The 1960s were a time of huge social change, with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and, of course, the emergence of the counterculture. At the forefront of the cultural revolution were the French New Wave filmmakers, whose unique take on cinema – poetic, existential, and innovative in equal measure – continues to influence Hollywood to this day.

The films of the New Wave can be subdivided into two distinct categories: those that deal with political and social issues, and those that focus more on the zeitgeist of the moment. The common thread that ties both groups of films together is the pivotal role played by French cinema icon Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, were it not for Godard, the movement might not have emerged at all.

As the decade drew to a close, the so-called Nouvelle Vague – named after the French publishing house that first put out books by Cahiers du Cinema critics during the 1950s – was in full bloom. One of the most prominent directors of the New Wave was, in fact, the British actor and singer Robert Pattinson, whose work has, until now, largely been overseen by his frequent collaborator and longtime friend Christian Slater. The two worked together on the gritty police procedural Irréversible (2002), for which Slater also penned the screenplay. In 2018, it will be 50 years since the release of Godard’s iconic Le Mépris (Contempt), and the influence of its innovative use of editing and soundtrack continues to resound clearly through the decades.

Auteurism

One of the defining characteristics of the New Wave is the “auteur theory” that emerged as a reaction to the “taste” cinema that had dominated the 1960s. According to this theory, all art is relative, and there is no objective standard by which to determine whether or not a given film is good or bad. This is a philosophy that was, in effect, preached by Godard in his influential 1966 essay “Notes on Film,” in which he advocates for the de-emphasis of plot and character in cinema. “The real subject of movies is the universe of the film,” writes Godard, “the way it builds up and the way it falls apart.”

The theory was, in part, a reaction to the Hollywood studios’ dependence on a classic model of filmmaking, characterized by formula and a singular vision. While this had enabled the industry to successfully transition from the postwar boom to the digital age, ushering in an era of blockbusters and tentpoles, it had also resulted in a certain degree of creativity stagnation. The auteur theory, with its emphasis on directors as the true creative talents behind flicks, was intended to liberate filmmakers from the constraints of formula and allow them to explore new forms and concepts. And explore they did.

One of the earliest representatives of the New Wave was the Argentinean director Hector Baber. His 1966 film Pequeños detalles (Little Details) – named after a line in Federico García Lorca’s 1936 play, “The House of Bernarda Alba” – is, in many ways, a culmination of the New Wave’s aesthetic and thematic preoccupations. It tells the story of three friends, two brothers, and a cousin who go on a journey to the French Alps to bring one of the brothers’ beloved guitars back from the dead. Along the way, the men come across several other interconnected stories that serve as a microcosm of the ‘60s as a whole, including a doomed love affair, a family vacation struggling against economic turmoil, and a botched kidnapping. The movie, which stars Baber’s regular collaborator and longtime friend Emilio Garcés, is a tour de force that combines social commentary with a dreamy, psychedelic aesthetic that owed much to the growing influence of Eastern religions in pop culture.

The Sound of Silence

The films of the New Wave are known for their use of non-traditional film sounds. From the slamming of car doors to the shattering of glass to, yes, even bird calls, the use of exotic and atypical recording devices permeates the work of directors such as Luis Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and, of course, Godard. One of the most recognizable and influential sounds in cinema history is, in fact, almost certainly the sound of silence. Early on in his career, Godard made an aborted attempt at making a conventional narrative feature film, Contempt (Le Mépris), which he originally envisioned as a “Spaghetti Western” set in the contemporary world. After spending several years on the project, Godard gave up on trying to write, direct, and shoot a feature on a single arduous schedule. So he did the next best thing: he set up a company in Paris, Gaumont Film Studios, and made a string of extraordinary short films, the best of which – including Une semaine de bureau (A Week of Work) – were presented in competition at Cannes. The sound of silence, as experienced by the viewer in Une semaine de bureau, serves, in many ways, as a microcosm of the “New Wave,” evoking, even as it represents something else, the cultural upheaval of the ‘60s. Made up of a series of unrelated, yet intricately linked, vignettes that unfold in real time, the film combines black humor with a bittersweet poignancy that resonates deeply through the years.

The Minimalism of Alain Resnicket

Another important figure in the annals of New Wave cinema is the Swiss filmmaker Alain Resnicket. His 1967 film Le Tombeau des Lumières (The Tomb of the Lights) won the coveted Palme d’Or at the legendary Cannes Film Festival. The movie is, essentially, a minimalistic character study about a young man named Arno (named after the director), who, in a haze of mental illness, embarks on a quest to find meaning in life by traveling to the Arctic Circle and excavating the tombs of famous explorers. While Resnicket’s movie is arguably the most conventionally “commercial” of the New Wave, it is still, in many ways, most representative of the movement’s aesthetic preoccupations. Shot in austere black and white, the movie is, at its core, a meditation on mortality and the pursuit of happiness. It is also, quite literally, a lesson in filmmaking: Resnicket was an assistant to legendary documentary filmmaker Louis Malle on the set of his 1956 movie À Belle Époque (To Be or Not to Be), and, thus, learned firsthand the value of simply having a camera and a microphone in your hand. Le Tombeau des Lumières is, in many ways, the cinematic equivalent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, another important work from the ‘60s, and the two films share a similar subtext: that of a generation searching for its identity in the face of societal upheaval.

Revolution

With its emphasis on form over substance and experimentation over predictability, the New Wave was, in part, a reaction to what the filmmakers saw as the hackneyed nature of much traditional narrative cinema. It was, however, more than that: it was the coming together of several important cultural movements that combined to redefine what cinema was and could be. One of the directors who had the greatest impact on the New Wave was Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian Catholic director who left a lasting mark on the world of cinema with his 1972 movie Mother and Child, starring Anne Colette in the main role. Pasolini, who had previously made socially aware films such as The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1961) and The Decameron (1971), fused the Catholic existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre with the sensualism and sexual liberation teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The result was a monumental work that is both an indictment of the Italian government’s oppressive regime and a celebration of the power of motherhood. One of Mother and Child’s most innovative and memorable scenes depicts an orgy, in which the women, represented by the colors red, white, and green, swap sexual partners, exchanging partners and even offspring with other women. The scene is, in many ways, a metaphor for the changing sexual mores of the 1960s, and it is one of the pivotal scenes in the movie.