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Not Just for the French—Why So Many Graphic Designers Took the ’60s New Wave Vibe and Ran With It

The posters of the French New Wave meant very different things to different cinema-goers

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. 

Les Quatre cents coups by Boris Grinsson

The celebrated Russian poster designer Boris Grinsson led a tumultuous early life, fleeing from Russia during the 1917 revolution, and then again from Germany in 1933 when his depiction of Hitler as an Angel of Death upset the Nazis. Grinsson established a union of film poster designers in France and was a much sought after talent up until his retirement in 1972. His treatment of The 400 Blows is inspired by the seminal beach shot at the conclusion of the film, though the vibe here has a touch of the cinema de papa about it. Jean-Pierre Leaud is rendered in a Boy’s Own adventure style that appears as though it was torn from a war comic, with his dark donkey jacket turned into something more militaristic: his tousled hair, windswept and heroic, with shading that signifies action. The teenage Antoine Doinel, played by Leaud and based on Truffaut’s own experiences as a child, is more of an anti-hero than matinee idol, and Danish artist Benny Stilling’s roguish impression on the previous page much better captures the neglected Parisian urchin of the movie. To be fair to Grinsson, he was presumably only carrying out his brief at a time when the nouvelle vague was so new that few would have had any idea what they were about to be hit by. Artists would be far better prepared over the next 20 years for the four further adventures of Doinel. 


Jules et Jim by Zdeněk Ziegler

Made in Czechoslovakia, a country that would soon enjoy a revolutionary New Wave of its own when it came to cinema, Zdeněk Ziegler’s artwork for Jules et Jim could just as easily be promoting Věra Chytilová’s remarkable 1966 psychedelic romp Daisies about two teenage girls who go on the rampage. The two characters on Ziegler’s poster are actually both actress Jeanne Moreau—her face has been split and then flipped and tinged with different colouration to symbolize her indecision regarding the titular characters, both of whom she becomes romantically involved with. Furthermore, her hat has been decorated with the same font as the title to add to the poster’s cohesiveness and abstract beauty. 

Fahrenheit 451 by György Kemény

Truffaut’s stylistic interpretation of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel led to a wide range of further outlandish interpretations that appear to share little in the way of visual homogeneity. Perhaps the most delicious—although it has some stiff competition—is Hungarian pop artist György Kemény’s take on Fahrenheit 451, which owes as much to psychedelia as it does the art nouveau, bringing together ’60s bubble writing and a majestic arch made from a fireman’s hose. 

La Mariée Était en Noir by Franciszek Starowieyski

Truffaut’s 1968 thriller The Bride Wore Black is perhaps best known to contemporary film fans as one of the key inspirations behind Quentin Tarantino’s sanguinary samurai flick Kill Bill. A badass Jeane Moreau sets out to avenge the death of her husband and heads out in pursuit of his five killers. Tarantino brightened things up by paying homage to another film—Bruce Lee’s Game of Death—though Polish poster designer Franciszek Starowieyski has gone the other way, embellishing the blackness and distilling the bleakness to almost camp proportions. The results are as gothic and ghoulish as a nighttime visit to the Catacombs. The image is reminiscent of fellow countryman and contemporary Zdzisław Beksiński’s dystopian surrealism. 

Baisers volés by Tino Avelli

Another 1968 movie from Truffaut and the third in his alter-ego saga featuring the character Antoine Doinel. Many of the Italian posters in the book hark back to a romantic, flowery style contrary to more postmodern approaches in other countries. Tino Avelli’s work on Stolen Kisses not only features an actual flower, it is also full of radical little touches. Jean-Pierre Léaud is imposed upon a blushing red background with a Cubist-inspired collage of feminine face parts hidden in the paintwork. What’s more, the heart symbol in a box adjacent to Léaud’s cut-out body, looks unerringly modern and emoji-like.


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