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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 3: The French New Wave: A Musical Revolution?


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The French New Wave: A Musical Revolution?

Can we call the New Wave a phenomenon? Alas, unfortunately not!

— HENRI COLPI, Défense et illustration, 19631

Having considered the film music collaborations of the Cahiers directors within the framework of the Cooke-Chion dialectic set out at the beginning of the previous chapter, the evidence ultimately supports Chion’s hypothesis that the New Wave were, in fact, not so revolutionary in terms of film music. Indeed, when asked to elaborate on his comments in La musique au cinéma, Chion’s critique was much more definite:

[…] the New Wave did not really change much music-wise, since each director had his own approach – Truffaut had a classical, linear approach to film music, Godard worked with musical editing, Eric Rohmer used little if no music; therefore, there was not a global change. Furthermore, the New Wave was a generation of people who knew each other, but not an aesthetic movement. Between Chabrol, Rohmer, Godard, and Truffaut, there are huge differences on the level of style, subject, and certainly concerning their use and views of music. Thus, I find it hard to see a unity, an aesthetic. I don’t perceive at all any kind of revolution in the use of music by the New Wave.2

It is significant, if somewhat confusing, that Chion omits Rivette from his list of New Wave filmmakers, given the fact that, as shown in the...

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