Uncomfortable long takes, jarringly rapid scene changes, nearly incomprehensible and typically improvised dialogue, complex illusionary elements, and limited narrative explanation: these are the stimulating formal aesthetics of a film that conjoin to create discomfort and activity in its audience. Typically, mainstream films tend to stay away from these formal elements, in order to set the audience at ease. As Bordwell states, “in the classical cinema, narrative form motivates cinematic representation… To this end, cinematic representation had recoursed to fixed figures of cutting… mise-en-scene… cinematography… and sound.”1 Audiences are transcended into a world of comfortable fantasy, clarity, and delight through the linear, causal plots and editing that allows for exact specificity in setting, with a cheerfully entertaining battle between good and evil, where the former triumphantly prevails. These components are most notable with classical Hollywood films, like Singing in the Rain and Miracle on 34th Street: feel-good films that encourage a sense of passivity in their audiences, lulling them into blissful escapism. Why would films stray from such peace?
Life does not adhere to the same cause-and-effect formal elements that mainstream cinema adheres to. With an increasing distrust in humanity, rooted in the historical rupture of mass genocide and destruction in WWII, audiences across the globe grew tired of mainstream cinema that was severed from the harsh reality of life. Thus, the New Wave was born: a film movement which “defines itself explicitly against the classical narrative mode, and especially against the cause-effect linkage of events.”2 Essentially, the New Wave perspective had a premeditated determination to shock the audience out of the comfortable passivity it had been accustomed to with classic Hollywood films. These groundbreaking practices along with their resulting forced audience participation transcended borders of nationality, time, format, and genre, as seen in Cléo from 5 to 7, Persona, and Carrie. All three of these films, no matter their genre, place of production, or year of release, use the same New Wave elements of breaking time structures, mise-en-scene, and sound, to encourage audience participation and female agency.
Cléo from 5 to 7, a French drama directed by Agnes Varda in 1962, centers around two hours of a day in the life of a young singer, Cléo, as she waits to hear the results of a medical test that will confirm whether or not she has cancer. Cléo was created during a time and place where women were fetishized to ridiculous levels by directors like Godard, who often eradicated women’s agencies and reduced their worth to their bodies. Agnes Varda’s innovative film, “…despite being a personal, auteur film inextricable from the New Wave in the thick of which it was made, anticipates by fourteen years most of the questions and concepts Laura Mulvey would explore and deploy in ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in 1975.”3 Cléo gives its titular character agency and importance by following her journey and exploring her emotions through the typical formal elements of New Wave cinema, turning the movement’s common degradation of women on its head.
As the title suggests, this film seems to be bound permanently to time, but more importantly, “time itself is the main protagonist… not just its passage, its fertile construction-destruction, but its many facets, its metamorphoses and burdens.” The film is placed into sections, divided by specific times and titled by the characters leading them, a format that rarely occurs in mainstream cinema. In fact, this division of time serves to create anxiety for Cléo and the audience. We wait alongside our heroine, just as anxious for 6:30 p.m., when she is supposed to hear back about her test results. The rejection of typical time structures is heightened by the inclusion of dead time; there are several moments in the film where Cléo is walking around, without the comfort of dialogue or a propellant to the plot. Time not only creates structure for the film, it is also alive, and not merely just a playground for characters to tell their story upon. It is the character, not subject to our control.
The mise-en-scène for Cléo seems subject to the handheld camera that shoots most of the film and the on-location setting, key ingredients for many Realist New Wave films.5 Shots are realistic in the sense that they are not always perfect, symmetrical or asymmetrical. Throughout the film, there are ebbs and flows of going between performance-like shots where our central protagonist is center stage, to documentary-style shots where we feel as though we are looking upon Cléo like a stranger we pass and never see again. Cléo goes back and forth between structure and happenstance, telling the audience to both listen to Cléo on her journey and decide for ourselves what to pay attention to.
The score of Cléo is particularly interesting, because it is done by Michel Legrand, who also did the scoring for the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Throughout the film, either the sounds of the city envelop our journey alongside Cléo, or we are given Legrand’s score. Either way, the sound of the film seems motivated by Cléo’s emotions. When she is happy, blissful and cheerful music creates a soundtrack for her to dance on the stairs. When she is consumed by her hysterics in a crowded restaurant, the room is filled with silence to allow for her crying to be the loudest noise.7 This, much like the mise-en-scène, gives the audience two jobs: to be controlled by the power of a specific element or to choose what is to be the focus.
One scene encapsulates every element discussed thus far is the turning point of the film, when Cléo’s songwriters come to her home to practice a few musical numbers. Cléo’s room is set up like a stage: a large, blank canvas with perfectly carved furniture placed sparingly throughout the room, leaving plenty of empty space. Cléo, her songwriters, and her assistant play in the space; and the camera, music, and structure emulates that. When Cléo’s assistant swings and Cléo sways her head to the music, so does the camera, swinging side to side, unattached to the content of the frame. It’s a very relaxed and laissez-faire approach to capturing this moment, making the audience active in not wanting to miss anything that the camera might catch. Cléo eventually sings a very non-Cléo song about dying alone, pale and sickly. The lighting becomes dramatic, framing Cléo’s pale body perfectly against a black background and zooming in on her teary-eyed face. It feels as though the audience has taken a break from the time-structured tale and is whisked away to Cléo’s fear of death. After the song is finished, the structure of the film goes back to normalcy. From then on, Cléo is changed, and so is the audience. This moment in the film summarizes the constant changes of the kind of control that Varda gives the audience pushes us to remain alert. As well, these formal elements are driven and reactionary to the titular character of the film, proving the power a woman has to the structure of a film’s form and narrative.
The Swedish psychological drama, Persona, directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1966, plays on the (at least modern-day) viewer’s expectation of an easy to comprehend plot. The film is highly motivated by Bergman’s childhood, flanked with abuse and hyper-Christian morals, and personal anxieties. Rooted in failed marriages and the incredibly violent world surrounding his country, his films during this era were consumed with existentialism and questions about morality.8 Bergman’s films became internationally recognized as important to the New Wave movement, and “the immense international popularity of his films tended to ensure that Bergman’s picture of Sweden and the Swedish temperament was the first and often the only impression received by the outside world.”9 This recognition of importance includes Persona, a film referenced across the globe as a referential point to the New Wave movement.
Persona starts off seemingly with a causal, time-image based plot; it is the story of an ill and mute actress, Elisabet, receiving help from a nurse, Sister Alma, by going on vacation to a remote coastal cabin. This structure completely falls apart at the end, its images no longer a minion to time. As mentioned before, mainstream film typically used time as a way to progress the story along. Unlike Cléo from 5 to 7, Persona disregards time’s power on its characters by including several images motivated by movement. For example, towards the end of the film, Sister Alma cruelly details what she believes to be Elisabet’s emotions towards her own pregnancy. The scene is played once from Alma’s perspective, and played again subsequently from Elisabet’s; therefore pushing the audience around to understand that time is being controlled by Bergman. Also, several seemingly random images are placed throughout the film: a reel of film running out during an emotional scene, an interrogation scene away from the beachside setting we grew accustomed to for most of the film, and dream sequences in the middle of the causal plot we were following. All of these elements toy with our sense of time and comfort with the plot of the film. This rejection of common time structures that awakens our senses to pay more attention to the emotions of the central women in this film, which is much like Cléo.
Not only do these examples mentioned above play with our relationship to time, they add to the shocking mise-en-scène of Persona. At several points in the film, there are abrupt changes to setting, lighting, and placement of objects in the frame. Similarly to Cléo, the film goes in and out of stage-like setups and images bounded seemingly by reality. Unlike Cléo, Persona also adds to its mystical mise-en-scène with complexity in its editing with superimposed imagery, intensely dramatic lighting, dramatically tilted camera angles, and extreme close-ups. The opening title sequence to Persona is incredibly indicative to the rest of the film. Full of complexity in its fast pace, random images, and simplistic yet threatening soundtrack, the audience is groomed to understand that the following story will be filled with unexplained images and hyper-symbolism, all of which needs to be paid attention to in the fullest. In short, while Persona and Cléo have very different stories, they employ similar techniques of utilizing time, space, and sound in innovative and unconventional ways to push audiences further into discomfort and alertness.
Carrie, an American thriller based on the Stephen King novel, directed by Brian De Palma in 1976, is about a withdrawn teen who faces abuse from her peers and overtly Christian mother, and soon learns of her telekinetic powers that allow her to destroy anything in her path. It’s an incredibly gruesome and violent film, ironically taking a very dark turn at a high school prom. It would seemingly have nothing to do to its older European counterparts of the New Wave movement. De Palma, though, draws upon many of the same formal elements that Cléo from 5 to 7 and Persona use. Carrie’s breakage of mainstream time structures does not seem as evident as Persona, but can be easily seen through its editing. The opening shot, for example, is a total De Palma move: a long take of a high school girl’s locker room, where girls’ bodies are shown fully exposed, with no cutting of time. Other points in the film are edited to be in slow-motion, showing the range at which De Palma plays with this structure.
The mise-en-scène in Carrie was what I really wanted to focus on. It’s incredibly chaotic and rampant, with expectations being subverted and played with, and the emotions of Carrie controlling everything. In one scene, as Carrie is getting ready to leave with Tommy for prom, “Carrie and her mother both rush to the window to see if Tommy…has arrived. They linger there for a moment, and the composition of the two faces framed by the window is reminiscent of a shot of the faces of Alma and Elizabet in Persona. In both films, the two women, who are opposites of sorts, experience a momentary peaceful hiatus before their opposition breaks out into warfare.”10 In a subsequent shot, after Carrie forces her mother to sit and be quiet after having enough of her mother’s insults, we expect the camera to follow the titular character as she rushes with excitement to meet her date, but we do not. “Instead, it zooms in on mother as she rises from Carrie’s bed saying, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’”11 These examples showcase the camera’s fixation not on our expectations of what it should do, but on the heightened emotions of the characters. This is true with De Palma as well as other Italian-American filmmakers of the time, like Coppola and Scorsese, who were “…fascinated with artifice – with genre plots, characters, and motifs that delve into the roots of popular forms – as well as with stylized sets, lighting, and an expressionist use of color that convey the emotions of the characters and the situations rather than the “reality” of the objects.”
The score of Carrie, much like that of Cléo, is motivated by the characters’ emotions. When Carrie and her mother sit at the dining room table, arguing over whether or not Carrie is allowed to go to prom, the sound of thunder is controlled by her mother’s anger. When De Palma introduced Carrie in the opening shot of the film, naked, bathing herself, the steam was coupled with angelic, soft flute music. In that same sequence, when Carrie gets her period for the first time and notices the blood streaming down her initially sexualized/zen body, the music comes to a halt to reveal the diegetic noise of a shower running. The soundtrack of Carrie plays with our emotions and reveals Carrie’s true nature.
The very iconic and emotional scene, the prom scene, plays with all of these elements. As Carrie and her date walk in slow-mo up to the stage to accept their prom king and queen crowns, there are cuts to Carrie’s tormentors who are about to dump pig’s blood on her, and cuts to Carrie’s friend trying to stop them in slow-mo, and to the teacher cluelessly trying to stop Carrie’s friend in slow-mo. All the while, cheering is the soundtrack to Carrie’s smile. Once the blood is poured, there is silence, besides the dripping of blood and the swinging of the bucket hanging above her. Slow-mo shots of the audience starting to laugh is juxtaposed to Carrie’s horror. When all hell breaks loose, so does the form of the scene. Red light drowns Carrie and the scene is split into several different shots playing at the same time. A conjoined sense of space and peace is completely eradicated, matching Carrie’s emotions. Much like the restaurant scene in Cléo, where her cries are the most important part, this scene in Carrie gives importance to the cries of those she is murdering. Both come to the same conclusion by placing one sound above all the rest: the titular character is of the most importance. Much like Persona, where an interrogation of hate, ridicule, and speculation occurs, Carrie takes out her hatred, just like Alma, on those around her with no mercy.
The New Wave genre was one of pushing boundaries and audiences needed it. The comfortable passivity of the Golden Age of Hollywood no longer matched the worldview and the capabilities of the people. While Cléo from 5 to 7, Persona, and Carrie seem to be very different in form, genre, place, and time, they are all very much a part of and challenging of the New Wave movement. These films play with time structures, mise-en-scène, and score to push the audience to places they didn’t know they could go, much like other New Wave films. But, unlike the common tropes of their genres, there is a specific importance placed on female emotions in these films, without regard to audience expectations or comfort.
1 Bordwell, David. “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 717. 7th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.
2 Bordwell, David. 717.
3 Ince, Katherine. “Feminist phenomenology and the film-world of Agnès Varda.” In Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, vol 28, no. 3, pp. 602-617, 2013.
4 Bíró, Yvette, and Catherine Portuges. “Caryatids of Time: Temporality in the Cinema of Agnès Varda.” In Performing Arts Journal 19, no. 3 (1997): 1-10.
5 Bazin, André. “De Sica: Metteur-en-Scène.” In Film Theory and Criticism, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 203-211. 5th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.
6 “Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962).” The Criterion Collection, n.d. https://www.criterion.com/films/244-cl-o-from-5-to-7. 7 “Cleo From 5 To 7 (1962) – (Movie Clip) Her And Her Hysterics.” Turner Classic Movies, n.d. http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1380691/Cleo-From-5-To-7-Movie-Clip-Her-And-Her-Hysterics.html.
7 “Cleo From 5 To 7 (1962) – (Movie Clip) Her And Her Hysterics.” Turner Classic Movies, n.d. http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/1380691/Cleo-From-5-To-7-Movie-Clip-Her-And-Her-Hysterics.html.
8 Barrett, Alex. “Where to Begin with Ingmar Bergman.” BFI, July 13, 2018. https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/features/where-begin-ingmar-bergman.
9 Taylor, John Russell. “Ingmar Bergman.” Britannica, n.d. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ingmar-Bergman.
10 Matusa, Paula. “Corruption and Catastrophe: DePalma’s “Carrie”.” In Film Quarterly 31, no. 1 (1977): 32-38.
11 Matusa, Paula.
12 Braudy, Leo. “The Sacraments of Genre: Coppola, DePalma, Scorsese.” In Film Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1986): 17-28.