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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 2: New Wave, New Music? Film Music Collaborations on the Right Bank


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New Wave, New Music?Film Music Collaborations on the Right Bank

The French New Wave arguably did more to revolutionise the techniques and aesthetic perspectives of film music […] than any other movement in the history of cinema.

— MERVYN COOKE, A History of Film Music1

It is not certain whether the phenomenon of the French New Wave […] was accompanied by a revolution in the area of music.

— MICHEL CHION, La musique au cinéma2

Having traced the individual paths of the new generation of New Wave composers from their days as Conservatoire students to composing for films, what, we must ask, were the implications of their meeting with the core New Wave Cahiers directors? Did these New Wave collaborations in fact revolutionise the aesthetics and practices of French film music?

As outlined in the above opening quotes, the answer to this question for Mervyn Cooke is a resounding ‘yes’ whereas for Michel Chion, it is a sceptical ‘no’. Unsurprisingly, the evidence provided by these authors in support of their positions is opposed. As mentioned in the Prologue, Cooke draws heavily on the oeuvre of Godard as evidence that the function of film music came under scrutiny during the New Wave, often used anempathetically, cut off abruptly to draw attention to its intrusive artificiality, or avoided altogether if a director felt its presence would detract from low-key ← 61 | 62 → realism.3 When it comes...

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