History of Modern France

The Third French Republic 1870-1940 Part 3

 28 & 29 April 2021

The Birth of French Cinema: From the Lumière Brothers to Luis Buñuel, 1895-1930

France is the birthplace of cinema and was responsible for many of its significant contributions to the art form and the film-making process itself. The French film industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century was the world's most important.

 

Auguste and Louis Lumière released the first projection with the Cinematograph, in Paris on 28 December 1895 with their L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895 is considered by many historians as the official birth of cinematography. French films during this period catered to a growing middle class and were mostly shown in cafés and traveling fairs.

 

Méliès invented many of the techniques of cinematic grammar, and among his fantastic, surreal short subjects is the first science fiction film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) in 1902.

 

Alice Guy-Blaché is largely forgotten now, but from 1896 to 1906, she was probably the only female filmmaker in the world and one of the first to make a narrative fiction film.

 

Whereas in Germany the mainstream Expressionist cinema was itself avant-garde, France presented a unique instance of a free interplay of filmmakers with other visual artists: painters, composers, architects, designers.

 

The Great War marked a major break for the industry, but in the 1920s’, a new generation of filmmakers appeared and cinema was at the heart of the intense artistic creativity of the “Années folles”. Filmmakers, such as Louis Delluc, Marcel Lherbier, Germaine Dulac, Abel Gance, Jean Vigo, Jacques Feyder, and Jean Epstein represented what critics would define as “La Première Vague” or the French Avant-garde, and started theorizing cinema’s specificity as a medium and as art. Three directors emerged as major figures in the mainstream cinema: Jean Renoir, René Clair and Luis Buñuel. They had been immersed in the Dadaist art scene and brought the shock-value of Surrealism to the screen. Historical dramas and literary adaptation were also an important genre in the 1920s’.

 

The 1920s’ ended with a seismic event: the introduction of sound cinema.

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon in Napoléon in the 1927 silent French epic film by Abel Gance & a horrifying scene from Luis Buñuel's controversial L'Age d'Or (1930).