Submarine – Rediscovering The French New Wave
Submarine is the feature-length debut by British filmmaker Richard Ayoade. It is not his first foray into writing or directing – as fans of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) may tell you – nor is it a foreign-language film. However, the aesthetic style and narrative themes of Submarine take much influence from the French New Wave school of cinema of the late 1950s to mid 1960s, making it an interesting filmic text for discussion.
Submarine is the film adaptation of the book of the same name by Welsh poet Joe Dunthorne. Set during the 1980s in Wales, the film is an off beat coming of age comedy drama in which eccentric teenager Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) attempts to lose his virginity whilst simultaneously saving his parents crumbling marriage.
Submarine chronicles a tumultuous period in Oliver’s adolescent life and invites the audience to explore the emotions and (sometimes absurd) circumstances that confront him…
Submarine captures the youthful aura of the French New Wave with an unpretentious ease, and director Richard Ayoade’s love for this era of cinema is clear. Like many of the new wave films, Submarine is an exploration of self through a multitude of existential themes, such as love, lust, death, depression and infidelity. Oliver Tate is presented to the viewer as an intelligent, introverted and somewhat naively romantic individual, whose references to philosophy, literature and dictionary definitions hint a preoccupation with interpretation and meaning. Though he has little control over the major events that unfold during the film, it is the way in which Oliver decides to interpret these events that feels distinctly New Wave.
The film is ultimately a manifestation of the world as seen through Oliver’s adolescent eyes, often romanticised with cinematic techniques deliberately played for effect. The central characters become knowing parodies of the young lovers of the French New Wave. Oliver’s love interest Jordana (Yasmin Paige) is the ambivalent and ambiguous female, whose classic ‘60s short bob hair style evokes Chantal Goya or Anna Karina. Whilst Oliver with his upturned collar and brooding stare invokes the ‘noir hero’ spirit of Jean Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon (take note, for instance, of the Le Samurai film poster that hangs in his bedroom). These narrative ‘types’ are somewhat dictated by Oliver himself, who as narrator/diarist appears in control of the narrative arc and its cinematic interpretation throughout the film.
The visual look of Submarine also has a lot in common with the films of the French New Wave. Much of the film is shot on location, and the settings take on a character of their own. There is a noticeable distinction between the locations that Oliver is bound to and those he chooses to retreat to. The schoolyard, for example, seems restrictive and confining, whereas the wide, gaping coastline gives a romantic sense of freedom and escape. In this sense, the film feels a little like Les quatre cents coups (François Truffaut, 1959), consistently playing up to one’s own nostalgia for those places you go out of school hours and the experiences you encounter there.
The enchantment of these locations and the romance of escape is further emphasised by the beautiful cinematography of the film. Ayoade cites cinematographer Néstor Almendros as a key influence for the look of the film. Almendros was a Spanish born cinematographer, who worked on films with Truffaut and Rohmer during the 1960s, and later on films such as Kramer Versus Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) and Sophie’s Choice (Alan Pakula, 1982). He is noted for his championing of natural lighting, and his influence is clear to see in the way that the landscapes of Submarine are captured, often using soft natural light to evoke the innate beauty of the scenes.
Another common ground that Submarine shares with films of the French New Wave is its blatant cinephilia and the extent to which the cinema and filmmaking are fore grounded. French director Eric Rohmer is mentioned on more than one occasion and, of course, the quintessential ‘trip to the movies’ dutifully takes place within the film. Submarine echoes the French New Wave in it’s exploration of the cinematic medium as a mode of self expression, and Ayoade’s confident hand explores this effortlessly and with self-aware charm. Techniques that were pioneered during the New Wave era – such as the use of intertitles, rapid jump cuts, freeze frame, disruption of sound and breaking the fourth wall – are engaged effortlessly and the film becomes a rich fabric of cinematic techniques.
To an extent, Submarine employs Alexandre Astruc’s notion of ‘camera stylo’ in the way that these techniques become an audiovisual language employed to ‘write’ Oliver’s story for the viewer. Ayoade, disguised as Oliver, wields these techniques from within the film itself in such a way that Oliver is able to cinematically express his emotional state, or romanticise the otherwise mundane life events that happen to him at will.
Though Ayoade cites directors such as Louis Malle and Claude Chabrol as influences, it would be unfair to posit that Submarine is a direct pastiche of the films of the French New Wave. Instead, he has transposed the essence of the era into a modern film and British context. Moreover, amongst the self-aware nods to the New Wave era, it is also possible to find other filmic references. The tone of Submarine is reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s 1970s classic Harold And Maude (1971), and it also has much in common with the beautifully neurotic romantic comedies of Woody Allen. In addition, Ayoade himself mentions The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) as further inspiration for certain aspects of his film. In fact, the textural richness of the film and the clarity of its cinematic and cultural influences is itself in keeping with the French New Wave, whose films were often clear products of the culture that bore them and the cinematic taste of their directors. Ayoade’s interpretation of his own stylistic and narrative influences serves to give a clearer image of him as an auteur, infusing the film with his own characteristically off beat vision and style.
Submarine is an impressive feature-length debut and promises to raise anticipation for Ayoade’s next project. In its quaint depiction of the trials of youth and self-aware mode of filmmaking, Submarine recaptures the spirit of the French New Wave without being a crass modernisation of the style. Wholly unpretentious and full of visual flare, Submarine is a real gem and a great contribution to what will hopefully become a new wave of British independent comedy cinema. MC
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