In the late 1950s, a young breed of film critic operating in France (and writing manifesto-style tirades for the infamous Cahiers du Cinema magazine against what passed for mainstream movies) shifted gears from angry commentators to cinematic revolutionaries. As a critical group, they admired auteurist filmmaking — uncompromising in its fulfilment of the viewpoints and ideals of the almighty film director. Moving themselves from the theatre seat to behind the camera, they created the French New Wave, changing the international face of cinema permanently in their wake.
While Francois Truffaut’s 1959 masterpiece The 400 Blows is most often credited as the life-giving kick-start to La Nouvelle Vague, the Calgary Cinematheque’s decision to start its silver celebration of the French New Wave with Louis Malle’s 1958 Elevator to the Gallows brings an intoxicating look at what came in the previous season. For Charles Tepperman, professor of film studies at the University of Calgary, the selection is one that not only presents an often-overlooked classic to Calgary audiences, but also sets the stage for the seismic shifts of 1959.
“It anticipates the New Wave in a number of ways,” he says. “Elevator gives us the chance to think about French film on the eve of the New Wave. It’s an incredible film that touches on some of the youthful energy of the New Wave, its cool atmosphere and its debt to American popular film genres — crime films and film noir, in particular.”
Shot in stunning (not to mention incredibly stylish) black-and-white, Elevator to the Gallows plots out the perfect murder, thrown off its axis by a marvel of wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time coincidence. Surprisingly just Malle’s first feature (he would continue to make brilliant films like Les Amants and Le Feu Follet throughout the New Wave, albeit without ever fully being included as a part of it), Elevator is the type of tightly wound thriller it takes lesser filmmakers entire careers to master.
Capturing Paris at night, Malle’s cinematic muse Jeanne Moreau wanders the street searching for both her lover and herself. Trapped in a faulty elevator, her adulterous paramour Maurice Ronet faces one of cinema’s finest, most tragic examples of deus ex machina in action. In a testament to Malle’s power as a filmmaker, we find ourselves holding our collective breath for a murderer attempting to vacate the scene of the crime.
Arguably, the New Wave wouldn’t exist without filmmakers like Malle to lay the foundation stones. And according to film scholars like Tepperman, much of what’s followed wouldn’t have existed were it not for the New Wave coming hot on Elevator’s heels. “I think the entire field of indie filmmaking is indebted to the New Wave,” he says. “Stylistically, the way they produce playful, self-conscious narratives, it’s hard to imagine Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry without the New Wave.”
In the age of an auteur like Quentin Tarantino topping box office charts, it’s intriguing to take a look back to where it all began. “I think we’re always looking back to the French New Wave, even when we’re imagining what the next exciting developments in film — the next “New Wave” — might be,” says Tepperman. Elevator to the Gallows gives one such indispensable look back, both as history and as a film so perfectly constructed as to be just as thrilling to modern audiences as it no doubt was to the Cahiers du Cinema critics who would change the face of cinema itself.