The Beginnings (1895-1919)La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon, was presented at a meeting of the Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale in Paris on 22nd March 1895. In December of the same year, Parisians were able to pay to watch the film, and several others, at public screenings in the Salon indien of the Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines. Cinema had arrived, although its inventors saw it as no more than a passing fad. "The cinema is an invention without a future," said Louis Lumière.
The films which the Lumières recorded with their Cinématographe were silent shorts that merely represented scenes from everyday life, the moving picture equivalent of photographs. The first person to recognise cinema as a new art form in its own right and see its potential as a medium of entertainment was another Frenchman, Georges Méliès. At his specially constructed film studio in Paris, Méliès used his experience as a stage magician to create some startlingly inventive fantasy films, the best known of which is Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), the world's first science-fiction film. Méliès's remarkably inventive films (which numbered over 500, some painstakingly coloured by hand) proved to be phenomenally successful around the world and established cinema as the latest form of mass entertainment, one that would soon overtake theatres and music halls in popularity.
Georges Méliès may have created the voracious public appetite for cinema, but it was two other Frenchmen, Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont, who derived most of the benefit when they founded their production and distribution companies, Pathé and Gaumont (which remain the most important in France to this day). Léon Gaumont was fortunate to have on his staff Alice Guy, who proved to be an extremely talented filmmaker. Originally employed as a secretary, Guy made around 400 short films in a diverse range of genres between 1896 and 1920 and deserves to be credited not only as the world's first woman film director but also as the person who invented film narrative. Over at Pathé, a former café entertainer Ferdinand Zecca was blazing a trail as a director of naturalistic dramas. Zecca was called upon to direct the company's most lavish and sophisticated films, the grandest of which was the 44 minute long La Vie et la passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ (1903), which he co-directed with another prominent figure at Pathé, Lucien Nonguet.
1905 marked the arrival of cinema's first international superstar, Max Linder. Over the course of the next twenty years, Linder would appear in over 200 films for Pathé, around half of which he directed himself, and his work would have a great influence on the subsequent giants of film comedy, particularly Charlie Chaplin. At Gaumont, Louis Feuillade was achieving comparable success with his phenomenally popular thriller serials: Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex.
In the years preceding the First World War, France was the dominant player in the film production industry, with America lagging some way behind. The outbreak of war in 1914 was to change this forever. A shortage of film stock led the government to impose an embargo on commercial filmmaking in France throughout the duration of the war, and this allowed the Americans to steal a march on the international film market. By 1919, the French film industry was in a sorry state, with French films contributing less than 20 per cent to box office receipts (most of the rest was supplied by American films).
The Age of Silence (1920-1929)L'Inhumaine (1924), Epstein's La Chute de la maison Usher (1928), Gance's La Roue (1923) and Clair's Paris qui dort (1925) all broke new ground in filming and editing technique, blurring the boundaries between reality and the imagination. Gance's Napoléon (1927) was the most ambitious French film of this era, a six-hour long cinematic tour de force that is now widely acknowledged as one of the greatest of all silent films.
Historical dramas and literary adaptations were the most important genres of the 1920s, and films became more visually daring and longer, partly through the need to compete with American imports. Henri Fescourt's Les Misérables (1925) and Monte Cristo (1929) are typical of the decade's French period blockbusters. Alberto Cavalcanti, Jacques Feyder, Raymond Bernard and Louis Delluc were four other filmmakers of this period who were to have a lasting impact. The great Danish cineaste Carl Theodor Dreyer contributed one of the most important French films: La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). Luis Buñuel made his directing debut in collaboration with Salvador Dalí with his surreal short Un chien andalou (1929), one of the weirdest films ever made. Despite this abundance of talent, French cinema was still under threat from the Hollywood behemoth, so the government introduced a quota system in 1928 which restricted the number of foreign films that could be shown in cinemas across France.
Best of the 1920s...
The Age of Giants (1930-1939)Marius, playwright Marcel Pagnol founded his own film production company in Marseille and was soon turning out popular slice-of-life dramas of a provençal flavour, such as the magnificent La Femme du boulanger (1938). The director Jean Vigo may have died before his time, but he earned himself immortality with his satire Zero de Conduite (1933) and lyrical masterpiece L'Atalante (1934).
Throughout the 1930s, cinema provided a welcome escape from the economic and political realities of the day and often mirrored the changing political climate in France. Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936) and Duvivier's La Belle équipe (1936) reflected the misplaced optimism in the Front Populaire, whilst the poetic realist dramas of Marcel Carné and Jean Grémillion (Le Quai des brumes, Le Jour se lève and Gueule d'amour) evoked the darkening mood as Fascism took root in Europe and the continent drifted ever closer towards war. Renoir's La Bête Humaine (1938) and Duvivier's Pépé le Moko (1937) were just as pessimistic and appear to prefigure American film noir - both films cemented the popularity of the actor Jean Gabin. In 1939, Jean Renoir released his magnum opus, La Règle du jeu, a scathing satire on France's class system that is now considered one of the all-time greats of French cinema.
Light relief was provided by no shortage of frivolous comedies, many featuring the ever-popular vaudevillian Fernandel, who would dominate mainstream French comedy for the next three decades. Other actors to find stardom in this golden age were: Arletty, Louis Jouvet, Jules Berry, Harry Baur, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Raimu, Pierre Brasseur, Charles Boyer and Pierre Fresnay. To compete with the ever-present threat of Hollywood, French and German film companies increasingly pooled their resources (in spite of the widening political gulf between the two countries), so that many films made in this era were Franco-German co-productions. Between 1920 and 1938, the number of cinema tickets sold in France had risen from 150 million to 450 million. French cinema was on a roll. Then came World War II.
Best of the 1930s...
The Years of Darkness (1940-1948)Laissez-passer) film directors and writers were given considerable latitude, which some exploited in subtle ways to express anti-Nazi feeling. Continental employed some of France's most distinguished filmmakers - Henri-Georges Clouzot, André Cayatte, Maurice Tourneur and Christian-Jaque - and delivered thirty full-length films between 1941 and 1944, some of which have come to be regarded as all-time classics of French cinema: L'Assasssinat du Père Noël (1941), Le Corbeau (1943) and La Main de diable (1943).
The year that followed the liberation of France by the Allies in 1944 marked the beginning of a period of extreme post-war austerity in France. With film stock and electricity severely rationed, filmmaking rapidly fell into decline, and 1944 marked the nadir of France's film output: around twenty full-length films in total. The hardship was to endure for several more years, but in spite of this the French film industry soon managed to get itself back on its feet. 1946 was dominated by two hugely successful films, Jean Dréville's La Cage aux rossignols (later remade as Les Choristes in 2004) and Les Enfants du paradis, the most ambitious of Marcel Carné's masterpieces (and a fair contender for the greatest French film ever). This was also the year that saw the release of Jean Cocteau's hauntingly poetic La Belle et la bête (1946), one of the most influential of all French films. René Clément and Jean-Pierre Melville paid homage to the efforts of the French resistance, with their films La Bataille du rail (1946) and Le Silence de la mer (1947), supporting the De Gaulle myth that France had been a nation of resistance during the occupation - a myth that was not debunked until the 1970s, partly through Marcel Ophüls's controversial documentary Le Chagrin et la pitié. 1946 also marked the first Festival de Cannes, which has become one of the world's leading film festivals, and the foundation of the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), created with the twin goals of preserving French cinema of the past and supporting cinema of the future.
It wasn't all good news, however. As part of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreement between France and America (which cleared part of the debt France owed the United States after WWII), French cinemas were obliged to screen a far higher quantity of American films. With Hollywood in a much healthier state than its French counterpart (and with a huge back catalogue of films to sell to Europe), it was inevitable that France would soon be deluged by American movies. By the 1950s, the French were addicted to all things American and appeared generally unconcerned that their own film industry was going down the pan. The government attempted to stem the rot in 1948 by introducing a tax on each cinema ticket to support the industry; later, the Minister of Culture André Malraux raised the level of financial aid available to filmmakers and, to this day, French cinema remains heavily dependent on state support.
Best of the 1940s...
A Perfect Shade of Grey (1949-1959)Fanfan la tulipe (1952) that rivalled anything coming out of Hollywood at the time, their success bolstered by the popularity of charismatic stars such as Gérard Philipe and Jean Marais - but there appeared to be a lack of daring. French cinema had managed to get itself into a rut, with most films produced by the large studios according to a fairly standard template. This trend was picked up by a young film critic named François Truffaut, who published an article in 1954, Une certaine tendance du cinéma français, condemning what he termed la qualité française. Truffaut's contention was that in most films of the day the director had a subservient role, bending himself to the exigencies of the script instead of forging the way and creating something distinctive, as the avant-garde filmmakers had done in previous decades. Truffaut's idea of a film director was that of an auteur, the guiding force behind a film, not someone who simply lines actors up in front of a camera and tells them to open their mouths. Among the directors that Truffaut most took exception to were Jean Delannoy and Claude-Autant Lara, two of the pillars of the quality tradition. The one director who embodied Truffaut's idea of the committed auteur was Max Ophüls, the German cineaste who, working within the stale confines of the quality tradition, directed some of the most stylish and satisfying French films of the 1950s: La Ronde (1950), Madame de... (1953) and Lola Montès (1955).
Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jacques Becker and Jacques Tati were four other filmmakers active in the 1950s who conformed to Truffaut's idea of the film auteur. After a few commercial films which he later disowned, Bresson forged his own idiosyncratic style with a series of increasingly austere dramas which usually have a moral or spiritual dimension: Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951), Un condamné à mort s'est échappé (1956), Mouchette (1967). A devotee of American film noir, Melville carved out his own niche in the 1960s and early 1970s in the gangster milieu, the abiding theme of his work being the necessity to adhere to a code of honour, whether you are a cop or a hoodlum. Melville not only gave us a superb series of crime films, including: Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970); he also delivered the definitive wartime resistance film: L'Armée des ombres (1969).
Although he made just a handful of films, Jacques Tati proved to be a worthy successor to Chaplin and Keaton with his comic masterpieces Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). Jacques Becker, one-time assistant to Jean Renoir, could be mistaken for the missing link between la qualité française and la Nouvelle Vague, through such films as Casque d'or (1952), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and his late masterpiece Le Trou (1960). Henri-Georges Clouzot is another filmmaker who appears to lie between the two camps, best known today for his two superlative suspense thrillers Le Salaire de la peur (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955). In 1959, Georges Franju (co-founder of the Cinématheque Française) directed Les Yeux sans visage, one of the most lyrical and chilling of all horror films (a genre that is virtually overlooked in France). Roger Vadim also deserves some recognition for jabbing a shot of modernity into French cinema with Et Dieu... créa la femme (1956), the film that made Brigitte Bardot into an international sex goddess. The 1950s was not quite such a dull decade as it is often portrayed. Amidst the grey, there was the occasional splash of colour, the faint glimmerings of the revolution that was to come.
Best of the 1950s...
The New Wave (1959-1969)Les 400 coups, at the Cannes Film Festival. The film not only impressed the critics, it was also a hit with the public, and ushered in the era of the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague). Truffaut's collaborators on the editorial staff of the film review journal Les Cahiers du cinéma - Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer - also made an immediate impact with their debut features, which radically transformed the face of French cinema in the 1960s. Godard was the most intellectual and politically minded of the group, and the most radical, but whilst his early films - À bout de souffle (1960), Le Mépris (1963) and Pierrot le fou (1965) - found favour among critics and audiences, his subsequent work became increasingly abstruse and hard to engage with. Meanwhile, Truffaut flirted shamelessly with the mainstream and enjoyed considerable success with stylish crowd-pleasers such as Jules et Jim (1962) and Baisers volés (1968). After some notable early misfires, Chabrol finally found his feet with the genre for which he is best suited, the psychological thriller, represented by Que la bête meure (1969) and Le Boucher (1970). Rivette earned acclaim for his mind-bending surreal oddity Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) whilst Rohmer's success was assured with Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), the first of his low-key dramas about young people struggling with the complexities of love and relationships. Riding on the crest of this New Wave revolution was a new batch of charismatic young actors which included Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Claude Brialy, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Bernadette Lafont, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Catherine Deneuve.
Whilst the term 'Nouvelle Vague' is now often restricted to Truffaut and his buddies on the Cahiers du cinéma, it was originally coined to describe the huge influx of French filmmakers (around 200) that came onto the scene in the late 1950s, early 1960s. To the above mentioned five, we can also add: Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, Jacques Demy, Jean Eustache, Alain Cavalier, Claude Sautet, Costa-Gavras, Claude Lelouch and Maurice Pialat - all of whom would have a significant impact and help to establish the film d'auteur as a major strand of French cinema. Malle gave us three of France's most insightful film portraits of childhood and adolescence with Le Souffle au coeur (1971), Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Au revoir, les enfants (1987); Resnais explored the relationship between time and memory more fully and imaginatively than any other filmmaker, with such films as Hiroshima mon amour (1959), L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) and Muriel (1963); and Demy crafted two of the greatest film musicals ever: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). Lelouch's vibrant and self-consciously arty Un homme et une femme (1966) evokes the spirit of the mid-1960s better than any other film and is probably the most famous French film of them all, better known under the title A Man and a Woman.
In parallel with this burgeoning auteur component to French cinema, France's mainstream cinema also underwent something of a revitalisation in the 1960s, partly through the need to compete with television, partly through the influence of its bigger American cousin. The two genres that became particularly important in this decade (and the next) were comedies and thrillers. Director Gérard Oury notched up a series of massive box office hits in the '60s and '70s with his blockbuster comedies starring the comic geniuses Louis de Funès and Bourvil. La Grande vadrouille, Oury's biggest success, drew an audience of 17.3 million, making it the most popular French film ever, until it was overtaken by Dany Boon's Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, 42 years later. The comedy-thriller enjoyed considerable success in the 1960s, particularly the collaborations of director Georges Lautner and Michel Audiard, best represented by Les Tontons flingueurs (1963) and Ne nous fâchons (1966). The crime-thriller (film policier) became ever more popular under the stewardship of such directors as Jacques Deray, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri Verneuil and José Giovanni, highlights being Le Pacha (1968), Le Samourai (1968) and Le Clan des Siciliens (1969).
Best of the 1960s...
Polars and Politics (1970-1979)Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) and Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), so the thriller directors of the 1970s drew their inspiration from contemporary American crime films. Alain Corneau's Police Python 357 (1976) is a sly but effective homage to Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971).
The 1970s also saw an increasing politicisation of cinema in France, with many filmmakers (notably Costa-Gavras, Yves Boisset and Pierre Schoendoerffer) eager to make reference to the political scandals and crises of the day. The conspiracy thriller (or néo-polar) became one of the most popular genres of the late 1970s, feeding on an increasing public suspicion of politicians and big business, a fine example being Boisset's Le Juge Fayard dit Le Sheriff (1977). José Giovanni's Deux hommes dans la ville (1973) and Michel Drach's Le Pull-over rouge (1979) each argued a powerful case for the abolition of the death penalty in France. The truth about the Occupation and France's complicity in the Holocaust was beginning to be exposed - through such films as Michel Mitrani's Les Guichets du Louvre (1974) and Joseph Losey's Monsieur Klein (1976). Some filmmakers were even brave enough to broach the taboo subject of the Algerian War, although their efforts were largely frustrated by the French military and the government - Yves Boisset's R.A.S. (1973) and Laurent Heynemann's La Question (1977) opened a very nasty can of worms.
Best of the 1970s...
The Fall and Rise of French Cinema (1980-1999)
Even though the 1980s is often characterised as a rocky period for French cinema, it was punctuated by some notable successes. The decade began well with some fresh blood provided by Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax, whose cinéma du look provided a glossy makeover to some genres that badly needed it. Whilst Beineix and Carax both failed to live up to their promise - with Diva (1981) and Mauvais sang (1986) respectively - Besson, the director of the hit Subway (1985), went on to become one of the most successful French film producers of his generation, achieving a string of box office hits with such popular fare as his Taxi films. Francis Veber's La Chèvre (1981) and Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1986) both attracted audiences in excess of seven million; in 1988, Luc Besson's Le Grand Bleu and Jean-Jacques Annaud's L'Ours both had audiences of nine million; and the hit of the decade was Coline Serreau's Trois hommes et un couffin (1985), which sold 10 million tickets in France and was remade in America as Three Men and a Baby. Bertrand Blier courted controversy whilst attracting large audiences with his iconoclastic and often surreal comedies, such as Trop belle pour toi (1989). Meanwhile, Patrice Leconte made the transition from mainstream success (Les Bronzés) to art house acclaim with his sensual Georges Simenon adaptation Monsieur Hire (1989).
With increased sources of funding available to filmmakers and an improving economic outlook, French cinema experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes in the 1990s. Régis Wargnier's Indochine (1992) not only won an Oscar, it was also a box office winner, although its audience of three million appears modest compared with the 14 million achieved by the Jean Reno comedy Les Visiteurs (1993) and the 9 million for Claude Zidi's Astérix et Obélix contre César (1999). Once again, success in commercial cinema was accompanied by a renewed vigour in the film d'auteur (art house) sector. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro had a foot in both camps with their stylish fantasies such as Delicatessen (1991), whilst films such as Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine (1995), Bertrand Tavernier's Ça commence aujourd'hui (1999) and Olivier Assayas's L'Eau froide (1994) engaged with important social issues of the day - racism, immigration, youth alienation and the worsening fragmentation of French society. Some films, notably Robert Guédiguian's Marius et Jeannette (1997), manage to combine social commentary with old-fashioned romanticism. This trend for greater realism and political awareness would continue into the next decade. Cinema was no longer just an art form and entertainment medium; it had become a powerful means of political expression.
Best of the 1990s...
The Age of the Auteur (2000-)Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie (2001) was not only a hit in France, launching the career of actress Audrey Tautou, it also had a massive international impact, boosting the profile of French cinema around the world. Jacques Audiard's De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté (2005) and Un prophète (2009) redefined the post noir thriller and were both critically acclaimed and box office hits. In 2008, Dany Boon's comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis became the most successful French film ever with its audience of 20.5 million, just short of the 20.7 million achieved by James Cameron's Titanic (1997), which still holds the record for the largest cinema audience size in France. Among the many talented filmmakers to illuminate this glorious decade are: André Téchiné (Les Témoins, 2007), Arnaud Desplechin (Un conte de Noël, 2008), Claire Denis (35 rhums, 2009), François Ozon (8 femmes, 2002), Jerôme Bonnell (Chignon d'Olga, 2002), Xavier Giannoli (À l'origine, 2009), Benoît Jacquot (À tout de suite, 2004), Lucas Belvaux (Cavale, 2002), Christophe Honoré (Les Chansons d'amour, 2007) and Patrice Chéreau (Son frère, 2003).
Best of the 2000s...
So far, the 2010s show as much promise as the decade before. Xavier Beauvois's Des hommes et des dieux took the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and was the biggest critical hit of 2010, although this success was soon eclipsed by Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, a black-and-white silent tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood that won five Oscars and was a massive worldwide hit in 2011. In France, the most popular film of 2011 was Intouchables, a politically incorrect but touching buddy comedy from Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, which had an audience of 19.4 million, the second most successful French film to date. 2012 was marked by some surprising comebacks from directors whom we thought we had heard the last of, from Leos Carax (Holy Motors), Alain Resnais (Vous n'avez encore rien vu) and Christophe Ruggia (Dans la tourmente), to name just three.
Social and political themes continue to impinge heavily on the auteur sector, reflecting increasing public concern in France over the present economic crisis and the country's growing immigration problems. Meanwhile, mainstream cinema provides a healthy counterbalance, offering escapism through crowd-pleasing comedies and adrenalin-pumping thrillers. Despite all the other distractions our multimedia age offers us, French cinema is coping remarkably well - in 2011 the number of cinema tickets sold in France was at its highest level since 1966. The French cinema juggernaut may have had a few skids in its time but there is still plenty of mileage left in it. The country that invented cinema and has made it an enduring cultural phenomenon will doubtless be in the vanguard of the filmmaking industry for some time to come. Vive le cinéma français.
© James Travers 2012
The above article was written for filmsdefrance.com and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.