CINEMA started in France with the invention of the movie camera by Auguste and Louis Lumière, and the country has seen many great directors and films ever since.
The Lumières’ first public screening, in 1895, included footage of workers leaving their factory and the sketch L’Arroseur arrosé (The Waterer Watered: still a well-known expression in French): a gardener is watering, a joker steps on the hose, the
gardener looks at the end, puzzled, and is squirted when the joker takes off his foot.The audience is said to have reacted in terror when the train rushed towards them in another of their early real-life pieces, The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat.
It was not long before film-makers started to take the medium in more adventurous directions. Alice Guy is considered the first female film director and one of the first to make a fiction film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy, 1896.) A fairy appears to a couple and makes babies grow under cabbages (the French version of the British gooseberry bush).
Georges Méliès made the first science fiction film, A Trip to the Moon, in 1902.
By the 1920s, silent films had developed from the early experiments, often lasting less than a minute, to such monumental works as Abel Gance’s six-hour epic Napoléon (1927).
Among the most successful early “talkies” were Marcel Pagnol’s adaptations of his own plays and novels, such as Marius (1931) and Fanny (1933), and the films of René Clair, such as Under the Roofs of Paris (1931) set among the working class in the capital.
Playwright and actor Sacha Guitry became a prolific film-maker, also often adapting his own plays in films such as My Father was Right (1936). Jean Renoir, son of the painter, whose film career spanned the silent period to the 1960s, made The Rules of the Game in 1939, a satire of contemporary high society.
A commercial failure in its day, the British Film Institute rated it the third-best film of all time in a critics poll in 2002, calling it an effortless combination of tragedy and comedy.
Another highly regarded film was made in difficult circumstances under the Nazi occupation: Marcel Carne’s The Children of Paradise. French critics voted it the best-ever French film in a 1995 poll marking the cinema’s centenary.
A tragic romance in a theatrical setting in early 1800s Paris, it is noted for strong performances such as Arletty's free-spirited Garence and Jean-Louis Barrault’s mime artist, Baptiste. Screenwriters played a major role in this period and poet Jacques Prévert’s text is considered a major part of the film’s appeal, along with its sumptuous look.
After the Second World War, many amateur cinema clubs were launched where films were shown and techniques discussed and film magazines started up, such as Les Cahiers du Cinéma.
The directors of French cinema’s most famous movement, the New Wave, mainly started as critics. They believed in the central role of the director’s vision, le cinéma d’auteur, whereas earlier films had often become more dominated by producers and fine writing.
Rather than studio-based productions with traditional narrative, they were often filmed outdoors in locations such as Paris streets, using new light-weight equipment. Their films are characterised by a fresh, unconventional style, sometimes using improvised dialogue.
They were made with few big stars and the directors disparaged what they called le cinéma de qualité, pompous studio productions often based on classic literature.
Key films include François Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups (1959), about a schoolboy truant, and Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (Breathless, 1960), about a petty criminal and his American girlfriend.
Truffaut said directors should not be like “civil servants of the camera”, but “artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure”.
Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol are among other noted New Wave directors, while experimental, arty ones known as the Left-bank group were an offshoot.
One example, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961), is considered a masterpiece by some critics and incomprehensible by others. Set at a social event at a chateau, it uses flashbacks and repetitions as a man insists to a woman they met the previous year, while she disagrees.
The films of Bertrand Tavernier showed to some extent a return to earlier values, including costume dramas and strong narratives and screenplays.
In the 1980s, a new generation of film makers such as Luc Besson (Le Grand Bleu, 1988) and Leos Carrax (Les Amants du Pont Neuf, 1991) was dubbed the New New Wave, though they distanced themselves from their predecessors.
Their cinema became known as le cinéma du look and detractors claim it mostly offers slick visuals and attractive stars.
Jean-Pierre Jeunet had hits in the 1990s with Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, which have a distinctive fantasy style, while other top-rated directors of recent years include Claude Sautet (A Heart in Winter, 1992) and Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine, 1995).