The nouvelle vague is now at least six years old and the time has come to take stock. Perhaps the best way to do this is to consider the work of Louis Malle, never at the heart of the group who took the headlines, yet in a way the nouvelle vague’s arch-exponent, and certainly its most consistently successful in terms of both box-office and prizes. In his latest film, Le Feu Follet, Malle showed himself perhaps closer to the original spirit of the movement than others who have sheered off in their own personal or hyper-personal directions. Malle, the most eclectic, is also the most typical. The paradox need not surprise: unable to develop a style with its own dynamic, the eclectic devises a composite, whose surface shimmers with unresolved tensions, but which is easily assimilable. In the wrong circumstances, the eclectic becomes either an academic or a grotesque. Malle, an intelligent director, has been saved from these extremes both by the progressive atmosphere surrounding him and by his own good judgement. But, whereas Godard is Godard and Truffaut is Truffaut, Malle is the nouvelle vague.
It is worth recapitulating why it was that the first films of the movement created such a vivid impression of novelty. Partly it was a question of mise en scène: semi-newsreel, often hand-held camerawork; a carelessness about framing and a much greater insistence on texture; a belief that the camera should follow actors encouraged to act naturally rather than perform in front of the autocratic camera; a new willingness to use unorthodox effects more or less casually rather than as set-pieces. Partly it was a new approach to content and a new kind of content: episodic construction, often with many parentheses; a fearlessness about introducing ‘intellectual’ material, conversation and allusions; a phenomenological approach to domestic psychological problems; a more candid treatment of sexuality; a preference for natural, ‘spontaneous’, rather than instrumental, plot-forwarding dialogue, often improvised on the spot. Other features were more superficial: in-jokes, tributes to the American gangster movie, visual puns. Also there was a clear insistence, often to the point of flagrancy, on having a developed cinematic culture, leading to an insistence on clear-cut directional control.
Almost all these qualities and characteristics are to be found in Malle’s films. His first film, Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, did not fully satisfy him—Unlike other nouvelle vague directors, who managed to make their own projects as first films, Malle had the screenplay forced on him. It was a film which was given nouvelle vague treatment (the Miles Davis soundtrack, for instance), it established Malle’s talent, but did not give him the chance to make his own film, in the way that the nouvelle vague director, critically formed by the politique des auteurs of Cahiers du Cinéma, necessarily wished. Yet it still remains uncertain whether Malle ever has made his own film. Les Amants, his next film and his own project, was clearly too concerned with the kind of preoccupations a nouvelle vague film ought to have. Its central feature; a long erotic sequence of love-making, signalled a new liberty without making any real new advance. The plot, despite its modern trappings—the 2cv and the bathroom—was essentially ultra-romantic and anachronistic. As so often with Malle, the most distinctive feature of the film was its ornament: the polo, the bathroom, etc.
Zazie dans le metro was a more important work, not exactly because of its merits, but because it was an unashamed attempt to make a split-level film, which would appeal to cinéphiles and the general public, but for different reasons. On the one hand, it was an anthology of allusions and quotes from numerous historic movies; on the other, it was a zany crackpot comedy, with lots of chases and slapstick. The film also showed Malle’s mounting interest in camera-work; plot and character hardly exist and the film is kept from sagging almost entirely by stimulating the eye and not allowing it to settle. Zazie showed how it was possible to use typical nouvelle vague devices in order to enliven an action of little interest to the director in itself and turn it into a virtuoso stylistic exercise. (This, of course, is what Richardson tried to do with Tom Jones). It should be said that since Queneau’s original book was little more than a virtuoso semantic exercise itself, it is arguable that Malle was translating it faithfully into cinematic terms. But this merely underlines the point that Malle has been unable to find his own dynamic.
The nouvelle vague was always careful not to seem afraid of commercialism; its admiration for American cinema implied a belief that good cinema might well also be good box-office. Yet it soon became quite clear that the leading nouvelle vague directors, far from being shadowy figures in the Hollywood jungle, were going to be enthroned as the idols of the intelligentsia, in the full glare of the limelight and applauded by the very critics who spurned the American cinema. Besides, they were nearly all intellectuals themselves and, though it is one thing to insist that the cinema—for all the merits of American directors—still lacked a certain intellectual dimension, it is quite another to litter Faulkner’s Wild Palms or Goethe’s Elective Affinities around on the screen and comment on them in long passages of screenplay. Consequently, there was always a fundamental tension in nouvelle vague cinema, sometimes expressing itself in surprising ways, apparently perverse: thus Godard makes films with Brigitte Bardot and Eddie Constantine.