Yes, we are returning to l’arrière grand-père of cinema. I had a magnificent experience walking around Paris’ vibrant streets and seeing it’s unmatched architecture. I also tried to cram in many filming locations whilst there like the picture I teased this installment with (the film was Before Sunset). After looking back, I realized that where else could cinema begin then in France? The grandeur and beauty around every corner in Paris is truly a perfect metaphor for the wonderment that nothing else but film can bring. Last time we looked at French cinema was looking very drab, World War I had psychologically changed people to the point where light-hearted filmmakers like George Méliès who added pizzazz to film stopped making films altogether and the directions that film studios could take were obscure. Something new and exciting and what fitted the mood of the French people had to come along, it took a combined effort but that something was French Impressionist Cinema.
By the coming of the 1920s, the steamroller that was the American film industry flattened a once expansive French cinema. On average, French audiences were viewing eight times more Hollywood footage than domestic French films and this was a problem. The French film market would not perform because cinemas could not find the people willing to spend whatever time they had to go to the movies. The industry had imported American productions just to keep the rate of films afloat, but the idea of a French person paying to see something American was insulting. The American influence didn’t stop there as studios like Pathé and Gaumont tried imitating American production systems in the hope or stabilizing the industry. Many new ideas were tried, tested, and inevitably, failed. However, one idea stuck around and involved a group of young filmmakers like Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, Marcel L’Herbier, and Germaine Dulac who explored the usage of cinema as art by delving deep into the human psyche, this would later become French Impressionist Cinema, which borrowed and expanded on techniques used by Avant-Garde filmmakers.
While earlier filmmakers saw films as a commercial product, this group of filmmakers argued that cinema could become as highly regarded artistically in the same way that paintings or literature were. This was still early days for cinema so whether it could be art or not was still being explored, and if it was an art, why? Some even argue the validity of French Impressionism being a movement at all, as it had no theoretical or philosophical basis. Nevertheless, the exploration continued and soon we were introduced to films that were fascinated with pictorial beauty (photogénie). The exploration homed in on showing the internal state of a character (subjectivity) through various means of cinematography and editing. Rhythmic pacing was a popular technique in which scene would be paced depending on how the characters perceptual experiences replicating how the character feels during these experiences, sometimes scenes would be long, sometimes mere frames.
So how were these films received? While the pressing problem of audience size remained, impressionist films were highly praised by critics and were attracted members of cinema clubs and arthouse members. These films were also a boost towards the future as it opened up the testing of new film technologies. To see this in action, we must look at the most famous of impressionist films, Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927).
As we know, French impressionists like to experiment with different means of editing or cinematography, but with Napoléon, Gance took film experimentation to a whole new level with the new one time only film format Polyvision. This was a specialized widescreen format that projected three film reels in a horizontal row for a 4:1 aspect ratio. Not only that, but Gance also tried out new ways of frame mobility like crating a handheld model to be held by a person on roller skates, new lenses, and using over 60 exposures that required meticulous craftsmanship.
Be that it was all very remarkable at the time, French impressionism eventually ran out of steam in 1929 when the introduction of a new film technology ushered in new difficulties for directors, films could finally talk. When sound was introduced in French Cinema, the production of it became very expensive, too expensive for a low budget Avant-Garde feature. Also, impressionist cinema was not the only so-called movement around, there were surrealist films, abstract films, experimental films, etc. and these types of films had become successful in their own ways diversifying arthouse screenings. But where these filmmakers found it difficult adapting to sound, newer faces were to take their place on the pedestal in a country where the political climate was getting darker.
Unlike other countries, the effects of The Great Depression weren’t immediate, however in the air political change was coming so cinema reputation as a form of escapism was stronger than ever, made all the more real by the introduction of sound into the cinematic fray. The new technological wonder had already made those who could not adapt to it extinct by the early 1930s bringing new talent from both sides of the camera, one such man was playwriter, Marcel Pagnol.
Pagnol had attended a demonstration showcase of a talking picture in London in 1926 and it was there that he decided that he should move his talents away from stage productions and move them to filmmaking. The Provençal playwright has tuned his craft from living in Paris for most of the 1920s but when he returned to Provence he had written the first of a three-play trilogy Marius. Pagnol contacted Paramount Pictures to suggest Marius be adapted to film. The Studio agreed and in 1931 Marius, directed by Hungarian-born Alexander Korda (with Pagnol as screenwriter) was released. Pagnol would eventually establish his own production company in Marseille where he used his skills learned in theatre to create compelling slice-of-life dramas and also adapting the rest of his three-play trilogy production Fanny (1932) and César (1936) later to be known as The Marseille Trilogy.
Pagnol’s career is just one of the many examples of how sound reinvented French cinema, film critic André Bazin commented on Pagnol saying “If Pagnol is not the greatest auteur of the sound film, he is, in any case, something akin to its genius”. But while the technological side of filmmaking was proving to be an exciting endeavor, the darkness that surrounded European politics could not be ignored.
Germany had already cemented the tone of a fascist government into European political roots, which was a scary ordeal for the French people, but for those in the film business, this was a chance to provide a service for people to forget about the times ahead with poetic storytelling. The French film industry launched a quality versus quantity counter-attack against the imitated American studio system by instead releasing films that reflected the tone of the current climate yet actively avoided the pressing political problems, Poetic Realism was born.
Whist not as unified as the Impressionist filmmakers of the last decade, the films created by directors of poetic realism were able to create some of the more influential French films, with Jean Renoir’s 1939 film La Règie du Jeu often being named one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. The film reflected the occurring fatalistic mood of Poetic Realism with a key goal to criticize the contemporary social conditions of French society.
Arguably, there was not a better time to be a filmmaker in 1930’s France with technological advances and exciting new methods of filmmaking that make working in the industry more prosperous. But this was only one side of the story, inside the business of the studio’s things were not so prosperous, at least not to begin with. Pathè under the guidance of its new owner Bernard Natan has steered out of the bad luck they were suffering with even before The Great Depression. It was Natan who pushed Pathè (now called Pathè-Natan) to implement modern film industry practices into the studio such as researching and developing sound film, anamorphic lenses, and building consumer demand for film through other Pathè media outlets.
Natan managed to keep Pathè’s finances afloat making 100 million francs in profits and releasing more than 60 films, which rivaled the big American studios, during his time as owner, even as the French media were hounding him for his Jewish heritage and suggestions of his supposed homosexuality. Despite this large profit, Pathè would eventually end up losing more money than it could bring in as the depression’s effects were beginning to be felt. In 1935, the studio filed for bankruptcy, and Natan was accused of fraud on the charges that he established shell corporations during the purchase of the studio.
Two very different stories were being told about French cinema in the 1930s. Profitable and exciting, yet unstable through mimicked practices, the up and down moments shared equal weight. To oversimplify, there was much force pushing French cinema up as there was pushing it down Then, the bells rang for World War round 2 and with it, the Nazi occupation that changed the landscape of life in France.
Under the Nazi occupation, many prominent faces like Jean Renoir has already fled the country before the Germans took control. Author of The Classic French Cinema Colin Crisp wrote that 46% of all directors who made two or more films from 1936-1940 had left France to work elsewhere. This was hugely devastating for French cinema, not only had they removed Jewish filmmakers from key roles in cinema but now there best talent had abandoned ship as well, under the assumption their Nazi occupants would heavily censor their creativity.
But underneath the problems the French, and frankly the entire world, was facing, stems of hope were starting to bloom, with the first being the ceasing of film imports from America. This was a significant move for French cinema to redefine its identity, with the lack of an American dominated market, French filmmakers were practically unopposed in their own field of work. This meant French cinemas, which were swiftly reopened by the Nazi occupants, were filled with French works from new talent who had chosen to remain. The most advantageous point to these filmmakers was, despite the assumptions that the Nazi occupants would censor their work, film directors and writers were given a surprisingly large amount of breathing space, and they used this to subtly sneak in anti-Nazi messages.
However, make no mistake that the industry was on life-support. Film stock and electricity were being rationed out, even once the Allies had liberated France from Nazi occupation. Although new films were coming into cinema, it was a very low amount, with no more than thirty full-length features during most of WW2. Yet, despite the austerity, despite the damages, the occupation had on France itself, in 1945 a director by the name of Marcel Carné released Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), a regular contender for one of the greatest French films of all time. But it didn’t stop there, Jean Dréville’s La Cage aux Rossignols (A Cage of Nightingales), Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) and René Clément’s La Bataille du Rail (The Battle of the Rails) achieved a huge amount of success after the war was over.
Two huge institutions were also founded after the war, the first being the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC). This agency, founded under a consultation between public authorities and cinema professionals, had been in the works long before the beginning of WW2 brought on by the desire to bring filmmakers closer together and define the framework for filmmaking. The second, most widely known institution and one that shapes film to this day, was the Cannes Film Festival. A tale that is as surprising to me was that the film festival was originally meant to go ahead in 1939. On August 31st, the likes of Cary Grant, James Cagney, and Gary Cooper were in attendance of the opening gala night with a screening of William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the very next day on September 1st was the day German troops invaded Poland and the beginning of WW2.
Although the two French institutions which still exist today had the promotion of French-made films in mind, the industry soon found itself in inevitable competition with the US. Although the two nations were on the winning side of WW2, the war didn’t find itself knocking on American shores, say for a few examples, and Hollywood was still in good health and found itself with a huge backlog of films just waiting to be shown in Europe. France was soon swamped with American films. Despite the obvious American takeover that was just beyond the horizon, it seemed to be that the French people just accepted it as the country started to see a rise in popularity for things American. French filmmaking heavily relied on government support to stay afloat, and despite a new tax on cinema tickets and a boost in financial aid, French cinema moved away from being bold, and eventually, it started to become mundane.
But the cogs for bolder cinema were only just starting to turn and it would take the courage of some film critics to change all that and begin the most famous movement in cinematic history.
I apologize for not keeping to this series, the truth is that I lost my appetite to continue this series, but now I’m as motivated as the day I created it and I am now determined to push these out as regularly as I can.
Next time we will go back to the beginnings of the film industry that has dominated the world and who regularly appears in the history of every other film industry around the world. You know which one I’m talking about.