Landscape through innocent eyes: French New Wave cinema reasserted through Post-Colonial Film

The concept of innocence, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is recognised by a ‘freedom from sin, guilt, or moral wrong in general; the state of being untainted with, or unacquainted with, evil; moral purity’.[1] Virtuous nature is often associated with children, as they are ultimately perceived to be free from corruption. This notion has been generally conceded in both society and also in cinema, with many directors choosing to play upon this ‘freedom from sin’ and use it as a means to express binaries of evil or moral disgrace.  Innocence therefore holds scope as a visual concept in terms of its plentiful interpretations and meanings it can offer to the screen, with its most distinguished form taking shape in The French New Wave.

This movement, taking place from the 1950s-60s, consisted of a group of film makers who rejected the classic, studio-based production of ‘Old Hollywood’ in favour of an alternative approach. Indeed, Laura Mulvey recognises that this alternative perspective ‘provides a space for a cinema to be born which is radical in both a political and an aesthetic sense and challenges the basic assumptions of the mainstream film’.[2]  The directors of the French New Wave based their new approach to cinema upon the artistic philosophy of ‘auteur theory’; a concept that acknowledges film as a product of the director’s absolute imaginative and inspired aesthetic vision. Through their films, these screenwriters and directors also illustrated philosophical concepts of existentialism and the human condition, which were indebted to French literary and philosophical traditions.[3] Focusing upon a distinctive narrative of youthful freedom and rebellion, the rigid structures of Old Hollywood were rejected. Key elements of French New Wave cinematography, such as the jump cut, broke up the regular film experience in order to find patterns, and make wider connections to also think beyond the framework of the film, with its main objective to communicate to viewers rather than offering self-contained entertainment.

 

The movement of the French New Wave therefore provided an innovative approach to film, and holds a lasting influence upon contemporary cinema. While the original spirit of the French New Wave was a reaction to the socio-political upheaval of the time, its youthful sense of abandonment has maintained a presence in film, with its ethos emerging time and time through modern visualisations. Indeed, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock certainly echo the characteristic, auteur styles associated with the French New Wave; each film , emerging over ten years after the initial movement, assess the concept of innocence through expressions of landscape, and rely heavily upon French New Wave techniques, in both cinematography and sound. These elements have the ability to transform the ways in which a concept can be expressed, and provide the tools to our visualisations and understandings of a film. These ‘tools’ or functions of cinema form the basis of our investigation into how innocence is visualised through landscape in Walkabout and Picnic…, and analyse how their films can relate to key components of the French New Wave.

Filmmakers have arguably contributed to the construction and fluctuation of Australian national imagery; by the end of the latter half on the twentieth century, the barren outback had supplanted the bush as the nation’s uncanny spiritual heartland. Although visual consciousness of the outback had been present from the nineteen thirties, it was only during the seventies that the expansive reality of the outback was brought to the big screen.[4] Yet these explorations of national identity did not necessarily visualise Australia as a wholly glorified environment, and dealt with more than a unifying rhetoric.[5] Borrowing technique and ethos from French New Wave, both films deal with settler identity, and analyse how colonial institutions interact with the Australian outback. According to Brigid Rooney, the idea that ‘Australian desert landscapes should assume such iconic significance suggests a dynamic of desire and displacement profoundly connected with settler-culture experience’.[6] It is this experience of the settler, i.e. children of both Walkabout and Picnic…, that bounds their innocence with the expansive landscape, as it not only imposes a symbol to the land in which they now inhabit, but also provides a means for characters to develop their identities in a manner which would not necessarily be accepted in the constraints of their own, civilised society.

 

The vast, expansive landscape of Walkabout, rather than holding a continuing feeling of fear and apprehension, symbolises a world of abandonment to the rigid structures set in place by civilisation. The film tells a story of two children who find themselves alone in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Australian outback after their father attempts to shoot them before turning to gun upon himself. The plot follows these two siblings through their own naive ‘walkabout’, and their journey back to civilisation. While both children at first regard their adventure in a self-assured manner, the oppressive force of the outback eventually extinguishes their resolve. Only when they befriend the Aborigine does the children’s perspective shift to understand the landscape not as an overbearing force, but of a space of freedom, in which the children can express themselves and abandon their former personas to a shape a new, primitive identity that is ultimately bound by the landscape.

 

During the early scenes of their isolation, the Western children conduct themselves with an endearing naivety as they journey across the barren rock. The cinematography continually parallels the children against the vastness of the environment, most notably through a dolly out shot at 19.19[7] in which the camera focuses upon the children whilst comparing them against the panoramic scenery. Rather than offering an oppressive tone, this cinematic excerpt creates a particularly adventurous, epic dynamic, which is intensified by the light, non-diegetic classical music, echoing the bounteous, wild spirit captured by the French New Wave. The sweeping strings of the orchestra are reminiscent of Jean-Luc Goddard’s Breathless, which are used to create a sense of spontaneity whilst surveying cinematic location through scenic camera work. It is the combination of panoramic filming and expressive music which ultimately dictates the manner in which innocence is expressed in this instance; the landscape works paradoxically to emphasise its dominance over the children, but also how its expansive nature provides opportunity to self development. Thus, innocence in Roeg’s work is depicted in a manner which aims to unravel contextual colonial tensions, with its naïve protagonists serving as a vehicle to the wider scope of settler identity issues.

Roeg’s cinematic style establishes him as a contemporary British auteur; his characteristic style of distilling familiar concepts through abrupt, disjunctive camera work and editing present his plots in a disarranged fashion, thus requiring the audience to arrange his visualisations into a coherent order. Extensive intercutting, bold colours and thematic preoccupations with culture collisions are the signature trademarks of Roeg, [8]all of which make an appearance in Walkabout. His retrospective approach to cinema, distinguished in his other films such as Don’t Look Now and Puffball, are reminiscent of the classic auteurship of French New Wave Cinema. Adopting techniques such as the jump cut from French directors such as Goddard and Francois Truffaut, Roeg’s visualisations embody both cinematography and ethos of this particular cinematic movement. For example at 12.05,[9] Walkabout uses a jump cut to draw emphasis to the children’s father as he falls back onto the ground amidst the burning wreckage of the car. The interruption of chronology is used in this instance to provide a cue to the audience, and pinpoint the catalyst to the children’s walkabout. Indeed, this particular scene is repeated throughout the film, working in a manner to Truffaut’s Jules and Jim through its visualisations of the character’s thoughts and emotions. Roeg’s stylised imitation of French New Wave has allowed him to flourish as an auteur in his own right, with his focus upon cultural identity creating a binary with landscape. These issues, constructed through a child’s perspective, therefore engage the audience to view the story through innocent eyes, with the notable cues of jump cuts and music emphasising this viewpoint: it is, in essence, the techniques of French New Wave that make this possible.

 

As we progress through Walkabout, the film begins to parallel the siblings to a more unforgiving landscape, through a series of close up shots to both the children and the creatures that infest the land. For example, at 25.31[10] the camera focuses on the young boy’s face, before panning across to his sister as she scans the horizon to search for water. Closely after this, we are provided with a shot of a scorpion hunting down its prey in the sand, working as a metaphor to signify not only the oppressive nature of the outback, but also their status as helpless, innocent white children in an alien environment.  The layers of non-diegetic music during these shots furthers the threat of the landscape through its creeping violins; the tone of the film is now preoccupied with an air of impending danger. While the film is also considers the juxtaposition of civilisation and nature (from the film’s beginning we are presented with contrasting shots of urban city life and Australian wilderness) it is particularly interesting that this particular scene also draws parallel to these binaries in a manner that suggest civility, in its man-made institutions, is bound by innocence rather than nature, with the barren land providing a more alienating, unnatural world to the comfort of the city. This cinematography therefore works efficiently to depict the narrative through the children’s perspective, as the film’s mode of story-telling subtly expresses their innocent demeanour as they attempt to withstand the forces of the Australian outback.

 

 

While Nicolas Roeg’s work distinguishes a particularly bold form of cinematography, Picnic at Hanging Rock emulates a consistent air of dreaminess and mystery that is echoed in its plot. The disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher during a picnic never solidify into a sufficient resolution, with the narrative focusing on the perspectives of the characters who are affected by this mystery.  The juxtaposition of gritty realism and creeping dreaminess is reflected both thematically and cinematically; as soon as the film begins we are provided with the airy visualisations of Miranda, the most popular yet rebellious schoolgirl who eventually disappears within the barren rock. As the opening credits appear on screen, they are layered over a distant, blurry outline of the Australian outback, which progressively creep towards the ‘hanging rock’, but its visualisations still appears in an indistinct fashion. At 0.45[11] while the camera pans across fields to reveal Appleyard College, a young girl‘s voice proclaims ‘what we see, and what we seen, are but a dream’. This somewhat philosophical statement shifts to yet more non-diegetic sounds in the form of panpipes, which are played softly as we are presented with a close up shot of Miranda waking in her bed, using naturalistic lighting of the dawn to illuminate her face. This suggests that the earlier, mirage-like images belong to her, with the landscape immediately asserting its creeping dominance over her innocence through a haze of mist. Miranda’s visualisations then, far from echoing a naïve perspective of landscape, seem to express her rebellious nature to turn away from colonial complacency in favour of a more primitive sensibility. The rocks therefore appear as a symbol against the dream of colonial rule, and can actually serve as a projection of white settler fears which, since they appear to be repressed, now appear to come towards society from the outside, as something disturbingly other.

 

Weir too has been recognised an auteur, but his style compared to Roeg’s is evidently dissimilar. While each film maker is unified through his homage to French New Wave, Weir’s visualisations do not necessarily rely on abrupt camera work, and instead focus upon the naturalistic elements of this movement that creates a more mythical narrative. Indeed, Weir’s films arguably define the rebirth of Australian cinema, and recognise issues of Australian settler identity crisis whilst maintaining a transcendent air through his modes of expression.[12] Performing in a manner akin to French New Wave, Weir’s Picnic…, through its emphasis on naturalistic settings and lighting, reflects upon the contextual issues of Australia’s settler identity crisis, yet it is the character of Mrs Appleyard that provides the most symbolic form of this preoccupation. The early perspective of Miranda somewhat contrasts to the ideologies encapsulated in her headmistress Mrs Appleyard, who opposes herself against the innocent curiosity that the landscape provokes, and attempts to bring the foreign wilderness into a colonial framework through her desire to maintain a distinctly English finishing school for young girls. Yet this ‘dream’ of hers is obstructed by the threatening force of the landscape in its consumption of her pupils, with the film suggesting that the desire to preserve and maintain the land for the specific use of colonial rule is one which is ultimately unobtainable. The landscape of both Picnic… and Walkabout will not yield to the will of humans; its wildness must be embraced rather than tamed. These issues of settler identity effectively project themselves beyond the scope of the film itself into the overarching context of the work, performing in a manner akin to French New Wave. The works of both Roeg and Weir, in their self-conscious deliberations over specific contextual and social issues of their time, echo the very antithesis of this movement, as each film encourages the audience to think beyond the cinema’s function as a tool for entertainment.

 

The use of naturalistic locations therefore not only work in accordance with the distinguishing elements of French New Wave cinema, but also remain at the heart of colonial fears that potentially threaten the spaces in which western civilisations desire, according to Keesey, ‘convert the foreign into the familiar, to subliminate an unruly land into an ordered landscape’.[13] These threats resist revision, with Keesey going on to suggest that ‘landscape is the dream work of imperialism, unfolding its own movement in time and space from a central point of origin and folding back on itself to disclose… utopian fantasies of the perfected imperial prospect’.[14] The expressions of Walkabout, in its innocent visualisations, certainly offer a fantastical image of landscape, yet it is because it is visualised through children’s perspective that this sublimation to change the ‘unruly land into an ordered landscape’ is ultimately rejected in favour of a primitive sensibility. While the attempts to control and maintain landscape fail in Picnic…, through the ‘utopian’ ideologies created by imperialism, the innocence of children is sacrificed, with the dominant perspectives of the adults (e.g. Mrs Appleyard) viewing the polluting of youth as a mere obstacle towards a colonial ideal. The siblings of Walkabout however create a new, wild identity that embraces landscape rather than attempting to change it; it is this projection of wild youth, echoed in both cinematography and music, which suggests that colonial attempts to bring landscape under a rigorous nostalgic control will ultimately fail. Walkabout’s children’s initial attempts to maintain a smart, civilised appearance are swiftly abandoned as they ultimately recognise the wilderness in a manner that Picnic’s Mrs Appleyard doesn’t. The Australian outback appears too wild to be tamed by White British society, or the adults of colonial rule at least, with the young characters of both films attempting to explore and embrace their new environments rather than working against it. Thus, the concept of innocence, through its New Wave expression, manages to form a parallel to the adult characters, as it is only through their eyes that the binaries of nature and urban civilisation can ultimately be united.

 

The wilderness of Australia therefore represents, in both films respectively, a means for children to indulge themselves in their own sensibilities, with each on screen location providing a perspective of landscape as ‘something wondrous, mysterious and sensuous’.[15] The expressions of innocence in Walkabout are fashioned in a manner exuding a particularly wild, primitive freedom from Westernised social constraints, while Picnic… places emphasis upon its fragile state in relation to utopian imperialism. Each film, with its contrast in innocent and corrupt perspectives, allows audiences to engage in a wider scope of issues surrounding Australia at certain points in history, and draw attention to aspects of landscape that cannot be bound by Western ideologies of civility. The unifying element of both films however comes through their expressions and interpretations of landscape in the face of settler identity crisis, with its visual tools echoing the spirit of the French New Wave in its use of naturalistic locations and lighting, music, and cinematography. The thematic of both films also mark a rejection of cinema as a pure outlet of entertainment, and attempts to communicate each film’s overarching contextual issues to the audience. French New Wave techniques therefore maintain their resonance in contemporary cinema in these instances as they manage to create a mode of expression that allows audiences to engage and reshape their contextual understandings, and provide an array of tools to construct a gritty, yet fantastical, perspective of Australian landscape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Innocence, n.’ Oxford English Dictionary: Oxford University Press (2014) http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/96292?redirectedFrom=innocence#eid [accessed 14 November 2014].

 

[2] Laura Mulvey, ‘Destruction of Pleasure as a Radical Weapon’ Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema 16, (2005) http://www.luxonline.org.uk/articles/visual_pleasure_and_narrative_cinema%281%29.html [accessed 14 November 2014].

[3] The French New Wave: Revolutionising Cinema ‘France: The Best Art, Food, Culture, Travel’ http://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/articles/the-french-new-wave-revolutionising-cinema/ [accessed 16 November 2014].

[4] Brigid Rooney, ‘Desert Hauntings, Public Interiors and National Modernity: From The Overlanders to Walkabout and Japanese Story’ Southerly 67 (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2007) p.410.

[5] Douglas Keesey, ‘Weir (d) Australia: Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory (London: Routledge Press, 2008) p.333.

 

[6] Brigid Rooney, ‘Desert Hauntings’, p.410.

[7] Walkabout, dir. Nicolas Roeg (20th Century Fox, 1971).

[8] Chuck Kleinhans, ‘Performance. Walkabout. Don’t Look Now: Nicolas Roeg, Permutations without Profundity’ Jump Cut, 3, (2004) http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/onlinessays/JC03folder/RoegKleinhans.html [accessed 17 November 2014].

 

[9] Walkabout (1971).

[10] Walkabout.

[11] Picnic at Hanging Rock, dir. Peter Weir (Janus Films: 1975).

 

[12] Romy Sutherland, ‘Commanding Waves: The Films of Peter Weir’ Peter Weir, (2005) http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/great-directors/weir/ [accessed 18 November 2014].

 

[13] Douglas Keesey, ‘Weir (d) Australia’, p.332.

 

[14] Keesey, p.332.

 

[15] Rooney, ‘Desert Hauntings’ p.416.

Image above: Picnic at Hanging Rock, dir. Peter Weir (Janus Films: 1975). Source unknown. This is not the property of The Finer Things Club.

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