Truffaut denounced traditional film-making in the journal, Cahiers du Cinéma - and created a schism in French cinema, 48 years ago. It is a quarrel that has reignited this year, writes Lara Marlowe.
The Cahiers du Cinéma was barely three years-old when it published an article that changed the history of film-making forever. In January 1954, an article headlined "A certain tendency of French cinema" by a young film critic named François Truffaut, was such a vicious attack on traditional French film-making - "le cinéma de qualité" - that editors were reluctant to print it. Using photographs so there could be no doubt about their identity, Truffaut denounced as has-beens some of France's most prominent directors: Jean Delannoy, Christian-Jaque, Claude Autant-Lara, Henri-Georges Clouzot and René Clément.
Truffaut praised those who found grace in his eyes - Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jacques Tati, Jean Cocteau, Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Marcel Ophuls, Roger Leenhardt - as "authors" who wrote their own dialogues and even made up the plots of the films they directed.
Truffaut's first grievance against the old guard was their reliance on book adaptations. He singled out Jean Aurenche, the most popular screen-writer of his day, for venomous criticism. Aurenche and the directors he worked with were tricksters and imposters, Truffaut wrote; "bastards" who made vulgar, patriotic, anti-clerical films because that was the fashion. Year after year, these "bourgeois making bourgeois films for bourgeois people" swept up prizes at Cannes and Venice. The directors he respected would never film such "despicable characters reciting despicable lines". It was impossible, Truffaut concluded, "to believe in peaceful co-existence between the Tradition de la qualité and a cinéma d'Auteurs."
The French film establishment split into pro- and anti-Truffaut factions. The Cahiers, a monthly review, became the refuge of the rebels, who were soon dubbed the nouvelle vague or New Wave. In addition to Truffaut, they included Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, all young critics who haunted the Cinémathèque and worshipped Roberto Rossellini and Italian Neo-Realism. "By an extraordinary coincidence, they became the most brilliant film-makers in France, perhaps in the world," says Franck Nouchi, Le Monde's cultural editor, who oversaw the revamping of Cahiers after Le Monde purchased the cinema review in 1999. "Their films - Les Quatre Cents Coups, A bout de souffle, Le Beau Serge . . . became the archetypes of the New Wave."
Before they abandoned film criticism to move behind the camera, these young men had the immense power of determining what films would be recognised as cinema classics. Even before Truffaut's vitriolic attack on le cinéma de qualité, Cahiers introduced American cinema to France, publishing articles on Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Joseph Mankiewicz, John Huston, Howard Hawks and others. "It was Truffaut who made Hitchcock known," says Nouchi. Samuel Fuller, Frank Tashlin (the director of the Jerry Lewis comedies), Martin Scorsese, Michael Cimino, Clint Eastwood, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola were all praised by Cahiers before they gained recognition in the US. When Eastwood won an Oscar for Unforgiven in 1992, he thanked Cahiers. The review is widely known - if not read - by American intellectuals, and the US magazine Film Comment is modelled on it.
The quarrel between ancients and moderns re-ignited this year, with the release of Bertrand Tavernier's film Laissez-passer, about French cinema during the Nazi occupation. The two main characters in Laissez-passer are Jean Aurenche, the screen-writer destroyed by Truffaut in 1954, and Jean Devaivre, who worked as an assistant director for the German film company, Continental, while helping the Resistance on the side. Tavernier, a fine director who has never been on good terms with Cahiers, says he merely wanted to show the dilemma facing film-makers during the war. Cahiers savaged Laissez-passer.
"Seeing (Tavernier's) film, you'd think French cinema lived its golden age under the Occupation," the editor-in-chief Charles Tesson wrote in Cahiers. Tavernier implies that the New Wave wasted the talent of his real-life characters.
"In short, Tavernier seems to be saying that the New Wave, by devaluing the work of the assistant director (a position that Tavernier praises to the skies) did more harm to French cinema than the German Occupation." The most telling question you can ask a French film lover, Tesson said in an interview at the Cahiers' office near the Bastille, is: "What is the best French film ever?" If he answers Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), he's from the old school. If he says Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939), he's with the New Wave.
As "the cradle of the New Wave", Cahiers still influences those contemporary film-makers who trace their roots to the movement, including Arnaud Desplechin, André Téchiné, Claude Lanzmann and Olivier Assayas.
But, Nouchi admits, some of France's most successful directors no longer pay obeisance to the New Wave. "If you ask Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directed Amélie Poulain, France's top box-office earner last year), he says he's fed up with the New Wave. The intellectual debate hasn't ended - and that's a good thing."
Tesson defines the "spirit of New Wave" as the antithesis of pictoral or literary academicism. "The New Wave is free in style and spirit. The film is a document about its own production, about the way in which it is made. New Wave films are not shot in studios, but out of doors. And they are not book adaptations; the film is an art form in its own right."
Asked whether a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, Jean-Luc Godard allegedly retorted: "Yes. But not in that order". In old footage shown in Edgardo Cozarinksy's excellent documentary on the history of the review, the founder of Cahiers, André Bazin, noted that "the cinema is covering ground that other art forms took two or three thousand years to get through". The critics at Cahiers loved this new art form with religious fervour, turning its original yellow and black covers into objects of veneration. Tesson remembers the first time he heard the cinema review mentioned, in a debate in Nantes in the mid-1970s. "A man was quoting the Cahiers by heart, as if it were the Bible. 'The Cahiers says this . . . The Cahiers says that . . .'"
But, despite its status as the most important film review ever, despite being a French cultural icon, the Cahiers sometimes lost its way. Its internal disputes and editorial vagaries mirrored French intellectual life throughout the second half of the 20th century. Exasperated by the Cahiers' left-wing militancy, the great Francois Truffaut broke with the review for a decade.
Last year, Eric Rohmer's French revolution saga, L'Anglaise et le Duc, was put on the Cahiers' cover and highly praised, ending the long break between the review and one of its first editors. Rohmer was overthrown by the New Wave crowd in the early 1960s. Jacques Rivette, who replaced him, opened the magazine up to intellectuals from other disciplines, like Roland Barthes and Pierre Boulez. Cahiers also "discovered" directors in the developing world - Rocha Glauber from Brazil, Satyajit Ray in India.
When Gen de Gaulle attempted to sack Henri Langlois as director of the Cinémathèque, Truffaut and Godard used the Cahiers' office as headquarters for a worldwide campaign to save their first mentor. De Gaulle backed down, but the incident prefigured the events of May 1968, when Cahiers became a Maoist journal so radical that it no longer published photographs or bylines and for years boycotted Cannes.
A second coup, staged by the critics Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, finally put an end to Cahiers' years on the fringes of French intellectual life. Under the editorship of Olivier Assayas in the 1980s, the review inspired interest in Asian cinema, especially the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien.
But by the end of the 1980s, Cahiers' circulation reached a low of 20,000. Since it was purchased and given a face-lift by Le Monde two years ago, circulation has increased to 35,000. The new, glossy Cahiers can still be polemical - witness the debate over Tavernier's Laizzez-passer - but it is more accessible to a wider audience. Under Nouchi's supervision, Cahiers has launched a series of DVDs of film classics, and contracted to publish books on the history of cinema for the French ministry of education.
Tesson says he wants to build bridges between cinema and other aspects of daily life. On the day I met him, he was agonising about whether to put video games on the cover. Recent reviews included an assessment of the videotape of Osama bin Laden gloating over the attack on the World Trade Centre. "Some people say the Cahiers has lost its soul," Tesson admits. "Others say it's better than before. The danger for the Cahiers du Cinéma was always that we might turn inward, on ourselves, on our films, on our authors. Now we are trying to combine reflection, critical debate and journalism about the cinema. It's ambitious, but so far it's working."