On the 18th of May, 2010, French culture minister Frederic Mitterand floated the concept of the Ciné-Lycée: a pilot programme to introduce French school children to national treasures of the film industry.

This compilation of 220 titles – not all of them French, will be available for streaming in the classrooms across the country.

True, each presentation will be only an extract of these exquisite expressions of French film history, coupled with a synopsis and anecdotes.

Nevertheless, the concept is revolutionary, and it seems to indicate that the French, more so than any blockbuster making film entity, from Hollywood to China, are inordinately amorous of the silver screen.

Are the French truly obsessed with film and filmmaking?

Let's delve into French culture and the history of French films to realise the answer to that question.

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The bread is good and so's the wine, but French movies are most excellent!
Like so much else, including their breads and wines, the French are justifiably proud of their culture Source: Pixabay Credit: Jill111

Well, They Get That Right!

As a whole, the French tend to be a proud people: of their culture and their heritage; of their long history that includes epoch-defining political, academic, artistic and literary movements.

Of course, the list goes on: the cuisine of France is without compare, the music scene is alive and thriving, their education system is the envy of the world and, who wouldn't want a 35-hour workweek?

In other words, there is a lot that the French do well in.

However, it is their attitude toward their culture, to the point of making laws to resist foreign language invasion, that renders them so very admirable.

That, and the fact that they are intent on perpetuating it, using initiatives such as Ciné-Lycée to disseminate what they call the seventh art, on par with dance, architecture, music, painting, sculpture and poetry.

Elsewhere in the developed world – the US and even here at home, we don't seem to take that passionate a focus on our artistic heritage, do we?

Theirs is a Justified Dignity

Looking at the history of filmmaking from a global perspective, many would assume that Hollywood – or at least America would be the pioneers of movie making.

Trivia: the first American movie was actually made in New Jersey; on the other side of the country!

To be completely accurate, it was a tight race between Thomas Edison's kinetoscope and the Lumière brothers' cinematograph, a device that permitted recording moving images on film for later projection on a silver screen.

The Lumière brothers won; America subsequently trailed in their film innovations by several years.

Whereas the Chinese are proud of giving the world pencils, paper, the compass and gunpowder, the French have the right to claim movie making as a part of their national heritage.

They didn't just pioneer the concept and develop the industry; they defined the very art of film making.

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French film makers give a lot of weight to film making philosophy
The ethos of film making weighs heavily in every French film Source: Pixabay Credit: Tero Vesalainen

The Ethos of Film Making

The sharing - or, imitation of technological advances meant that any country with the means to do so could produce sweeping epics of the silver screen.

To wit, China's first cinematographic effort, the Battle of Dingjunshan; was made in 1905.

However, France was the first country to produce and identify various genres of film, including documentary, amour and comedy.

Other firsts brought about by the French film industry were:

  • Film theory, specifically auteur theory
    • Truffaut was a proponent of this popular film theory
  • Continuous narrative, espoused by Alice Guy
  • Various film editing techniques, among them the cross-cut
  • Cinema verité, a form of realism that is associated with the later French New Wave
  • Film Festivals – Cannes held its first film festival in 1946

What about the first film critic?

Those worthies were a British invention; they wrote movie reviews in a publication called The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal!

However, the French also had their movie critics and their own publication, titled Revue du Cinema – Cinema Review.

Among the contributors, you might find articles by Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau and Alexandre Astruc.

This publication, discontinued during the second world war, hit the newsstands again with a new title: Cahiers du Cinema, which detailed the philosophies of the Nouvelle Vague – France's new wave of cinema.

We'll talk more about the movers and shakers of that wave in a mo!

The most important facet driving the philosophy of film making in France was that cinema is a form of art, an expression of an individual author as portrayed by talented performers.

Just as the many artists who took up residence at Montmartre during La Belle Epoque did not produce the same type of art, so film makers of any same era did not embrace the same presentation of their subject material.

What did they produce, then?

Directors, and the Fruits of Their Vision

Jean Vigo, co-founder of poetic realism, is best known for L'Atalante, among others.

It is a story of lovers who separate and reunite, but captured with dreamlike sequences.

His life and work was cut way too short; M. Vigo died at the tender age of 29. Who knows how full his body of work could have been?

Along with Albert Gance and Jean Epstein, Jean Vigo's work is attributed to French impressionist cinema.

Jean Renoir, son of painter Auguste Renoir, is best known for La Règle du Jeu.

This French film is often cited as one of the greatest films of all time, not only for the social commentary it made but for its innovation in cinematography.

Deep focus was a relatively unknown filming technique at that time. It, coupled with long shots to give an expanded perspective, yielded startling clarity to the constantly moving images.

Naturally, movie making across Europe suffered a blow during and immediately after WWII, but the resilient French were ready to have another go at it all the same.

Here, we come again to the Cahier and its contributing writers, all heavies in the French film industry.

Within its pages, André Bazin and other film aficionados would discuss the merits and fallacies of film, and why, overall, the film industry was vital.

Contributing authors included Francois Truffaut, to this day thought of as an icon of the French movie business.

He is best known for the masterpiece 400 Blows, his debut film starring Albert Remy, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Claire Maurier.

This tale of a rebellious adolescent, constrained by both parents and school, surely strikes a chord even today!

Jean-Luc Godard, like other directors of his time, disparaged the tradition of quality in French filmmaking that placed emphasis on technical perfection over the brute impact of storytelling.

Adopting the narrative theory in his directing, his opus Breathless depicts a young man (Jean-Paul Belmondo) obsessed with Humphrey Bogart's film personae. Thus he embarks on a life of petty crime. His shooting a policeman is the pivotal moment in the film, whereupon he solicits the aid of his American girlfriend.

In the final scene of the film, as the protagonist lay dying, he makes a comment: "It's disgusting, really."

This line has stymied film goers ever since: did he mean that Patricia, the American girl is disgusting, or is it the situation?

Or does he mean that life itself is disgusting?

Many of Godard's films challenge typically espoused values in film; successful formulas such as boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back, or the good versus evil concept so prevalent in Hollywood movies.

Alain Resnais rounds out the trilogy of legendary New Wave directors with his magnum opus Hiroshima Mon Amour.

This film is remarkable for its use of the flashback, innovative at the time because of its break from linear narrative.

Oddly enough, Resnais had originally been contracted to direct a documentary type of film about the atomic bomb, but did not want to recreate his Night and Fog, the Holocaust film he had directed ten years earlier.

The end result is the stupendous tale we (hopefully!) know of today: a conversation involving French-Japanese couple, who is trying to bridge cultural gaps and establish an impossible understanding.

Remarkably, the whole film encompasses 36 hours, and the characters are never named.

Some countries' idolatry of their stars might indicate obsession
One might think that societies that idolise their movie stars would be more obsessed with film than the French! Source: Pixabay Credit: Mohammad Hassan

So, Is There an Enduring Adoration for Film in France?

After reading some of these synopses, you might see why the world would think the French are obsessed with anything cinematic.

The irony is that French cinema is not meant to be idolized, at least not in the way that other cultures might treat their films and their stars.

Just look at how American actors are treated, by the press and the public: they genuinely must struggle to maintain any modicum of privacy!

Where others film studios might engage in pyrotechnics and CGI – computer generated imagery to make their movies stand out, French films rely on the story, and the actor's ability to portray it, and the director's vision to render it effectively.

Does that mean that the French have elevated making films to an art form? Mais, oui!

Does that mean that they are, to a nation, obsessed with cinema? No, they are staunch in the defense, maintenance, and promotion of their culture.

For the French, that means a reverence for the seventh form of art!

Learn more about France's famous actors and consider taking online French courses to fuel your love of French film. Searching for French classes produces the most results on Superprof for face to face lessons.

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.