The French film industry is one of the world’s largest and most significant contributors. Though the Hollywood machine continues to dominate much of the global market, France’s offerings to the world of cinema cannot be ignored. It was in France, after all, that the medium of film itself was born. In this series, I take a broad look - a crash course - into the history and impact of the French film industry, and provide insights into France’s various artistic and technological achievements surrounding its film heritage.
Motion Pictures had humble beginnings. Before we had Technicolor, IMAX and virtual reality; before there were such things as a world premiere or a midnight showing; long before the word “cinema” existed, we had but the illusion of a moving image. The théâtre optique, one of the world’s first motion picture devices, was invented by frenchman Émile Reynaud and patented in 1888. The apparatus consisted of a series of hand-painted transparent images against a black background, which were then run in front of a light source.
Reynaud’s théâtre optique. Image: franceculture.fr
Three years later, the Edison Company patented the kinetoscope, a similar device which used a strip of film that ran between a lens and a light source. This machine, simple by today’s standards, was not considered revolutionary. In fact, Thomas Edison saw it as nothing more than a children’s toy. A basic, underestimated piece of machinery, the kinetoscope would soon put in motion the art of moving pictures. Four years after its conception, the Lyonnais brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière created the Cinématographe, the next step in film’s evolution.
The Cinématographe expanded on the design of Edison’s kinetoscope, functioning both as a camera and projection device. The brothers’ first film, one of the first motion pictures ever recorded, lasted less than a minute and depicted a crowd of workers leaving the Lumière factory in Lyon. This short piece became the first to be screened in front of a paying audience on December 28th, 1895 at the Grande Café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris.
Workers leaving the Lumière factory. Image: grandpalais.fr
And thus, the cinema was born. Despite their initial success, its inventors saw motion pictures as nothing more than a passing fad. Louis Lumière himself even said “the cinema is an invention without a future.” Shortly after inventing the device that created the medium, he and Auguste abandoned filmmaking altogether and began to work on creating a process for color photography.
Others were not so quick to dismiss the medium, however. Georges Méliès, another frenchman, saw film’s potential as a means of entertainment and with it created Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), the world’s first science fiction film. Méliès went on to create over 500 short films, which gained international notoriety and sparked a public interest in the cinema.
Le Voyage dans la Lune. Image: frenchmorning.com
As the phenomenon of the motion picture spread to other parts of the world, the French film industry began to grow in earnest. Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont established their own respective production and distribution companies, both of which still exist today. At Gaumont, Alice Guy, initially employed as a secretary, became the world’s first female director and is credited as the inventor of the film narrative having directed over 400 short films in a variety of genres. Both companies also introduced the world to international superstars Max Linder (Pathé) and Louis Feuillade (Gaumont), whose various films brought worldwide attention to France’s expanding industry.
The French film industry’s rapid growth was suddenly impeded by World War I, which caused a shortage of film stock and subsequently diminished the number of domestically produced films. By 1919, Hollywood was catching up and becoming a popular presence in French theaters.
The 1920s saw a wave of avant-garde filmmakers who helped restore the French industry to its former glory. Marcel L’Herbier, Jean Epstein, Germaine Dulac, René Clair, and Abel Gance, among others. They took inspiration from the artistic movements of the time, namely surrealism and dadaism, to propel the of medium of film forward into a new age. These were some of the first “auteur” filmmakers, whose ambitious styles and techniques would later influence artists in France and around the world.
Though the French industry was making a rapid comeback, it still had to compete with the rising global influence of Hollywood. The French government therefore introduced the quota system in 1928, which restricted the number of foreign films that could be shown in French cinemas.
At that point, film had been established as a viable form of storytelling and artistic expression. Industries were cropping up across the globe, but France and America remained the most relevant and influential. The art form itself would be rocked with the advent of sound at the end of the 1920s, which proved to be a difficult transition for many filmmakers, regardless of their nationality. France, however, remained at the forefront of the medium, continuing to prove its artistic prowess to the world.