Films Isolated From The Norm: The French New Wave’s Breathless & The New Hollywood’s Easy Rider

Noah reminds himself of the thrilling escapism of discovering cinema’s greatest movies

While we are physically isolated from each other, our dissatisfaction with the government reaches its boiling point, and our fight against social injustice continues, it’s very important to reflect on and remain galvanized by the things that you love. As an avid movie buff, I often enlighten myself in this way by watching films deemed classics today, but at their time of arrival, confused industry execs with their avant-garde style. I love to do this because I find it fascinating when someone creates something that is unlike anything else, and it becomes a phenomenon in its own right. People can be afraid to create something true to themselves, and would rather follow suit and copy what is trending to secure financial success. Those who are truly great at what they do don’t follow. They innovate. Two films I have recently enjoyed that were on my list of the movies that fitted this description were Breathless and Easy Rider.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless was one of the most influential French New Wave movies of the twentieth century because of its unconventional narrative style, black and white colouring, use of trendy editing techniques, raw and authentic feel to the script, and its inclusion of an outlaw protagonist who free-wheelingly steers his way through life taunting authority. All of these aspects of the independently-made film catapulted it into stardom. It was a massive hit amongst teenagers of the Swinging Sixties, who felt detached from the establishment and were in search of things that defaced tradition on any scale.

Breathless and other European arthouse films, such as Federico Fellini’s pictures that follow a similar premise, would go on to become the main source of inspiration for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation of the 1970s in America, who created a New Hollywood that abandoned old values of how cinema should be made. This generation of young and enthusiastic directors subsequently changed Hollywood forever, and included the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Dennis Hopper and Martin Scorsese. As Steven Spielberg is quoted as saying in the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, ‘The 70s was the first time that a kind of age restriction was lifted, and young people were allowed to come rushing in with all of their naivete and their wisdom and all of the privileges of youth. It was just an avalanche of brave new ideas, which is why the ‘70s was such a watershed’.

The young and ambitious directors of the 70s era decided to counteract the boring aesthetics and predictable storylines of the movies of the 50s that were advised by the studios, and instead took matters into their own hands. The studio executives reluctantly gave all the control to the directors who clearly knew what the kids wanted to see. The big Hollywood studios had almost gone bankrupt in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s due to the emergence of TV, and because the films that they were making were unpopular with the general youth.

In the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls documentary (on Amazon Prime at the moment), Dennis Hopper explains that he had given up watching American movies and started watching European films, such as Breathless, because they were more interesting and relatable than the American B-movies. Hopper would go on to make his directorial debut in 1969 with the cult classic Easy Rider, heavily inspired by the tension in America over Vietnam and the nihilistic attitude of the disenfranchised youth. The movie tells the story of two bikers who travel across America after receiving a large amount of cash from a cocaine deal. It embodies the counter-culture movement that the youth of the 60s and 70s participated in, celebrating the hippie community and villainising the right wing. The movie is a showcase of realism, that extends to behind the camera, as Hopper himself was a foul-mouthed, stoned hippy who directed with spontaneity as his credo. The picture’s experimental cinematic techniques and its stoned, long-haired biker subjects concurrently lack purpose. Wyatt (Fonda) and Billy’s (Hopper) journey across America has no reasoning other than the pair’s impulse to live wild and free, so the use of a twitchy back-and-forth jump cut has no reason except to proclaim Hopper’s freedom from the movie execs, who had unwillingly given him absolute creative control. In the words of Billy, ‘freedom, man, that’s what it’s all about’.

Both Breathless and Easy Rider were a landmark middle-finger to the generic. Although one undoubtedly influenced the other, they are both regarded as a turning point in film history. Watching both of these films made me wonder whether the social issues of today will encourage artists to break down the boundaries of their desired platform and innovate carefree, because when we are out of lockdown, we should feel more determined than ever before.

Breathless is available to watch on the BFI Player channel on Amazon Prime, and Easy Rider has recently been added onto Netflix, so if you are unfamiliar with them both and you are a sucker for movies way ahead of their time that are directed by your favourite director’s favourite director, then you’re in luck.

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