Where was cinema first invented? You are probably thinking of Hollywood, right? — oh no, mon cheri! The first cinema to exist was the French cinema, thanks to the innovation of two brilliant brothers! We know this might come as a shock to some people, which is understandable given Hollywood‘s dominance.
It is because of that dominance that many people rarely consider exploring other cinemas. However, this is quite a shame because art, especially cinema, is a universal language that’s not only made in Hollywood. There are many other cinemas that are truly worth paying attention to, but at the top of the list is the French cinema.
The story of the French cinema is actually the story of all cinemas. The first projected moving pictures were presented by the French pioneers, the Lumière brothers. It was them who started the magic of cinema in December 1895—that’s right, it goes all the way back to the 1800s!
With such inventive and talented minds, French cinema blossomed into a strong industry to be reckoned with! However, that, of course, was not without a few setbacks along the way. So, how did French cinema start anyway? Let’s find out!
French Cinema: The Beginning
The year was 1895, on 28 December, to be exact, that’s when the French cinema came to life with the first paid public film screening taking place in the Salon Indien, in the basement of the Grand Café, boulevard des Capucines in Paris. The entrance ticket cost one franc and gave the right to see about ten 50-second tapes.
The masterful brains behind this new step were Auguste and Louis Lumière, or as we know them, the Lumière brothers. This ground-breaking event was only possible because of the brothers’ invention, the Cinématographe (the film machine that enabled the showing of motion pictures). From then until 1905, the Lumière brothers presented their Cinématographe in all the major cities. They sent operators around the world to film views.
Taking things to the next level came thanks to Georges Méliès, a show businessman, who built the first studio. The studio was the shooting location for between six hundred and eight hundred films!
Following the success of Lumière and Méliès’ films in setting the base for French cinema, a number of notable production companies were born in France. It was those companies that dominated the international scene for a long time, such as Pathé Frères, founded by Charles Pathé in 1896, and Gaumont, founded by Lèon Gaumont a year earlier.
These two major production companies were later joined by a third one, Le Film d’Art, which was destined to have a shorter career, but also strongly influenced the cinematography of those years. Having risen to the top of the world film market, Pathé and Gaumont became the first to establish many fundamentals of the film industry that are still in use today.
The Pioneer Alice Guy
In March 1895, Alice Guy, Léon Gaumont’s secretary, was convinced that it was possible to film something other than the subjects chosen by the Lumière brothers: studio exits, train views, etc.
In February 1896, Alice Guy became the first female filmmaker in history to direct the first short films, starting with La Fée Aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages), a one-minute film that is considered to be the first fiction film.
She later shot an identical version in 1901, which is the only one preserved today. Léon Gaumont soon made a small part of his factory available to his secretary so that she could build a film studio and put her in charge of the company’s production department.
Alice Guy ran her studio and shot nearly 400 films, becoming the first woman to be a screenwriter, producer and director all at once. She masterfully handled changes of scale in Madame a des envies (Madame’s Cravings) (1906). In 1907, she directed the first chase with an accumulation of events in successive shots where the actors are directed with precision (La Course À La Saucisse (The Sausage Race). She also made documentaries like Baignade dans un torrent (Bathing in a Torrent) (1897).
Alice Guy left France in 1907 to pursue her career in the United States. She entrusted the direction of the studios to her collaborator Louis Feuillade who turned out to be a brilliant director of serials, such as the comic Bébé, a character played by Renè Dary, or the criminal Fantômas and Les Vampires.
Pathé & The French Cinema Industry
Rather than producing quality films, Pathé was interested in producing films in large quantities. At the Vincennes studios, they organised themselves to make films at an industrial rate: cinema ceased to be a craft product as it had been for Méliès and the other pioneers.
Cinema first existed as an industry before being recognised as a form of art; the aim was to produce and sell films on a massive scale. Thus, films were sold by the metre to showmen, thanks to whom the cinema mainly reached a popular audience.
On the other hand, there was a lot of plagiarising, imitating, and re-proposing formulas of successful films; some filmmakers imitated their own work or others, which ironically led to the birth of what we call today film genres.
At the beginning of the century, the types of films most popular included trick films imitating those of Méliès and films with reconstructed topics. These two genres of films would quickly disappear; the former would be absorbed by fantasy and comedy films, and the latter would be supplanted by historical costume dramas.
The first successful film of this historical genre in French cinema was La Vie Et La Passion De Jésus Christ (The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ) (1903), which Ferdinand Zecca supervised and directed together with Lucien Nonguet. This three-reel film was a true colossal for its time. Through twenty-seven pictures, the film retraces the most famous episodes in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, from his childhood to his death and resurrection. It is the first cinematographic transposition of the stories since the Lumière films. The new colouring system developed at Pathé was also used for this film: colouring à pochoir.
Thanks to the extraordinary international success of the film, Pathé was able to open its foreign branches as early as 1904. It was the first company to take on a vertical structure; Pathé manufactured cameras, film and projectors, owned studios, produced and distributed films also bought from other producers and by 1905, was already running a large circuit of cinemas. By choosing not to sell his films (as Méliès had done) but to rent them, he laid the foundations of the film trade.
Post WWI: The Birth of the French Cinema Movements!
In the aftermath of the Great War, French cinematography had lost its international dominance and was in great difficulty. Hollywood films, technically and artistically, were more advanced and dominated the market.
In this uncertain economic situation, large industrial groups, such as Pathé and Gaumont, preferred to limit their investments in the production sector. The number of films produced in France dropped considerably in the 1920s.
However, it was precisely because of these economic difficulties and uncertainties that several producers were willing to take risks, and a new generation of filmmakers had the chance to explore film as an art form. The 1920s were in France, as in other European countries in similar situations, the scene of numerous movements and film avant-gardes.
The French Cinema Movements
The French cinema has been the courtyard for many cinematic movements that shaped the history of cinema. Here are some of the most important French cinema movements that left a mark!
Impressionism (impressionism): First Avant-garde (FR)
After the Great War, European cinema collapsed to make way for American cinema. In response to this catastrophic context, the first avant-garde or impressionism, the French school of the early 1920s, emerged as an innovative current within commercial cinema. Between 1918 and 1923, a new generation of authors sought to explore the possibilities of cinema as an art form. They explored the visual possibilities of film through framing, movement, rhythm, light and shadow, and symbolism.
Impressionists sought to create an emotional experience for the viewer by suggesting and evoking rather than clearly stating. In a nutshell, the job of art is to create transient emotions, ‘impressions’, according to a view characteristic of late 19th-century Romantic and Symbolist aesthetics. On the one hand, Impressionist theorists considered cinema to be a synthesis of the other arts capable of creating spatial relationships, such as architecture, painting and sculpture. On the other hand, cinema was seen as an expressive tool with unique possibilities.
Impressionism has left behind some true cinematic gems that are still adored by many today, like Napoléon (1927), The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), J’accuse! (1919), and La roue (1923). But that’s not the only thing the movement left behind! It is worth noting that impressionism was more than just a new cinematic movement; it is thanks to impressionism that we now have what we call film criticism. It was the movement advocates who started up the concept of publishing movie reviews in their journals, and that’s why Louis Delluc is regarded as the first film critic ever!
Among the art movements that characterised the early 20th century, Dadaism is the one that most exaggerated the concept of art and the value of the artist.
The Dada movement (also known as Dadaism) is an intellectual, literary and artistic movement of the early 20th century, which is characterised by a questioning of all ideological, aesthetic and political conventions and constraints.
The Dadaists were anarchists and pacifists. They saw reality and history as a chaotic whole over which man has no possibility of intervention. To them, art is an expression of life; therefore, like life, it must accept chaos and not seek an ordering principle. The movement originated in Switzerland and quickly made its way to France, Germany, and the USA.
A great example of Dadaism in French cinema is the silent film Le Retour à la Raison (1923) by Man Ray.
The Dadaist cinema came to an end in 1923 at the behest of the founders themselves, who were tired of pursuing this desecrating approach. Thus, surrealist cinema was born, with the intention of depicting the ugly and the dirty in films based on strong, harsh and sometimes violent sensations.
Inspired by psychoanalysis and Freud, surrealist films were not based on a logical narrative and did not fit into a realistic context.
Some previously forbidden themes were brought to light and dealt with extensively in French surrealist cinema: human impulses, sexuality, madness, the unconscious, so-called ‘crazy’ love, and even physical suffering.
This is perfectly embodied in the cutting off of a woman’s ear in the film Un chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog) (1929) by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel. Buñuel himself also directed the film L’âge d’Or (Age of Gold) (1930) and other various films by Jean Cocteau.
A major movement in French cinema, it is characterised by popular characters and environments (especially workers, but also soldiers, prostitutes, etc.), cursed characters, often pariahs representing a social class and the importance of dialogue. It is the poetic treatment of a realistic subject (characters, settings etc.). In other words, it presents reality with fictional stories that capture real situations, real people, and real emotions.
The films belonging to poetic realism aimed to offer a fair and honest portrayal of the ways of life of a certain section of the population (for most of them, the ‘little people’). The theme of fatality is recurrent in these films; fatality of human destiny and inexorable social pessimism.
Popular films of this movement are Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) (1938) by Marcel Carné, Le jour se lève (The Day Begins) (1939) by Marcel Carné, and many others.
Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave)
While impressionism was revolutionary, it was in the 1950s that French cinema reached the peak of its splendour with the arrival of the Nouvelle Vague. This movement stood in contrast to all the cinematographic rules of Hollywood cinema, with the aim of illustrating reality and not the fiction and cinematic theatricality of films like Gone with the Wind.
Often shot with makeshift means, on the streets or in flats, they have the sincerity of an intimate account of a new, restless generation. Scripts were often improvised, and film ‘sets’ were carefully avoided. So many directors, still known today throughout the world, were involved in this process that made French cinema great: Claude Chabrol, François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer and Alain Resnais, to name but a few.
In recent years, the helm has passed to filmmaker Luc Besson, oriented towards a more consumer cinema, and to the remarkable and contemporary François Ozon and Michel Gondry.
The New Wave had a great influence on French cinema, even on global cinema. Other countries followed in the footsteps of the movement, and the film world began a new generation. The filmmakers of this period learned the importance of questioning the rules. Without rules, an artist is free to create something really imaginative.
Some excellent examples so this movement are Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) (1959) by François Truffaut and Pierrot le Fourot(Pierrot the Fool) (1965) by Jean-Luc Godard.
French cinema has been a fertile land for the world of cinema since its beginnings. It is not what many of us would expect, but that’s the beauty of cinema; it always manages to dazzle the audience. How French cinema survived through the years and the obstacles the cinema had to overcome along the journey is utterly admirable. There is so much to thank the French cinema for, inventing the cinema, establishing film criticism, and creating some fine gems along the way.