As part of my cultural research ahead of my first-ever trip to Paris, I took it upon myself to watch as much French New Wave cinema as time would allow. Every night was a viewing party of one featuring films by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, and Éric Rohmer (to name a few). Having been exposed to movies like Breathless, Bande à part, and Perriot le Fou years ago by my much more sophisticated sister, I’d always understood the inherent coolness of the 1960s/1970s aesthetic (hello, Jane Birkin), but doing a deep dive of these movies reminded me just how incredibly (and yes, effortlessly) chic the set design was. And then it hit me: The interior design in French New Wave films makes for the ideal home decor inspiration.
Francophiles like me already look to the French to inspire everything from our wardrobes to the way we stock our kitchens, but there’s something so special about the style during this movement specifically. If you’re less than familiar with French New Wave, it was an experimental filmmaking style that began in the mid-20th century and often focused on existentialist themes. Because this style favored realism, the environments created within the films were often quite lived-in and natural. “The French New Wave movies of the iconoclastic 1960s and ‘70s are perfect for gathering inspo for today’s lifestyles,” says interior designer Stephanie Parisi. “They are all about a pared down look with a few classic pieces — whether traditional or Mid-century — and are kind of a dreamy, transient look.”
There was always that je ne sais quoi, of course — a mod ‘60s sensibility mixed with the not-too-fussy French way of living. What resulted, as far as interior design, were minimalist spaces that included a few signature touches (think saturated colors, bold patterns, and artful arrangement of objects) to make it feel personal. “French New Wave films produced set design that was very cognizant of the present times, a radical social and political rebellion (women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, and anti-war) that influenced the major thought-provoking art and design,” explains Christiane Lemieux, designer and founder of LEMIEUX ET CIE. “Set design was imaginative and layered with multiple storylines unfolding into an eclectic reality.”
As you can imagine, achieving this kind of effortless aesthetic in your interior is actually more difficult than it seems. Of course you can do your own deep dive into this cinematic universe (you’re likely to get inspired by a lot more than just the decor!), but having styling tips from the pros also helps. That said, TZR reached out to some highly respected interior designers and stylists using five varying French New Wave films as examples to find out how you can realistically capture a similar feel in your space. Get all the intel — and so much inspiration — ahead.
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Le Bonheur, a melancholic film about love and fidelity by Agnes Varda, is a perfect example of the director’s dreamy imagery and brilliant use of color and composition. For Layne Povey, principal designer at The Lynden Lane Co., the attention to feminine touches is a key takeaway. “A modern way to recreate this film's emphasis on florals and personal details is to seek inspiration from 1969 — the prints and patterns of Woodstock,” she suggests. “Pulling from floral frocks and fringed-tassels to match, this room will be a gathering spot in your home. Vintage stackable crates of vinyl records will keep the gathering lively as guests dance across the earthy hardwood floors until they collapse on a long pastel chaise lounge.”
Find character even in the small details of the room by sprinkling in antique pieces or showing off your family heirlooms. This French bronze vase is a perfect example that not every element to achieve the French New Wave aesthetic has to be be from the 1960s or ‘70s! Add romantic florals and a monochromatic palette and you’ve got the Le Bonheur look.
My Night At Maud’s
Maud, the titular character in Éric Rohmer’s 1969 film My Night at Maud’s, is a modern woman by all accounts. She’s successful, independent, and progressive in her approach to relationships, and that’s reflected in her sleek, mostly Mid-century style apartment. This minimalist space is made more personal by the amount of books scattered throughout, as Povey notes. Get this effect easily by stacking books throughout the room: Flanking the fireplace, stacked on shelves, and of course proudly displayed in a standout shelving unit like Maud has.
Le Mépris (Contempt)
Subtext and symbolism are common themes in French New Wave films, and Le Mépris (or Contempt) is a perfect example of this — including how that translates to its sets. The apartment the central couple shares is especially remarkable with its mix of sleek, Mid-century furniture, a few key bold colors (a common thread in Godard films) and sculptural pieces with lots of negative space. If you’re looking to to add similarly intense colors to a room in your home, you can follow Povey’s tips. “When working with one saturated color, such as oxblood red, it's essential to keep all other materials, furniture, and decor in complementing neutral shades,” she explains. “For example, you can add an accent wall in a moody color and allow that to be the focal point of your room with the furniture arranged, so it draws you into that backsplash.”
If you’re not sold on bright colors, you can invest in similarly mod furniture. This LEMIEUX ET CIE sofa is a perfect contemporary example that uses color in a softer way while keeping the lines akin to those in the film.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Director Jacques Demy had a way with color. In fact, it’s been widely reported this his film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg inspired the aesthetics (as well as other elements) of La La Land, a movie defined by color. Every set in this musical drama includes vibrant shades as well as bold patterns, and Demy often plays specifically with complementary and analogous color combinations. Try a peel-and-stick wallpaper in a classic pattern (damask floral, wide stripes) but saturated hues to instantly get this effect with major payoff. But, as Povey explains, you’ll want to balance out this focal point to truly get the French New Wave aesthetic. “This film calls for contrast in your space,” she says. “The antique elements should send you straight to the local flea or thrift, where you can source an eclectic mix of chairs and mixed metal fixtures to pair with the colors of the de Gournay.”
Cléo from 5 to 7
In Varda’s earlier film, Cléo from 5 to 7, the title character is a French pop singer plagued by an impending diagnosis. Because of this, Cléo exhibits a notable juxtaposition of charming frothiness and underlying sadness. Take her bedroom, for example. This loft-style space is mostly sparse and white but features some contrasting feminine details like a four-poster bed, a smattering of Persian rugs, and even a swing. Want to get a similar feel in your bedroom? As Povey explains, think less is more. “Cléo inspires us to Marie Kondo our space and sparks joy with less,” she shares. “Focus on a few elegant accents of natural botanical elements in a subtle muted colored vase or a patterned rug leading up to a canopy bed with soft drapery enclosing a romantic space.”