Did you know that France is the birthplace of modern cinema? Or that Paris has the highest number of theaters in the world per capita?
France is often viewed as the pinnacle of European artistry. The idea of movies—or moving pictures—enraptured many when it was first introduced these. For every popcorn-fueled theater outing or tearjerker at home, we are indebted largely to the French for their ingenuity in creating such a massive, movie-going culture.
The birth of moving pictures
A Frenchman named Antoine Lumière created a device called the cinematograph in 1895, which served as the world’s very first film projection system. Using this device, he filmed the world’s first moving pictures, including La sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train), the earliest horror movie, and L’Arroseur Arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener), the first comedy. These films were short—under one minute long—but their impact was huge: for the first time in history, an audience watched an image move.
Soon after, another early filmmaker named Georges Méliès experimented with longer moving pictures, primarily within the science-fiction realm. Around the same time, production houses and distribution companies emerged, and Alice Guy, the world’s first female director, created the notion of narrative within film.
Over time, films became longer and their storytelling more complex, spanning a variety of topics and themes. In the early 1900s, actors who appeared in multiple films and became familiar faces t0 audiences around the country became the world’s first celebrity actors. The industry was booming.
World War I and the Avant-Garde movement
Just as film began to grow in scope and popularity, World War I hit and changed everything, as profit and resources declined sharply. With these new constraints, the avant-garde era emerged, celebrating the artistic side of film-making and exploring human consciousness, and filming and editing techniques improved drastically. Though the industry’s growth slowed, people loved the escape from reality that movies seemed to offer during hardship.
The industry changed yet again in the 1930s, as filmmakers discovered the technology to bring sound into their otherwise silent moving images. After World War II, some of the most haunting and beautiful films in French history were released: La Cage aux Rossignols (A Cage of Nightingales), Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise), and La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast).
An era called the French New Wave took hold in the late 1950s, celebrating the romanticized genre. A new batch of political and psychologically charged films ushered in an era of thoughtful and discussion-provoking films that entertained both critics and audiences alike. This style continued into the early 1970s introduced a new group of celebrity actors, such as Brigitte Bardot and Gérard Depardieu, who became well-known and celebrated, both in France and internationally.
French cinematography today
The following decade marked a time of stylistic and commercial appeal, as well as the dawn of contemporary animated film, and the 1990’s featured commercial hits—both in France and internationally—such as Cyrano de Bergerac, La Femme Nikita (Nikita), The Fifth Element, La cité des enfants perdus (The City of Lost Children), and The English Patient.
In the 2000s, Amélie became the highest-grossing French film ever released in the US. La Vie en Rose and The Artist are some of the most critically acclaimed and important French works of that decade. Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks), Taken 2, and Intouchables were also important and highly regarded French releases during this time, with Intouchables breaking numerous viewership records both in France and abroad.
Our top movie recommendations…
Amélie | 2001
In this whimsical film, a shy young woman searches for love while irrevocably changing the lives of those she meets.
Love Me if You Dare | 2003
A childhood game between two best friends follows them into adulthood, ultimately bringing the pair together.
The Artist | 2011
When the talkies replace silent films, an older actor and rising film star find their lives increasingly intertwined.
Intouchables | 2011
Did you know that France is often credited as the birthplace of cinema? Or that Paris has the highest number of theaters in the world per capita?