Martin Scorsese, in the Wake of the French New Wave

Martin Scorsese is back at the Cannes Film Festival! Exactly 47 years after Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or, and 37 years after picking up Best Director for After Hours, the American filmmaker will be taking to the stage on May 20 to present his latest movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, a sordid tale of murder in 1920s Oklahoma starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. The perfect opportunity to look back at the ties that bind Scorsese, France, and auteur cinema.
Martin Scorsese in his office, New York, 2016. © Kengo Matsumoto

In Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), Jean-Luc Godard films a closeup of a cup and the freshly stirred coffee swirling inside it. Almost ten years later, Robert De Niro’s protagonist in Taxi Driver (1976) self-medicates with aspirin to help with his headaches. Scorsese’s camera zooms in on the glass of water, the dissolving tablet, and the bubbles, as if representing the intrusive thoughts invading the tormented cabbie’s mind. This is just one of the nods to the leading French New Wave director found throughout Scorsese’s filmography. Later, he used music featured in Contempt (1963) in several scenes of his 1995 movie Casino.

Scorsese’s love of French cinema began in New York City during the 1960s. As a film student at NYU, he obsessively attended the recently launched New York Film Festival and developed a passion for la Nouvelle Vague, a new movement of filmmakers and critics making waves in France. He watched Muriel by Alain Resnais in 1963, Band of Outsiders and A Woman Is a Woman by Jean-Luc Godard in 1964, along with Alphaville and Le Petit Soldat in 1965, and Masculine Feminine and Pierrot le Fou in 1966, also by Godard. While at the festival, he met Eric Rohmer, Agnès Varda, and Claude Chabrol, directors he often kept in mind while creating his own short films and feature-length movies.

Scorsese first borrowed a series of techniques and devices from the French New Wave, starting with Godard’s “ jump cuts,” which involved shortening the narrative by “ jumping” forward within the same scene. “When I saw Breathless for the first time, it was the filmmaking itself that I connected with,” wrote Scorsese in Cahiers du cinema, the magazine that led to the creation of the New Wave, after Godard died last September. “Those jump cuts have been endlessly cited and evoked, but the actual experience of them was another matter.”

This technique offered a new perspective of narration, and he used it in his short film What’s a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Place like This? (1963) and his first feature-length movie Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967). It also showcased the choices made by the director and the editor, sparking a cinematic revolution and the rise of the auteur and subjectivity as viable concepts. “Why cut from one shot to the next, and why this frame instead of that one?” According to Scorsese, in Godard’s work, “The very act of making movies became part of the experience of the movie itself.” The audience becomes active, watching a film while also understanding the secrets behind how it is made.

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci (in the background) on the set of Raging Bull, 1979. © Brian Hamill

The other “tricks” that Scorsese borrowed from the French New Wave repertoire include freeze-frames, which he has used in key narrative moments throughout his work (there are at least 13 in Raging Bull and just as many in Goodfellas!), changing narrators, and the use of music to penetrate the characters’ psyches. Voiceovers, such as the one featured in Jules and Jim (1962), are another iconic feature that later became his trademark. In François Truffaut’s renowned movie, the first two minutes feature a story rapidly narrated by an external voice. Scorsese has often cited this as inspiration when setting the tempo in his films.

The Freedom to Be an Auteur

Aside from these technical aspects that make the storyline dynamic and fun, Scorsese was above all fascinated by the French New Wave directors’ attitude, mindset, independence, and impudence. “Godard, like Truffaut, is perhaps dead,” he wrote in Cahiers du cinéma. “But [his] work is absolutely and indisputably alive. Work that, whether we viewers are ready for it or not, makes us free.” He realized that, in the New Wave, anything was possible. Its directors could take risks, film in the street, do away with makeup and lighting, and reference their favorite works of art. Above all, they could leave a mark on cinema by imposing a constantly visible directing and editing style.

The director no longer had to hide behind the camera. Scorsese used this realization to adopt the concept of the auteur – the figure of the arthouse filmmaker that appeared with the invention of film and was popularized by the New Wave. In Hugo Cabret (2011), he paid tribute to Georges Méliès, the pioneering French director of A Trip to the Moon (1902), which he saw as the fledgling portrayal of the liberated and endlessly inventive auteur. “As a filmmaker, I feel like we owe everything to Georges Méliès,” he said in the movie’s press kit. “I’m moved whenever I watch his first films. They inspire me. It’s not just the thrill of innovation and discovery a century after they were made, but also because they are among the first and most powerful examples of this art form that I have always loved, and to which I have devoted most of my life.”

In the same way as Méliès, Truffaut, and Godard, Scorsese sees himself as an auteur in the sense that he creates films that are inherently his own, with an immediately recognizable style and approach to directing. This method was less popular in the United States – as shown by the public reaction to Taxi Driver. “It was nominated for a few Academy Awards, but [screenwriter] Paul Schrader or myself were not nominated for the picture,” said the director in an interview with the Associated Press. However, Scorsese’s staunch auteur style resonated at Cannes, and he was celebrated almost as a native son upon winning the Palme d’Or in 1976. Now back on the Croisette with Killers of the Flower Moon, it goes without saying that a rock star’s welcome awaits.

Article published in the May 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.