The Script Doesn't Matter: French New Wave Director Claude Chabrol's View on Style

Claude ChabrolEven 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 SergeLike 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.

French New Wave_Truffaut

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.

[via filmschoolthrucommentaries]

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"In the mood for love" (2000) was a great film and it shot without a script ... but it took 15 months of shooting and two cinematographers to get it in the can. The "Shining" had its script continuously rewritten and it took a year to shoot. "Blue is the Warmest Color" was at least based on a (graphic) novel but was heavily improvised by the actresses to the point that - according to Wikipedia - more than 750 hours of digital footage was shot over five months. So, it seems that it can occasionally work out but, more often than not, without screenplay, you end up with the "Cannonball Run" type of flicks.

August 18, 2013 at 8:26AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Right. Wong Kar Wai was a TV writer for many years before he became a director and developed his freeform style. He obviously has impeccable story telling instincts and the production process was still a nightmare. There are many good films made by people claiming not to have worked from a script but when you delve into production details you virtually always discover that the filmmakers worked from very strong source material or had the story and scenes hashed out following months of improv/rehearsals or hundreds of hours of footage was shot and the story was constructed during editing.

August 18, 2013 at 10:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Yeah, well Stanley Kubrick and Wong Kar Wai are not the norm as far as the movie business goes. Most directors saying their going to shoot for a year and a half and are going to continuously rewrite the script would get fired.

August 18, 2013 at 6:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Kill the screenplay! It's time is done. Filmmakers obsession with screenplay structure and devotion to dialogue has destroyed modern cinema.

August 18, 2013 at 8:36AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


As a writer first and foremost, before becoming a director...I know how story is everything. The foundation of STORYTELLING. Duh...

But, being influenced by so many different storytellers, in so many different mediums, shapes and forms; I'd not only be hypocritical to scream from the highest mountains that the SCREENPLAY is everything in making movies. I'd also be stupid. Why? Because I can't predict the future. And two...NO ONE KNOWS SHIT. (Sorry Billy Goldman, in today's digital Uni...SHIT carries my opinions right to the point) Lately I've been watching tons of powerful classic, b/w SILENT movies.

Guess what?

No goddamn dialogue...which I agree with DAN on here: emphasis on DIALOGUE more than story structure has really destroyed good to great screenwriting these past 20 years or so; and has done a lot to destroy "modern cinema".


Dialogue is not what good to great SCREENWRITING is about. But STORY STRUCTURE is.
Look, if you can direct-edit -- CREATE a helluva 90-120 min feature movie...which makes you your invested money back, plus a profit...and the critics love your stuff...and YOU love it even more? Without a SCRIPT? Go to town! Have fun! Riot like hell. I'm all for it.

And God knows I love directorial style...and chance-risk taking...breaking and then staying outside the creative box. I am slaved to MISE -EN - SCENE, which pisses my writing comrades. But all this, like great dialogue...when it works on ALL as many as possible? It's because it doesn't stick out. The hard hammer and nail pounding work? It stays buried thru...yeah...rewrites.

After writing many short stories, feature scripts; studying many, many more...from pre graduate film school to now? Wish I could just grab a cast; my camera and make the movie in one hour...without editing or anything else. When YOU can do that? I'll bury my writing pen...

August 18, 2013 at 9:24AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


You're a writer, yet your comment is completely unstructured and hard to follow.

August 18, 2013 at 11:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Right?? Makes it hard to consider his opinion.

July 28, 2015 at 7:37AM

Miko Jacildo

A pet subject of mine. :D Here goes...

The first criticism when discussing auteurism is the suggestion it’s unsustainable because many different people work on a film. If this was enough to remove the idea from public discourse, it's unlikely it would have gained the ground that it did. I believe the theory failed, and continues to fail, for other reasons, which I’ll try to describe.

It's crucial to draw a distinction between the Politique D'Auteurs as it was formulated in the pages of Cahiers, and the subsequent adaptation of that theory in the U.S. by the likes of Sarris. The former was, on the admission of many members of the Nouvelle Vague themselves, little more than a convenient pretext, a means of gaining attention and leverage for their own filmmaking. The latter was a misguided attempt to use that contingency as the basis for overriding aesthetic principles, a burden it could never sustain.

By the mid Sixties, many of auteurism's founders had already renounced it, but it was too late: it had crossed the Atlantic and mutated into a kind of mediocre totem of integrity. Back at Cahiers, however, under the scrutiny of Rivette and Comolli (and with Situationism looming large elsewhere), the fatal flaw in the theory slowly emerged: there was no politics in the Politique D'Auteurs.

To believe in the theory was to believe that a director's techniques were innocent of ideology. It was to believe that a sincere spirit and some modicum of personal integrity were all that was required for directors to break free from the massive financial constraints and political biases which had hitherto constrained the medium. It was here, I'd suggest, that the true naivety of auteurism became apparent.

Though it teases with veils, cinema has always been as much a political and ideological tool as an artistic entity: the role of money ensures this. Thus, after the events of May '68, it became clear that the only way the medium could truly change was to change the politics surrounding it. Some (Godard, Rivette, Straub-Huillet) rose to this challenge. Others (Truffaut, Chabrol, Lelouch) shrank from it, and it's perhaps telling that those who continued to cling to auteurism as the Seventies progressed - in France, at least - were the more politically conservative individuals.

The task facing those radicalized filmmakers was Herculean, and they couldn’t succeed. How we now respond to that same challenge as contemporary filmmakers is not for me to say. But the underlying problems regarding the cinematic art, its aesthetic practice and its intersection with politics and ideology persist, and they aren't going away.

Some might find the prospect of understanding or addressing these problems as a horribly complicated task, and a needless obstacle in the way of the simple joy they wish to take in self-expression. To these people, I say tough shit: from Benjamin to Zizek, they’ve a century’s worth of thought to catch up on.

Anyway, I apologize for this extremely long-winded and rather didactic post: there was a lot of ground to cover. That's my take on auteurism. The question of style and script is something else, and I don't wish to hog. :)

August 18, 2013 at 10:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Thanks for that Dolly. I studied French New Wave at school and didn't get that clarity on auteur theory.

August 18, 2013 at 11:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Uh, ya ... I doubt if Christopher Guest or Larry David consider themselves auteurs but David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is offered to actors as "structure with only hints of dialog" and it's up to the actors to improvise until the final cut. A similar technique has been used by Guest in his "Best in Show", "Waiting for Guffman", etc., where the outline and the characters were given to the actors, who then proceeded to improvise. The breakdown between Guest's films rehearsals and "live improv" is somewhat difficult to ascertain.
And I will mention again that, in TV, this is a no-no. Extremely tight schedules rarely allow even a line out of place (plus, TV shows are run by writers anyway ... changing a line that they had created on a whim does not place an actor in good graces with these bigwigs ... just ask Shelley Long)

August 18, 2013 at 12:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"Beyond the black rainbow" has style but not a story, it's garbarge.
Movies are a whole, you have to consider every aspect.

August 18, 2013 at 1:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Beyond the Black Rainbow is not your typical movie, yes the argument could be made that the story is lacking (which I don't personally agree with but totally understand where your coming from), but as a whole the film functions as an emotional experience that runs through you, and places a strong emphasis on mood. The film isn't for everyone, and thats certainty okay.

August 22, 2013 at 8:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I think that as soon as you have a somewhat complex character and/or a strong problem, the need to have a structured story is gone. And when I say complex characters, I mean "provided with several layers" type characters. Any French New Wave will carry that premise: 400 Blows, Breathless, Vivre Sa Vie, etc etc...

Unless we talk about commercial filmmaking - which will never surrender to the individual point of view because selling is all about reaching a very general point - "auteurship" is truly in the way that you, as a filmmaker, use and manipulate the medium to benefit a story, and not the opposite.

August 18, 2013 at 1:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


So many economic forces have changed since the days Roger Corman distributed Truffaut and booked CRIES AND WHISPERS into drive-ins (SWEDE SIS TRYST JONESES FOR OZONERS).

August 19, 2013 at 2:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


It's tough this because it just never is that simple. Personally I like to develop my own material and see it through idiosyncratically, then I really feel a proper sense of ownership. Am I an auteur? Who cares? I just think that work is more honest and that's all I really look for in filmmaking these days. If the director has been honest you can really tell, but often there's a lot of fakery and deception dressed up as truthful filmmaking nad it just doesn't ring true. Very hard thing to quantify though.

August 19, 2013 at 4:14AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The script does matter! A screenwriter can definitively have some control over the style of the final movie, as long as he doesn't sheepishly follow the rules of what the screenwriter is supposed to do and not do. Just to give you a silly example, imagine if Charlie Kaufmann had written "Being Jeremy Irons" instead of "Being John Malkovich". It would have been a completely different movie! :-) Jokes apart, a screenwriter can suggest mood and lighting and even framing in the script. That doesn't mean he has to write camera angles; the framing can be implicit in the description, as when we read a novel and play a movie of it in our mind. Sure, directors can always disregard these suggestions, but if the writing is good, they're doing so at their own expense.

October 28, 2015 at 9:25AM

Santi Spadaro