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date: 22 February 2020

France, film in

A Dictionary of Film Studies

Annette Kuhn,

Guy Westwell

France, film in 

France can boast one of the world's oldest‐established film industries, and, with a current annual output of some 240 feature films, the largest output of feature films in Europe. On 28 December 1895 the French brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière presented a programme of projected films to a paying audience in Paris, and then embarked on an international tour with their Cinématographe. In the following year, Georges Méliès presented his first ‘trick‐film’, Une partie de cartes; and soon after this, Léon Gaumont and Charles Pathé laid the foundations of their respective film production enterprises, both of which are still in existence. In 1900 Alice Guy was appointed director of Gaumont and, having already made La fée aux choux/The Cabbage Fairy (1896), can be counted as the first of France's many female film directors. The industry flourished until the outbreak of World War I—successes of the prewar period include the Film d’Art, a studio and an internationally successful movement devoted to ‘quality’ film; as well as Louis Feuillade's popular adventure serial Fantômas (1913–14)—but it subsequently struggled under pressure of competition from foreign imports.

However, the silent period saw enthusiastic involvement on the part of intellectuals in thoughtful engagement with cinema, a distinctive feature of France's film culture to this day (see film criticism; silent cinema). In the 1920s, for example, alongside the stunning technical innovations of Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), the writer Riciotto Canudo coined the term ‘seventh art’ for the new medium; and the pioneering critic and theorist Louis Delluc was centrally involved in the founding of the film society movement. During the 1920s and 1930s, France's seminal contributions to avant‐garde and experimental cinema went hand‐in‐hand with important critical writings on art, politics, and cinema: significant filmmakers, artists, and film movements include Jean Epstein (La chute de la maison Usher/The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928); Man Ray; Fernand Léger, the Surrealism‐influenced work of Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau, and the Poetic Realism of Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo. The 1930s also saw the emergence of Popular Front cinema (for example Le crime de Monsieur Lange/The Crime of Monsieur Lange (Jean Renoir, 1936)) and the founding of the Cinémathèque Française.

Under the German occupation during World War II, British and US films were banned; but French production was able, within limits, to continue. A national film school, IDHEC (Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinématographiques, in 1986 renamed FEMIS—Institut de Formation et d’Enseignment pour les Métiers de l’Image et du Son) was established in 1943. In the postwar years, with the help of government measures (in 1946, the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie (CNC) established the principle of state support for a quota system to protect national production and for rebuilding cinemas), the domestic film industry enjoyed a significant revival, and both production and cinema attendances climbed. These same years saw the rise of an auteur cinema (see authorship), with such directors as Robert Bresson, Louis Malle, and Alain Resnais establishing significant bodies of work. The first annual Cannes Film Festival took place in 1946 and has remained an essential event for critics and filmmakers around the world ever since (see film festival). French critics and intellectuals promoted the serious study of cinema through film journals (especially the influential Cahiers du cinéma, launched in 1951; and Positif, founded in the following year) and scholarly initiatives (see filmology). In the late 1950s, the first of the European new waves, the Nouvelle Vague, emerged on the scene with François Truffaut's Les quatre cents coups/The 400 Blows (1959) and Jean‐Luc Godard's A bout de souffle/Breathless (1960). In the period following the revolutionary events of May 1968 there arose a militant countercinema, exemplified in particular in works by Godard (such as Le gai savoir/The Joy of Learning, 1968) and Costa‐Gavras (Z, 1968), in parallel with radical developments in film theory that were to prove formative in the establishment of Anglo‐American film studies (see film studies; ideological criticism; psychoanalytic film theory).

Recent developments in French cinema include the cinéma du look, with its spectacular visual style, postmodern intertextuality, and appeal to fantasy: works such as Diva (Jean‐Jacques Beneix, 1980), Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990), and Les amants du Pont‐Neuf/The Lovers of Pont‐Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991) enjoyed popular success both inside and outside France but were less enthusiastically received by critics. Ventures into the ‘quality’ territory of the heritage film include the international art cinema hits Jean de Florette (Claude Berri, 1986) and La Reine Margot (Patrice Chéreau, 1994). Alongside these a new cinema of social realism emerged, inaugurated in the mid 1990s by the controversial La haine/Hate (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995), about characters living in the banlieue, the suburban ghettos on the outskirts of Paris and other French cities. The realism of this ‘jeune cinema’ centres around themes of class and ethnicity; concerns which, along with the issues of immigration and postcolonialism, inform the contemporary movement dubbed beur cinema. In the early 2000s, a cycle of ‘postmodern porn’ films by directors including Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi (Baise‐moi/Rape Me, 2000), Gaspar Noé (Irréversible/Irreversible, 2002), Catherine Breillat (A ma soeur!/Fat Girl, 2001), attracted some notoriety and earned the label New French Extremism. See also anthropology and film; cinéma vérité; extreme cinema; film school; philosophy and film; postcolonialism; postmodernism.

Further Reading:

Austin, Guy Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction (2008).Find this resource:

Hayward, Susan and Vincendeau, Ginette (eds.), French Film: Texts and Contexts (2000).Find this resource:

Palmer, Tim Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema (2011).Find this resource:

Powrie, Phil (ed.), The Cinema of France (2006).Find this resource: