the results signalled that young people desired change, specifying the need for rejuvenation in French society, particularly in light of the crisis of the Algerian war and the instability of the ruling government. The name that L’Express granted this generation was la nouvelle vague, a term that not only evoked their desire for renewal but also ← 21 | 22 → picked up on a fascination in postwar liberated France with the concept of ‘the new’.4

Richard Jobs has shown how this fixation with the postwar generation and with all things new began...

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