Ten French Films for a Revised Canon

opens in a new windowCharles Drazin is a lecturer on cinema at Queen Mary, University of London. His previous books include The Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s and In Search of The Third Man.

This “canon” of French films is a list not of personal favorites (although some of them are) but of films that I think serve to illustrate some of the key themes of French Cinema. All of them, I hope, bring out the idea that the true importance of the French cinema is the degree to which it inspires and informs our own cinema—“our” meaning specifically the English-speaking cinema.

  1. La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (1895)
  2. L’Homme orchestre (1900)
  3. Le Sang d’un poète (1930)
  4. L’Atalante (1934)
  5. Pépé le Moko(1937)
  6. La Règle du jeu (1939)
  7. Et Dieu . . . créa la femme (1956)
  8. Hiroshima mon amour (1959)
  9. À bout de souffle(1960)
  10. Le Mépris (1963)

Georges Méliès and Louis Lumière established the two poles between which the cinema oscillated over the next hundred and fifteen years. There was its inherent ability to record reality—the “camera never lies”; but then there was the fact that the camera does lie with remarkable ease.

Lumière showed us how the cinema could document our world; Méliès that this wonderful new tool has just as great a facility for fiction and fantasy. So our canon begins with an example of each. From Lumière, the very first film to be screened in public, La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon, 1895); from Méliès, L’Homme orchestre (The One-Man Band, 1900). The one treasures the rhythm of the real as much as the other delights in trickery, but both share a spontaneity that keeps them miraculously alive and fresh well over a century later.

In the English-speaking world we know all too well how the cinema became an industrial process. The great names of Hollywood are still with us to testify to the might of the film factories—MGM, Paramount, Warner, and so on. But the idea that it might also be a tool of personal expression for the individual artist, this is something that the French cinema has long cherished and defended. With Le Sang d’un poète (The Blood of a Poet, 1930), Jean Cocteau created a deeply autobiographical work. He brought to the task a freedom of individual imagination that exploited the innate potential of the medium every bit as much as it defied the established rules. He was the champion of the avant-garde, the experimental, and the personal. He showed that there was an alternative path for the cinema to that of the film factories.

Cocteau’s film was financed outside the commercial film industry. Like the great artists of the Renaissance, he was able to rely on a rich patron. With L’Atalante (1934), Jean Vigo tried to pursue a cinema of personal expression within the commercial film industry, and suffered the incomprehension and obstruction that countless directors around the world have experienced ever since. If L’Atalante lacked the narrative drive that the commercial industry depends upon to exert its hold over a mass audience, it contained a rare poetry for those discerning and patient enough to perceive it. But the film’s distributors were not prepared to wait. After a disappointing trade show, they insisted that the film be reedited and the title changed to the name of a popular song. Too ill to be able to offer any protest, Vigo, who had driven himself to point of exhaustion to finish the film, died a few weeks after the opening of the distributors’ version. His fate had archetypal value. As one of his obituaries put it, “He personifies the progressive film director in his fight against the stupidity and hypocrisy of the ordinary cinema-world.”

The British film director Lindsay Anderson expressed a sense of how Vigo belonged not just to the French cinema but to all our cinemas when he reviewed the London release of a restored version of L’Atalante in 1990. He told an anecdote about a recent visit he had made to the National Film and Television School, where he had found himself startled by a talented young film director’s ignorance of cinema history. “I began to wonder how many distinguished names, knowledge of whom one would assume to be an essential for cinematic literacy, were unknown to the talented young of today. ‘Have you ever,’ I asked, ‘heard of Jean Vigo?’ ‘Jean who?’ he asked.”

Assuming an equal ignorance on the part of his readers, Anderson then proceeded to explain who Vigo was, what he suffered, and how he died. Of L’Atalante, he wrote that it was “a film which opposes, more wholly and more beautifully than any I can think of, the conception of cinema that largely obtains today—a cinema of sensation, of technical display, of coarse (however sophisticated) commercialism.” The National Film and Television School, he urged, should bus their students to the theater to watch the film. “Attendance compulsory.”

When France’s New Wave filmmakers became “arbiters of taste” in the 1950s and 1960s, they favored their own bias toward a cinéma d’auteur over the mainstream commercial cinema that had developed in France during the 1930s. It meant that while they celebrated Vigo as a revered martyr, they showed little regard for some of that decade’s more established and celebrated names—as if material success were itself somehow suspect. Though little known today, Julien Duvivier was a major figure in the French cinema of the 1930s. The British novelist and screenwriter Graham Greene, writing in 1938, named him, alongside Fritz Lang, as one of “the two greatest fiction directors still at work.” Duvivier deserves to be reclaimed by film history not only for his individual brilliance but also for his influence over the mainstream Hollywood and British cinemas, showing how mood and character could be used to hold an audience. Pépé le Moko (1937) features Jean Gabin as a doomed gangster hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers. Dark and poetic, it was remade in Hollywood as Algiers (1938), but we can find its spirit in Casablanca (1942 and, I contend, in many other brooding American and British film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s. Pépé le Moko bears out an important sentiment underlying my book—the sense that there is a symbiotic relationship between “their cinema” and “our cinema,” so that to write about the two in isolation is to overlook an important and fascinating shared heritage.

Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is an old favorite of the film canons. For a good half century, in countless polls of critics, it vied with Citizen Kane as the “best film ever made.” But when it was first released in France just before the outbreak of World War II, it was treated as though it were possibly the worst film ever made. Its journey from critical disaster to critical triumph says much about the importance of the zeitgeist. In 1939, Renoir held a mirror up to a society which was—to use his own words—“dancing on a volcano.” Unable to bring themselves to contemplate their own destruction, critics of the time preferred to destroy the film instead. In form La Règle du jeu was a light comedy of manners, but it possessed an allegorical force that cut to the heart of prewar French decadence. As he had done previously with La Grande illusion (1937), which warned of the folly of war to a world on the brink of war, Renoir dared to use the cinema to make a serious comment about important issues. Exposing the triviality of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous comment that “messages are for Western Union,” Renoir taught Hollywood that movies could be much more than simply entertainment, that they could be used to try to change the world.

If the French cinema taught British and American filmgoers that a movie could have the importance of a great novel, it also challenged the puritanism and hypocrisy of an Anglo-Saxon film censorship that for a long time had drawn a veil over some of the most basic facts about adult life. Et Dieu . . . créa la femme (. . . And God Created Woman), which in 1956 was one of the most successful films at the American box office, snatched away that veil forever. Dubbed and with an English title, the film was not so much French as universal, but it certainly demonstrated a very Gallic quality in acknowledging the kind of universal truths about sex that the censorious Anglo-Saxons had up to this point preferred to shy away from.

Providing a female counterpart to Marlon Brando and James Dean, Brigitte Bardot embodied the new generation breaking away from the stifling convention of its elders. In the film she plays Juliete, an orphan whose impertinent, disrespectful manner presents such a challenge to her adoptive family that she is allowed to stay in Saint-Tropez only on the condition that she gets married. She makes the necessary compromise but remains as spontaneous and uninhibited as ever, ready to act without restraint on her emotions and desires, in particular her honest enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Not for the first or last time the French cinema would teach its Anglo-Saxon cousins an important lesson in the art and reality of life.

opens in a new windowA haunting loving story, set against the backdrop of one of the twentieth century’s greatest human catastrophes, Hiroshima mon amour (1959) wove together fragments of memory and emotion in a way that defied conventional narrative. Calling Alain Resnais “a cubist . . . the first modern film-maker of the sound film,” Eric Rohmer suggested that the film marked a turning point in which the cinema was leaving behind its classical period. Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), which followed soon afterward, was a conscious effort to make the most of the uncharted new territory that Resnais’s film seemed to have opened up. “All was permitted,” commented Godard. “I said to myself, ‘[W]e just had Hiroshima, a certain kind of cinema has just ended. Well, then, let’s put the final period to it: let’s show that anything goes.’ ”

Both films stand as testimony to the commanding place that the French have always held in the world’s cinema laboratory. To the extent that the cinema can be as much for connoisseurs, philosophers, and intellectuals as for movie fans, we expect them to lead the way. Time and time again the questing, modernist spirit of France has shown our much more conservative and market-led cinema how to put aside the old ways and dare to be different. It is the road that runs from Godard to Tarantino, often rewarding but sometimes exasperating and antagonistic. When Godard snubbed the Academy last year by declining to accept a special Oscar it was only the latest chapter in a love-hate relationship between the two cinemas that he expressed so perfectly in Le Mépris (Contempt) nearly fifty years ago.

See Also:
Why the Allure of French Cinema Endures,” Wall Street Journal