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.
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