Beginner’s Guide to Classic French Cinema
It could be argued that cinema began in France. Auguste and Louis Lumière were some of the earliest filmmakers and invented much of the early film technology, including cameras and projectors.
In this list, I have combed through the first sixty years of French cinema, bringing you ten essential films by ten essential filmmakers as a way to help you start your journey into this country’s rich cinematic history.
This list does not, however, delve into what is known as La nouvelle vague or French New Wave. That list will come soon enough. Besides, before you can enjoy the work of those filmmakers, you need to see what inspired them.
Le voyage dans la lune
Also known as: A Trip To The Moon
Directed by: Georges Méliès
Loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, the Georges Méliès film is not only one of the earliest narratives in film history, it is also one of the most influential films of all time.
Fans of Martin Scorsese’s recent Oscar winning film Hugo know a bit more about Méliès and this film’s history than your average Joe. But, really, everyone should have seen this film already.
There’s a beautiful new print touring around the United States right now and Flicker Alley has a fantastic new Blu-ray release for sale. You can also find the film streaming on pretty much every video site on the internet.
Directed by: Louis Feuillade
I suppose I should preface this with the fact that this is actually a serial and that it is 399 minutes long. But have no fear! It is broken down into ten episodes, so you can watch it in pieces if you want to. Or marathon it all in one day like I did.
I should also point out that the vampires mentioned in the title are actually a band of criminals, and not supernatural bloodsucking humanoid creatures.
That said, Louis Feuillade’s work is phenomenal and Musidora is the perfect silent vamp as the lead Irma Vep.
Directed by: Abel Gance
This film is the definition of masterpiece. Sadly, it is so epic — both in its filmmaking technique and its length — that it is currently unavailable for homeviewing.
That said, you wouldn’t want to see this film on anything less than a big screen anyway. If you are lucky enough to see film historian Kevin Brownlow’s beautiful 5.5 hour restoration of the film in your lifetime, you will not regret it.
I saw it two weeks ago in Oakland, and I still haven’t recovered from the film’s finale — a three-screen epic triptych presentation of Napoléon’s invasion of Italy.
Seeing this film on the big screen should be on every cinephile’s bucket list. Word on the street is it will be playing in London in 2013, so mark your calendars.
À nous la liberté
Directed by: René Clair
One of France’s earliest sound films, À nous la liberté mixes music and sound effects in a very unusual and creative way. It almost makes you miss the days when sound was a novelty and something whose artistic limits were just beginning to be explored.
Like his early film Le Million, the film is essentially a musical comedy. In this film René Clair makes explicit political commentary on the working conditions in France, likening them to that of being in prison.
You can definitely see how this film inspired American features, like Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Also known as: Le chaland qui passe
Directed by: Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo was one of the most influential directors ever, and yet he only made one feature film (at 41 minutes, 1933’s Zéro de conduite doesn’t quite count), before his untimely death at the age of 29.
L’Atalante is often cited as one of the greatest films ever made and had a huge impact on French New Wave directors, such as François Truffaut, who was 14 years old when he first saw the film.
It’s a beautiful and melancholic look at love and loss and suspicion and all those things the French are so good at capturing in their art and boasts some truly awe-inspiring cinematography from legend Boris Kaufman.