France is the birthplace of cinema and has been responsible for many innovations in cinematography. Important cinematic movements, including the New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) began in France. France is proud its strong film industry which is distinctively French. Notable features of typical French cinema include:
- slow, subtle and ambiguous plot-lines
- strong character development
- no expectation of happy, predictable, neat or conclusive endings
- an emphasis on art rather than revenue - partly assisted by state subsidies
These elements characterise a product that is noticeably different from the typical output of Hollywood and Bollywood. A few French films have become popular in the English speaking world, but most are completely unknown except to art-house and Francophone audiences. Many successful French films are remade for English speaking audiences who are generally unaware of the fact. Aficionados familiar with both the French original and the English remake rarely regard the remake as remotely as good as the French original. Le Retour de Martin Guerre was remade as Summersby, La Cage Aux Folles, remade as Birdcage Cyrano de Bergerac, ill-advisedly remade with the same name featuring Steve Martin, and Les Visiteurs remade as The Visitors. La Femme Nikita somehow morphed into a US television series!
The French are particularly good at historical dramas such as Le Retour de Martin Guerre, La Controverse de Valladolid, La Reine Margot, Ridicule and Jean de Florette / Manon Des Sources.
French Film Makers
French language films are made not only in France but other French Speaking countries, such as Canada, Belgium and Switzerland. French cinema is sometimes intertwined with the cinema of other nations. Directors from Poland (Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Andrzej Zulawski, Argentina (Gaspar Noe and Edgardo Cozarinsky), Russia (Alexandre Alexeieff, Anatole Litvak) and Georgia (Gela Babluani, Otar Iosseliani) are as famous in French cinema as the native French. French directors have been important in the development of cinema in other countries, most notably Luc Besson in the United States.
History of French Cinema
In the late 19th century, during the early years of cinema, Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière invented the cinématographe and their L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat in Paris in 1895 is considered by many historians to mark the birth of cinematography. Alice Guy Blaché made her first film, La Fée aux Choux, in 1896. During the next few years, filmmakers all over the world started experimenting with this new medium. Georges Méliès invented many of the techniques now common in the cinematic language, and made the first science fiction film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) in 1902.
Alice Guy Blaché was head of production at Gaumont Pictures, where she made some 400 films between 1897 and 1906. She then continued her career in the United States, as did Maurice Tourneur and Léonce Perret after the First World War. During the period between the First World War and the Second World War, Jacques Feyder became one of the founders of poetic realism in French cinema. He dominated French Impressionist Cinema along with Abel Gance, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein.
After the First World War, the French film industry suffered through a lack of capital. Film production decreased as it did in other European countries. This allowed the United States film industry to enter the European cinema market, most notably Britain and Ireland, because American films could be sold more cheaply than European productions, the studios having already recouped their costs in the home market. When film studios in Europe began to fail, many European countries began to set import barriers. France installed an import quota. For every seven foreign films imported to France, one French film was to be produced and shown in French cinemas.
In 1931, Marcel Pagnol filmed the first of his great trilogy, Marius, Fanny, and César. He followed this with other films including La Femme du Boulanger (The Baker's Wife). Other notable films of the 1930s included René Clair's Sous les Toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), Jacques Feyder's La kermesse héroïque (Carnival in Flanders, 1935), and Julien Duvivier's La belle equipe (They Were Five, 1936). In 1935, renowned playwright and actor Sacha Guitry directed his first film and went on to make more than 30 films that were precursors to the New Wave era. In 1937, Jean Renoir, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, directed what many see as his first masterpiece, La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion). In 1939, Renoir directed La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game). Several critics have cited this film as one of the greatest of all-time.
Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) was filmed during the First World WarI and released in 1945. The three-hour film was difficult to make due to the Nazi occupation. Set in Paris in 1828, it was voted Best French Film of the Century in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals in the late 1990s.
In the magazine Cahiers du cinéma founded by André Bazin, critics and lovers of film would discuss film and why it worked. Modern film theory was born there. Additionally, Cahiers critics such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Eric Rohmer went on to make films themselves, creating what was to become known as the French New Wave. Some of the first films of this new genre were Godard's Les Quatre Cent Coups (Breathless) in 1960, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Truffaut's À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) in 1959 starring Jean-Pierre Léaud. From 1959 until 1979, Truffaut followed Léaud's character Antoine Doinel, who falls in love with Christine Darbon in Baisers volés ( Stolen Kisses) marries her in Domicile Conjugal (Bed & Board 1970) and separates from her in the last post-New Wave movie L'amour en fuite (Love on the Run).
Contemporaries of Godard and Truffaut followed their lead, and some achieved international critical acclaim with styles of their own, such as the minimalist films of Robert Bresson and Jean-Pierre Melville, the Hitchcockian-like thrillers of Henri-Georges Clouzot, and other New Wave films by Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais. The movement became an inspiration to other national cinemas and was a string influence on the future New Hollywood directors.
During this period, French commercial film also
made a name for itself. Popular French comedies starring Louis
de Funes topped the French box office. The war comedy La Grande
Vadrouille (1966), from Gérard Oury with Bourvil and
featuring Terry Thomas (!) was the most successful film in French
theaters for more than 30 years. Another example was La Folie
Des Grandeurs with Yves Montand. French cinema also was the
birthplace for many sub-genres of the crime film, most notably
the modern caper film, starting with Du Rififi Chez les Hommes
(1955) by American-born director Jules Dassin and followed by
a large number of serious noir-ish heist dramas along with more
playful playful caper comedies throughout the sixties. also popular
was the "polar," a typical French blend of film noir
and detective fiction. In addition, French movie stars began to
acheive fame abroad as well as at home. Popular actors of the
period included Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, Simone
Signoret, Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Belmondo,
Brigitte Bardot, and Jean Gabin.
The 1979 film La Cage Aux Folles ran for well over a year at the Paris Theatre, an art house cinema in New York City, and was a commercial success at theaters throughout the country, in both urban and rural areas. It won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and for years it remained the most successful foreign film to be released in the United States.
Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva (1981)
sparked the beginning of the 1980s wave of French cinema. Movies
which followed in its wake included 37°2 Le Matin
(Betty Blue) by Beineix, Le Grand Bleu
(The Big Blue, 1988) by Luc Besson, and Les Amants du
Pont-Neuf (The Lovers on the Bridge , 1991) by Léos
Carax. These films, made with a slick commercial style and emphasizing
the alienation of its main characters, was known as "Cinema
du look" Camille Claudel, directed by newcomer Bruno Nuytten
and starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu, was
a major commercial success in 1988, earning Adjani, who was also
the film's co-producer, a César Award for best actress.
Gérard Depardieu was one of the most active French actors of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac was a major box-office success in 1990, earning several César Awards, including best actor for Gérard Depardieu, as well as an Academy Award nomination for best foreign picture. Depardieu also starred in Le Retour de Martin Guerre and Jean de Florette / Manon Des Sources.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet made Delicatessen and La Cité Des Enfants Perdus (The City of Lost Children) both of which featured strange and disturbing fantasy worlds.
In 1992, Claude Sautet co-wrote (with Jacques
Fieschi) and directed UN Coeur En Hiver
considered by many to be a masterpiece. Roman Polanski made a
wonderfully dark movie the same year Lunes
de Fiel (Bitter Moon) - with most of the action in France
but most of the dialogue in English - a great precedent for blurring
French and English language films.
Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 film La Haine (Hate) made Vincent Cassel a star.and in 1997, Juliette Binoche won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The English Patient. That same year, Luc Besson's The Fifth Element became a cult favorite.
The success of Michel Ocelot's Kirikou and the Sorceress in 1998 rejuvenated the production of original feature-length animated films by such filmmakers as Jean-François Laguionie and Sylvain Chomet.
In 2001, after a brief stint in Hollywood, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returned to France with Amèlie (Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain) starring Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz. It became the highest-grossing French-language film ever released in the United States. The following year, Brotherhood of the Wolf became the second-highest-grossing French-language film in the United States..
In 2008, Marion Cotillard won the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of legendary French singer Edith Piaf in La Moôme (La Vie en Rose), the first French-language performance to be so honored. The film won two Oscars and four BAFTAs and became the third-highest-grossing French-language film in the United States in the last two decades. Cotillard was second person (and the first woman) and to win both an Academy Award and César Award for the same performance.
In the 2000s, several French directors made international productions, often in the action genre. These include Gérard Pirès (Riders, 2002), Pitof (Catwoman), Jean-François Richet (Assault on Precinct 13), Florent Emilio Siri (Hostage), Christophe Gans (Silent Hill), Mathieu Kassovitz (Babylon A.D.), Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk), Alexandre Aja (Mirrors), and Pierre Morel (Taken).. The 2008 rural comedy Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis drew an audience of more than 20 million, the first French film to do so. Its $193 million gross in France puts it just behind Titanic as the most successful film of all time in French theaters.At the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Entre les murs (The Class) won the Palme d'Or, the first French victory at the festival in 21 years.
As the advent of television threatened the success
of cinema, countries were again faced with the problem of reviving
movie-going. The French cinema market, and more generally the
French-speaking market, is smaller than the English-speaking market..
As a consequence, French movies have to recoup their costs on
a relatively small market and thus generally have budgets far
lower than their American counterparts, ruling out expensive settings
and special effects. The highly interventionist French government
has implemented measures aimed at supporting local film production
and movie theaters. The Canal+ TV channel has a broadcast license
imposing it to support the production of movies. Taxes are levied
on movies and TV channels for use as subsidies for French movie
production, some tax breaks are given for investment in movie
productions, and the sale of DVDs and videocassettes of movies
shown in theaters is prohibited for six months after the showing
in theaters, to ensure some revenue for movie theaters. French
national and regional governments involve themselves in film production.
For example, the award-winning documentary Le Pays Des sourds
(In the Land of the Deaf) was created by Nicolas Philibert
in 1992. The film was co-produced by a multinational partners,
which reduced the financial risks inherent in the project; and
co-production also ensured enhanced distribution opportunities.