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A Masterful Work of Synthesis: The Legacy of the New Wave in French Cinema by Douglas Morrey

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962)

Cléo from 5 to 7 (Agnes Varda, 1962)

By Margaret C. Flinn.

The New Wave cast a shadow that extends far beyond influencing French film of the late 1950s-early 1960s. That is the central argument of Douglas Morrey’s The Legacy of the New Wave in French Cinema (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). This assertion might seem self-evident to many French cinephiles, but this does not diminish the potential pleasure a reader may glean from Morrey’s pages. Indeed, the author has done a masterful job synthesizing a massive quantity of secondary materials, and does so in an astonishingly readable fashion: it is exceedingly rare to see a book with this density of quotation and paraphrase that remains pleasurable to read.

New WaveAfter a substantial introduction concisely recalling the salient facts and characteristics of the New Wave, the book is divided into five chapters: 1. “The Post New-Wave of the 1970s: Eustache, Doillon, Garrel,” 2. “The cinéma du look,” 3. The jeune cinéma français of the 1990s,” 4. The Old New Wave, and 5. Contemporary Auteur Directors in France. The chapters are consistent in structure. Morrey first gives an introduction to the decade – for the majority of the chapters are structured around a decade, the exceptions somewhat being “The Old New Wave” which is dedicated to works of Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, and Agnès Varda clustered around the turn of the millennium, and “Contemporary Auteur Directors,” where Morrey orients towards Olivier Assayas, François Ozon, and Christophe Honoré’s work of the 2000-10s, but necessarily reaches back into the 1990s to consider work they produced earlier as context. Then, the chapters are generally focused on two or three filmmakers, each of whom is given a section, and within those sections, one or sometimes two films are given the overwhelming majority of analytical discussion, with other films serving mainly as counterpoint. Given the broad swath of French film history under consideration (roughly the 1950s to the present day), Morrey certainly had to make hard choices as to how to chart his way through this material. Given the New Wave directors’ massive engagement with auteurism – both as journalists and filmmakers – Morrey has perhaps inevitably leaned towards an auteurist structure himself. For each historical or thematic grouping, he uses a very select group of filmmakers as a lens through which to speak of broader tendencies. What is tricky here is that this means Morrey is simultaneously presupposing and arguing for these directors having a unique artistic signature while suggesting that exemplars of a decade’s art cinema are representative of broader trends in French national cinema (rather than being exceptional). Similarly, by making space for a close consideration of one or two films by each director, Morrey does allow the film corpus some space to breathe throughout his book – engagement with each film text does go beyond a superficial mention. But at the same time, the further Morrey goes into discussing distinctive qualities of each film, as he compares and contrasts those qualities (themes, aesthetics, authorial choices) to those of the New Wave (as a group or as an individual director), the chapters can be quite list-like. In fact, in the chapter on the cinéma du look, Morrey goes so far as to abandon connective tissue and simply say “The specific moments from Carax’s first two features that recall films by Godard are so numerous that it is perhaps most simple to present them as a list:[…]” (56).

If there is something that seems appropriate to the subject yet somewhat argumentatively unsatisfying about this balancing act, The Legacy of the New Wave is an absolutely masterful work of synthesis. The bibliography on each and every single one of the directors and films Morrey takes on is massive, and his footnotes necessarily numerous. I would hazard to say that I have never seen a book that has such a dense engagement with secondary sources be so readable – normally that degree of citation, paraphrase, or reference results in extremely stilted prose. Not so here. While the most exacting of specialists should be quite satisfied with Morrey having done all of his homework, a non-specialist, student, or cinephile should find the book quite accessible. The overview offered both of the topic of the New Wave’s presence in latter film historical moments and its explicit or implicit influence on subsequent French auteurs catalogues the movement’s on-going presence and illuminates influences that not every viewer would recognize.

Margaret C. Flinn is Associate Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University, where she researches and teaches on French and Francophone cinemas. She is the author of The Social Architecture of French Cinema, 1929-39 (Liverpool University Press, 2014). Her current book project focuses on the documentary in French cinema, in relation to globalization and technological change.

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