Five Classic Musical Scenes of the French New Wave

Time to look back and relive some of the films that made cinema where it is today.

The French New Wave was famous for breaking old rules and typical “filmisms” of cinema and establishing new ones. However, there were many times where they would simultaneously parody and salute various old styles of filmmaking drawn heavily from the theatre, or from Talkie-era filmmaking. Here are some classic examples of musical elements in the beloved Novelle-Vague! (It is admittedly Godard heavy, but I think Godard may have been the heaviest commenter in his film work on this style of filmmaking)

Pierrot Le Fou by Jean-Luc Godard – Anna Karenina and Jean-Paul Belmondo singing Ma Ligne de Chance.

It is a remarkable scene in part because the music in the background seems to be playing from some on-screen location, as it cuts out with each shot’s cut, and continues playing shortly after the next shot, and in part because they are obviously singing on set as well with planted mics nearby, or booms, as their voices get louder and quieter based on where they are. It’s a completely diegetic way of presenting something logically non-diegetic; in other words, it is a way of presenting something completely within the world of the film which usually takes place involving elements from outside of it.

Jules et Jim by François Truffaut – Jeanne Moreau and Boris Bassiak playing “La Tourbillon de Vie”

A classic example of the French New Wave’s favorite mood – the incredibly dark undertones with the equally light overtones. Moreau’s character and her sometime lover sing this very playful but meaningful song to her husband and his best friend (who is also in love with her and who she is maybe somehow in love with). A pretty crucial scene in the film in how it subtly reveals so much about all of the characters.

Week End by Jean-Luc Godard – Jean-Pierre Léaud singing “Allô, Tu M’entends”

Much can be said about Godard’s various phases, and much has been said. It is commonly accepted that after 1965 his films became less and less accessible, and after 1970 they became almost entirely inaccessible. However, many of them still have a soft spot in my heart. Week End is certainly bizarre, absurd, and political, but it has many moments which are extremely remarkable, such as the long highway of death that we drive through for five minutes to everyone’s great chagrin. This scene, in particular, in which Jean-Pierre Léaud (of Truffaut’s Antoine Doinelle fame) plays a cameo as the guy who won’t get off the phone when the main characters desperately need it, and instead sings this song as each character begins to get madly violent.

It seems Youtube saw it fit to remove, so I’ll leave you with this cheesy version from a few years later. If it comes back on Youtube or some sketchy Russian website I’ll replace it promptly:

Cléo de 5 a 7 by Agnes Varda – Corinne Marchaud and Michel Legrand playing “Sans Toi”

An incredibly emotional scene in this film of self-exploration, in which the main character, Cléo (played by Corinne Marchaud) somehow instantly understands the song she is just introduced to by “Bob the Pianist”, who is played and written by the actual composer of this film’s score, as well as that of many other Novelle Vague films and so on, Michel Legrand. She then launches into it as though it sprang from her soul. The film is also technically a marvelous scene, with somewhat complicated camera work and the wall serving to isolate her in blackness during the build-up, and the combination of off-screen, non-diegetic sound, as well as that on screen.

Band à Part by Jean-Luc Godard – Anna Karenina, Claude Brasseur, and Sami Frey dancing “The Madison Dance” by, once again, Michel Legrand

Band á part was said, by Godard, to be a film mostly about specifically breaking many of the rules of cinema. It follows the scene in which the sound cuts out as the characters attempt to participate in a minute of silence, and in this scene the sound cuts in and out, and various surreal and comedic voice-overs appear. But somehow it’s extraordinarily compelling, and is another example of the light overtones with enormously dark undertones which only get darker, as the film only gets lighter.


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Categories: Features


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