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Do You Know the History of French Cinema?

By Jon, published on 31/03/2018 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.


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!


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