After the turbulence of WWI, the French film industry was making a considerable comeback. The late 1920s saw the release of some of the most prolific surrealist films of the 20th century, most notably Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou.
As an artistic medium, filmmaking allowed for an unprecedented range of experimentation and expression. Until the late 1920s, however, all films were silent. Though many were accompanied by live music, on-screen dialogue did not yet exist. The Jazz Singer (1929) was the first film to synchronize dialogue to film, using a pre-recorded disc that was precisely timed to the images on screen. The audio revolution had officially begun.
The Jazz Singer poster. Image: filmsite.org
Both audiences and filmmakers were hesitant to embrace this new addition, however. Many believed that films were just meant to be silent. They allowed for more subtlety that way, and dialogue seemed too overt. Nevertheless, sound technology began to advance and would soon become commonplace in the cinema.
“Les trois masques (1929)” directed by André Hugon was the first french film with sound but due to the fact that French studios were slow to adapt sound to their production lots, the sound production took place in London.
In France, the advent of sound brought new artists to the forefront. A movement known as “poetic realism” took hold, buoyed by filmmakers such as Vigo, Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné. Carnés Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) remains a staple of the era.
The end of World War II saw the re-emergence of the avant garde style, which cultivated artists who would later become some of the first members of a whole new movement: La Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave. With this New Wave on the horizon, the spotlight of the film world would again turn to France.
Though at this point the use of sound in the cinema was well-established, there were some who believed that it would kill the film industry for good. This reaction may seem bizarre to us today, as silent films have all but vanished from the modern cinema, but that skepticism toward new technology has been repeated throughout film’s entire history. First it was sound, then color...more recently, it’s been virtual reality, 4D viewing, and incredibly high frame rates (think The Hobbit). The cinema has long been a place for experimentation, whether welcome or unwelcome. It is fitting, then, that shortly after the advent of sound came the New Wave, an explosively experimental era of innovative artists who would change the course of France’s film heritage forever.