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10 Essential French New Wave Directors

When the tropes and conventions of post-war cinema were becoming stale and uninspired, groundbreaking movies were few and far between. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a generation of French arthouse directors came along to revolutionize filmmaking. The movement was introduced in 1954 in the form of a manifesto-style essay by François Truffaut, Une certaine tendance du cinéma français, which decried the lack of imagination and innovation in contemporary films.

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Along with such crucial directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda, Truffaut pioneered the French New Wave, whose experimental cinematic stylings would change filmmaking forever.

10 François Truffaut

A young boy locked up behind bars

The French New Wave movement can be traced back to a 1954 essay by François Truffaut, entitled Une certaine tendance du cinéma français, in which Truffaut complained that contemporary filmmakers were playing it safe with painfully conventional material.

Five years later, Truffaut stepped behind the camera and made his directorial debut with the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age gem The 400 Blows, one of the early masterpieces that defined the tenets of the French New Wave. Truffaut went on to helm such classics as Day for Night and Jules and Jim, and conducted a series of seminal interviews with Alfred Hitchcock.

9 Jacques Rivette

A man and a woman kiss on a balcony in L'amour fou

Like many of his fellow French New Wave peers, Jacques Rivette wrote for the film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma before he started directing movies of his own. Rivette’s most celebrated works include L’amour fou, La Belle Noiseuse, and Celine and Julie Go Boating.

Rivette is noted for telling his stories with a refreshing flexibility, allowing his actors to improvise a lot of their dialogue, and letting his runtimes go long.


8 Agnès Varda

Corinne Marchand posing in Cleo from 5 to 7.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Martin Scorsese praised Agnès Varda as “one of the gods of cinema.” Varda belongs to the French New Wave’s “left bank” of directors. While the “right bank” filmmakers were more concerned with genre and homage, the “left bank” directors strived for a cinematic form of literature.

Varda is noted for achieving a documentary-like realism in her approach to humanist stories tackling taboo subjects (usually women’s issues). Her most acclaimed films include Cléo from 5 to 7, about a young singer’s 90-minute wait for the results of a medical test, and Kung Fu Master, about a fortysomething single mother’s affair with a 14-year-old gamer.

7 Jacques Demy

Another member of the “left bank” group, Jacques Demy took inspiration from all kinds of sources: jazz, fairy tales, Japanese manga, operas, classic Hollywood musicals.

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Demy’s work explores such universally resonant ideas as first love and the meeting point between dreams and reality. His two most renowned films are musicals from the 1960s: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort.

6 Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Cercle Rouge

Often referred to as the spiritual father of the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville gave the American crime film a stylish yet minimalist Parisian makeover with influential thrillers like Le Doulos, Le Samouraï, and Le Cercle Rouge. His influence can be seen in everything from Reservoir Dogs to John Wick.

His suspense docudrama Army of Shadows is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, but it was hurt by bad timing. As a story about the French Resistance, the movie inherently glorifies Charles de Gaulle, which left French critics unimpressed on the heels of May 68.

5 Éric Rohmer

Pauline and Sylvain on the beach in Pauline at the Beach

The former editor of the film journal Cahiers du cinema, Éric Rohmer was the last of the major French New Wave filmmakers to establish their career. Rohmer’s spontaneous, naturalistic filmmaking style is best exemplified in his revered Comedies and Proverbs series.

While the careers of many of his French New Wave peers lacked longevity, Rohmer was notable for continuing to draw crowds to his movies decades after the movement’s heyday.

4 Alain Resnais

A wide shot from the French movie Last Year At Marienbad

Although Alain Resnais didn’t consider himself to be a part of the French New Wave movement, he’s often included as a key member in the “left bank” category.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the unconventional story structure of Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Muriel helped to lay the groundwork for the French New Wave’s bold experimentation with narrative.

3 Claude Chabrol

Another former critic for Cahiers du cinema, Claude Chabrol made his name as the French New Wave’s answer to Hitchcock. Much like Hitchcock, Chabrol’s thrillers are characterized by his use of the camera as an omniscient, dispassionate observer.

RELATED: 10 French Directors Every Film Lover Should Check Out

His 1958 breakout hit Le Beau Serge was heavily influenced by the Hitchcockian gem Shadow of a Doubt and kickstarted a string of hit thrillers for Chabrol that included Les Biches, La Femme infidèle, and Le Boucher.

2 Chris Marker

Chris Marker didn’t confine his visual experiments to traditional filmmaking. He was also a photographer, a documentarian, and a multimedia artist. Considered to be ahead of his time, Marker gained entry into the “left bank” with movies like A Grin Without a Cat and Sans Soleil.

Marker’s most famous movie is 1962’s La Jetée, the mind-bending 28-minute sci-fi thriller that formed the basis for 12 Monkeys.

1 Jean-Luc Godard

Jean Seberg kissing Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless

While Truffaut defined the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard made the movement a widespread sensation with his radical 1960 debut feature Breathless. Godard took all the hallmarks of a classic American noir and flipped them on their head with a delightfully subversive romantic thriller. He challenged previously undisputed truths of filmmaking, like the need for conventional continuity.

Godard explored a colorful musical romance in A Woman is a Woman, dystopian sci-fi in Alphaville, pitch-black comedy in Weekend, and later revisited his self-aware take on the crime genre in Bande à part.

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