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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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In a letter dated May 25, 1959, Alain Resnais wrote the following to Giovanni Fusco:

My enthusiasm for your score does not decrease. On the contrary, it increases every time I listen to it. I am amazed by the speed with which you succeeded in penetrating the heart of our film. Without your contribution, Hiroshima would have been exposed to the risk of becoming nothing but a cold dummy, without any real life.1

Resnais’ letter provides a fitting conclusion to this study in the way it unwittingly captures a number of the key distinctions between the Left Bank group and the Cahiers directors, which in turn relates to their use of music. First, the inclusivity of Resnais’ words – ‘our film’ and ‘your contribution’ – highlights the importance of collaborative film music practices for the Left Bank filmmakers. Unlike the Cahiers directors, the Left Bank group did not espouse the individualist ethic of la politique des auteurs. Quite the opposite, their emphasis on collaboration has become a defining feature of the group. Resnais’ strong belief in cinema as a collective creation is equally true of all three Left Bank filmmakers. In part this fits with Jim Hillier’s assessment that ‘the Left Bank group marked itself off from the Right Bank group […] in having a closer relationship to modernist tendencies in the arts […]’.2 Yet this was more than just an awareness of the surrounding arts; as Part II of this book has aimed to show, the...

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