24 May 2010 | Chris Knipp
When they were young and cinema was reborn
'Two in the Wave'/'Deux de la vague' is a gossipy French documentary about Jean Luc Godard and Françcois Truffaut with lots of period footage, "making of" clips and interviews especially. The Wave of course is La Nouvelle Vague, the movie revolution of the Fifties and Sixties those two directors are famously associated with. No sweeping analysis of the movement or its varied contributors, this is more a quick overview of the New Wave's early days with a focus on the style and contributions of those two key figures and the rise and fall of their friendship. It declined after the upheavals of 1968 and ended sharply in 1973 when Godard dismissed Truffaut after a visit to the set of 'Day for Night' as too unpolitical and Truffaut wrote Godard a letter calling him a "sh-t director."
The title's a bit of a misnomer, though. "Three in the Wave" would have been as good, since toward the end Jean-Pierre Léaud, Truffaut's alter ego as "Antoine Doinel" from his seminal 400 Blows on, becomes an almost equally important, if mysterious, figure. The documentary, seemingly out of material about Truffaut (dead since 1984) and Godard (whose films are little noticed since the Sixties -- despite his having one in the current Cannes Festival) shifts to Léaud and describes how his work for both directors kept him from losing himself too much in "Antoine Doinel." De Gaulle Culture Minister André Malraux also is featured -- both as a godfather -- he gave his blessing to The 400 Blows' winning at Cannes, the New Wave's seminal moment, its first big success, and thus "representing France"-- and as a repressive force, when he tried to oust the French Cinématèque director Henri Langlois.
The film chronicles how filmmakers, actors, and students demonstrated to save Langlois' position in February 1968, anticipating the revolutionary moment of Paris 1968 by three months. This action is a focus of Bertolucci's The Dreamers.
A number of clips of Truffaut and Léaud show their close relationship, and there are more shots of Léaud at various stages of life than of any other person. The film ends with his screen test at 14, an image ab ovo, as it were, symbolizing the movement's eternal youth, as do a number of bright new-looking clips of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in 'Breathless.' Nothing earthshaking here, no new discoveries, but a good introduction, the sort of thing a teacher could use in a film survey to introduce the class to French mid-century cinema. Particularly relevant to such an audience would be the way this film outlines the New Wave/Cahier du Cinéma crowd's debt to older directors like Nick Ray, Howard Hawks, Hitchcock (whom Truffaut did a book of interviews on), Fritz Lang (interviewed b Godard here), and so on. But deep research and searching analysis of stylistic and intellectual differences that may have existed from the start are lacking in this film.
Plenty of archival material goes into Two in the Wave -- so much that to take account of and justify its presence shots of Isild Le Besco reading old magazines are interspersed throughout, though oddly, her voice is only used once or twice, and her presence is so unnecessary you wonder if she's somebody's girlfriend. There is also footage of Cannes 1959, when Les quatre cents coups won. Godard's first film, 'Breathless',' was also popular and there is footage of Paris movei-goers delivering a range of quick opinions outside the theater when the film was first shown. A restored print of 'Breathless' is to begin a commercial release in New York (May 28, 2010) for its 50th anniversary. After 'The 400 Blows' and 'Breathless' several of the directors' films bombed; the ascendancy of the La Nouvelle Vague seemed brief; it went on, of course.
There are lots of quick clips of films by both directors to review their careers during the New Wave's heyday -- too many and too quick to make real sense of. For a while bits of interviews make this seem like a debate between Truffaut and Godard, but it comes to seem that Godard is going to get the last word. Except that the older Godard is little covered, and as mentioned, it's really the young Jean-Pierre Léaud who gets to speak in the very last frames. On Allociné Antoine de Baecque is listed as co-director of this film. De Baecque is a prolific writer on film, including the Nouvelle Vague, and biographer of Truffaut and more recently Godard, who wrote and narrated most of the film.
Released May 19, 2010 at Film Forum in New York; not yet released in France. The cleaned up 'Breathless' also debuts here. NY Times film critic A.O. Scott has written a piece called "A Fresh Look Back at Right Now" (May 21, 2010) about the continuing relevance of Godard's first feature, right up to Tarantino and beyond. Too bad this film doesn't go further in that direction.