10 French New Wave Films to Make You Fall in Love With Paris

A scene from François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) │
A scene from François Truffaut’s "Jules et Jim" (1962) │ | © Breve Storia del Cinema
Paul McQueen

The directors of the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave, rewrote the rules of filmmaking. They did so by blending elements of Hollywood’s Golden Age and Italian neorealism with their own philosophical explorations. It’s astonishing to think that the 10 films featured below were made within just five years of one another. Together, they present a Paris filled with intrigue, passion, and subtle drama that it’s impossible not to love.

Les 400 Coups (The 400 Blows)

Director: François Truffaut

Released: 1959

For a director’s debut to be a knockout with critics and at the box office is remarkable; for it to make it into most cinema experts’ list of the greatest films of all time is astounding. This semi-autobiographical picture, the one that really got the whole New Wave movement rolling, is an examination of family and adolescence. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud), ignored and berated by his mother and stepfather, takes to wandering the streets of Paris, taking in the sights and getting into trouble. The film’s ambiguous ending has been much discussed, despite Antoine reappearing in four more of Truffaut’s films.

Les Cousins

Director: Claude Chabrol

Released: 1959

Chabrol’s second film is a subversive modern fable in which a country boy, a naïve law student, moves to Paris to stay with his cousin, the debonair bohemian. Some of the most memorable scenes include a cruise in a gorgeous vintage car down the Champs-Élysées and multiple trips to one of the city’s many bookshops. The film’s stars, Jean-Claude Brialy and Gérard Blain, also featured in Chabrol’s debut, Le beau Serge (1958). In this, their characters’ essential personalities are inverted, leading many to think of the two films as mirror images one another.

À bout de souffle (Breathless)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Released: 1960

In cinemas 10 months after Truffaut’s debut, Breathless changed the game again. At once an homage to the films of the past and a refutation of every basic rule of moviemaking they set down, it is the epitome of Parisian cool. Godard shot without a script, using handheld cameras, natural light, the actors’ own clothing, and practically no makeup. The result is a rough-edged masterpiece, one befitting its leads: a murderous thug on the run and the American girl who offers him a place to hide out. The final scene, one of many played out in the city’s streets, fulfils the promise of the title.

Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)

Director: François Truffaut

Released: 1960

Adapted from a crime novel by David Goodis, Truffaut’s second film is an unreserved tribute to American film noir, B-movies, and silent comedy. Charles Aznavour, the film’s star, plays a classical pianist who fate has dealt some unfortunate hands, landing him ultimately in a Parisian dive bar. Through this gateway to the city’s underworld, he quickly gets mixed up with the mob. As well as being a film about films, it crosses, back and forth, the line between comedy and thriller.


Paris Nous Appartient (Paris Belongs to Us)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Released: 1960

Jacques Rivette, who in his 50-year career developed a reputation for insanely long films, took four years to get his debut made. When it eventually got released, audiences had already experienced the thrills and spills of Truffaut and Godard’s early works and it just didn’t seem to register. Over time, and quite rightly, it has garnered the recognition it deserves. The film’s story revolves around a troupe of thespians whose worlds are plunged into a state of paranoia following a suspicious suicide. It introduced all the key elements of Rivette’s films: rehearsals, the investigation of mysteries, and conspiracy theories.

Zazie Dans le Métro

Director: Louis Malle

Released: 1960

Malle is always considered to be one of the French New Wave gang but his third film incorporates a lot of the crucial elements of the movement. An adaptation of a Raymond Queneau novel, the story follows Zazie (Catherine Demongeot), a young girl on a trip to Paris to visit her uncle. Her dream to ride on the metro is crushed when she learns it has been shut down due to a workers’ strike. Instead, Zazie sets out on a frenetic jaunt around the city, which sees her take in its rooftops, covered passageways, and bridges.

Cléo de 5 à 7

Director: Agnès Varda

Released: 1962

Varda’s second film is a triumph of French New Wave and feminist cinema. Its story takes place in the streets, cafés, and parks of Paris’ Left Bank and is told in close to real time. Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a successful singer, is uneasily awaiting the results of a test that will determine whether she has stomach cancer. Free of melodrama and sentimentality, it is an honest portrait of a woman in crisis but walking bravely into the unknown. Cléo’s stunning rehearsal of the track sans toi momentarily transforms the otherwise naturalistic film into a musical before it continues, coolly, on its way.

Jules et Jim

Director: François Truffaut

Released: 1962

The events of Jules and Jim span 25 years, before, during, and after the World War I, and France, Austria, and Germany. Its three leads, played superbly by Oskar Werner, Henri Serre, and Jeanne Moreau, will forever be remembered as cinema’s most captivating ménage-à-trois. Never is their chemistry more potent than when they are strolling along the Seine under starlight. The film, more than anything, is about freedom, loyalty, and lasting love and its score will blow you away.

Vivre sa Vie (My Life To Live)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Released: 1962

Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time of filming, plays Nana, a young woman who arrives in Paris dreaming of becoming an actress. Things don’t quite work out the way she’d planned and she ends up working as a prostitute to make ends meet. The film, told in 12 distinct tableaux, a mixture of daydreams and dances, is at once a poignant character study and among the most dynamic of the director’s works. Visually stunning and full of surprises, the film was a landmark in the movement’s progression.

Bande à part (Band of Outsiders)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Released: 1964

Another of Godard’s gangster-inspired films, Band of Outsiders is youthful, energetic, and charming in equal measure. Restless friends played by Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur are both in love with Anna Karina, who they enlist to help them commit a robbery (at her own home). Some of the most incredible scenes, not only of this film but of all of the French New Wave, include a dash through the Louvre and a dance sequence that will have you doing the Madison between the tables of a restaurant with your friends before you know it.

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