French Film Day at the BFI Southbank

London F32

Towards the end of the autumn term, we took our AS and A2 students to a secondary school event at the British Film Institute on London’s Southbank: “Le Cinéma Français: the Nouvelle Vague and Contemporary Dramas”. Led by a highly experienced, mother tongue teacher with a passion for cinema, this study day was organised in response to the new A Level specifications, which require students to explore French culture by analysing, among other things, a film made by one of France’s many renowned directors.

Conducted in French, the morning session’s clip-based presentation started with a short overview of French cinema from its beginnings. Our students were surprised to discover that, although the film industry is by now dominated (at least in financial terms) by the USA, it is in France that cinema was born, with the screening in 1895 of a 50-second sequence showing a train arriving at a station (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, by the Lumière brothers). From the word go, cinema was often considered by French directors as a form of art – “le septième art” (“the seventh art”) is indeed the expression used to refer to it across the Channel. This is immediately apparent, in particular, in the films of the Nouvelle Vague, on whose key features we were given a thorough, absorbing explanation. An example of European art cinema, the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) is a blanket term coined by critics for a group of French filmmakers of the late ’50s and ’60s: although never a formally organized movement, these young filmmakers were linked by a desire to shoot current social issues on location and, above all, by an iconoclastic attitude which lead them to criticise the work of older directors and to experiment with the film form. Among the most celebrated Nouvelle Vague directors, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard have been a source of inspiration for Quentin Tarantino: in Pulp Fiction, two characters are called Jules and Jimmie after Truffaut’s Jules et Jim; and, in the same film, the famous scene in which John Travolta dances with Uma Thurman is a tribute to a similar scene in Godard’ A Bout de Souffle. It is by watching an extract from this film that our students embarked on a discovery of some of the greatest successes of the Nouvelle Vague. This was followed by other extracts from François Truffaut’s seminal Les 400 Coups and Agnès Varda’s less well-known but equally interesting Cléo de 5 à 7. The day, though, was not simply a lecture interspersed with screenings of scenes from famous films – far from it. A wide range of stimulating activities carried out in the target language gave our students plenty of opportunities to use their French, test their knowledge and share their opinions. The constant comparison between the Nouvelle Vague films and more recent ones was particularly thought-provoking and illuminating: students were encouraged to play an active role in discussing similarities and differences between the depiction of childhood in Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups and in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Entre les murs, for instance, or between cinematic techniques in Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 and Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine.

The day was certainly a very intensive one, but it was deeply satisfactory: by the end, our students had a much better understanding of one of the most famous movements of French cinema.

Valeria Givone