The art of the French New Wave film poster

As bold and adventurous as the film themselves, these international posters for French New Wave classics highlight an era of wild creativity in poster design.

Oliver Lunn
Updated:

Detail of the French poster for A Man and a Woman (1966) by René Ferracci

Detail of the French poster for A Man and a Woman (1966) by René Ferracci

In the late 1950s, as French New Wave titans Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut arrived to break the rules of cinema, young illustrators in Eastern Europe were similarly revolutionising the art of the movie poster.

They didn’t show off the faces of the film’s stars. Their posters didn’t boast press quotes or star ratings. “They didn’t have to comply with the rules of doing a poster for Warner Brothers or Universal Studios,” says Tony Nourmand, a vintage movie poster expert and editor of the new book French New Wave: A Revolution in Design.

In it, Nourmand underlines the clear parallel between young cinephiles bursting with ideas and young art students with wild creativity. The book also highlights eastern Europe and Japan’s contribution to movie poster design. “The fact that the majority of the posters were designed by young, interesting illustrators, the same way the movies were made by young filmmakers – they were all breaking the rules and doing whatever they saw fit,” explains Nourmand.

To shed light on the artistry and originality of these posters – most of which were created in eastern Europe, with some from Japan – we talked to Nourmand about eight of our favourite New Wave posters.

<strong>Breathless (1960) poster. Jiří Hilmar, Czechoslovakia.</strong> ‘One interesting thing about this poster,’ says Nourmand, ‘is there’s absolutely no mention of Jean Seberg. I have no idea why. Maybe they didn’t think that she was appealing to the Czech audience.’ He adds that a common thread among most of these posters was that they didn’t use stars to sell the film. ‘They would say ‘A film by Jean Luc Godard’ or ‘A film by Jaques Tati’ and there’s absolutely no mention of any stars or anything.’ For Nourmand, this Hilmar design visually translates at least one element of the film, albeit abstractly. He points to the red circles spiralling out of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s head. ‘They’re almost like all the craziness that was going on in his head. He basically thought he was in a film noir.’

Breathless (1960) poster. Jiří Hilmar, Czechoslovakia. ‘One interesting thing about this poster,’ says Nourmand, ‘is there’s absolutely no mention of Jean Seberg. I have no idea why. Maybe they didn’t think that she was appealing to the Czech audience.’ He adds that a common thread among most of these posters was that they didn’t use stars to sell the film. ‘They would say ‘A film by Jean Luc Godard’ or ‘A film by Jaques Tati’ and there’s absolutely no mention of any stars or anything.’ For Nourmand, this Hilmar design visually translates at least one element of the film, albeit abstractly. He points to the red circles spiralling out of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s head. ‘They’re almost like all the craziness that was going on in his head. He basically thought he was in a film noir.’
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>Alphaville (1965) poster. Andrzej Krajewski, Poland. </strong>Andrzej Krajewski’s striking poster for Alphaville, with its orange fist highlighted by a jagged circle, is a stand-out design for Nourmand. ‘It has the fist, the power, which relates very much to the pace of the movie. It’s also done in the style of pop art,’ he says, referring to the comic book colours reminiscent of Roy Litchenstein. He then compares this Polish poster to its French equivalent, which he says is old-fashioned, created in the style of old-school film noirs but with an added sci-fi element. In contrast, this one ‘is just wild’, he says. He also points out that most 1940s Hollywood noirs had colourful posters, despite the moody black-and-white aesthetic of the films themselves.

Alphaville (1965) poster. Andrzej Krajewski, Poland. Andrzej Krajewski’s striking poster for Alphaville, with its orange fist highlighted by a jagged circle, is a stand-out design for Nourmand. ‘It has the fist, the power, which relates very much to the pace of the movie. It’s also done in the style of pop art,’ he says, referring to the comic book colours reminiscent of Roy Litchenstein. He then compares this Polish poster to its French equivalent, which he says is old-fashioned, created in the style of old-school film noirs but with an added sci-fi element. In contrast, this one ‘is just wild’, he says. He also points out that most 1940s Hollywood noirs had colourful posters, despite the moody black-and-white aesthetic of the films themselves.
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967) poster. René Ferracci, France. </strong>Like a half-torn billboard advertisement, this French poster for 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her uses collage to quote elements from Godard’s film. There’s a clear parallel between Godard’s cutup montage and the act of collage itself. ‘It’s the quintessential movie poster of the French New Wave,’ says Nourmand. ‘It has all of the qualities that I’m trying to show in the book – they’re using techniques like photomontage, and also these brands you see in the poster like AJAX; it’s almost like Warhol using Coca-Cola. A lot of these references were in the movie too, of course. The idea of it – for both Godard and Ferracci, I imagine – comes from those early pop art pieces by Rauschenberg and Warhol, where they were using everyday objects and using them in the artworks – the American flag, Coca-Cola cans, Campbell’s soup cans.’

2 or 3 Things I Know about Her (1967) poster. René Ferracci, France. Like a half-torn billboard advertisement, this French poster for 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her uses collage to quote elements from Godard’s film. There’s a clear parallel between Godard’s cutup montage and the act of collage itself. ‘It’s the quintessential movie poster of the French New Wave,’ says Nourmand. ‘It has all of the qualities that I’m trying to show in the book – they’re using techniques like photomontage, and also these brands you see in the poster like AJAX; it’s almost like Warhol using Coca-Cola. A lot of these references were in the movie too, of course. The idea of it – for both Godard and Ferracci, I imagine – comes from those early pop art pieces by Rauschenberg and Warhol, where they were using everyday objects and using them in the artworks – the American flag, Coca-Cola cans, Campbell’s soup cans.’
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>Fahrenheit 451 (1966) poster. György Kemény, Hungary. </strong>The Hungarian poster for Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 appears to predict The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cover, a slice of 60s psychedelia. It’s quite different from the US poster, which is basically just Julie Christie and Oscar Werner sandwiched between some flames. ‘The American posters for the French New Wave movies, by and large, are awful. They’re not designed; they’re basically covered from top to bottom with reviews – winner of this or that. You can see it was just thrown together, with very little artistic decisions being made.’ For Nourmand, this poster again highlights the early pop art philosophy, with splashes of colour as if ripped from a comic book. The poster and earlier ones like it are essentially pop art before pop art exploded into the mainstream. ‘One thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is that in the late 50s and early 60s, when pop art was coming out, not many people had been to The Factory. With these movie posters, there’s an argument to be made where [designers] were taking pop art onto the streets before those big artists did.’

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) poster. György Kemény, Hungary. The Hungarian poster for Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 appears to predict The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cover, a slice of 60s psychedelia. It’s quite different from the US poster, which is basically just Julie Christie and Oscar Werner sandwiched between some flames. ‘The American posters for the French New Wave movies, by and large, are awful. They’re not designed; they’re basically covered from top to bottom with reviews – winner of this or that. You can see it was just thrown together, with very little artistic decisions being made.’ For Nourmand, this poster again highlights the early pop art philosophy, with splashes of colour as if ripped from a comic book. The poster and earlier ones like it are essentially pop art before pop art exploded into the mainstream. ‘One thing you have to remember,’ he says, ‘is that in the late 50s and early 60s, when pop art was coming out, not many people had been to The Factory. With these movie posters, there’s an argument to be made where [designers] were taking pop art onto the streets before those big artists did.’
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>La Chinoise (1967) poster. Kiyoshi Awazu, Japan.</strong> On the poster for La Chinoise – Godard’s searing political film about youthful Maoists in Paris – you’ll see small tile images of Lenin and Che Guevara spliced alongside characters from the movie. With Anne Wiazemsky centre frame, the poster is bathed in beautiful gemstone colours, a glowing photomontage in the style of a stained-glass window. ‘The first time I ever saw this poster I thought it was the Japanese Warhol,’ says Nourmand, referring to Kiyoshi Awazu’s design that, like Warhol, features cultural icons dipped in bright colours. Awazu – who was the only designer featured in the book that Nourmand met, right before he died – mainly worked on arthouse movies. And yet, he was quite well known in his native Japan, working also as a graphic designer.

La Chinoise (1967) poster. Kiyoshi Awazu, Japan. On the poster for La Chinoise – Godard’s searing political film about youthful Maoists in Paris – you’ll see small tile images of Lenin and Che Guevara spliced alongside characters from the movie. With Anne Wiazemsky centre frame, the poster is bathed in beautiful gemstone colours, a glowing photomontage in the style of a stained-glass window. ‘The first time I ever saw this poster I thought it was the Japanese Warhol,’ says Nourmand, referring to Kiyoshi Awazu’s design that, like Warhol, features cultural icons dipped in bright colours. Awazu – who was the only designer featured in the book that Nourmand met, right before he died – mainly worked on arthouse movies. And yet, he was quite well known in his native Japan, working also as a graphic designer.
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) poster. Kazuo Kamimura, Japan. </strong> Kazuo Kamimura’s design for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Nourmand points out, is unique for being horizontal. ‘Very seldom would they do a horizontal one. I don’t know why or where they would use them, but the majority of them are vertical,’ he says. Nevertheless, it’s a striking panoramic view of a couple in an embrace, surrounded by a whirlwind of umbrellas. ‘I see the aesthetic as very Japanese, certainly,’ he says, noting the similarity to the famously influential Japanese prints. Judging by the strong design, you could even be mistaken for thinking it was advertising a Japanese movie, not a French one. ‘It’s essentially a Japanese take on a French movie.’

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) poster. Kazuo Kamimura, Japan. Kazuo Kamimura’s design for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Nourmand points out, is unique for being horizontal. ‘Very seldom would they do a horizontal one. I don’t know why or where they would use them, but the majority of them are vertical,’ he says. Nevertheless, it’s a striking panoramic view of a couple in an embrace, surrounded by a whirlwind of umbrellas. ‘I see the aesthetic as very Japanese, certainly,’ he says, noting the similarity to the famously influential Japanese prints. Judging by the strong design, you could even be mistaken for thinking it was advertising a Japanese movie, not a French one. ‘It’s essentially a Japanese take on a French movie.’
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>Lift to the Scaffold (1958) poster. Jan Lenica, Poland. </strong>Jan Lenica’s poster for Lift to the Scaffold – known in Poland as Winda na Szafot – shows a stark silhouette against a dotted background. But who is it? ‘It could be Jeanne Moreau or another character,’ says Nourmand, ‘and those numbers down the middle refer, of course, to the numbers of the lift. The character gets stuck on the third floor.’ In some cases, designers would have seen the film and been invited to respond to it visually. ‘In other cases they were just given a press kit with stills and assets that they could use. They would have a synopsis, details of who was in it, stills from the movie.’

Lift to the Scaffold (1958) poster. Jan Lenica, Poland. Jan Lenica’s poster for Lift to the Scaffold – known in Poland as Winda na Szafot – shows a stark silhouette against a dotted background. But who is it? ‘It could be Jeanne Moreau or another character,’ says Nourmand, ‘and those numbers down the middle refer, of course, to the numbers of the lift. The character gets stuck on the third floor.’ In some cases, designers would have seen the film and been invited to respond to it visually. ‘In other cases they were just given a press kit with stills and assets that they could use. They would have a synopsis, details of who was in it, stills from the movie.’
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

<strong>A Man and a Woman (1966) poster. René Ferracci, France.</strong> The pink-hued poster for A Man and a Woman is by René Ferracci, the same designer as for 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her. Instead of using collage, he opts for a smoother, more unified aesthetic that’s closer to the romantic theme of the movie. ‘It’s very similar to the Blue Note jazz album covers,’ says Nourmand. ‘They share that similar colouring and aesthetic.’ Ferracci also did posters for Le Feu follet (1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), Made in USA (1966), Le Samouraï (1967) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), among others. ‘It’s probably the biggest section in the book [on Ferracci],’ he says. ‘In just this period he did six or seven posters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some contact with Godard.’ Among these creative heavyweights in Eastern European poster design, Nourmand notes, Ferracci was the most prolific, and should be recognised as a great artist.

A Man and a Woman (1966) poster. René Ferracci, France. The pink-hued poster for A Man and a Woman is by René Ferracci, the same designer as for 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her. Instead of using collage, he opts for a smoother, more unified aesthetic that’s closer to the romantic theme of the movie. ‘It’s very similar to the Blue Note jazz album covers,’ says Nourmand. ‘They share that similar colouring and aesthetic.’ Ferracci also did posters for Le Feu follet (1963), Pierrot le fou (1965), Made in USA (1966), Le Samouraï (1967) and The Bride Wore Black (1968), among others. ‘It’s probably the biggest section in the book [on Ferracci],’ he says. ‘In just this period he did six or seven posters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some contact with Godard.’ Among these creative heavyweights in Eastern European poster design, Nourmand notes, Ferracci was the most prolific, and should be recognised as a great artist.
Credit: © French New Wave Collection

French New Wave: A Revolution in Design by Tony Nourmand, Graham Marsh and Christopher Frayling is published by Reel Art Press RRP £49.95 / $59. For further information and a full list of stockists visit www.reelartpress.com

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is currently back in selected cinemas nationwide

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