One of the many things I enjoy about French New Wave movies is seeing people look directly at the camera. I’m not talking about the final shots of The 400 Blows and Breathless; I mean ordinary people who are walking down the street, going about their daily lives, and suddenly notice that someone is shooting a film. Street scenes were a vital part of the nouvelle vague style. Jean Douchet devotes an entire chapter of his book French New Wave to them, in which he explains that they were both a means of saving money and an act of rebellion against the studio system. He then talks about the effect on extras:
Extras dominated film sets throughout the world. As a trade union they took advantage of the corporatism of the other film unions to obtain jobs. Extras were everywhere and no one was spared their presence. What was most typical of the extras of the time (they could still be seen in films by Mizoguchi and even in Bresson’s Pickpocket of 1959), was their total and well-known lack of naturalness. Motionless, they posed, ‘expressed’ themselves, and had no other ambition than to be seen. They got in the way of the modern filmmaker and interfered with the audience’s involvement in the film. By shooting on location, which overturned the rules of the studio, they were thrust outside the camera’s field of view. And as in the films of Lumière and Griffith, the great silent films or the first talkies (1930-1933), Renoir (Boudu or La Chienne), Vigo, Barnet, the impression of life once again swept across the screen. When people were needed for a scene (a café, newsstand, bus stop), friends were used, or friends of friends, or even passersby who were willing to give an hour or two of their time. It not only lent an air of truth to the film, it was fun as well.
Passersby who weren’t hired to fill a scene — the ones who were literally just passing by — can still interrupt the illusion that what we’re watching is real, natural though they are compared to paid extras. I can see how this might annoy some viewers, but for me, these little glances and outright stares are part of the experience. Their charm, I think, is in the way they help capture the everyday life of Parisians in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If these looks at the camera remind us that the characters and stories are fictitious, they simultaneously prove that the settings are genuine. Here are some examples:
All the Boys Are Called Patrick (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut, 1959)
The Bakery Girl of Monceau (Éric Rohmer, 1963)
Perhaps the best example is Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, released in 1962. Here, the public’s awareness of the camera isn’t merely incidental, something happening at the fringes of a shot; instead, she embraces it. The title character, played by Corinne Marchand, is a singer awaiting the results of a biopsy, and as she walks down the street, it seems that everyone is staring at her:
As the sequence goes on, the shots of passersby are replaced by shots of people from Cléo’s life, and they’re also staring at her (i.e., directly into the camera), despite being in other settings. Even when Varda breaks away from Cléo’s perspective and shows her alongside a stream of people, heads continue to turn in the direction of the camera, making it appear that Cléo is attracting an undue amount of attention.
I don’t know if any of this was staged, apart from Marchand’s performance, but the reactions all appear quite natural. Thus, Varda effectively — and economically — conveys Cléo’s paranoia by making use of human curiosity and the eternal allure of the camera.
Godard had done something similar the year before in A Woman Is a Woman, though it wasn’t integrated as well with the story: We see shots of ordinary people on the street under a voiceover of Angela (Anna Karina) and her friend Suzanne (Marie Dubois) discussing Communism and striptease. Still, the images themselves are as interesting as the ones in Cléo from 5 to 7, and they have the added benefit of being in color. Here are just a few:
He also went one step further. According to a 1961 article from L’Express, reprinted in the booklet that accompanies the Criterion DVD, the scene where Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy) asks a few men if they’d be willing to impregnate Angela (it, uh, makes sense in context) was done using people who happened to be walking by and weren’t in on the joke. Too far? Peut-être. Typical of Godard? Oui, oui.