French New Wave Cinema

The Tragic Absurdity of French New Wave Cinema Is the Perfect Quarantine Binge

If you feel like the world is doomed, the characters in these movies show us that it’s okay to be silly even when we’re scared

The fatalistic motif that dominates 1960s French New Wave movies — wherein the main character is doomed in some way or another — isn’t exactly the sort of balm everyone looks to in a time of global panic. But if like me, you like sad songs to help you get through sad times, French New Wave films are a nourishing reminder that the only way to get through our present moment is by leaning into the absurdity of it all.

Pierrot le Fou — a French New Wave classic starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, in a Bonnie and Clyde-esque Shakespearean comedy that ends when the eponymously named main character straps a ring of dynamite around his face — is heartbreak pushed to its comical limit. I’m laughing when it ends with a Romeo and Juliet-like murder-suicide explosion both because it’s funny, and because if I really pause to consider the morbid implications of this whimsical act of love, I’m not sure I’ll stop crying.

The trailblazing oeuvre of New Wave films, which were far less interested in providing an escape for viewers as they were in reminding us that this whole damn thing is an artifice, is worth binging if you too are struggling to cope with this latest, and much-maligned phase in the simulation. 

“Franz is thinking of everything and nothing,” says a voiceover in the famed dancing scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders — another French New Wave staple created by one of its most influential filmmakers. “He doesn’t know whether the world is becoming a dream or the dream, a world.” It’s lines like this amidst an impromptu dance number in a non-musical — true narrative chaos — that’s so discombobulating, and as such, it feels just right for these times. There’s simply no room to reflect on even the most cynical headlines about how much longer we can expect to be confined to self-quarantine when you’re consumed by this level of what-the-fucking-am-I-watching, as three fictional characters literally dance their way toward disaster.

And yes, I’m aware that in a time of global catastrophe, where people are losing their lives and their livelihoods, the diaries of these manic pixie dream directors isn’t going to manifest more hospital ventilators or help pay the rent. But they did, at least for me, offer solidarity in the absurd prophecies of end-times that become more glaring with each passing day in isolation. Most notably, because the main characters are just as confused, horny, scared, sad and powerless as so many of us feel. Watching them trip and fall and play pretend amidst the clouds of destiny is as soothing as Soma. 

Abandon your craving for control and instead watch these French fools play small-time crooks, lovers and dreamers before they drive off a cliff.

In that way, they’re perfect anecdotal, albeit fictional, reminders that maybe it is all nonsense. Not the virus or the implications of this latest pandemic, but our cultural response. They’re supposed to be adults, but they play around like kids. And in these movies, the kids aren’t alright. 

The characters in some of the more political New Wave movies like Masculin Féminin and La Chinoise, like so many of us, are lost but impassioned. They too recognize that everything up to this point has been dirt, but they can’t help but be hopeful about a future that keeps letting them down. One moment, they’re fighting against the immorality of the Vietnam War and American hegemony, ruminating on Maoism and advocating for a more socialized world order where resources and capital is more evenly distributed. In the next moment, they’re soliciting nudes. 

Sound familiar?