Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Letters From Paris

The French Cinematic Tradition, Part 1

By Christine

Editors' Note: This marks the inaugural column of a new addition to our chorus of voices. Christine lives in Paris and is a proud cinephile. She also is a champion of the French film industry and its stars. We are honored to carry her column and hope that other voices will wish to join us.

I am a French woman long in love with the French film world and its stars. While I loved movies as a child, frequently going to the cinema, it wasn’t until I began dating my future husband that I became a devoted cinema lover. On my first date, my future husband took me to an Abel Gance film festival, which opened with his masterpiece, Napoleon. Though it was silent and I had never seen a silent film until that point in time, I became enthralled. Perhaps it was the company, but whatever, it opened a new world to me. I was so happy to have a strong bond with my beloved, for we had chosen distinctly different career paths upon completing our education.

Every Friday and Saturday night, we began with my strong point: dinner. I’m an amateur cook and a pretty good one at that, if I may say so. Friday nights were reserved for the restaurant, which I always chose, and Saturday nights were reserved for dinner at my apartment. My roommate at the time was discreet enough to spend the evening at her boyfriend’s home, so we had the place to ourselves. After our dinner, we always went to the cinema to a movie that he chose. Although I didn’t always agree with his choice of movies, I was never bored. Again, it must have been the company. Anyway, we have been married for 23 years now and have two wonderful children (who weren’t always so wonderful).

You in America have a great tradition of film and should be justly proud. But we in France also have a great tradition. France is the birthplace of motion pictures. While you had Thomas Edison as a pioneer, we had the Lumiere Brothers. America had Edwin S. Porter and we had Georges Melies to further develop film narrative. While America developed film companies such as Paramount, Biograph, and Universal, France developed Pathe and Gaumont.

True, no other country has had anyone with the influence of D.W. Griffith, but it must be kept in mind that during the period in which Griffith was making his innovations, France was embroiled in a world war with Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey. After the war, though, French filmmakers ran with Griffith’s innovations, most notably Abel Gance, Gaumont producer Alice Guy Blanche (who oversaw more than 400 films), and Maurice Tournier, who worked in America for the French company Éclair. The silent era also saw the founding of what was later called “French Impressionist Cinema,” whose leading exponents were Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, and Jean Renoir (a natural, considering his father). It’s a difficult term to define, but it denotes a style of filming from the subjective, rather than the objective stance, placing more emphasis on the inner lives of the characters. The emphasis on the working of the images through cinematography led to the now frequently used term “mise en scene.” This ambiguous term can best be defined as referring to the visual composition of a film through camerawork and direction.

The invention of talking pictures, while pioneered in the U.S., found French directors and producers not far behind. Jacques Feyder, a noted director in the silent era (in Hollywood, he directed Greta Garbo’s last silent film, The Kiss), crossed over to sound effortlessly and began what was later called the “Poetic Realism” movement (which I will delve into in a future column), whose other adherents included Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, Jean Renoir, and Marcel Carne, all of whom are familiar names to serious film lovers in the U.S. This movement was to become a large influence on the later Italian Neorealistic movement in the mid-1940s.

The most notable films during the 1930s were Marius by Marcel Pagnol, Carnival in Flanders by Feyder, and La belle equipe (The Beautiful Team, or They Were Five) by Duvivier, starring Jean Gabin. Jean Renior was also at his peak during the decade, directing four classics: Boudu sauve des eaux (Boudu Saved From Drowning), La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion), Le Regle du Jeu (Rules of the Game), and La Bete Humaine (The Human Beast).

French cinema was poised on the brink of even bigger and better things, but World War II and the German Occupation interceded, driving many filmmakers and actors into exile and virtually shutting down the French film industry. In 1944, the Germans were driven out, leaving the artists to pick up the pieces and begin over.

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