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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 6: Alain Resnais: ‘Auteur Mélomane’

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CHAPTER 6

Alain Resnais: ‘Auteur Mélomane’

I would like to make films that are listened to like an opera.

— ALAIN RESNAIS, France-Observateur, 19611

In the introduction to her monograph on Alain Resnais, Emma Wilson succinctly describes the director’s work as an exploration of cultural and popular memory, mass trauma, and individual losses.2 Indeed, Resnais has dealt with some of the most important socio-political issues of the postwar era, including two of the twentieth-century’s most traumatic events, the Holocaust and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, creating works that are often controversial and always provocative. Aware of the power of cinematic language, Resnais leaves no aspect of his cinematography to chance, carefully articulating his message by means of every aspect of the films’ aesthetics, including the music.

Although not a trained musician, Resnais has been referred to as a ‘musical creator’, whose ideas on music and the musicality of cinema have been described as both ‘profound and structured’.3 Interviews with Resnais attest to this, often apparent in the ways in which he speaks of his films by means of musical analogies. For instance, in reference to the placement of characters in his films, Resnais likens the process to ‘how a composer places ← 209 | 210 → the strings’.4 Similarly, when questioned about his method of working in 1960, Resnais responded:

Often in shooting a script, I start from an image around which develops a movement of other images,...

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