Billy Gray

Two in the Wave

In Movie Reviews on June 15, 2010 at 11:24 am

The New Wave was such a seismic event in film history, its influence felt to this day; it’s tough to believe it was over and done with in nine years. But Two in the Wave posits that the movement kicked off at the Cannes Festival in 1959 and crashed alongside so many Parisian police barricades during the spring of 1968.

How did the student political protests of May ’68 bury the protest movement of a bumper crop of film students? Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the parallel, meteoric rises of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t break ground like those directors did. But its take on their artistic symbiosis and notorious falling out will appeal to any movie fan who has tried to cop Jean Paul Belmondo’s effortless, ungainly cool or Jean-Pierre Léaud’s teen angst and cherubic mischief.

Truffaut and Godard are arguably the most prominent figures to come out of La Nouvelle Vague. There’s no question the two of them would argue about, and probably against, that themselves. Both started as critics at Cahiers du Cinéma, a journal that combined academic, though passionate and unorthodox, film criticism with mass appeal and influence. The likes of it will never be seen again.

Truffaut was the first to have success making movies rather than writing about them when The 400 Blows stole the show at Cannes in 1959. Every actor really wants to direct. And every film critic wants to make movies, not report on them. Godard stewed in the cramped Cahiers offices as Truffaut strolled down the Croisette. (Godard’s zinger about what would have been an “anti-Cannes movie” two years earlier becoming the festival darling hints at the cranky, tireless radicalism that would soon repel Truffaut from him.)

Months later, Breathless came out. (Truffaut wrote that movie’s script, which, it seems to me, isn’t as big a part of the movie’s immense legacy as you’d expect.) The public hated it, with one old crank calling it “gratuitous dirt.” Fifty years later, it is currently playing in revival to sold out crowds at Film Forum.

This part of the story is familiar. And Two in the Wave needn’t dwell on it for as long as it does. Killer archival footage (of Truffaut strolling down the Croisette in 1959, among other things) makes up for it. A pointless if not inexplicable fourth wall technique in which a fetching, exceedingly French-looking young woman—a relative maybe?—flips through newspaper records and Cahiers back issues of the time, grinds the proceedings to a halt. A 400 Blows or Breathless (hell, even a Le Petit Soldat) highlight reel would have said just as much and been more enjoyable.

After a string of joint successes, the friendship and collaboration between Truffaut and Godard frayed just as society itself seemed on the verge of tearing apart. Truffaut remained a classicist and an “artsman” through the ‘60s, a decade that revolutionized Godard, who essentially stopped making movies and projected sociopolitical tracts across the screen. It’s a testament to Godard that these vaguely cinematic essays are not only watchable, but compelling.

Godard slammed Truffaut as “bourgeois”—ironic given Truffaut’s working class background and Godard’s intellectual, affluent family pedigree—and his most lasting influence a dilution of the Nouvelle Vague into “Hollywood on the Seine.” Truffaut, skeptical at best of Godard’s pedantic agitprop, derided “art that was subservient to politics” and cautioned directors against becoming “propagandists.” He didn’t name names.

It’s good, dirty fun to watch the vitriol unfurl. But Two in the Wave could have been more inventive, maybe exhibited some of the its subjects’ flare, and propose an alternative history of the New Wave in which Godard and Truffaut had remained friends. Would a sustained collaboration have prolonged the New Wave’s halcyon days? Was the party just not meant to last? Or did the animus breed a kind of nervous competitive energy that shoved the two directors in the direction they, and their fans, needed to move, however reluctantly?

Two in the Wave is most affecting at its tender postscript. The credits roll over the 400 Blows screen test of a very young and very cheeky Léaud. Truffaut asks Léaud if he’s joyful or sad. “I’m joyful!” he shouts with a swaggering grin. It’s a bittersweet glimpse of what was. You can’t help but wonder what else could have been.

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