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  • Listening to the French New Wave: The Film Music and Composers of Postwar French Art Cinema by Orlene Denice Mcmahon
  • Peter Hawkins
Listening to the French New Wave: The Film Music and Composers of Postwar French Art Cinema. By Orlene Denice Mcmahon. (New Studies in European Cinema, 16.) Bern: Peter Lang, 2014. xviii + 298 pp., ill.

The front cover depicts Jeanne Moreau pretending to play Miles Davis’s trumpet, and yet the latter’s jazz score for Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (dir. by Louis Malle, 1958) is one of the few scores not covered in this wide-ranging account of film music in the New Wave years. Orlene Denice McMahon begins by chronicling the complex development of musical aesthetics and critical attitudes to film in the post-war years, making a distinction between the Cahiers du cinéma group of filmmakers — François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette — and the ‘Left Bank group’ of Jacques Demy, Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker. The composers with whom they collaborated were sometimes the products of the radically modernist school of Messiaen and Boulez, such as Antoine Duhamel, Pierre Jansen, and Jean-Claude Éloy, but others such as Michel Legrand and Martial Solal were influenced by [End Page 425] jazz, or in the case of Georges Delerue by Darius Milhaud. To what extent were the experimental approaches to filmmaking practised by this generation of directors matched by a similarly innovative attitude to film music? The results of McMahon’s analytical survey are often surprising and contrasted. Within the Cahiers group, Truffaut’s use of film music remains the most conventional, collaborating extensively but not exclusively with Delerue. Godard’s practice is the most diversified and disruptive of conventional expectations of film music, whereas Rohmer barely uses music at all. Chabrol reveals a surprising taste for the atonal music of Jansen in films such as Le Boucher (1969). The most radical turns out to be Rivette, who makes extensive use of experimental and atonal scores in films such as Paris nous appartient (1961) and L’Amour fou (1968). Within the ‘Left Bank group’, Varda collaborated with the experimental composer Pierre Barbaud on her first feature-length film, La Pointe courte (1954), and on a later, unsuccessful film, Les Créatures (1964). For her best-known early film, Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), she called on Legrand, a more mainstream composer, who also scored her husband Jacques Demy’s famous musical Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964). The pioneer of the group was probably Resnais, however, who made extensive use of avant-garde scores in his short films of the 1950s, the most famous of which is Nuit et brouillard (1955), his evocation of the Holocaust, scored by Hanns Eisler. These led up to his revolutionary first feature, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), scripted by Marguerite Duras and with a modernist score by Giovanni Fusco, who also collaborated with Michelangelo Antonioni on several films including L’Avventura (1960). At various points during the study McMahon undertakes detailed analysis of the music of several films, particularly those composed by Barbaud, reproducing extracts from the musical scores and sometimes juxtaposing them with the images they were written to accompany. She navigates her way effectively through the complex patterns of collaboration between filmmakers and composers, showing a clear grasp of the technical aspects of the process, and provides a very satisfying overview of an extremely rich period of French cinematic and musical creation.

Peter Hawkins
University of Bristol


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pp. 425-426
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