You Haven't Seen Cool Until You've Seen '60s Paris

Put on one of these movies and instantly feel more alluring, charming, and mysterious by association.

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In Paris, in the late 1950s, an artistic movement was brewing. In response to what they perceived to be the sadly unadventurous movies of the era, a group of filmmakers took to the streets of the city to make films that felt new, exciting, dynamic—even dangerous.

They shared one crucial motivation: they wanted to break the rules of cinema.

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They called it the French New Wave, and while its prominent directors all had signature styles of their own, they shared one crucial motivation: they wanted to break the traditional rules of cinema. And many of the New Wave's key players—including directors Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol—had another thing in common: they started out writing about film for seminal French magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma.

Francois Truffaut at the 1959 International Film Festival in Cannes, France. Photograph courtesy of Getty Images
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So this was a group of well-informed cinephiles who wanted to change the way movies were made. And, over the course of about a decade in the late '50s and early '60s, they managed to do just that, releasing some of the most thrilling, enchanting, romantic, and flat-out fun movies ever made, influencing everyone from Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) to John Hughes (Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club) to Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Raging Bull).

Here's everything you need to know to start digging into the magic of the French New Wave. 

The Stars

Name: Brigitte Bardot

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Notable Performance: Le Mépris (Contempt)

Signature: Smoky eyes, iconic gap tooth, inspiring feelings of romantic devastation across the world.

Name: Jean-Paul Belmondo

Notable Performance: A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme est Une Femme)

Signature: Making turtlenecks cool, possessing the ability to smoke for 24 hours straight.

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Name: Catherine Deneuve

Notable Performance: Belle de Jour (Beauty of the Day)

Signature: Quietly stormy performances, being one of the world's most graceful humans. 

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Name: Anna Karina

Notable Performance: Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part)

Signature: Her work with director Jean-Luc Godard, being the movement's reigning queen of cool, influencing style to this day

Name: Jean-Pierre Léaud

Notable Performances: 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)

Signature: Wisdom well beyond his years, the unforgettably soul-piercing gaze at the end of 400 Blows.

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Name: Jeanne Moreau

Notable Performances: Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim)

Signature: Managing to be so charming in Jules et Jim that you understood two best friends vying for her affections—and being able to sing, dance, and do her own subtle brand of physical comedy at the same time.

Name: Jean Seberg

Notable Performance: À Bout de Souffle (Breathless)

Signature: Being the lone American who managed to become one of the most memorable actors of the French New Wave; sporting perhaps the coolest pixie cut of all time

The Films

Breathless (Á Bout de Soufflé)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Year: 1960

The Gist: Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a charming small-time crook who fancies himself an Old Hollywood type. Patricia (Jean Seberg) is an ex-pat selling newspapers on the street while trying to make her journalistic dreams come true. The two cross paths on the streets of Paris, sparking a whirlwind affair, and anchoring a film that ended up bringing the style of the French New Wave to an international audience.

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Watch for: The chemistry between Belmondo and Seberg, and Godard's innovative use of the jump cut (in which a director "jumps" abruptly from one angle to another).  

400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)

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Director: François Truffaut

Year: 1959

The Gist: This coming-of-age movie—with perhaps the best closing shot in the history of film—tells the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Laud), who struggles against all manner of adversity as he tries to make that always-tricky leap from boyhood to (young) manhood.

Watch for: The beautiful closing moments, featuring one penetrating stare you won't soon be forgetting.

Belle de Jour (Beauty of the Day)

Director: Luis Buñuel

Year: 1967

The Gist: A candid look at love, sex, and identity at the hands of one of the most masterful directors of the era. Catherine Deneuve's performance as Séverine Serizy, a woman searching for herself, radiates.

Watch for: Catherine Deneuve's uncanny ability to say so much without saying anything at all.

Band of Outsiders (Bande à Part)

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Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Year: 1964

The Gist: Director Jean-Luc Godard was famously quoted as saying that "all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun." This is perhaps illustrated best in Band of Outsiders, in which a merry group of friends turn the entire city of Paris into their playground, eventually landing in a heist they may not be able to dance their way out of.

Watch for: The magical moment when the three main characters break into dance while out at a cafe. It takes charm to new heights.

Jules and Jim (Jules et Jim)

Director: François Truffaut

Year: 1962

The Gist: A love triangle for the ages, Jules and Jim tells the tale of a trio whose feelings for each other carry through World War I, and change all three of their lives forever. While that all sounds heavy, the film still has a good deal of the breezy charm for which the French New Wave was so well known.  

Watch for: The scene in which Jules, Jim, and Catherine sprint giddily through the halls of the Louvre.

The Good Girls (Les Bonnes Femmes)

Director: Claude Chabrol

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Year: 1960

The Gist: A group of young Parisian shopgirls look for love in 1960s Paris. The film's view of the perils of single life remains surprisingly relevant, and wandering through the Parisian nightlife with this wonderful ensemble of actors is a real treat.   

Watch for: A taste of what it might be like to be young and single in Paris in 1960.

Contempt (Le Mepris)

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Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Year: 1963

The Gist: Love, jealousy, and emotional wreckage on Italy's Amalfi coast. Based on the novel by Italian writer Alberto Moravia, this movie is a tale of broken love told in broad, bold strokes.

Watch for: The fully fanged performance by Jack Palance as a brazen Hollywood bigshot.

A Woman Is a Woman (Une Femme Est Une Femme)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Year: 1961

The Gist: The French New Wave's ode to the MGM musicals of yesteryear, A Woman Is a Woman has three members of a love triangle—clearly a favorite topic of the movement—doing their own playful song-and-dance routine, as only a trio of beautiful, charming, '60s Parisians could.

Watch for: The wonderful scene in which Belmondo and Karina giggle through their attempts to outdo each other in a series of ridiculous competitions. 

A number of theaters will be screening French New Wave films this summer:

Dallas, TX

The historic Texas Theatre will be showing the films of Jean-Luc Godard every Thursday in May; the remaining movies in the series are Pierrot Le Fou, Vivre Sa Vie, and Bande à Part.

texastheatre.com

Chicago, IL

The Siskel Film Center, named in honor of celebrated film critic Gene Siskel, is hosting a series spotlighting four French auteurs, including two very influential to the New Wave—Agnes Varda and Jean-Pierre Melville—from now through June 2.

siskelfilmcenter.org

New York, NY

Film Forum in downtown Manhattan is currently hosting a series called "Anna & Jean-Luc," showcasing the films in which director Jean-Luc Godard collaborated with actress Anna Karina.

filmforum.org

Los Angeles

Now through May 12th, Cinefamily will be screening a new restoration of Bande à Part.

cinefamily.org

(If you can't make it to any of these cities, there's always iTunes!)

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