Pierre Billard on young French filmmakers -- Feb 1958
This is the conclusion written by Pierre Billard for the feature "40 less than 40" concerning young French filmmakers which appeared in the February 1958 issue of Cinema '58. This article is credited as being the first to apply the term "New Wave" to that generation. Although this was more than a year before The Four Hundred Blows would be released.
So here, considered one by one, are 40 youths on whom rests the destiny of tomorrow's French cinema. How not to recognize that this list, which we wanted yo be benevolent, scarcely inspires enthusiasm. And it does not suffice to bundle forty individuals tied by their birth certificates to constitute an academy, how to deny to our too mortal forty a generalized proclivity towards a disquieting academicism.
In fact, what is striking about these young people is their lack of youth. We would pass most gladly over the defects of their films if those defects resulted from an excess of enthusiasm, from haphazard and poorly managed research, from immoderate ambition, or from erroneous, but novel, aesthetic conceptions. The wisdom with which this "new wave" follows in the tracks of its elders is disconcerting. Undoubtedly, it will sometimes happen that they will beat the elders at their own game: these bitter victories are not those which we wish for them.
Among the young foreign filmmakers discovered in these last years, there is no one whose genius seems guaranteed and all their films are far from satisfying for us. But, there is something in Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Knife, Attack (Aldrich, 1919), The Forty-first (Chukrai, 1922), Grand'Rue (Bardem, 1922), The House of the Angel (Torre Nilsson, 1925), Generation, Kanal (Wajda, 1927), Gli Sbandati, La Donna del giorno (Maselli, 1931), a passion, a desire to make films for, and, above all, against a certain order (moral, social, esthetic), an aspiration towards a thematic or formal renovation which appears to us YOUNGER [his capitals] than the knowing and empty mastery of the plupart of our "hopes".
Let's guard against condemnations, summary and too hurried. The only certainty about these forty names which we have gathered is that they do not constitute a generation (if what is meant by that is a collective phenomenon presenting some known characteristics) but a heterogeneous and inconsistent group of people manifestly the same age. Judging this group as a bloc, in STATISTICAL TERMS [his capitals], one is taken with an extreme strictness for the best, and thus lead to a MEDIUM [his capitals] value which denies the essence of their qualities. So it is these best alone that we would want to take into consideration to sketch out some conclusions. These conclusions will be completely false should we level a value judgment on our young filmmakers without taking into account the conditions in which they are led to create. In looking up from our biographies, our filmographies, our catalogings and our awards, we quickly see that we are proceeding to attribute to some the sins of all and forgetting the basic justification which explains today's situation.
I. The Conditions of production
The general conditions of film organization in France today are not favorable for the development of a new generation. Let us cite among some reasons:
---The non-existence of a sector of experimental production.
---The incoherence and absurdity of professional organization which increase the barriers and partitions between the specialties and organize employment into an extreme hierarchy, thus doing damage to the promotion of the most capable.
---The relative prosperity of the short film which, as much for economic as psychological reasons, holds the interest of such a number of the young (this factor is unfavorable only relatively to problem which occupies us today. It could be considered as beneficial in the long run).
---The character of current French production which is directing itself toward "international" co-productions in color with foreign stars and very high budgets are entrusted to men of high reliance rather than to the young.
---The absence of a spirit of exploration and risks by the producers who confide the majority of French production to an infinitely small group of talentless drudges. So it is than in the last 12 years around 100 films have directed by our 40 less than 40, being an average of two and a half films per director. During the same period, 167 films (about 20% of the total production) have been directed by 9 filmmakers (an average of fifteen and a half films per director): Berthomeiu (30 films), Stelli (22 films), Boyer (21 films), Pottier (18 films), Vernay (17 films), Labro (17 films), Lepage, de Canonge, Raoul André (14 films).
III. The manner of the times
Able, master technicians, virtuosos of their first films, our young filmmmakers have nothing more to learn on the plane of METIER [his capitals]. They even would know it rather too well and some from among them don't shy away from old trickery.
But this technical qualification, this professional mastery, is exercised most often in the void: comedies are sometimes comical but never satirical, and dramas, if should remove manner, nothing remains any longer. And isn't this vacuity astonishing among creators who were between 15 and 20 during the "phony war" and 20 to 25 at the Liberation? If it knew the difficulties, the sufferings, the enthusiasms of this period, this generation was above all formed during the years 45-55, those of great abandon. They have left it as a part of today's intellectual youth, lucid and bitter, but disenchanted and no longer believing in anything, not even its revolt. It has seen overhauled Gods founder, the old lose their nerve, the promises of other times denied: yielding to the fashion of the day, it amuses itself in "demystifying" the latest illusions. This painful test of truth is possibly salutary for a renewal: it is hardly favorable to creation.
The same as in the theatrical domain, the multiplicity of enthusiastic and inventive young troupes is accompanied by a total sterility of dramatic creation. The harm is easily surmounted for, from Shakespeare to Brecht, the repertory offers temporary and exciting compensations. In the literary domain, the progress is more advanced and a new orientation of fiction is already being outlined by, for example, Michel Butor, Marguerite Duras, Claude Simon, and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Conditions particular to film production render the refinement of new forms, of new themes, better in accord with our preoccupations, our sensibilities more difficult. One can divine its first fruits, however, in the sensuality of Vadim and Brabant, in the critical anarchism of Boissol, Carbonnaux, in the study of ambition in the work of Astruc, in the freer, more sincere, moer modern relations between men and woman in the work of Astruc, Vadim, Kast and Varda.
III. In the trough of the wave
And this leads us to a confession: it is that without doubt the moment was curiously chosen for a assessment of young French cinema. In fact, all this leads us to believe that under the accumulated effect of the causes which we have spoken of, we are currently in the trough of the wave, and, that the disappointments and renunciation of today will be succeeded by more positive experiences. These will come first off, undoubtedly, from the small academy we have examined today, and above all, if it is necessary to speak of the future, from Astruc, Vadim, Joffè, Molinaro and Malle. But other men who threaten to pull chestnuts out of the fire.
--- The Gods of Television, from which most harmonious film-TV relations permit exchanges.
--- Those of the short film: The announcement, for example, of the forthcoming creation of a co-operative of production which will gather some of the best documentarians around Alain Resnais and Henri Fabiani, is it not full of promise?
--- Those of Cahiers du Cinema: The half aborted attempt of Rivette (Le Coup du Berger), the successful one of Truffaut (Les Mistons) and the forthcoming feature from Chabrol (Le Beau Serge), all undertaken in independent production, don't they stand the chance of ending in interesting revelations?
No, finally, this stocktaking comes well to its end, less through what it observes than through what it announces. 1958 can be, must be for the young French cinema, the year of resounding confirmations, of unexpected flowerings, of lightning revelations. Or else...
Pierre Billard "40 less than 40" Cinema '58 February 1958 (my translation)