Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)


Modern Languages and Literatures


Brett Brehm

Committee Members

Vanessa Brutsche

Elizabeth Losh


The 1960s saw radical changes in the discourses surrounding both cinema and motherhood in France. However, the French New Wave has traditionally been studied more so in terms of its aesthetic and theoretical contributions to cinema, not as cultural artifacts revealing conceptions of motherhood in 1960s France—despite their monumental impact on French culture and world cinema. Between the prostitute-mother of Vivre sa vie and the exotic dancer mother of Lola, one common trope of New Wave cinema has gone largely unexamined: the sexual mother. Using a combination of cultural studies and feminist psychoanalytic theory, this paper examines the sexual mother trope as understood in French New Wave films and as well as their critical responses and promotional materials.

The New Wave directors’ insistence on an auteurist approach to filmmaking imbued their films with a strong subjectively masculine perspective. As a result, they depict the mother as exclusively exterior to the spectator. The New Wave mother often serves as both a literal mother and a Phallic Mother, desirable to the male alter ego for both her body and her womb, as in the case of the exchange of Catherine’s body in Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1963). Such narratives play out the cultural fantasy of dominance over the abject mother that threatens male order with her increased social status. Those films that make the sexual mother their protagonist, such as Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Godard, 1967), have some limited success in exposing the harm of the sexualizing gaze. However, their more ethnographic gaze on the woman does not permit the spectator to identify with the mother. Rather, the film abstracts her, using her body as a symbol in discourses surrounding consumerism. While these depictions range from fetishistic to hollow, the naturalism and auteurism of the New Wave paved the way for Chantal Akerman’s deconstruction of motherhood in Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Akerman’s radical aesthetics and perspective reveal the flatness behind the sexual mother trope, critiquing New Wave images of motherhood. Akerman appropriates elements of auteurism to craft an autoethnographic approach that personalizes the mother’s story, revealing the feminist potential of certain New Wave ideas.

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