In January 1954, François Truffaut famously published a piece in French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema railing against the tired and anachronistic practices and the cronyism of the industry (sound familiar?). Entitled “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” it was a clarion call for reformation, and it couldn’t have been more powerful or polarizing had Truffaut personally nailed a copy of his thesis to a cinema door. He referred to the filmic status quo as le cinéma de papa—or “daddy’s cinema”—a generational riposte to the blandness and coziness of things as they stood. Truffaut was an angry young man and a true disruptor (before that was even a thing) who’d made a name for himself with his combative literary style, but would he be able to walk the walk when it came to filmmaking?
Of course we know the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Five years later Truffaut was awarded best director for The 400 Blows [Les quatre cents coups] at the Cannes Film Festival, an event he’d been banned from the previous year for referring to it as a clapped-out institution. Young filmmakers like Louis Malle, Agnès Varda, and Alain Resnais had already begun to signal the future with their experiments in realism and, sometimes, surrealism, and Truffaut’s victory gave these disparate artists a collective stamp of approval. Soon after, Jean-Luc Godard made Breathless [À bout de souffle] (loosely based on a newspaper story Truffaut had read and suggested to Jean-Luc Godard), and the movement would not only challenge the orthodoxy in France, but also the world. The ’60s became invigorated with fresh, daring approaches to cinema that had as much to do with Russian Constructivism as they did with the likes of contemporaries Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks.
If the Nouvelle Vague was a game-changer for the film world, then it stands to reason that the poster art associated with it would be similarly revolutionary. The over-stylized, romantic, and almost Pre-Raphaelitean film promos of the ’50s would make way for a more anarchic “anything goes” sensibility which varied greatly from region to region.
These posters from all around the world have been collected in a new compendium—French New Wave: A Revolution In Design, published by Reel Art Press. Just as the energy and vision of the films changed the cinematic landscape, so too were the posters an explosion of Pop Art, Dadaism, and Abstract Expressionism. The Japanese one-panel for Fahrenheit 451 by Shunji Sakai, for instance, could well be advertizing a live dramatization on ice skates at the Cirque d’hiver in Paris. Many of the Japanese posters in particular are worth looking out for in the book, as the artists working for The Japanese Art Theatre Guild—an innovative, now defunct distributor of arthouse movies— were given carte blanche… usually to magnificent effect.
Where the Nouvelle Vague elevated the importance of the director, this book elevates the graphic designer, listing them alphabetically with helpful notes where information about them is known. Sticking with Truffaut, here are five films that reflect the diversity of the work.