When speaking to fans of cinema across the globe, it is no surprise that France is the most consistently praised film-producing region in the world. Partly because France signifies the birthplace of film with the Lumiere brothers, and partly because of the Nouvelle Vague movement in the country, it is often praised as some of the best filmmaking in the world as well as in the history of the medium.
Virtually all historians agree that the cinématographe, the motion picture film camera and projector that may or may not have been invented by the Lumiere brothers, but whose licensee was ultimately purchased by the two, marks the beginning of cinematography for the world. France’s dominance does not end there; until the early 1900s, the French movie firms dominated the young field.
After the first World War, however, it was difficult for French film companies to keep up with their competing American counterparts. Still, after World War II, André Bazin would pave the way for France’s dominance of the medium. His magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, served as a breeding ground for France’s future film giants to develop their theories and establish what would later become the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague. Cinema greats like François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Eric Rohmer were all contributors to the publication and would eventually influence the direction of French, and to a larger extent, world cinema to come.
But why are these films so good? What is it about the French mentality that makes these films so striking and memorable? During the 1950s and 1960s, France’s cinema was really pushing the boundaries of what a film can be. Because the artists behind the lens would actively break the norms of the medium, they were able to go beyond what the viewer would expect and create a new world for the viewer to live in.
Think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and the jump cuts and hand-held camera. What about director François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? Hiroshima mon amour? All of these films introduced new techniques and ways to experience films. From the flashbacks and nonlinear techniques in Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour to The 400 Blows’ highly-praised thematic and cinematographic accomplishments, French films stand above the rest as a testament to what film can aspire to.
At root, the cinematic masterfulness of the directors of France contributes directly to the success of its cinema. With a government supported art form, the French crafted a way to speak to the world, and they succeeded. They are good because their films resonate, even today. Among blockbuster, high dollar cinema, the French stand alone, remaining true to their auteur roots and artistic sensibility.
One of my top three films of 2011 was a French film called The Intouchables and in 2009 it was a gritty prison thriller named “A Prophet” which happens to have one of the highest ever ratings on Rotten Tomatoes at 97% fresh. Both are films I would highly recommend and are fantastic introductions to modern French cinema.
Lucy James writes about home cinema streaming and compares Netflix vs Lovefilm to see which offers the best value for money. Incidentally, Lovefilm offers a great variety of world cinema, including a relatively arge amount of French Cinema.