The Script Doesn't Matter: French New Wave Director Claude Chabrol's View on Style
Even though many great filmmakers are associated with the French New Wave, three of them stand out as the unofficial representatives of the movement: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. However, Chabrol rides high atop the wave crest by making, arguably, the first film of Nouvelle Vague, Le Beau Serge. Like his fellow auteurs of the plastic arts, Chabrol wrote many an article on his theories of film, one of which film scholar Adrian Martin cites in an audio commentary about the filmmaker. Martin describes Chabrol’s sensibilities regarding “theme” — essentially arguing that what matters isn’t found in the script, but in the mind of the filmmaker.
Now, before all of you screenwriters bite my head off, let me explain. First of all, to me, a script most certainly matters (for most films anyway.) Secondly, it’s important for us to put Chabrol’s statement into context, as well as brush up on our French history and how it pertains to its cinema at the time of the birth of the French New Wave.
In order to have a more well-rounded appreciation and understanding of the aesthetic, narrative, and stylistic affections adopted by the French New Wave filmmakers, I’d say a good place to start your study (or eventually end up) is in what was going on in post-WWII France.
After the war, France was experiencing great political and economic changes. The mounting concern in 1958 of a coup d’état, the Trente Glorieuses (“The Glorious Thirty”) saw roughly 30 years of economic and population growth. Be the changes good or bad, France decided to revert back to a more traditional modus operandi, including with their cinema.
Basically, the filmmakers of the French New Wave were rebelling against the classical French narrative style (as well as society) by making films without a clear and organized plot, without large financial investments, and without grandiose themes. Their acceptance for la vie boheme, their disapproval of high-mindedness, and their need for artistic freedom grew out of a contentiousness toward what they saw as a national trend toward a cinematic tradition that had the potential to disarm and relegate audiences.
Listen to Adrian Martin describe Chabrol’s thoughts on “theme.”
In a way, Chabrol’s argument about theme is advocating for the individual rather than the collective body: style vs. theme. Large themes are more or less universal and widely encompassing, and to Chabrol, pompous. Style is the one thing the artist can put into a film to make it his/her own, and to Chabrol, that makes films worth watching. Martin says in the video:
[Chabrol] made some films that were pretty rotten films, I think in the mid-60s, that were just like a science. They were things he was doing to stay in the game as a filmmaker. But even then — then he thought of himself like a director back in the Hollywood studio system, like Josef von Sternberg making some film for Howard Hughes that he didn’t really care about. But, through the work of style — through how he lit the shot, how he moved the camera, how he used color, how he used rhythm and timing, he still could give something to the film.
So, from this particular perspective, no, the script doesn’t matter, because if you give 100 directors the same script, they will come back with 100 very different films — or worse — the same.
This is the basis of the auteur theory. To these filmmakers, it wasn’t necessarily about the story itself, it was about the artists’ vision — his/her point of view. It puts filmmakers in the same company as other “respected” plastic artists, like famous painters and sculptors, in that a filmmaker doesn’t have to potentially limit himself by adhering to a strict artistic construct in order for his work to be well-received. It’s about the artists’ vision first and foremost. It’s about allowing them freedom to experiment, grow, and tell a story in their own unique way.
However, the issue I take with Chabrol’s view, as well as the auteur theory, is that I see screenwriting, directing, editing, cinematography, etc. as microcosms in the filmmaking universe. So, predicated on that line of reasoning, the same “rules” must apply to each part of the filmmaking process. Can you be an auteur of screenwriting? Of editing?
The theory says no, putting the director into ultimate supremacy, lessening the importance of the screenwriter with this idea of the “caméra-stylo” (“camera pen”) encouraging directors to use their cameras like pens to “write” their mise-en-scène. However, last I checked, these brilliant filmmakers and theorists started an entire movement against a cinematic tradition of artistic rigidity and subjugation.
I love the style and spirit that the French New Wave brought to cinema, and despite seeing holes in certain theories and opinions, which could definitely just be areas of them I don’t yet understand, this idea of the “auteur” gave power to directors when they had none, and allowed filmmakers to explore the full gamut of their imaginations.
What do you think about Chabrol’s argument? What are your opinions on style? Let us know in the comments.