The Frenzy of Faux Femininity in the French New Wave

Associated with a playful pensivity,  muted emotional exhortations, and devastatingly romantic ultimatums all swallowed in the sound of a jazz score, the French New Wave is arguably one of the defining art movements in cinema, each film perfecting the paradox of pairing a romantic rejection of the authoritarian with an eager, aesthetic embrace of the Americana. Whilst the artistic undercurrents of the French New Wave have had an undeniable influence over all reactionary cinema, the genre itself is an exceptional exhibition of the emboldened woman in the age of emancipation.

It is a femme-centric film genre that flaunts a certain consummate caricature of femininity that, governed by her own hedonism, charm and sensuality, attempts to satiate the woman’s desire for self-expression by living through the means of her own hazy, cigarette-stained, red lipstick melancholia. Film follows form and form has always followed function. So as the ‘50s rolled into the ‘60s, and as the woman emerged into a new world of independence, film did what it does best and followed suit. And thus women, who had never been deemed it before, were suddenly interesting enough to take up space on screen. However, the French New Wave is a genre entirely fronted by the male creative, so the exploration of this quintessentially new ‘working woman’ became completely imbued to the lens of the man. And thus, the ‘60s femme on film became an entirely male-curated product. 

Claude Chabrol’s 1960s release of Les Bonnes Femmes is a perfect exemplar of this skewed masculine take on the female with his romantic drama following four devastatingly beautiful young women as they audaciously absorb an aesthetically packaged version of the new working woman. Set against the backdrop of Paris, all except for Ginnette, who opts for the path of prostitution (of course, ending up in the trap of a disturbing male fantasy), take up jobs as saleswomen at an appliance store. It is through their banal day jobs they free themselves from the shackles of the archetypal subjugated woman. They now have the ability to messily navigate their desire for danger and excessive sexual passion via the conduit of a constant consort of Parisian men flocking to their feet. 

A black and white still of several women from the film 'Les Bonnes Femmes'.
Image courtesy of Panitalia Studios

As the plot progresses, and the active, doe-eyed young women immerse themselves in the type of frenzied feminine frolicking that sustained the genre, we become swiftly reminded that female liberation is only fun if men ultimately retain control. The film’s less severe, but most consistent reminder of this, is the women’s male employer, Monsieur Belin, who essentially assumes the role of condescending father from the very beginning. He repeatedly supersedes the dialogue of the women to remind them to “behave if they want the job.” Having pop-in sequences from Belin, telling four grown women off for their apparent overindulgence in facetiousness, can be easily referred to as a nonchalant comedic interlude. But looking at this phenomena from the vantage point of 21st century theoretical feminism, Belin’s character does seem to solely act as a reminder to women that if a man is not there to be desired, he is there to be listened to. 

As the film reaches its denouement, we see the sociological conditions of male control asserted violently. The frivolous, impassioned burgeoning romance between beautiful yet naïve Jaqueline and an unknown motorcyclist reaches its dramatic end when she proclaims her love, as he then murders her and flees on the very motorcycle that alerted her to his mystique charm. Here we are faced with the common running trope of the fetishistic propensity for female failure. Feminist theorist Silvia Federici traced this notion of the woman experiencing serious mishaps at the hands of her own foolishness right back to Shakespeare, claiming that “The punishment for female insubordination to patriarchal authority was called for and celebrated in countless plays.” [1] Even though an acceptance of a nouveau awe-inspiring independence defines the French New Wave there will always be a finalizing reminder to the woman: “Your liberation comes with a price and that price is your adherence to our rules.” 

The French New Wave is synonymous with sensuality. If the woman’s sensuality is not acting as the driving action of the plot, which it most commonly is, you can be assured that long, sensual interludes of feminine seducing masculine will be present. Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman (1956) follows eighteen-year-old sexual libertine Juliette Hardy and her unbridled sexual appetite. Her youthful sensuality becomes the spectacle that drives the plot forward, as the men around her become overly enthralled with her summer pastime of sunbathing half-naked. In the current cultural context of cinema, a shot of a young girl sunbathing is not particularly shocking. But considering these films were released in reaction to the reshaping of female-puritanical culture, each woman — all with their own unique but unwavering determination to live life by a lack of sexual restraint — was highly influential in restructuring the bounds of female autonomy. 

A black and white image of Brigitte Bardot in '...And God Created Woman'. She is depicted in the nude, lounging face-down in front of a white sheet. A figure can be seen from behind the sheet.
Image courtesy of Iena Productions Studio

Writing in the ‘60s, feminist theorist Betty Friedan notes that “The image of a good woman by which Victorian ladies levied simply left out sex.” [2] It is this Victorian image of the woman that dominated the media as a whole, for up until the ‘50s, the media’s main concern seemed to be an attempt to detract from the power of erotic feminine attraction. But this is the French New Wave and erotic attraction is the medium. Even when borderline nymphomania isn’t a plot’s motivating force, eroticism will be in attendance. Godard’s Contempt (1963) is one of the most popular examples of this subtle eroticism. The film follows a “philistine in the art film business” decoding his dilemmas as he dives into the world of screenwriting. It is a film about mercurial men, made by mercurial men. Yet the film still opens with one of the most unbearably sexy shots in cinema— Brigitte Bardot perched naked on a bed, sensually and slowly asking protagonist Michel Piccoli to describe which parts of her naked body are the most enticing.

A still from the film 'Contempt' depicting a woman lounging in the nude on a red sofa, and a fully dressed man appearing to be in the act of taking off his shoes and observing her.
Image courtesy of Rome Paris Films

It’s interesting that the first time men have aesthetic access to women that are culturally rejecting subservience, their first choice is to expand on the erotic. But this arguable overindulgence is done with such artistic merit that it is not tacky, and rather feels like the first cinematic image of the female that does not deny the reality of the changing woman. Adjacent to a woman’s erotic attractiveness is her aura. And in the French New Wave, female auras always leave something to be admired. In a refreshingly feminist manner, a key aesthetic element to the female protagonists of this movement is their unbridled objection to living life through the expectations imposed on them by female stereotyping.  Not once does this appear unattractive to their male counterpart; rather, these men are drawn to the femme on equal parts her beauty as her vivacious spirit. 

Godard’s 1965 unorthodox romantic escapade Pierrot le Fou is a perfect example of this. Pierrot, a disillusioned member of the bourgeois, runs away from a spiritually numbing party with his younger, wild ex-girlfriend Marianne, abandoning his wife and children for a life on the road and running from the hit men after Marianne. He, in typical form, completely rejects the artifice that comes with the ‘normal’ wife and accepts the uncertainty of the frenzy of the new femme. Throughout the film, Pierrot only ever admires the crazed nature of Marianne’s free spirit, never once attempting to confine her to the ideals of the wife. 

A still from 'Pierrot le Fou' depicting a man and woman seen from behind in a red car. The woman puts her left hand on the man's neck as they drive down a road.

It would be slightly erroneous to deem feminism as a feature of the French New Wave, because each female character can be, just like Marianne is within her relationship with Pierrot, deconstructed into an object of a wild youthful dream for men trapped in commercial lifestyles that do not satisfy them spiritually. But the French New Wave is still one of the first film movements in which women are displayed so intently under the light of liberation. Federici also noted that “A sexually active woman was a threat to social order as she subverts a man’s sense of responsibility.” This subversion is a French New Wave signature. Increased sexual appetite and excessive flirtation is the artistic medium in which the erosion of male authority over women is accepted and aestheticised.  So whilst the whole faux-image of the femme can be easily equated to a sense of empty ‘60s gentility, it certainly should be celebrated as an impressive reaction to increased female autonomy. 

Words: Francesca Beaumont

[1] Federici, S. ‘Caliban and The Witch’ (p. 116). 2004.

[2] Friedan, B. ‘The Feminine Mystique’. 1963.