We tend to regard history’s most legendary filmmakers as benevolent heroes of cinematic innovation. The fact is, in their own time, many of them were heralds of destruction who threatened the status quo. At the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, Francois Truffaut introduced his debut feature The 400 Blows in much the same way that Dr. Robert Oppenheimer unveiled the atomic bomb.
Truffaut had recently penned an essay for Cahiers du Cinema titled “Cinema Is Being Killed By False Legends” — and with The 400 Blows he devastated the old guard. Shortly thereafter, a close pal and fellow critic by the name of Jean-Luc Godard would follow Truffaut’s footsteps, lathering this new and untethered filmic spirit into a veritable declaration of war.
Of course, the French New Wave has since become the stuff of standard introductory cinephilia. Film buffs might scoff at a documentary crash-course on the subject: what’s there to say that’s new about the New Wave? But Emmanuel Laurent’s Two in the Wave is a valuable film precisely because of its unapologetically curt and distilled approach to the movement. Written and narrated by former Cahiers editor Antoine de Baecque, Two in the Wave prioritizes personal dynamics over cinephilic details. As a result, Laurent’s film is unusually attuned to the human element of this cinematic revolution.
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Laurent covers the stormy history between Truffaut and Godard, highlighting both the shared ideals that fed one of filmdom’s most storied friendships and the divergent ideologies responsible for its most vicious fallout. De Baecque’s lyrical leading narration strips these auteurs of their mystery, presenting them as particularly passionate cinephiles who — like the rest of their ilk — lived to “reunite in the kingdom of shadows.”
Two in the Wave nimbly illustrates how Godard and Truffaut went about doing that, intercutting archival footage of the filmmakers with excerpts from their films. It refuses to mediate the boundaries between their films and their lives. When 14-year-old Jeanne-Pierre Leaud, immortalized as the iconic Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows, arrives at Cannes in ’59, de Baecque comments that “actor and character are born together.” Later, Laurent includes candid footage of Anne Wiazemsky, Godard’s ex-wife, recounting how an argument she had with Godard one evening found its way into the script of La Chinoise the next day.
For Godard and Truffaut, life and the cinema were one and the same. So when their conceptions went in divergent directions in the wake of the May 1968 protests (which led to the shutting down of Cannes), their friendship suffered a withering demise. Laurent movingly illustrates this schism by recounting the battle that raged between Godard and Truffaut for Leaud, who starred in both their films and was the same age as the May ’68 protestors. The living personification of the New Wave’s influence on France’s youth, Leaud was now torn between his two “fathers.”
Viewers thoroughly familiar with the New Wave might not find Two in the Wave to be a particularly educational experience, but they might catch a glimpse behind a shroud of primordial metaphors. Much like how Werner Herzog mines documentary subjects for mythic resonance, Two in the Wave is film history made Homeric. Two titans of the cinema are brought back down to size as two men small enough to be swept by the same chaotic currents of change they fought so hard to foment. It’s mesmerizing stuff, and when curated with such a keen perspective, it will leave you breathless.
David Ehrlich is a film writer who has contributed to a number of online outlets such as Cinematical, Reverse Shot, and Box Office Magazine. He lives in New York City where he is working towards an M.F.A. in directing.
WATCH TWO IN THE WAVE ON FANDOR.