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Listening to the French New Wave

The Film Music and Composers of Postwar French Art Cinema

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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 4: Musicalising Moving Photographs: The Early Film Music of Agnès Varda

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CHAPTER 4

Musicalising Moving Photographs: The Early Film Music of Agnès Varda

Music is an element in the film, just like the décor, the image, or a character. Background music doesn’t interest me.

— AGNÈS VARDA1

Agnès Varda used the skills she honed early in her career as a photographer to create some of the most nuanced, thought-provoking films of the past fifty years.2 She is widely believed to have foreshadowed the New Wave with her first film, La pointe courte (1954–1955), and went on to create one of the movement’s benchmark films, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961). As such, Varda has sometimes been referred to as ‘the mother’ or even ‘the grandmother of the French New Wave’, a rather unflattering and inept epithet given that she is around the same age as most of the directors associated with the movement.3 Despite this loose maternal association with the Cahiers directors, Varda’s work, with its recurring themes of time and decay, memory and the collective unconscious, fits much more comfortably alongside the films of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, together forming the Left Bank group within the wider umbrella term French New Wave.

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As mentioned in the Prologue, it was in 1962 that film critic Richard Roud separated the French New Wave into the Cahiers directors and the Left Bank group. In doing so, he admitted that the classification...

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