HISTORY OF FRENCH FILMS
What nation can boast a greater love of cinema than the French? They are the ones who helped the US realize that cinema could be art in the first place. The French New Wave in the 1960s used the tropes of Hollywood’s film noir to create low budget art house masterworks. Since then, the French cinema has been going more or less strong, with great movies coming out of France and Hollywood even going to France to make great movies. The Da Vinci Code (2006) was one such film, with Tom Hanks uncovering a massive Catholic conspiracy that begins in the Louvre. He teams up with Audrey Tatou, a fresh and lovely French face American audiences first fell in love with via the colorful Amelie. Stories of hardy, jubilant French gamins are a big import from Europe and French has its share, in “foodie” films like the scrumptious Chocolat, co-starring Johnny Depp and Juliet Binoche. Historical epics are also a specialty of France, with the underseen little crowd-pleaser On Guard being most worth your time, and the soon to be released Moliere.
The challenge for French cinema in these past decades has been to retain the uncompromising intellectualism of the New Wave with the commercial appeal of the “chick” flick import. In the following paragraphs we will give you a quick overview of French film history, showing why and how things got like they are, and enabling you to sound like a cineaste in your post-film discussions next time you watch a French film with family or friends! We will also provide links to key films in the French canon, films deserving of your time for both historical and entertainment purposes.
Most history books show Thomas Edison as having invented the movie camera and projector, while in fact there were numerous hands in the pot. Edison invented the cinematoscope (a.k.a. the nickelodeon) after seeing prototypes made by Frenchman Etienne-Jules Marey at the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. The Lumiere Brothers later did the same thing to Edison, taking the technology of the cinematoscope and expanding it for use with big screen projection. Cross-Atlantic patent battles erupted - nothing new for these two countries. Don't forget that the Statue of Liberty was give by France to the U.S. as a peace offering, meant to ease the one-upmanship tensions between the two freedom-loving lands! There's still no clear answer who really invented the cinema, the only fair answer is that it was a joint effort between the two begrudging nations.
Of French silent film directors, Georges Melies stands as one of the great innovators of the time. Melies was a magician and used the optical tricks of the magic show in his films, and, vice versa, made the films part of his traveling magic show. His collection of short films comes highly recommended. France's most celebrated filmmaker of the 1920s and 1930s is likely Rene Clair, who celebrated the life of Paris streets in charming, whimsical, fantasy-infused musicals like Le Million (1931) and Under the Roofs of Paris (1927).
In the days after World War One, Paris was a hotbed for world-weary artists, their sensibilities shattered by the horrors of war. Thus, modernism was born, and with it movements like surrealism and dada. These art forms stressed the ridiculousness inherent in the human condition - the coded sexuality of dreams matching perfectly the repressed sensibilities of the day. Liberally influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, the modernists and surrealists delved into a morass of sexuality and horror - the great unconscious of a repressive culture. Salvador Dali and Luis Bunel delivered the still controversial Un Chien Andalou (1928), while Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet (1930) (available in The Orphic Trilogy from Criterion) used home-cooked special effects trickery to map an inner landscape.
Influenced by Clair's flair for social commentary mixed with dry, scintillating wit was the great humanist Jean Renoir, who's Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1938) are mentioned in almost all top 20 films of all time. They are rife with social class commentary (very French) but through all that beats a warm heart that remembers fondly the time when aristocracy meant noblesse oblige: honor and looking out for the small guy.
Though all these films are classics, and there are many more available that space dictates we don't have time to mention, they were hard to see in the U.S. at the time, but as we'll see, a certain gorgeous pin up girl from Paris was on her way, and in 1957 she would almost single handedly whet the U.S.A.'s appetite of the "culture" that French films could provide . . . .
BRIGITTE BARDOT AND THE FRENCH NEW WAVE
During the 1950s, Paris began to take note of Hollywood's film noir exports. These moody post-war films - Rififi (1956) and Henri-George Clouzot's influential Diabolique (1955). Jean Pierre Melville created several memorable crime pictures at the same time; Bob Le Flambeur (1955), in particular, is credited with laying the foundation for the French New Wave with its ingenious co-opting of the trappings of American gangster and noir films in the service of a particularly Gallic sense of style.
These films may have caught the notice of French critics, but found it hard to catch on in the states outside of cultural meccas like New York City. That all changed with Roger Vadim. In 1957, his . . . And God Created Woman proved a worldwide box office smash. The reason: a pouty lipped sex goddess named Bardot.
Brigitte Bardot brought Marilyn Monroe's star power and sex appeal to the art house screen, and her comparably more open sexuality (plus some partial nudity) was enough to explode the U.S.A. foreign film market single-handedly. Bardot's films all became huge hits, and the way was paved for the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and the French New Wave. Though dated in its sexism, there is no denying the appeal of Ms. Bardot or the amount of love and attention given …And God Created Woman by the Criterion collection. Their DVD features beautiful color restoration and is formatted for normal and widescreen televisions. The "naughty" aspect of this and the other Bardot films is dated, but remain an important artifact of cinema. The local "art house" theaters of the 1950s prior tended to cater to the seedier side of the adult audience, showing nudist camp films and other low budget stripper-oriented exploitation fare. Then …And God Created Woman showed up, and suddenly there were lines around the block all over the United States. Bardot was a smash— the missing link between the sleaze, art, and cinema. The public's appetite for all things French took off, and in the open door flew the European art house cinema as we know it.
The writers of the Cahiers du Cinema saw the chance to break into the film world. Thanks to the use of cheap hand-held 16mm cameras and loyal friends, they made films fast and brilliantly, combining their reverence for American cinema with hip satire and intellectual discourse. Jean Luc Godard set the pace with Breathless (1959)—an out-of-control meditation on Hollywood genre pictures, starring Jean Paul Belmondo as a Humphrey Bogart-idolizing hoodlum who shacks up with an American ex-pat (Jean Seberg). Band of Outsiders followed, on similar tangents and introduced Godard's love and muse, Anna Karina. Subsequent films used the trappings of science fiction (Alphaville), the musical (A Woman is a Woman) and post-feminist melodrama (My Life to Live). Godard even got a chance to work with Bardot, making a wry comment on her fame via a steamy opening sequence in what many see as his masterpiece, Contempt.
Francois Truffaut made The 400 Blows (1959) - a neo-realist autobiography of his troubled childhood - followed by Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which starred French singer Charles Aznavour as a musician mixed up with gangsters. He's probably best known for Jules and Jim (1962), about a romantic triangle in the days before World War 1. Truffaut was enamored with the style of Alfred Hitchcock, but probably not to the extent of the macabre Claude Chabrol, whose films Les Bonnes Femmes and Les Biches mixed a brilliant use of Paris to establish mood with cunning depictions of class-related obsession and violence. Other New Wave names of note include Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee, Chloe in the Afternoon), Jean Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai), Agnes Varda (Vagabond, Cleo 5-7), and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad). All very exciting, risk-taking - sometimes confounding - blends of pop art, Gallic cultural riffs, testimonials to a love of art and high culture, caustic depictions of crime and social class discrimination and lowbrow escapism rolled into one.
We must remember that the 1960s era of free love and revolution took on a much more ominous and political turn in France than it did in the states, where protesters were beaten back by the police. May 1968 brought huge changes in Paris with mad youth revolt in the streets creating anarchy for weeks. We can see the roots of this in Godard's Masculin Feminin (about the "Children of Marx and Coca Cola") but by his Weekend, the playfulness was gone in favor of a satirical call to revolution, later played out ever more acerbically in films like Tout va Bien.
The fall of the youth movement as a source of genuine political power led to sexual decadent malaise in films like Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1973) and the decadence of Vadim's and Bardot's If Don Juan Were a Woman (1973) - her last film.
The 1980s saw a rash of films starring a hot new bevy of French actress talent, including the gorgeous Isabelle Adjani, who played the feminine spirit driven mad in period films like Camille Claudel (1988) and Queen Margot (1994). Beatrice Dalle paraded around nude with Jean Hughes-Anglade for most of the insane cult hit, Betty Blue, and was A Single Girl (1995) before being shotgunned by Isabelle Huppert for being too rich in Chabrol's La Ceremonie that same year.
Fittingly, the 21st century in French film has seen the revival of many old genres and films that pay homage to the French style. Francois Ozon's 8 Women (2002) provided the chance to see several generations of great French actresses together in one film, and made a great introduction to American audiences of the lovely Ludivine Sagnier, who also captivated in Ozon's follow-up, Swimming Pool. Bertolucci's The Dreamers fictionalizes the days of May 1968, and La Petite Lilli features Sagnier again, as a woman who follows her ambitions in the filmmaking business by running off with an older man. Another highly recommended erotic, class-obsessed shocker is the outrageously imaginative Secret Things.
The new century and the advent of DVDs has allowed these classic films to be presented in their original aspect ratios and with removable subtitles, bringing US audiences a rare chance to catch up on the essentials of French film history and to use these films as primers for learning the language as well. One can watch the film a few times through with subtitles, attempting to concentrate on the language and using the subtitles as hints, then watch the films without the subtitles to test your comprehension.
With their focus on romance and politics, passion for women and social causes, art and intellectualism and sexy commodities, the films of Paris cannot be equaled. Time has permitted us only a small sampling of films to discuss here, but many more are worthwhile. Be not afraid to discover the City of Lights' many cinematic wonders!
Reviews by Erich Kuersten
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