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Do You Know the History of French Cinema?

By Jon, published on 08/05/2019 We Love Prof - IN > Languages > French > A Brief History of French Cinema

In 1990, framed UK author Terry Pratchett published the tenth installment to his Discworld series, titled Moving Pictures.

Sly alchemists formulate explosive film which, when cast in a certain light, reveals action – as though the audience were watching live movement.

Unbeknownst to these new wave producers of illusion, the ability to create moving pictures was not new and, as the climax reveals, giants – gods of the former film era tried to cross into the current multiverse.

Much madcap ensues as the stars battle malevolent, long-dead screen icons who just want to feel their audience’s love one more time.

Too bad Mr. Pratchett based his vision of the film industry on Hollywood rather than in France, because French cinema actually predates the US’s film industry by a few years…

In the face of Hollywood blockbusters, Japan’s Anime industry and Hong Kong cinema – to which we might add mainland China’s fare, it seems the efforts of studios in France barely receive mention.

It could be because they only export a fraction of their yearly yield.

Thus it is quite possible that you’ve not yet been introduced to the best that the French film industry has to offer. Perhaps you are not cognizant of the long list of contributions France has made to the art.

Let us enlighten you on a few facts of French filmmaking, and its place in the history of the cinema.

What are your favourite French films? France has a rich history in film and cinema

The Earliest Efforts

It was the aptly named Lumière brothers who, in 1895, patented their cinematograph, a device that permitted not only the recording of images on moving film, but the projection of those images onto a screen.

They were a few years ahead of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope, which used the same type of perforated film patented by French inventor Louis Le Prince; the type of film used until video, and later digital, became mainstream.

Whereas the American inventor’s device, nicknamed the peepshow, only afforded one person at a time to view the enclosed film reel, the Lumière brothers’ invention allowed an entire audience to enjoy the visual feasts they’d created.

Imagine taking your children to see the latest animated feature, and they had to queue up for their turn to watch it!

We are indeed grateful for the French inventors’ efforts in providing entertainment to the masses.

Ironically enough, after earning accolades from the Society for Industry in Paris, and even earning a bit of money from curious patrons of the art, the inventors themselves saw no industry in film, claiming it to be a passing fancy.

The cinema is an invention without of a future – Louis Lumière

Oh, if he only knew!

It was Georges Méliès who first understood that film is a form of artistic expression.

A former stage magician, he knew all the tricks to embellishing a scene and creating illusion. He put his talent to work, opening a film studio in Paris.

He went on to create wildly inventive fantasy films, including the world’s first every science fiction saga titled A Trip to the Moon, in 1902. In all, M. Méliès’s studio produced over 500 films, some of them in colour.

In those early days, film provided only contrast; no colour. Thus every frame had to be painstakingly painted in order to give more credibility to the on-screen action.

As you might imagine, producing such entertainment required substantial effort. You might even reason that, if so much time would be spent in the studio, how did these films ever see the light of day – as it were?

You may recognise the names Pathé and Gaumont, the very first film distributors, whose companies exist still today.

Studio head Léon Gaumont engaged the services of one Alice Guy, a visionary in the world of filmmaking, and unusually talented at it.

Alice Guy is credited as the world’s first female film director, and inventor of the concept of film narrative.

Pathé Studios, not to be outdone, is credited with discovering the world’s very first international movie star: Max Linder.

In a tragic pattern that has plagued the industry ever since, he committed suicide at a young age by drinking barbiturates, injecting morphine and slashing his wrists.

Another oft repeated pattern of famous film stars that he initiated: changing a far more cumbersome birth moniker to a more memorable stage name.

Having conclusively established that France is where cinema as we know it was born, let us now look at the standouts from each era of French cinematography.

Early movie cameras had no sound technology built in The early Lumière cameras had no sound capability Source: Wikipedia Credit: Victor Grigas

Epochs of French Films

The Silent Years

Prior to the first World War, France led the movie industry, with America lagging a substantial way behind. However, a shortage of film stock, coupled with the war, led the French to scale back their efforts at creating silver screen magic.

By the time peace was declared, the American box office had overtaken French ticket receipts.

The next wave of French film production provided the bedrock of what is now dubbed auteur theory: one person having complete control over creative direction.

Abel Gance directed the auteur epic Napoleon, a six-hour master opus that stands as the greatest silent film ever made.

Other visionary names of that period include:

  • Marcel L’Herbier
  • Jean Epstein
  • Germaine Dulac
  • René Clair
  • Jacques Feyder
  • Louis Delluc
  • Raymond Bernard

Period dramas and literary adaptations were the prevalent genres at that time, as reflected in Fescourt’s Les Miserables.

Not all great French films of that period were directed by French people.

The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of France’s most culturally relevant films, was directed by Danish filmmaker Theodor Dreyer.

In fact, as French cinema grew internationally, a number of actors, producers and editors from other countries made their way to France, to break into the business.

The 1930s

This decade ushered in the era of sound. Some till-then successful movie makers found it difficult to adapt to this new technology. Others, such as Jean Renoir, accepted the challenge and ran away with it.

Away from the sound stage, life was hard, so people enjoyed the respite provided by the hour or so that sitting in a dim theater could bring.

They enjoyed such titles as:

  • The Baker’s Wife
  • L’Atalante
  • La Belle Equippe
  • La Bête Humaine
  • Pepe le Moko

The standout from this era must be La Règle du Jeu – The Rules of the Game, Renoir’s satire of the French class system.

Note: this is the decade that the incomparable Danielle Darrieux first made her appearance on screen. Since then, she had featured in more than 110 films, during a career that spanned 80 years.

In order to more effectively compete with Hollywood fare, German and French film making combined forces, even though their respective countries’ politics were nowhere near that cooperative.

The Dark Decade

WWII cast a pall on all forms of entertainment in Europe, and all over the world.

However, France’s invaders demanded entertainment, so a few films were turned out; The Murder of Father Christmas and The Devil’s Hand among them.

Were these titles the artistic version of thumbing noses at their oppressors?

Even after the liberation of France, severe rationing, of everything including electricity, brought any French film making effort asunder. Still, there were treasures…

Have you ever seen Beauty and the Beast? Which version?

Jean Cocteau’s 1946 masterpiece is hailed today as one of the most influential French films of all time.

That same year saw the first film festival at Cannes, to celebrate past accomplishments in cinematography as well as to encourage future endeavours.

Not all was magic and delight during that time, however.

As a pact to repay Americans for liberation, France agreed to screen far more American movies than French ones, which put the brakes on French cinema for a few years.

Barraged by the glut of imported films, French moviegoers soon made no issue of the fact that most everything they were watching had little to do with French culture or history.

To stem that tide, the French government instilled a tax on each theatre ticket purchase, which led to the movie industry in France being heavily subsidized by the state, a condition that exists still today.

Interim

Directors Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Jacques Becker all subscribed to the François Truffaut idea of film auteur, namely that the finished product should reflect the director’s ethos.

That is why French films of the 1950s seems to embrace distinctly different categorisation: drama, gangster, thriller, comedy…

M. Depardieu was among the luminaries of the French New Wave Gérard Depardieu, here with Carole Bouquet, is one of the French New Wave’s faces Source: Wikipedia Credit: Georges Biar

The French New Wave

The late 50s to late 1960s is when French cinema came into its own, freed of the shackles of American movie companies.

At that point, French film makers rejected austerity and period pieces in favour of poetic realism, validating Truffaut’s argument that films’ content is indeed the sole purview of the director’s ideals.

Gems from that period include:

  • 400 Blows
  • Breathless
  • Hiroshima mon Amour
  • Le Mépris
  • Pierrot le Fou

This Nouvelle Vague saw an explosion of talent! Luminaries who emoted on-screen from that period were:

  • Alain Delon
  • Brigitte Bardot
  • Jean-Paul Belmondo
  • Catherine Deneuve
  • Claude Jade
  • Stephanie Audran

These talents and more populated the landscape of French cinema through its evolution into the modern age.

You can round out your education of French cinema by discovering france’s ten best films.

Today, we take it for granted that a few pounds and a bag of popcorn will guarantee us untold wonders on the big screen.

Still, much like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters, we should not forget the origins of this magic.

Not that mouldery screen gods will come after us any time soon…

To complement your French courses London, you should watch French movies with subtitles!

Top French Movies That Brits Will Love!

We can be a bit snobbish when it comes to film and music –  only British or American will do for us! But the truth is that we are really missing out because some of the French films that have been produced over the decades are absolutely brilliant in their own right.

Many French secondary school teachers are keen to pass on their love of French films by including films such as Amélie, La Haine and Le Dîner des Cons in their teaching, but these aren’t just some school-level films, they’re pretty powerful, clever and witty!

The problem is, too, that we don’t seem to like dubbed films. And while subtitles and dubbed films allow us to get into the film without the need to try to follow along in French, there’s bound to be something lost in translation. This means that many French films are reserved for real cinema-goers looking for something new and unique.

That said, the Guardian newspaper insists that French cinema has recently experienced a boom.

By 2011 the market of French films in the UK had reached 1.8%, with just over 3.1m ticket sales and 49 films being watched. The most successful was Potiche, starring Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu.

“The next year saw even more growth, with 72 films attracting nearly 8million people. Attendance at French-language and French-made films rose by 157% on the previous year.”

Experts put this rise down to more French nationals moving to England (with London being nicknamed the 21st arrondissement of Paris!) as well as a better quality of film being put out by producers.

Below are just some of the major Frech films to have ‘made it’ in the UK, listed in chronological order.

Jean de Florette (1986)

“In this acclaimed French drama, the enterprising Ugolin Soubeyran (Daniel Auteuil) returns to his native countryside after the serving in the military. Intent on growing expensive flowers, he conspires with his uncle, Cesar (Yves Montand), to gain access to a hidden spring on a [neighbouring] property. When their initial attempt to buy the land fails, they must contend with Jean de Florette (Gérard Depardieu), who arrives with his family to work the coveted plot and turn it into a profitable farm.”

Manon des Sources (1986)

“Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), a beautiful shepherdess in Provence, France, has lost her father and seen her family’s livelihood ruined through the greediness of her [neighbours]: Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) and his grandfather, Cesar (Yves Montand). Now grown and living in isolation from the village, she plots revenge against the men for their misdeeds. Her plot is complicated by Ugolin, who has fallen in love with her — but Manon’s retribution will not be deterred.”

La Haine (1995)

“When a young Arab is arrested and beaten unconscious by police, a riot erupts in the notoriously violent suburbs outside of Paris. Three of the victim’s peers, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé), wander aimlessly about their home turf in the aftermath of the violence as they try to come to grips with their outrage over the brutal incident. After one of the men finds a police officer’s discarded weapon, their night seems poised to take a bleak turn.”

Diner des Cons (1998)

“The Dinner Game, or Le diner de cons, follows the efforts of a group of judgmental businessmen to find the most dense, strange, idiotic people imaginable to invite to a secretly competitive dinner date, a date in which they will be asked to talk about themselves and their hobbies. This occasion isn’t meant to be informative or charming; mean spirit and black comedy drive this social manipulation forward. Hilarity ensues when Monsieur Brochant is tipped off to a particularly eccentric matchstick artist, the bumbling but good-natured Pignon. Excited and naïve, Pignon is hoodwinked into joining the dinner game, the promise of a book deal on his matchstick models is offered as bait, but when Brochant throws his back out the buffoon arrives, becoming the sole caregiver to the incapacitated would-be predator. In Pignons incompetent care Brochant is hurt, over and over again, physically, romantically, and emotionally, an ironic twist in the fact that he was supposed to be the one dishing out the pain. With a wrecked romantic life, a luxurious apartment up for unintentional audit, a hurt back, and an irate disposition, Brochants life can’t seem to get any worst until he hears word his wife was in an accident. This unfortunate situation presents him with a final attempt to reconcile with his wife, though she won’t take his calls. In desperation he enlists the divorced Pignon to share his true story of betrayal, heartache, loss, and depression with Mrs Brochantan act that nearly succeeds, but like most things with Pignon, are obliviously unintentionally foiled.”

Amelie (2001)

“”Amélie” is a fanciful comedy about a young woman who discretely orchestrates the lives of the people around her, creating a world exclusively of her own making. Shot in over 80 Parisian locations, acclaimed director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen”; “The City of Lost Children”) invokes his incomparable visionary style to capture the exquisite charm and mystery of modern-day Paris through the eyes of a beautiful ingenue.”

Les Choristes (2004)

“Pierre (Jean-Baptiste Maunier) is an aimless child at an austere boarding school in France. The students and faculty are constantly at odds with one another, until a music teacher, Clément Mathieu (Gérard Jugnot), arrives and starts a choir. Clément — who has troubles of his own — tries to change the reactionary policies of the school, choosing instead to encourage his students. His efforts have a particular impact on Pierre, who shows great musical promise.”

Intouchables (2011)

“In Paris, the aristocratic and intellectual Philippe is a quadriplegic millionaire who is interviewing candidates for the position of his carer, with his red-haired secretary Magalie. Out of the blue, Driss cuts the line of candidates and brings a document from the Social Security and asks Phillipe to sign it to prove that he is seeking a job position so he can receive his unemployment benefit. Philippe challenges Driss, offering him a trial period of one month to gain experience helping him. Then Driss can decide whether he would like to stay with him or not. Driss accepts the challenge and moves to the mansion, changing the boring life of Phillipe and his employees.”

Where Can You Watch French Films In The UK?

As you will know, many films can be downloaded (with payment often required) from the Internet to watch from your laptop or computer, but you can also find some popular (and less so!) international films on Netflix. You can visit their website to find a list of French films being aired right now.

However, if you want the full cinema experience, then you can check out independent cinemas in your area to see if they are showing any French movies, as well as visit the art deco Ciné Lumière in South West London. Visit their website to see what’s on, their special screenings and any series they may be showing.

Timeout.com says of the venue for francophiles:

“The Ciné Lumière in South Kensington is the cinema of L’Institut Français du Royaume-Uni – or the French Cultural Institute, for English speakers. The venue offers a good mix of new releases (focusing on foreign, independent and, of course, French films) and retrospective seasons. Given its close association with the French government and cultural establishment, the Ciné Lumière regularly plays host to French filmmakers, in town to discuss their work. It’s an attractive venue more generally too. The cinema is welcoming and well equipped, while downstairs there’s a grand lobby area with a marble staircase and a café-restaurant that’s good for hanging out before or after a movie.”

So don’t just stick to what you know, take a chance on a French film the next time you fancy a movie night!

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