On Bastille Day, we take a look at France's early role in the creation of cinema and at the current renaissance in Gallic film.
Vive la French film
France is the only place on Earth with a greater claim than Hollywood to be the home of cinema. It is the country in which historians agree that cinema was born when Auguste and Louis Lumière made L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat in Paris in 1895. The French government provides subsidies for filmmakers that make directors from other countries turn green. And of course, France has a long line of great directors that continues today through the work of Jacques Audiard, Laurent Cantet, Claire Denis, François Ozon and Gaspar Noé.
It's no surprise that this year the Dubai International Film Festival is focusing on French cinema. After years stuck in a post-nouvelle-vague doldrum, today the country seems to be the only place where the role of the director is respected and films are appreciated for their authorial signature rather than the size of their explosions. The best film of last year for many was Cantet's Palme d'Or winner The Class, and at Cannes this year attendees were surprised that Audiard didn't waltz off with the top prize.
But the history of French cinema is not all about cineastes making beautiful and groundbreaking films. For many years after the birth of the art, audiences lamented the bland, -generic nature of the movies that were being -produced in their country. One of the most influential -figures of early cinema was Alice Guy Blanche, a director and the head of production at Gaumont Pictures. -Between 1897 and 1906, she oversaw the making of more than 400 films, most less than 20 minutes long. An influential early filmmaker was Georges Méliès, who made one of the first science-fiction films, A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), in 1902. Méliès was one of the first -pioneers of special effects and discovered the animation technique of stop-motion, or substitution, in 1896. He also used multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, -dissolves and hand-painted colour. His influence can be seen today in the work of the French director Michel Gondry, who argues that Hollywood's fascination with computer technology is killing film. "I would like to see this level of ingenuity when using computer imagery, but it seems that as soon as you step into the world you become more conventional," he says. "In the late -Eighties, there were people using computer imagery and they were more adventurous. Now it seems that it has become possible for people to do pretty much what they want, but they're not really exploring all the possibilities." Although Gondry has been making films in the US, he is inspired by the innovation and simple trickery employed by Méliès. France's years at the forefront of cinema development came to an abrupt end with the First World War. Lack of funding led to a cut in production, and while European cinema struggled, America's industry moved from Chicago, its first base, to the deserts of Los Angeles. There, vast studio lots were built in a hot sandpit called Hollywood. It became cheaper to import -American films than to produce French product and the government established an import quota, which meant that for every seven foreign films imported, one French film had to be produced and shown in local cinemas. François Truffaut claimed that at the start of the sound period in the 1930s, French cinema was simply a low-grade copy of American film, -especially the gangster picture. In the 1930s there were a few exceptions that proved the rule, films by the likes of Jean Renoir (La Grande -Illusion and La Règle du Jeu) and Marcel Carne (Hotel du Nord), but for the most part French cinema was in a slump. This would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The first Cannes Film Festival was due to take place in September 1939, but the start of the Second World War led to it being cancelled. The festival eventually had its first edition in 1946. It was a torrid -beginning, with secret agreements between France and Italy that -ensured the Venice Film Festival -remained at the forefront. It was in 1951 that France became the place to be for cinephiles. It was the year that Cannes would move to its spring slot and become an annual event on the festival calendar. It was also the year that the influential film magazine -Cahiers du -Cinéma was born. Founded by -André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca and edited by Eric Rohmer, it featured the writings of members of two Parisian film clubs: Objectif 49 (attended by Robert Bresson and Jean Cocteau) and Cine-Club du Quartier Latin (Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol and Truffaut). Rohmer says that the hints of the filmmaking philosophy of what would become known as the French new wave were found in the writings of these budding filmmakers. "The first article I ever wrote was for a journal called Revue du Cinema. It was on the use of colour film over black and white. It was at a time when people preferred black and white, but I like colour and the use of direct-synch sound," he said. In 1954, Truffaut wrote perhaps the most influential article on film ever published, A Certain -Tendency of French Cinema, which espoused the first tenets of what was to -become known as the auteur theory. This theory held that good directors have techniques and styles that give their films a distinct and inimitable character. This came at a time when technological changes meant that lighter, more durable cameras were available. The -requirements of low-budget -cinema also resulted in some of the key aspects of new wave filmmaking, such as the jump cut, location shooting, natural lighting, improvised dialogue and long takes. In 1959, the world took notice of the new wave, with the release of three films, Truffaut's Les -Quatre Cent Coups (The 400 Blows), Godard's Breathless and Alain -Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. Truffaut gave Godard the idea for Breathless, and it was the only time that the two directors, who had a tumultuous relationship, would come close to working with each other. Other directors to emerge from the movement included Rohmer himself, who became famous for his film cycles Tales of the Four -Seasons, Six Moral Tales and Comedies and Proverbs, and Claude Chabrol, who was inspired by Hitchcock to make films about guilt and suspicion. The leading female filmmaker of the group was Agnès Varda, who came to fame with the excellent Cleo From 5 to 7. Chabrol says of the movement: "The new wave definition was something that made us laugh as we did not understand what we were doing at the time. I think it was a revolution of technology like the digital revolution that is taking place nowadays." But whether by accident or design, the influence of the French new wave cannot be underestimated. But French film, even at this time, was not just about the new wave. There were inspired filmmakers working in every genre. Jacques -Demy's superb musicals, Jean-Pierre Melville's effortless gangster pictures and Bresson's minimalist filmmaking are just a few examples. Farces, the bête noir of French cinema, continued to be commercially successful and made at a phenomenal rate. These films hardly ever play outside of France and are often ignored by critics. French actors were becoming world famous, chief among them Brigitte Bardot, Anna Karina, Charles Aznavour, Jean Sebert and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Indeed, when in the 1970s there was a dip in the number of new directors, it was actors such as Gerard Depardieu, Juliette -Binoche and Isabelle -Huppert who kept the industry in the spotlight. French cinema seemed -particularly adept at producing actresses. Béatrice Dalle and -Emmanuelle Beart became stars in the 1980s. This was also when Catherine -Breillat and Claire Denis emerged as directors to watch. The government maintained its protection of domestic talent by ensuring that a percentage of every theatrical ticket sold went back into filmmaking and that trade barriers -ensured that a certain amount of local -product -always arrived in store. In the 1990s, French cinema -began to lose its allure. From 1988 to 2007, no Gallic film won the Palme d'Or and there was a lack of emerging -talent. Worse, audiences were turning their backs and it began to be said that the average American film was better than the average French one. In Europe, people began looking to Denmark for cutting-edge cinema. French cinema was in crisis. However, in the late 1990s the seeds of a renaissance began to appear, with works from directors who were intent on taking filmmaking to a new plateau: -Audiard (Self-Made Hero 1996), Bruno Dumont (La Vie de Jesus 1995) Ozon (Sitcom, 1998), Noé (Seul Contre Tous, 1998) and Cantet (Human Resources, 1999). France once again began producing filmmakers who were coveted by festivals and walked away with big prizes. Each of these directors offered something from a different filmmaking tradition. Dumont was depicted as the modern-day Bresson thanks to his use of sparse landscapes and relationships as vehicles for social comment. His second film, L'Humanite (1999), won prizes at Cannes but divided audiences, especially with his use of non-actors in the lead roles. This was followed by a film shot in the US, Twenty-Nine Palms (2003), and the war film Flanders (2006). Audiard is fascinated with apprentices -learning from their masters in the criminal world, which harks back to Pepe Le Koko and Melville. Ozon makes smaller family dramas in the style of the German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder and even turned one of his plays into a film, Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000). Noé is known as the master of transgression, his often violent and brutal films pushing boundaries. Cantet makes films that challenge social conventions. Once again French films became highly profitable at the international box office. Guillaume Canet's adaptation of Harlen Coben's crime novel Tell No One (2006) was a huge success globally. The only filmmaker who truly disappointed in this period was the La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz, who ventured to the US and made a series of duds. The biggest French film of recent years was Jean-Pierre Jeunet's daring and whimsical Amélie in 2001, which turned Audrey Tautou into an international star. As Hollywood -became fascinated with the tent-pole blockbuster and less interested in promoting auteur films, France seemed like the last place directors could make the films that they -wanted. France is the only country in the world where the director is almost always -guaranteed final cut, making it a paradise for filmmakers. When Cantet's The Class won the Palme d'Or last year, it seemed like an affirmation. This year, Audiard and Noé both had acclaimed films at Cannes. Ozon's madcap new film, Ricky, opened at the Berlin Film Festival, and -Dumont's next film, -Hadewijch, is expected to debut in Venice. As with the new wave, these directors seem to draw inspiration from the rest of the world. Noé's new film, Enter the Void, is set in -Tokyo and he says that "it was inspired by the treatment of trauma from Stanley Kubrick and the madness of Kenneth Anger films". Ozon's film is based on a British novel. Last year, the 40th anniversary of May 1968 saw renewed interest in the filmmakers of the period. Rohmer said: "Obviously Truffaut has died, but last year both Claude Chabrol and Jacques Rivette have made films. Godard, I -understand, is in the process of making a film. If we have the same cinema, or if we have evolved, it's not up to me to say. It's true that Godard has probably grown more as a filmmaker but it's away from the public, while Chabrol has -become a more commercial filmmaker. I think we are all loyal, more or less to the same principles that we have had at the time. Myself, I keep the same idea of cinema and at the same time I -always do films in my own little way: films that are not too expensive. I like shooting, even when I'm in a studio. I like shooting nature and I give an importance to the poetry of cinematography." A rich cinematic history, exciting filmmakers and the most -famous film festival in the world: it's no surprise that France remains -synonymous with cinema.