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Two in the Wave (DVD Review)

14 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Kino Lorber
Box Office $0.03 million
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.

With Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut as it stars, their dual collaborator Jean-Pierre Leaud as a featured player, historical tide changing (cinematic and political) plus film clips galore, there’s no way this biographical documentary can fail to be interesting unless you’re adverse to “inside baseball” in any context. This said, just around the time a long buildup truly begins to jell here, this rendering of a fairly famous story (in movie circles, at least) is well into its third act.

The real genesis of the filmdom’s French New Wave was the criticism its young turks began writing in the early-mid-1950s (Viva Hitchcock! Viva Howard Hawks! Viva Nicholas Ray!). Still, we think of the nearly bang-bang release of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Godard’s Breathless in 1959 and ’60 as the real launch pad, at a time when Hollywood was still in a Ben-Hur frame of mind. Actually, the two films opened about 10 months apart if you count Blows’ Cannes triumph as its premiere, but revolutions have a way of compressing time when looked at from half-a-century’s vantage point. In America, the differential was about 16 months, but it took Hollywood quite a while to figure out what was going on across the Atlantic — even though by the early 1960s the Hollywood studio system was collapsing and could have used its own fresh jolt.

In France, it was a not dissimilar case of hardened arteries. By taking more portable equipment to the streets, its Nouvelle Vague (a journalistic term) launched its attack on old-school French filmmaking identified with allegedly coasting veteran stars, impersonal directors and a preponderance (it still seems) of top-heavy historical epics. Growing up, Truffaut was a lower-class truant perpetually sneaking off to the movies, just as his screen alter ego Antoine Doinel (Leaud) does in Blows. The family of half-Swiss Godard was much better off financially, and he came to movie mania somewhat later in his development while keeping at least one eye on his studies.

Their story unspools here in an unusual but not necessarily inappropriate fashion — via a series of old scrapbooks (the apparent fruits of somebody’s mammoth hobby) we watch being leafed through by Isild Le Besco, a contemporary French actress whose films haven’t gotten wide distribution here. She has the kind of delicately pale sensual look that both directors might have exploited, and as we see her reading up on the two friends-turned-enemies, it isn’t hard to think of this as a link to the past when Godard and Truffaut were first learning about their own filmic idols. Some reviewers, though, regarded this device as a distraction, an argument with at least some merit.

It surprised me here to learn how quickly some of the box office bloom came off the Wave’s rose. Few directors in history have been as influential on the art or on developing filmmakers as Godard was and probably still is, but it’s easy to see how his political polemicizing would have put off the masses from the get-go. But Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player a commercial flop? It’s hard to imagine. The two were, however, supportive of each other’s projects for a long while, and though Truffaut’s career had fascinating ups-and-downs, his movies remained accessible. Though some thought them perhaps too respectable for their own good as time progressed (the way some say about Scorsese today).

Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) won Truffaut the foreign-language Oscar but led Godard to renounce his onetime friend, who, after helping lead ’68 protests supporting government-deposed Cinematheque Francaise co-founder/deity Henri Langois, was rarely, if ever, as outwardly political. Godard was and is almost nothing but political, and you can just hear the b-word (for bourgeois) passing his lips regarding Truffaut — though in this case, the slam was in a letter. (Night star Leaud, who’d traded films with both, got one as well.) Truffaut responded in print with marathon vitriol (the two filmmakers never spoke again) and died at 50 in 1984 of a brain tumor. Godard most recently declined to accept this year’s special Oscar from the Motion Picture Academy — which cannot exactly have been unexpected. One has to believe it was awarded more for the visual/intellectual vitality of Godard’s good old days and not for many films he’s made in recent decades, which are often as unbridled as Charlie Sheen rants.

The film clips are fun and in particular make me want to see some long unseen Godards again, but I wish this portrait dealt more with the emerging clash of their filmmaking styles in addition to their diverging personalities (after all, they had begun as collaborators on pre-feature short films). Also missing is very much on the myriad other talents who made up the of the New Wave, three of whom were Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Louis Malle — not exactly pikers when one takes the long view of French cinema. But then, maybe that would be another movie. This one we get isn’t to be missed for those among the faithful, even if it doesn’t quite pierce the bullseye.

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