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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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La Cinémathèque française, Paris, February 24, 2007. The lights go down in the Henri Langlois theatre and the cinema screen comes to life with a panoramic shot of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, hand in hand, traversing the Durance River (see Figure 1). For cinéphiles, it is an iconic scene. Yet, on this wintry afternoon, the Cinémathèque are paying homage neither to the film from which it is taken (the 1965 Pierrot le fou), nor to the film’s director, Jean-Luc Godard, but rather to a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman, with a long grey beard, giddy eyes, and a mischievous grin. This is Antoine Duhamel, the octogenarian French composer, former student of Olivier Messiaen, and composer of the film’s score (see Figure 2). Although I am an aficionado of both music and cinema, this was my first encounter with Duhamel’s name and the first time I had consciously listened to the music in one of my favourite French films.

This experience can serve as a reminder of the attention, or lack of it, that both film music and its creators receive. In order to address this phenomenon in relation to a single national cinematic tradition, this study focuses on the music and composers (Duhamel included) of the French New Wave. Still, as perhaps the most studied film movement in cinema history, the sheer extent of scholarship on the New Wave raises the question of whether it is possible to write anything new...

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