In college, I couldn’t get enough French New Wave; stylish in costuming, presentation, and attitude, it was everything I aspired to be, but knew I was too soft to achieve. How to be one of those light-stepping girls who never got hurt or amused by the blunt, bullyish youths who did little more than scowl and walk around conducting their semi-shady dealings while tossing out despairing literary quotations?
Even though I’m sure I’d still love À bout du souffle and Alphaville– not to mention all those smooth Alain Delon heist films– it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into the genre. But this evening, completely exhausted by spending too much time outdoors in a freak heat wave, I could do nothing more than sit still and down iced drinks and watch movies. Halfway through Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, I had to take a break; the atmosphere had grown tiresome, and I realized as never before that a solid chunk of La Nouvelle Vague (or at least Godard’s version of it) involves people treating each other badly and assuming they’re profound in doing so– all while smoking about seven cartons of cigarettes every thirty minutes.
I also realized these characters are painfully young; the protagonist of Soldat is twenty-six– yes, he and most of the other characters are involved in dangerous/potentially lethal goings-on centered around Algerian independence, and that’s admittedly serious stuff that’ll turn anyone into an adult– or at least the semblance of one– pretty quickly. But all the moodiness, the claims to feeling alienated while appearing to have very little emotional capacity or range (or even vague empathy for other human beings) at all: it feels so much like very fashionable undergrads hunkered earnestly down and gazing at their collective navels in the middle of the night, convinced of their own rightness in the face of the total phoniness of everyone else.
I probably shouldn’t be so dismissive; among other things, I’m more than a bit heat-stupid, and if my bones are feeling something less than solid, my brain matter and consequent ability to judge anything are probably also not at their best. The New Wave filmmakers were reacting to a lot of falsity, willful ignorance, and stultified cinema around them, and insisted that social issues of the day be included in their work. So maybe what I’m reacting to on this irritation-prone evening is a simple recognition of how we’ve in some sense moved beyond the datedness of their own forms or assumptions, gender relations being one of them. With the look and the attitude common to so much of this loosely knitted school having been turned into pure, harmless style, it may be easy to forget just how unique, and significantly so, this stuff was, and still is.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still take Last Year at Marienbad or The 400 Blows over any blockbuster, or even most of the schlock that continues to be made. Completely dickish Frenchmen are at least more interesting on-screen than the same old superheros or Hollywood leads. But I guess we can all age out of anything, even– or maybe especially– our youthful ideals. Sad? Maybe. But that just means there are other ones to find and inhabit, at least for a while.