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Waiting for Godard: The French New Wave and Music Videos

Waiting for Godard: The French New Wave and Music Videos


The French New Wave, that cinematic movement from the 1960s that essentially defined iconoclasm for film, has undoubtedly had its impact on nearly everything, from film to music to style. And given its indelible impact on cultural history, it’s one of the easiest artistic movements to pull from, as demonstrated from three key music videos inspired by, ripped off from, and celebrating the auteurs from Godard to Truffaut.

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“Dancing with Myself” – Nouvelle Vague

There’s a bit of irony and wordplay going on here. First, the band’s name is Nouvelle Vague, nodding to both the French New Wave and the New Wave in music during the 1980s. Then there’s the name of the album that the French cover band chose to use: Bande à Part, from the Jean-Luc Godard film of the same name. Then there’s the actual music video. Rather than go about “creating” a music video for their single, a cover of the Billy Idol track, Nouvelle Vague instead uses a clip from Godard’s film Vivre sa Vie, in which Nana (the gorgeous Anna Karina) dances around a pool table trying to entice the men around her. In a way, this is the best decision that the band could have ever made: Billy Idol’s jumpy, punk anthem to loneliness (and, speculatively speaking, self-pleasure) is slowed down and brought to a level of contemplativeness. Nouvelle Vague adds the sounds of an audience – murmuring, moving around – to give the impression that this is being performed in a lounge area. In that sense, there’s an impression of performed intimacy, not unlike the act of prostitution. In Godard’s film, Nana’s dreams of becoming an actress on the silver screen are crushed and she ends up as a prostitute. So, with the son’s slowed down tempo, the general tone and atmosphere, and the context of the film, the song takes on the meaning of a young woman who has conceded and given up. She half-heartedly tries to attract men, as Raoul Cotard’s camera follows her around, making a desperate attempt to hold onto what’s left of her dignity. With the casualness of Nouvelle Vague’s vocals, the music video as a whole becomes heartbreaking.

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“Kiss Me” – Sixpence None the Richer

Christian pop band Sixpence None the Richer’s music video for their one hit wonder “Kiss Me’ is more a testament to the influence on style that the French New Wave had than a thematic understanding. Nonetheless, their video, which recreates scenes from François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, has a wistful and quaint beauty about it, despite the fact that it doesn’t seem to get that Truffaut’s film is a bitter lollipop of a ménage à trois. With Leigh Nash as Jeanne Moreau’s Catherine and fellow band members Matt Slocum and Justin Cary as Jules and Jim, respectively (originally portrayed by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre), its tangential understanding of the film is, for all of the video’s intents and purposes, completely fine. Though Jules and Jim is hardly the most romantic film that Truffaut ever made, it nevertheless was able to spawn some incredibly memorable imagery. But, quite nicely, the dynamic between the three musicians does seem to capture the same kind of (intermittent) playfulness from the film, concisely epitomizing Truffaut’s words, “In love, women are professionals, men are amateurs.” It’s goofy, in a good way. Shot in dreamy black and white and shot in a similarly on the fly style, the video seems to fairly accurately depict the same kind of nuances within Raoul Cotard’s photography. To what extent the video fits the song at hand doesn’t terribly matter: if anything what Jules and Jim and “Kiss Me” have in common is exactly that almost plaintive attitude towards romance met with an elated anticipation for it. The video solidifies how sweet it is with the final shot: Ms. Nash throwing a flower upon Truffaut’s gravestone. It was he that said, “I have always preferred the reflection of the life to life itself.”

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“Oxford Comma” – Vampire Weekend

It shouldn’t be surprising that Columbia University-borne indie sensation Vampire Weekend should pull from iconoclastic auteur Jean-Luc Godard. Firstly, I just said they met at Columbia University. Secondly, their video for “Oxford Comma” is not the first to even use him as a point of inspiration: their video for “Mansard Roof” borrowed the title design from Week End and their song “Holiday” evokes the same kind of jauntily anarchist tone as that film. So it seems incredibly fitting for the band to basically just remake a scene from Week End, and that’s exactly what they do. But, of course, in their way… In a similar manner, it shouldn’t be surprising that Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd), then, should mashup Godard with someone who is, pretty much, his aesthetic polar opposite. Why not Wes Anderson? Ayoade’s brand of style mixing should be better known now given his impressive feature debut Submarine pulled from everyone aesthetically and his recent follow-up The Double did a similar thing, but in a more controlled and meaningful manner. Yet the video for “Oxford Comma” is anything but meaninglessly twee. The song, written by front man Ezra Koenig, explores the relationship between class and presentation, with the “oxford comma” being denotative of the narrator’s significant other’s desire to present as upper class, bourgeoisie, the end point being, “Why bother? You’re not better than me.” Not only are Godard and Anderson aesthetically antithetical, they seem to be economically the same way, with Godard being overtly Marxist throughout a majority of his work, and Anderson’s work displaying the lives of upper-middle class privilege. When these two ideas clash, it’s rather fascinating. The video, more explicitly, features a recreation of a long take from Weekend which is primarily kept intact (though, in the film, there is some monologuing, piano playing, and a much more deadly game of cowboys and Indians). But its meta presentation uses Anderson’s Futura font for its chapter titles and its jokey, non-self-serious camera crew/band members following Koenig around (recalling Anderson’s American Expression commercial)to depict a sense of quirk. Formally, it’s incredibly impressive, done in a similar fashion to Cotard’s actual long take, but the aesthetic elements that mix together create a rather amusing, impish anarchy. This video, perhaps more than the other two, seems to understand exactly what the French New Wave was doing both formally and ideologically. Also, the video has a girl and a gun.