“There are no good and bad films, only good and bad Directors.
The cinema is an invention without of a future – Louis Lumière
For most cinephiles (a French born term), Auteur Theory, or the idea of the Auteur, is likely a familiar term and idea, if not in definition than certainly within popular expression and application. To say that a Director is recognizable, distinctive, unique, artistic, all of these things are descriptives of an Auteur, which recognizes the Director as the “author” of a film. On a more complex level, taking from Notes on the Auteur Theory, which officially defined the term in 1963, “A Director must have an awareness of the craft, a distinguishable character, and this awareness and distinguishable character leads to interior meaning.”
There are many different entry points into a discussion of French Film. They essentially invented the visual artform, and have impacted and helped to shape the industry in a variety of ways over their long and impressive cinematic history. I wanted to begin with Auteur Theory though because of its relevance, not only to understanding the French New Wave, one of France’s most robust and recognizable movements, but France’s literary influence and the role that this literary foundation played in the development of the critic, which became integral to the development of film as an artform. These two things are important because they can help in understanding the character of French film and it’s interest in complex narrative arcs.
Theatrical, Literary Roots, and Shadows of the New Wave
One of the things that gaining a Global perspective of film history can help reveal (as I’ve been travelling around the world in 2020) is the deep connection between cinema and its theatrical and literary roots, with each Country’s emphasis on one or the other lending to the character and tradition of their film (and national) identity. Of course plenty of other things play into a Country’s cinematic identity, not the least of which is its socio-political backdrop. But understanding a Country’s storytelling tradition can say a lot about how these storytelling methods are able to capture and express that socio-political reality in ways that also advance and influence the cinematic artform as a whole.
And nothing came to define France more clearly and more deliberately than the French New Wave, an (unofficial) movement born from its development of the Auteur Theory.
What is most important about the idea of the Auteur, especially in understanding French Cinema, is the development of the idea of “personal authorship”. Francois Truffaut, a Director and Critic from the French New Wave, first published the “Auteur Theory” in the Cahiers du Cinema in 1954. You can read a wonderful essay on the development of the Auteur Theory here (https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2017/06/01DavidTregdeEJFall13.pdf). Initially formed out of their close relationship with America and observing what America was doing, it then translated to, in more concrete theoretical ways, the art of French cinema as a working theory. Auteur Theory helped to develop the idea of form that would eventually come to define French Cinema against the competing American Cinematic Tradition, not only through its particular attention to form and style, but in the continued development and integration of new Directors/Creatives meant to create and recreate the form.
The Auteur Theory is of course not without its own critics (although it was born out of the development of film criticism) and controversy. Whether its focus on Directors as the author of a film takes away from film as a multi-faceted and diverse artform made up of multiple artists and players is a worthy debate. But it certainly did change the face of the industry forever. Even today, we still retain a tendency to elevate the Director as the face of a movie, recognizing films based on their signature and presence.
This style (personal authorship) deconstructed Hollywood continuity, and gave a cheap and accessible way for filmmakers to employ a signature that allowed technique to comment on technique.
This idea of constantly reinventing oneself, or “technique commenting on technique” is contrasted with the traditionalism bred from the Hollywood system(s). This would lead French Film to pride itself on distinguishing between high forms of artistic expression, refusing to be bound to restrictive forms, but at the same time always remaining indebted to the literary influences that gave life to the grand French Tradition and identity.
A lesser known fact about the Auteur Theory (and German Cinematic History is subtle and sneaky in this way) is that it was actually an Austrian born, German language speaking Director named Max Reinhardt, with heavy roots in German Theatrical influence, who came up with the idea as far back as the early 1920’s, and even earlier. This is an interesting connection because German Cinema’s focus on the theatrical as a defining characteristic of German film becomes filtered in a particular way through France’s literary tradition. This is why we find language that evokes a “pen” and an “author” within the theory itself. What is known as mise-en-scene comes equally from observations of American tendency towards visual emphasis, but also from the idea of long form writing, emphasizing “long takes” and scenes that offer both depth of narrative and cinematic imagination. It evokes the idea of the “camera pen”, which essentially translates through the way a camera is placed and moves, thus heightening the cinematic form through externals (lighting, long form writing (literary) into a visual “type” rather than relying on composition. In this sense, Directors become, as it has been often put, “metaphorical writers” with the screen as their page or “canvas”, something that was emphasized with the world’s first female Director (France’s Alice Guy), who created the idea of “film narrative”.
The Rise of the Film Critic And The French New Wave
The relationship between the film critic and the development of film as a constantly developing form that is able to then critique itself (thus always challenging static form) is a valuable concept to consider when looking at French film. The relationship between critic and filmmaker remains an important one, as it protects the ability of film to push boundaries and be creative, something that we see in these early filmmakers being both artists and critics themselves.
The French New Wave, influenced by Italian neo-realism and eventually birthed from France’s liberation from Germany, is a movement that sits outside of and challenges traditional forms of filmmaking. Beginning with the rise of film critic Francois Truffaut and the incredible The 400 Blows (1959), and later the extremely successful Jules and Jim (1962), the French New Wave would give rise to some of France’s most notable Directors, including Agnes Varda and the existential wonder that is Cleo From 5 to7 (1962), Jean-Luc Godard, whom Directed the wonderful Vivre Sa Vie (1962). Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg 1964), Jacques Tati (Playtime 1967), Melville (Le Doulos 1962), and Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar 1966), all of whom helped bridge this connection between film, critic, and form. These films are exceptional examples of the underlying spirit that flowed from the development of the Auteur Theory, embodying and fostering creative, unconventional, experimental, and narrative based approaches that helped shape Directors from this age and in the years to follow as “artists”.
More than this though, these films were instrumental in establishing art, through film criticism, as a form that was able to push socio-political boundaries by inventing and reinventing form as a commentary on itself. This is where The New Wave follows in the footsteps of Italy’s Neo-Realism, recognizing that socio-political realities can find their voice and representation within the expression of these “independant” stories and filmmakers (influenced by the writings of Alexandre Astrue and Andre Borzin, who helped to forge the way for this theory), and that the way to move a society forward is for form to constantly be “reforming” our perspective and our awareness of both art and the social condition. It’s not surprising then that what paved the way for the French New Wave was an independent documentary movement in the late 1940’s, a movement that raised up film as the voice of the people (documentary style), and helped to frame the narrative as something necessarily concerned with realism. This is the lasting legacy of the French New Wave that would leave its mark on French Cinema and French values to this day, influencing a variety of subsequent film movements (New Waves) around the world.
From The Birth of Cinema to A Unique Cinematic Expression
“France can, with some justification, claim to have invented the whole notion of cinema.” (https://www.volta.ie/#!/page/640/a-short-history-of-french-cinema)
One could make a case that Germany’s conceptual inventions predate the Lumiere Brothers Cinematographe, or that Japan’s connection to visual storytelling and visual storytelling methods were making “moving pictures” before the Lumiere Brothers. And then there is British Augustin Le Prince’s experimentations and innovations, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, Edward Amet in America, or even Eadweard Muybridge (see the book The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures).
But by and large, the most recognizable names and the most influential figures in bringing the moving picture to the world stage through the invention of the cinematographe were the Lumiere Brothers in France. Since 1895, the Lumiere Brothers would see their machine enamor excited voices around the globe, eventually given tangible shape by George Melies (another Frenchman) in one of the earliest and most recognizable examples of cinema as a form (the still exceptional Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon ), thus giving rise to the great cinematic vision. As French History goes, Charles Pathe and Leon Gaumont would establish the first studios in France (Pathe and Leon, which remain France’s most important studios still today), giving rise to Max LInder, who opened the world up to the idea of the “international movie star” in 1905, forever altering the landscape of the film industry as one that is both local and internationally focused (an idea that would come to both complicate and enrich the French Cinematic Tradition).
International Pressure, Social Policy, and A Complicated Industry
If France can fairly lay claim to giving birth to the Film Industry, it can also lay claim to being one of the most prosperous industries in the years leading up to World War 1, both in its local development and in its international influence. Un Chien Andalue (1929) is a great example of an early film that held a lot of influence in surrealist cinema, which helped to give form to the horror genre.
As history tells it, it was a shortage of film stock during the First World War that led the American Industry to effectively come in and “steal the international film market.” This has led to a back and forth, often rocky relationship with America, with the competing influence of both industries, once dominated by France and then at times running parallel in its development with America with America eventually overtaking it, flowing in both directions. This ebb and flow in France’s cinematic history was defined as well by socio-political realities (Nazi Occupation and German control being the biggest one, a period that produced films like Les Enfants Du Paradise 1945, La Fille Du Puisatier 1940, Volpone 1941, Le Corbeau 1943, and L’Assasinat du Pere Noel 1941, the first film to made under Occupation, followed by Boule De Suif 1945, one of the first films made after the Liberation), and policies (quota system in the 1920’s designed to limit American Film in its restrictions on foreign imports, and eventually the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC), which still governs the way taxation in France feeds back into the film industry).
What remains true today, as much as it has over the last 100 plus years, is that often when the two entities (France and America) are talking about their individual film industries, you will catch comparisons to and analysis of the other leading the way in possible reform, with their competing socio-political approaches being forefront (free market capitalism over a heavy dependence on taxation and social policy). It is France’s taxation system that is their most interesting distinctive, even setting them apart from other socially minded governance within the European Nations.
Their taxation model, which is wholly impressive in its commitment and investment, is built around indirect subsidy. This indirect subsidy comes from places like t.v. and from mandates on public operations that filter external activity back into the collective support of the arts (not unlike similar policies that require downtown businesses to support local restaurants).
What’s mainly responsible isn’t “direct subsidy (public TV channels, advance on receipts, regional funding)” but rather “indirect subsidy (mandatory investment by private TV channels).”
– Richard Brody
France’s taxation system is certainly a bit controversial, but it is also very intriguing. Positioned to both bolster it’s local industry and to protect it from Hollywood infiltration, one of the challenges it faces is managing the relationship between films that make money and films that don’t, smaller projects and more commercial fare. The upside to the system is that it means the film industry has support regardless of how profitable films are. This means that filmmakers are free to experiment and get creative, and it also attracts new filmmakers, a key source for strengthening the future of France’s local cinema.
The problem though is a system in which funding does not discriminate. Where it protects these creative forces, films of lower quality can also funded. And when the rules of the system are able to be manipulated, tying funds to budgets and giving bloated budgets for bad films that would never otherwise make their money back in a free market system, filmmakers and studios can take advantage. This blurs the line at times too between the pressure to find more commercial films that will make money and feed back into the system. All of this creates a bit of a conundrum for a system that has been successful in maintaining and developing France’s long and illustrious film identity.
“The “cultural exception”—a term that’s just twenty years old—is the way that France defines its protection of its movie business against the demands of free-trade agreements and their inevitable opening of floodgates to Hollywood movies. But the notion of the “cultural” is two-fold: there’s the artistic element and the popular one, the creation of works of art that affirm France in future history, and the creation of mass-market works that sustain the film industry as a commercial enterprise and as a social phenomenon.”
– Richard Brody (The New Yorker)
One of the curious things regarding how France continues to navigate these issues is their rather strong position settled between the smaller industries of other European Nations and the big industry of America. Protecting against the inevitable saturation of American films, something that could bring in money but hurt the local film industry and thus the Country’s identity and ethos as well, means that they aren’t really in the game of exporting either. A Country needs both a strong local industry and representation abroad, especially in an ever changing global market, to flourish.
And yet, with that said, France seems to continually find ways to stay relevant despite of these challenges, with much credit going to the continual influx and development of filmmakers, both from within and from abroad. Ever since the creation of Cannes in 1946, there has been a certain allure and prestige that comes from being associated with French cinema, one that appears enviable and desirable, particularly for any interested in contrasting this with the behemoth that is the American Industry. The benefit to this has been the fostering and development of a real sense of identity and ethos within its filmmaking community, an identity that sits somewhat outside of industry expectations. Not surprisingly, the ebb and flow of their industry before the wars and after the wars, would see both hardships and resurgences, going from The French New Wave to a down period to a slight uplift in the 1990’s where we see a new kind of hyperrealism emerge, a greater dependence on comedies, and a romanticizing of France’s past. This period would also follow the inner workings of its socio-political developments, like the development of the European Union (1993) which led to new opportunities in relationship to film across European Nations, Cultural Exception, which opened the way for the arts to maintain a distinct presence against the commercial industry (and thus leads the way for France’s unique taxation model), and eventually Canal+, a part of that unique taxation system which continues to fund the French Film Industry today.
THE FUTURE OF FRENCH CINEMA
It’s hard to know how the future of cinema develops in France, let alone on a global level. There are so many shifting dynamics when it comes to the film industry, and as things change so do global relationships, which do have an immediate impact on film industries world wide. The interesting thing about France though is that they seem positioned better than most, certainly when compared to Capitalist markets like America and China which are dependent on economic gains and losses, to weather the storm in the interim in terms of maintaining a healthy cinematic identity and an industry that can make relevant and challenging films. The benefit of strong social policies that prioritize the arts through public and indirect funding is that it treats the arts as a necessary industry, as vital to the function of life as anything else, and beyond that necessary to a society’s development. This certainly has its problems, and it will be interesting to see how France continues to navigate this space in-between its unique social policies and its relationship to consumerist Countries. But there is no doubt that their presence continues to make a strong statement about what art is, what art can be, and how art can influence and build a society in important and necessary ways. Certified Copy (2010), My Life as a Zuchinni (2016), Transit (2018), The Girl Without Hands (2016), The Jewish Cardinal (2013), Holy Motors (2012), No Home Movie (2015), Amour (2012), Amelie (2001), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and The Past (2013) are all examples of phenomenal and genre shaping films that have emerged from the French Film Industry in the past 10 or so years, and one should expect that they will continue to find ways to push form, reinvent and challenge the status quo.
*Here is my full list of French Films I watched on my travels, rated, ranked and reviewed:
Neoliberalism and Global Cinema: Capital, Culture, and Marxist Critique
French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present By Rémi Fournier Lanzoni