In Emmanuel Laurent’s new documentary, “Two in the Wave,” the “two” are the filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The wave, needless to say, is La Nouvelle Vague, a journalistic name that not only stuck to Truffaut, Mr. Godard and their colleagues, but that also changed the way film history is understood.
Since the days when that Gallic wave crashed ashore, critics and cinephiles have scanned the horizon looking for the next one, while groups of young directors and critics, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, seek to replicate the daring and self-confidence that bubbled up in France in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Mr. Laurent, for his part, dutifully combs the beach, gathering wonderful bits of detritus from that much-mythologized moment. The surviving members of the New Wave — Truffaut died in 1984 — are by now venerated members of the old guard. (Mr. Godard, at 79, showed his new film at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday.) But “Two in the Wave” wisely resists the temptation to invite them to share memories of youth. Rather, it gathers newspaper clippings, newsreel footage and movie clips to assemble a present-tense essay that is both time capsule and collage.
Instead of featuring talking-head retrospective interviews, the movie frames its backward looks with images of the actress Isild Le Besco reading old magazine articles and occasionally visiting a historically significant spot in Paris. Her presence is puzzling for a while, until you begin to absorb some of the images that surround her — Jean Seberg in “Breathless,” Anna Karina in “A Woman Is a Woman” — and recall Mr. Godard’s axiom that all he needed to make a film was “a girl and a gun.” Mr. Laurent displays no firearms, but Ms. Le Besco’s silent presence suggests a corollary, namely that any movie can benefit from a beautiful woman with an interesting face.
There is also a third man in “Two in the Wave”: Jean-Pierre Léaud, the actor who worked frequently with both directors and who became the on-screen embodiment of their attitudes and styles. For Truffaut, Mr. Léaud served as a frequent alter ego, appearing as Antoine Doinel in a series of autobiographical films, beginning with “The 400 Blows” in 1959. That movie and “Breathless,” Mr. Godard’s first feature, occupy much of Mr. Laurent’s documentary, which was written and narrated by the film critic Antoine de Baecque. The triumphant arrival of “The 400 Blows” at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 and the release of “Breathless” a year later feel almost like a single event, one of those epochal moments that divide time into before and after.
Before, there was a group of young movie buffs, haunting the Cinémathèque Française and the offices of Cahiers du Cinéma, disciples of two high priests of postwar cinephilia: the archivist Henri Langlois and the critic André Bazin. They absorbed everything they saw, forming particular affinities with the American directors we now regard (thanks partly to the Cahiers gang) as idols of classic Hollywood.
These Hitchcocko-Hawksians, as they were sometimes known, set out to change French cinema, and in assessing their campaign, “Two in the Wave” becomes frustratingly vague. The grandiose rhetoric of revolution and reinvention is certainly there — mostly courtesy of Mr. Godard, a fount of aphorisms on the nature of “le cinéma” — but apart from a few remarks about hand-held cameras and jump cuts, there is not much in the way of concrete analysis. So the audience is left to guess at what exactly made Truffaut’s and Mr. Godard’s work so transformative.
And yet the evidence provided by the films themselves is a powerful reminder of just how exciting that work remains. “Two in the Wave,” while it provides plenty of biographical information, is above all interested in the artistic personalities of its subjects. It was, after all, the shared love of film that brought them together, despite their differences in temperament and background. And it was partly their divergent ideas about what cinema should become that drove the two men apart.
After their initial triumphs, with “The 400 Blows” and “Breathless,” Truffaut and Mr. Godard continued to work closely together through the 1960s. But as Mr. Godard’s work became increasingly politicized, and as his always uncompromising and prickly personality grew even more so, a schism emerged that would become irreparable in 1973.
That year Mr. Godard wrote a letter to Truffaut attacking his film “Day for Night” and enclosing an equally venomous letter to Mr. Léaud. Truffaut returned that letter, along with one of his own — 20 handwritten pages condemning the selfishness and pigheadedness of his longtime friend.And that is where Mr. Laurent’s story ends, as so many tales of artistic camaraderie do. But “Two in the Wave” honors that collaboration by carefully recounting its details and arguing for its significance. The films of Truffaut and Mr. Godard stand or fall by themselves, but together they made history.