In Black & White: The New Wave

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

THE NEW WAVE. By James Monaco. Oxford University Press. 372 pages. $15.95.

The French New Wave is the richest single “trend” in the cinema of the second half of this century, and the only aspect of film history that presently seems to have much relevance to the muddled movie art of the 1970s. It may also be the last significant “national” period in our increasingly internationalized film world. Also, it just may be as big a part of “the problem”—of contemporary movies—as it is of “the solution.” But none of this, it turns out, is especially important in James Monaco’s new book.

Monaco’s The New Wave is really a book about Truffaut and Godard with chapters on Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette. The author’s version of la nouvelle vague omits Resnais, Varda, Derny, Malle, Rozier and other relevant figures, and limits itself to what is really the Cahiers du Cinéma branch of the New Wave. All five of Monaco’s directors are former Cahiers critics, and Monaco is especially interested in the ways in which their films take a critical approach to the nature of film language. The result is, at least in part, a book about movies-as-film-criticism—all the more so since Monaco devotes considerable space to the directors’ declared intentions for their film work.

Half the book is devoted to Godard and nearly a quarter to Truffaut. Monaco, having a good deal to say about both, easily justifies this emphasis. In fact, the reader is inclined to quarrel not about the emphases, but about the ways in which the remaining quarter of the book has been handled. Since Chabrol, Rohmer, and Rivette receive comparatively limited attention anyway, wouldn’t it have been better to have simply made them part of a more inclusive survey of Godard and Truffaut’s relevant contemporaries? Give us the Big Two and “the period” as well.

Quibbles about emphasis aside, Monaco’s book is a richly detailed meditation on five fascinating careers. The sections on Truffaut work persuasively toward a resolution of the inconsistencies that seem to have marred his standing as an auteur. And the lengthy illumination of Godard, very much the centerpiece of the volume, offers a lucid view of the links between that director’s early (“bourgeois”) and recent (“Dziga Vertov”) periods. Indeed, Godard at his most perceptive often seems the guiding spirit behind the entire book. Monaco dabbles in Marxist/structuralist notions in an undidactic way, while pursuing an essentially auteurist policy of criticism. And so the book is also one which applies the New Wave’s own critical methods, implicit and otherwise, to New Wave films.

If The New Wave is a less than exhaustive study of la nouvelle vague, it is still an exceptionally good piece of work, on par with the best criticism that has been done on Godard, Truffaut, and Resnais (on whom Monaco is reportedly doing a separate study) and definitely superior to Roy Armes’ survey of New Wave directors (Armes’ most recent book, The Ambiguous Image, is another matter, however; in many ways it might serve as a useful companion volume to Monaco’s). Occasionally Monaco plays a little fast and loose with ideas, and the treatment of individual films sometimes seems skimpy. But his discussions are concerned less with exhaustive examination of individual films than with fitting them into a developing pattern which the author sees in each filmmaker’s career. And it is in this latter area that the book’s great strengths lie.

Five superb chapters on Godard are enough to make this a major critical work, but The New Wave is significant, above all, as a provocative, jam packed study of a unique brand of modernism: an unprecedented filmic neo-classicism together with an extraordinarily personal cinema which has led the way in creating cinematic visions in a seemingly untenable age. Someone may be able to write a more comprehensive study of all that, but no one who tries can afford to ignore what Monaco has done here.

© 1977 Peter Hogue

A pdf of the original issue can be found here