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The History of French Motion Pictures

  Marcel Pagnol
Marcel Pagnol, 1933
Roger Corbeau

The French film developed independently of the theater, although both media employed many of the same actors. Only a few men enjoyed great eminence on both stage and screen — Jean Cocteau, who directed several highly imaginative films; Louis Jouvet, who was a leading actor; Marcel Pagnol, who directed for the screen some of his own plays of humble life in Marseille; and Sacha Guitry, an actor-director-writer of boulevard plays and films.

French cinema begins with the fantasies of Georges Méliès at the turn of the century, but the true fathers of French film making are Abel Gance, best remembered for his epic Napoléon (1925); Jean Vigo, who died young after making the brilliant experiments Zéro de conduite (1932) and L'Atalante (1934); René Clair, the director of some unforgettable comedies early in his career; and Jean Renoir, a master of sympathetic, understanding realism in such films as La Règle du jeu (1939) and La Grande illusion (1937). Attention must be paid to Jacques Tati, a great clown; Henri-Georges Clouzot, an exponent of pitiless naturalism in La Salaire de la peur (1953); and Robert Bresson, whose Le Journal d'un curé de campagne (1951) is considered a film classic.

Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard

The "new wave" in French cinema began in 1958, when a young film critic, Claude Chabrol, directed Le Beau Serge, a study of two young men in a provincial town. Two friends of Chabrol's, also film critics, followed him into film-making the following year — Jean-Luc Godard, with À Bout de souffle, reminiscent of American gangster films in its treatment of a French criminal; and François Truffaut, with Les Quatre cent coups, about a schoolboy in trouble. While Godard was the most prolific, it is probably Truffaut who accomplished most, with his lively films Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) and Jules et Jim (1961). Other new wave directors include Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, mon amour, 1959), Agnès Varda (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962), and Louis Malle (Vie privée, 1961).

By the early 1970s the new wave had lost its experimental edge, although many of the directors continued to produce fine films, such as Truffaut's Le Dernier métro (1980). New directors emerged, however, who began to attract world attention, including Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva, 1981; Betty Blue, 1986), Luc Besson (Subway, 1985; The Big Blue, 1988; La Femme Nikita, 1990), Claude Berri (Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, both 1986), and Régis Wargnier (La Femme de ma vie, 1986; Indochine, 1992). French cinema has been encouraged by generous state subsidies, and the vigorous industry was producing some 140 films each year by the early 1990s, even in the face of overwhelming box office competition from the United States.

The Cannes Film Festival, begun in 1946, is the most respected such event worldwide, and the Palme d'Or award at Cannes is one of the most sought-after achievements in cinema. In 1976 the French film industry first awarded the Césars, the country's equivalent of Hollywood's Academy Awards™.

Author: Henry Popkin, Editor of Concise Encyclopedia of Modern Drama.
Source: Encyclopedia Americana, © 2003 Grolier Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Today's Movie Scene

Although cinema audiences may be declining slowly, the French still appreciate movies and retain their taste for both French and foreign films. Many prefer to see movies in their original version (with French subtitles, if imported), and these films bear the inscription VO (version originale).

  Lautrec, a film by Roger Planchon
Lautrec, a film by
Roger Planchon
© France inter

Unless you particularly want to see the version that was dubbed in French, avoid movies that carry the inscription VF (version française). However, outside of Paris it is not uncommon to find only the dubbed versions being shown, especially in the smaller towns.

In Paris, cinema-goers enjoy a wealth of choices, with over 300 films showing every week. Some arts cinemas and cinémathèques show retrospective series of films devoted to particular directors, actors, countries or periods in the history of the cinema.

Smoking is now universally forbidden in French movie theaters. Don't forget to tip the usherette (10%); it's the only pay she receives.

Choose your region from the AlloCiné search engine below, for a listing of most cinemas throughout France, including each venue's address, current movie engagement(s), showtimes, feature length, actors, technical details and plot synopsis (all in French).

Bibliography: American Express Travel Guide Paris, 5th Edition, 1993, Prentice Hall General Reference (a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.), New York. Baedeker Paris, 3rd Edition, 1995, Macmillan Travel (a Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company), New York.
Images: Photo of Marcel Pagnol, © 1933 Roger Corbeau (photographer), from Corbeau, l'oeil noir du cinéma français, Editions Assouline, 1995. Photo of Jean-Luc Godard (photographer unknown), from Religion & Cinema web site at Princeton University. Movie poster of "Lautrec", a film by Roger Planchon, © France inter.


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