This Sunday is Bastille Day. It’s a holiday that speaks to my (sort of) French heritage.* And more importantly, it speaks to my love of French cinema. And why shouldn’t it? In terms of quality per quantity, you can stack French movie history up against any other country. If you don’t believe my claim, perhaps it’s time to do some digging.
*Note: I’m as much American as anything, but there’s also as much French blood in me as any other country. My last name even has a capital R in the middle of it. Bastille Day to me is what St. Patrick’s Day is to people with O’ or Mc in their last name.
The French practically invented the medium. The first public screening of film happened in 1894, thanks to French photographer Jean Aimé “Acme” Le Roy. The first movie ever made for projection was Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (1895), from Auguste and Louis Lumiere. Few filmmakers expanded the cinematic medium like Georges Méliès, who entertained audiences by inventing all sorts of visual trickery. Méliès created the fade-in, the fade-out, the dissolve, and stop-motion photography amongst other techniques. In the first 30 years of the 20th century, when most of the rest of the world’s cameras were stationary and flat, French filmmakers were dabbling heavily in superimposition, hand-held cameras, and triptych/wide-screen cinematography.
One of the earliest, most prominent uses of deep focus cinematography was employed in France in Grand Illusion (1937). In fact, the most well-known practitioner of deep focus cinematography- Orson Welles- held Grand Illusion in high esteem, and it’s not a stretch to think that it informed Welles’ usage of the same technique in Citizen Kane. Similarly, Pépé le Moko (1937) paved the way for Casabalanca (1942). If you’re counting at home, that’s two of the world’s most critically acclaimed films that took their queue from French cinema.
Along the way, the French have broken every rule imaginable. It started with Méliès, and continued right on into French Impressionism when surrealism ruled the day. It was an integral piece in helping future filmmakers understand exactly what could be accomplished with film. Directors like Jean Vigo and Jean Cocteau continued this tradition through the 1930s (and Cocteau into the 40s and 50s), continuing to expand visual and narrative structure. The most famous example of the French leading the way in breaking rules occurred in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s with the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Agnes Varda, and Eric Rohmer plied their craft while snubbing their noses at convention. Frenetic editing, pregnant long takes, subjective realism, jump cuts, and the art of self-referential film all took center stage during the French New Wave. It changed film forever. In the 1980s, Cinéma du Look used film to absorb pop culture in a way that would set the stage for much of the 1990s. And most recently, New French Extremity has taken body horror and shock cinema to a different plane of existence.
In addition to the techniques and styles of French cinema and their influence on world cinema, there’s a healthy list of sub-genres that owe much to the French. That list would include coming of age films- Zéro de Conduite (1933), Forbidden Games (1952), The 400 Blows (1959), Mouchette (1967), L’Enfance Nue (1969), Murmur of the Heart (1971), and Lacombe Lucien (1974); heist films- Band of Outsiders (1964), Bob le Flambeur (1956), Rififi (1955), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and others from Jean-Pierre Melville, and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954); anti-war films- Grand Illusion (1937), J’Accuse (1919), Children of Paradise (1945), Wooden Crosses (1932), and Les Caribiniers (1963); and the cinema of shock, which has far too many films to count.
In short, French cinema has an amazing history that changed the world of movies forever. It’s only one data point, but I think it speaks volumes that the Criterion Collection- an organization dedicated to “gathering the greatest films from around the world”- has almost as many films from France (182) as it does from the United States (242). Before admonishing me for the gap between the two, consider how much larger the American film industry is and how much more money has been spent making movies in America compared to France. Put another way, there are as many French films in the Criterion Collection as there are films from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Italy, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, and Spain… combined.
Since I’ve hopefully convinced you to check out a French movie or two this weekend, you’ll probably need a place to start. Pardon the self promotion, but I’ve made an annual French Top 50 list every year that this site has been in existence. It has changed each year as I’ve learned a little more and as I’ve scrubbed out personal preference. The first one is woefully incomplete but I’m happy to share the 2011 list and the 2012 list with you, and even a 2012 supplement including 25 more. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I feel confident enough to say that those lists are a great place to start for the uninitiated. So get to work!
Note: For a handful of reasons, there probably won’t be an updated list this year. But rest assured, I’ll be watching French film this weekend, and will likely update the top 50 for 2014.