We are between the 50s and the 60s, a period of profound changes, when contemporary French cinema comes to an absolute innovation. A complex phenomenon, multifaceted and circumscribed to a set of revolutionary authors, films, ideas. They call it Nouvelle Vague: an expression born as a journalistic label and within a context unrelated to the world of cinema, but soon adopted in the film industry too, following a research done by Pierre Billard, editor-in-chief of Cinéma 58 magazine, which had published a list of French filmmakers including Bernard Borderie, Henri Verneuil, Jack Pinoteau and Robert Hossein.
Identifying the common traits linking the exponents and the works of the Nouvelle Vague is a quite difficult job even for the most experienced critics. However, we can certainly say that the movement is based on the authors formed at the school of the Cahiers Du Cinéma, like Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut.
Truffaut in particular is one of the most interesting elements of the group. What do we know about him? Where can we trace the roots of his art? How do we interpret his metacinema?
Let’s start with a brief biography: born in Paris on February 6th, 1932, Truffaut owes his formation to the great critic André Bazin who, after having taken him under his wing, allows him first to work in the cinema section of Travail et culture and then, from 1953, to the Service Cinématografique of the Ministry of Agriculture. From there, Truffaut enters in the editorial staff of Arts and Cahiers du Cinéma and gives life to a fruitful collaboration with other French filmmakers. A short time later he passes from militant criticism to directing, realizing some short films, such as Une Visite (1954), Les Mistons (1957) and Histoire d’eau (1958) -directed with Godard- up to his first success with the highly autobiographical feature film, The 400 blows, dedicated to the memory of his mentor Bazin, as well as his childhood memory. It’s in this film that we find the first story of Antoine Doinel -a sort of alter ego of the director himself- played by the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. The unexpected success of The 400 blows leads Truffaut to enter the universe of the great masters he had admired so much and pushed him to acquire the techniques and the knowledge that he first talk about as a critic: from Rossellini he learns the taste of clarity and logic, from Lubitsch he inherits the art of indirect communication, from Renoir he absorbs the role of the actor as more important than the character, finally, from Hitchcock he realizes that the cinema should be considered an experience with “three players”, involving the author, the work and the spectator (Truffaut will always be a big fan of Hitchcock, dedicating to him one of the most famous film books ever, Le cinéma selon Hitchcock, 1966, written by Truffaut after a long interview with Hitchcock).
How to describe the cinematic conception of Truffaut? We are talking about a filmmaker for whom cinema has a challenge: it’s essentially visual art, where the true focus is not on what is said or shown, but rather in what is seen. In Truffaut’s imaginary, the film must always have an added value, a detail that puts it in direct connection with the magic of classical cinema. The film becomes the mirror, the most faithful reflection, in positive or negative, of the director who conceived it. With an insuperable precision and accuracy, Truffaut adheres to this conception by embodying the perfect example of author-student, a filmmaker who reflects on cinema while he’s doing it. It’s interesting to see how each of his films is also a metaphor of the cinema itself: so we come to talk about metacinema, the cinema that represents and wonders about its own laws and its own mechanisms.
Metacinema is something we can understand with a clear example taken from La Nuit Américaine (Day for Night). This film (which owes its name to a cinematic effect through which, by inserting a blue filter in front of the lens, it’s possible to make the scenes shot in daylight look like nocturnal ones) is published in 1973, with the screenplay of Truffaut, S. Schiffman and J. L. Richard. The following year the movie wins the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (France).
The plot aims to show the background in the realization of the film Je Vous Présente Pamela (Meet Pamela), filmed in the Victorine studios in Nice: the movie shows to the viewer the life and the job of the actors, the members of the troupe and the director, Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself), exposing their caprices, their aspirations and the hidden traits of their characters, their passions, their weaknesses and the love complications outside the set. During the filming process, the problems are alternated with the personal relationships between the various components of the troupe, introducing the story of the film into the film itself. And here’s what we mean when we talk about metacinema: La Nuit Américaine is the cinema that wonders about the problems of cinema itself, which shows how a film is complex in its realization and how it is built by joints and crosses, quotes and allusions.
We can find a real detachment from the previous idea of cinema in the fact that, if the classical cinema had attempted to conceal as much as possible the artifice, placing in the foreground the story told -rendered as perfectly natural in the eyes of the public- Nouvelle Vague movies break the cinematic enchantment and replace the fascination with the direct dialogue with the spectator. In the metacinema, the artist is the one who reflects on his own art: the essential element is self analysis, the analyis that every form of art makes about itself, perceived as the true meaning-maker in both literature and theater.
The cinema arrives to the self-celebration through a path where Shakespeare and his Hamlet were precursors, which is staging the theater in the theater. Through learning, imitating and confronting classics, the art of cinema becomes a game made with the instruments and the memory of the repertoire, so shooting basing on what was filmed up to that moment. The way followed by Nouvelle Vogue filmmakers enables the cinema to become the primary theme of the narration: the presence of the medium inside the medium, the tools, the crew and the operators on the scene, the analysis of the language and the narrative techniques become constitent elements of the metacinema. And movies like La Nuit Américaine are a real manifesto of that.
Thanks to the movement founded by Truffaut and his companions, in short time the metacinema is configured as a concrete attempt made by the authors in order to define themselves, to offer to the public a more precise perception of themselves, as well as a conscious vision of their own work.