French movies to see: old masterpieces and new independent films

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French movies and the birth of the Cinematographe

french-movies-Lumière

The history of cinema begins precisely in France with French movies, at the end of the nineteenth century, when Louis and Auguste Lumiere invented the Cinematograph. France was at that time the most culturally advanced nation and Paris was the world capital of the arts.

From universal exhibitions to the most vital artistic movements of literature and painting all seem to take place in Paris. The Lumière brothers exploit an intuition that had already been in the air for a long time and on which several inventors in various parts of the world were working. 

Thomas Edison, the directors of Brighton school in the United Kingdom and other artists and inventors had patented their prototype for the projection of cinematographic images. But it was in the turmoil of Paris that the suitable conditions were created for the official presentation of the Cinematografo, the contraption created by the Lumière Brothers. 

The history of cinema, especially at its origins, identifies with the history of French cinema. The first eccentric character of a long line of French artists who chose cinema to invent new languages ​​is George Melies

George Melies films 

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George Melies

After hundreds documentaries made by the Lumière brothers and their cameramen who they sent around the world to film real life George Melies arrives, and cinema takes the first of its countless turns. 

Melies, a Parisian magician and magician, was struck by the screening of the Lumière brothers at the Capuchin café. He absolutely wanted a copy of the Cinematografo to work on some of his projects, but the Lumiere refused to sell him one. 

Determined not to give up, Melies had one built on his own. A few years later he created a futuristic soundstage in the garden of his house. It was a theater with completely glass walls and roof that let the sun’s rays filter through at any hour of the day. 

Depending on the light that Melies wanted to obtain, he chose the time to film the scenes. It was there that he made most of his films which were subsequently seen all over the world, surreal and dreamlike short films of rare beauty, which were colored by hand frame by frame.

Too bad he did not know how to manage the entrepreneurial side of his business which ceased a few years later. The reason was not only Melies’ financial mismanagement, who instead of renting his films sold them, losing profits. But above all, the immediate birth of industrial cinema starting from 1896. 

The birth of film studios 

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French studios

In 1896 and 1897 the two great French studios were born, Pathe and Gaumont, which immediately monopolize the market by cutting out the artisans and the small ones. independent directors like Melies. The artistic and individual decline of cinema began immediately after its birth. 

In fact, the cinema immediately turned out to be a huge business. Crowds of people all over the world flocked to cinemas in front of the big screen to experience the stories in images. The industrial groups sniffed the business and immediately began to transform the cinema from art into an entertainment industry. 

The first stars of the big screen were created who came from the Theater of the Comédie Francaise. The first were conceived and structured genres of films, according to the highest grossing at the box office. A mechanism that would have been perfected at much higher levels by Hollywood a few decades later. 

French movies in the 1920s

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Jean Epstein

In the 1920s, cinema probably reached its peak in France. It is the decade of the pictorial avant-gardes that mix with pure cinematographic art. While Pathe and Gaumont begin the serial production of standardized film products, there is a ferment in the art world that would not have been seen later. 

This is the avant-garde cinema which in France produces a long series of masterpieces. From the impressionism of Abel Gance, Jean Epstein (with his grandiose masterpiece Cuore Fedele), to the first French surrealist films Come Entr’act by René Claire

Impressionism and the new avant-gardes: French cinema of the 1930s

In the 1930s impressionism blends with poetic realism with directors of the caliber of Julien Duvivier, Marcel Carné and Jean Renoir. The free and unclassifiable genius of the films of Jean Vigo, like Atalante and Zero for conduct

French movies after the war

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André Bazin

At the end of the fifties and sixties, French cinema was reborn after a long slowdown due to the Second World War. It reaches its maximum expression also thanks to a gentleman named André Bazin

He was a film journalist who, by the inscrutable will of fate, brings together in his editorial staff of the Cahier du Cinema those who would have been the most important directors in the world in the following years. 

An undertaking that would have been deemed impossible even by those who had the opportunity to travel the entire planet, with an infinite budget, in search of talents of this kind. 

Instead this gentleman, a little older than them, found them all in his little and unlucky editorial office: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Robert Bresson

And from these angry young people, half critics half directors, the new Wave of French cinema was born, the Nouvelle Vague. A movement that would spread all over the world, creating new waves almost everywhere, from the United States of America to Iran

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Francois Truffaut

The key moment of the story was the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, where the first works bywere presented Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais: it is Hiroshima Mon Amour and the 400 shots. Films are hugely successful by consecrating the new mode of independent and artistic production. In particular, The 400 Blows by Truffaut will become the symbolic film of the Nouvelle Vague. 

Thanks to the Nouvelle Vague, a golden season of art cinema world-wide, a new revolution against the monopoly of the entertainment and film-product industry. 

From the ferment of the Nouvelle Vague came dozens of talented directors, including the extraordinary Jean Cocteau, who tried his hand at cinema with the eyes of a poet. 

At that time France also hosted and produced the works of various directors who emigrated from other countries who found their highest expression in their French movies, such as Luis Bunuel. 

French movies after the 1970s

Since the beginning of the 1970s in France, as in the rest of the world, television has crushed the film market, reducing it to less than a tenth of what it was in the 1950s. Even the famous directors of the Nouvelle Vague see the takings of their films collapse. 

Not to mention directors like Jean-Luc Godard, real revolutionaries of the art of cinema who have become insignificant from a commercial point of view. The taste of the public becomes more and more homologated due to the bombing of television language: a low-level language. 

The TV series begin to accustom the public to a different relationship with moving images. The visual and pictorial art that had influenced the art cinema, together with the musical rhythm of the montage and poetry, become completely secondary factors. 

People are fond of more than anything else serial characters, to the story, preferring more and more domestic laziness to the social ritual of cinematic viewing on the big screen. All the great European directors are in crisis, while the American market reinvents itself by producing increasingly commercial films. 

In this period, a director such as Luc Besson made a name for himself. His filmography consists largely of commercial films. We are at a completely different level than a few decades earlier. Even in its country of origin, which has always supported an artistic vision, cinema is transformed into something more homologated. 

French movies of the 90s

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In the 90s there seems to be a certain revival of arthouse film that wants to follow in the footsteps of the Nouvelle Vague. Leos Carax, Olivier Assayas, Patrice Leconte, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Mathieu Kassovitz. There are some quality results, but they are isolated episodes. Each director works on his own and there is no comparison, it is the connection of ideas from the 60s. 

Then names such as emerge François Ozon, Xavier Giannoli and Michel Gondry. In fact, many of these directors are overrated. Their films are never really true arthouse films but rather hybrid products, halfway between genre and art films. 

In short, the definitive conviction has been created that to please the public one must not experiment too much, and focus on products that work commercially. In this period the financial aspect of cinema predominates over any other vision. If a film does not make a profit, the director is out of the game. 

French movies of the 2000s

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At the beginning of the 2000s, things started to change again. Non-linear digital video cameras and editing software become low-cost means of expression for filmmakers who do not have access to finance because they are outside the logic of commercial production. 

Many things have changed since Jean Luc Godard’s 16mm experiments in the 1960s, but the spirit of digital cinema is the same: making a film to take the language of cinema to the next level is the filmography of an author. Digital, however, allows a much more radical reduction in production costs than the 16 mm of the Nouvelle Vague. 

To date, the phenomenon of very low-cost films shot digitally is proliferating both in France and around the world. But this new type of film struggles to establish itself in the world of cinema distribution and marketing. The public has been used to it for decades since great studios to watch spectacular movies with great popular stars. 

The marketing mechanisms for the release of a new film have remained exactly the same that Hollywood applied immediately after its birth. A massive advertising campaign to maximize profits in ever faster times. 

Cinemas are exclusive distribution shops of mainstream cinema, sometimes of mainstream movies that are disguised as arthouse films, to cover even the small niche of audiences that are still looking for art films. 

Independent cinema, on the other hand, thinks in a completely opposite way: it thinks in terms of decades. The purpose of the art film is to enhance itself more and more over time. Do not forfeit the maximum possible profits in the shortest possible time, and then be forgotten. 

French films to see: masterpieces of cinema history

Many French directors and films have become milestones in the history of cinema. French cinema is one of the cinemas that has experimented with the most innovative languages ​​and has given life to the most fascinating avant-gardes

Here is a list of key French movies, masterpieces of cinema history and particularly successful and significant movies. 

Faithful Heart

Marie is an orphan exploited by a bartender in the port of Marseille. They want to marry her to Petit Paul, a drunkard slacker. But Jean, a man who works in the port, is in love with her and Marie reciprocates his sentiment. Marie is forced to leave with Petit Paul, but Jean follows them to an amusement park where the two men argue. In the fight, a policeman is stabbed and, while Petit Paul escapes, Jean is arrested.

French-movies-Faithful Heart

Forgotten masterpiece of Impressionist cinema, an exciting melodrama full of visual experimentation. Gina Manès and Léon Mathot, the couple of lovers who were already protagonists of the previous film (The red hotel, 1923), become the characters of a very simple story, written in a single night in Cuore Fedele. A brutal philosophical and stylistic theorem. Faithful Heart takes place outdoors in disreputable and real areas such as the port, the tavern, the proletarian and disreputable suburbs, in natural settings on the border between land and sea. 

About Nice

With an old used movie camera bought with money lent by his wife’s father, Jean Vigo shoots a documentary on Nice. Meeting Boris Kaufman changes the French director’s initial project, which will be influenced by Dziga Vertov’s operator. The nature and tourist locations of Nice: casinos, carnivals, beaches, bars with tables in the sun. Upper bourgeois Nice is compared with poor neighborhoods.

Watch About Nice

Atalante

Jean, the captain of the barge L’Atalante, marries Juliette, and the couple decides to live aboard the Atalante together with Jean’s crew, at the eccentric Père Jules and the hub. The couple travel to Paris to deliver the cargo, enjoying an impromptu honeymoon en route.

French-movies-atalante

The producer of the previous film by Jean Vigo, Zero in Conduct, blocked by censorship, agreed to produce the director’s second film, L’Atalante. It is a love story of a young couple, of the first misunderstandings immediately after the wedding. Vigo shot L’Atalante in January 1934, in an icy and humid climate that caused him to worsen his state of health. On April 25, 1934 the film was screened but was received very badly by both the public and critics. The distributor asks the producer to deliver him a new montage of the film. The film comes out again in September. Vigo will never see him: he will die next month. It will take almost 60 years to arrive at a definitive version of the film and to consecrate it unanimously as one of the most beautiful love stories in the history of cinema, in balance between surrealist avant-garde and poetic realism. Jean Vigo, at only 28 years old, makes a perfect film, destined to become a classic of cinematographic art.

Zero for conduct

The holidays are over and it’s time for the kids to return to the terrible boarding school, run by obtuse and conformist tutors, unable to foster the growth of any spirit of freedom and creativity. The only thing these austere professors are capable of is assigning a “zero” in conduct. But the boys decide to rebel with the complicity of the new supervisor, Huguet, who is different from all the others.

Jean Vigo describes the children’s yearning for freedom with audacity and a subversive spirit, with a ruthless critique of the scholastic institution, which closely resembles certain memorable sequences from Fellini’s cinema. Perhaps the Italian filmmaker had seen the Vigo film? It seems very, very likely. The film was banned by French censors and did not have a public screening until 1945.

Watch Zero for Conduct

Love on the run

After seven years Antoine and Christine divorce, while remaining good friends. Antoine is in a relationship with Christine’s friend Liliane, he has published an autobiography about his love and finds work as a proofreader and also begins a cheerful, if tumultuous relationship, with Sabine, a saleswoman in a record store. 

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With Love on the run, Truffaut concludes a unique project in the history of cinema. He made five movies over the course of twenty years following the growth of a single character, Antoine Doinel, always played by the same actor Jean-Pierre Léaud. Love flees is the last film of the cycle, the film that takes stock of all the previous adventures. Truffaut inserts sequences of previous jobs as flashbacks. His melancholy goes straight to his heart: all things are destined to vanish and time seems to have passed in vain.

Watch Love on the run

French movies to watch: new independents

While there has been a decline in quality in mainstream production in recent decades even among French movies, French independent cinema offers some really interesting films.

They are little known movies by the general public that release limited to a small number of cinemas. But they are certainly the movies that today, after the total split between quality and popularity, are worth watching. 

Thelma, Louise et Chantal

Three friends in their fifties are invited to the wedding of Philippe, a mutual friend of theirs from youth, who after many romantic adventures seems to have found the right woman, Tasha. Chantal is alone, her relationship with her husband is in crisis and the bizarre job of promoting bitter chocolate is a disaster. Gabrielle is an uninhibited and libertine friend of hers, convinced that having sex is the only way not to grow old. And then there’s Nelly, depressed and frigid, or so it seems. All three have had a flirtation with Philippe in the past, they would like to avoid seeing him again, but curiosity wins and they leave.

French-movies

Lightning

Two Part Film: A Legend – Four Season Documentary. Autumn follows a lightning hunter, associated with Baal, the Syrian god of lightning. Winter is committed to analyzing melancholy, the final stage of depression and the ways in which it can be overcome. Spring revives Symeon the Stylite, a maniac god who lived atop a column for 40 years. The summer, based on the text of Marivaux’s “Dispute”, stages the shocking encounter between two intense creatures, Azor and Eglé, stranded on the island of Sutra. In this island paradise they eat Kama, the forbidden fruit and, although madly in love, are expelled.

French-movies-lighting

Watch Lightning

Tournee, the real burlesque

Joachim Zand, a TV producer in crisis, returns to France after a long period in the United States. Joachim had cut off all relations in France: friends, enemies, children. She arrives with a group of chubby, boisterous Californian strippers who do burlesque shows and who she wants to show in Paris.

Tour, the real burlesque is a film on the road where the burlesque shows were actually performed for a live audience during the production of the film. The story is inspired by Colette’s 1913 book on the dance hall experience in the early twentieth century, The Other Side of Music Hall. Presented at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Fipresci award, the most important award of film critics, and the award for best director. The finale is the moving epilogue of the portrait of a man who has lost his roots and has to deal with desolation.

French-movies-tournee

Viramundo

The life and art of Gilberto Gil, musician and influential man in the most recent history of Brazil. From musician creator of the Tropicalism movement to first black man appointed Minister of Culture in Brazil. In Viramundo, a documentary directed by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, Gilberto Gil takes a fascinating journey to the peripheries of the rich and technologized world.

A journey in symbiosis with nature, which starts in Brazil and arrives in Africa via Australia. An intriguing musical journey that starts from Bahia, the blackest region of Brazil, the birthplace of the musician, the ancient center of the African slave trade. Along the way, Gil comes to terms with the past of a Brazil in which European colonialism has left deep wounds.

Custody

Miriam Besson and Antoine Besson are a divorced couple. They have a daughter who is about to turn eighteen, Joséphine, and an eleven-year-old son, Julien. Miriam wants to keep her youngest son away from her father, whom she accuses of being a violent man. She asks for exclusive custody of Julien: the child is traumatized and does not want to see his father again.

The film, shot with a sober and intimate style, highlights a bitter and hopeless vision of human nature, with men who, in order to escape loneliness and failure, become violent and murderous persecutors. Love destroyed by possessiveness, hatred, anger, and destruction of oneself and the other as the only way out.

Captive

It’s May 27, 2001. Abu Sayyaf’s group of Islamic separatists, fanatical murderers and thieves who believe themselves to be revolutionaries fighting for a noble cause, take twelve people hostage from a resort on the island of Dos Palmas, in southern Philippines. But there was a mistake: they are not the right people they wanted to catch.

Director Brillante Mendoza directed the actors without fostering their mutual acquaintance, immediately putting them on the set outdoors, in difficult conditions, trying to foster the chaos he wanted to tell in the film. The viewer is catapulted into the forest, into a wild and lush nature, sometimes deadly and sometimes fascinating. He lives the hours and days of imprisonment, narrated with profound sensitivity and nuances of detail.

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