The History of French Filmmaking

A History of French Filmmaking begins its long journey through time in the 1800’s before cinema was invented. Williams explains that the three necessary aspects of film were to come, the “bricolage” meaning the analysis of movement, the optical synthesis of movement, and photography. There were many important people over the course of this book that had huge influences on putting together the bricolage as well as path that this most popular media traveled.

Williams begins with men such as Niepce in his success of inventing the start of photography, then Daguerre who improved it, Plateau’s construction of an apparatus that showed the synthesis of motion called the Phenakistoscope, all the way to Thomas Edison’s final contribution to make film possible, the Kinetoscope. Williams continues through time to the Lumiere brother’s major influence until the film industry began. Film started off as a spectacle in France at fairs much likes freak shows and wax museums. Williams moves on explaining the development of turning cinema from a spectacle into what it is today.

He goes over the beginning of genre’s or “series”, the dramas that ensued with money, monopolies, huge fires from the flammable theaters and eventually the wars that influenced a lot of change in this important industry. We learn about the transformation from silent to talkies and even the anti-Semitism that forced many Jewish filmmakers/actors to never trust France again. Williams takes the reader to France’s significant film noir and New Wave styles that show the aftermath of the war on its people and eventually ends with another important media that is quite influential today, television.

Although this book is filled with many names and many details, it truly deserves the name ‘A History of French Filmmaking’. After reading this book, it is clear that without France, film might not be what it is today. Although when one thinks of cinema, they might right away think of Hollywood, but there are many people, movies, and studios that started in France that made Hollywood possible. To start, the Lumiere brothers, mostly Louis, were not only able to record film, but they were able to project it as a show for an audience.

Although these films were not necessarily long feature length films, Louis showed great art in his films and even made many color slides in his films. The next person to take film to a different level was Melies who not only discovered “substitution splicing” but he made films about magic, he “…Anticipated Surrealism” (37), and was like the first “movie star” of his time. After the Lumiere business died down, the one to take over was Pathe. He hired Ferdinand Zecca, an important filmmaker, as well as created the first genres or at that time was called “series”.

Examples of these are outdoor views, comic scenes, sports and acrobats, and dances and ballets. Pathe tried to monopolize the film industry but instead “…The second consequence of Pathe’s bid for monopoly was to encourage the competition” (53). Pathe’s competitor, Leon Gaumont was not only influential in his decisions to use real locations unlike Pathe’s films, but he hired one of the most important French film producers, Alice Guy. “Alice Guy is one of the most significant figures in the entire history of French Cinema. Despite her great influence, frustratingly little is known about her actual work at Gaumont” (55).

Williams explains how Guy was great at saving money during productions, which was very important then and now in film production. Another important name mentioned was Max Linder, the first big comedic star who later influenced one of the biggest comedic names of all time, Charles Chaplin. Willaims goes on to explain many other studios in French Film’s beginning, one being Film d’Art. Although this eventually became less significant over time, it was interesting that this was directed towards the upper middle class instead of the population as a whole.

There were many, many other names that Williams goes into great detail and background about, but there are certain names that must be mentioned. One in particular is Jean Epstein. “Epstein’s efforts to contribute meaningfully to the development of the film medium were often constrained by his producers’ notions of what would sell” (123). But Epstein would not succumb to money over art so he opened his own production company. He created historical dramas, documentaries, but most of all he was able to move from silent to talkie films successfully unlike many over silent filmmakers. Next is Rene Clair.

Clair, being one of the filmmakers who experienced the war, brought that into his early work but he also made fantasy comedies and was not opposed to mainstream films. “Clair’s work demonstrates there was no hard and fast line of demarcation between mainstream commercial cinema and self-consciously artistic filmmaking during the silent film’s last decade. French cinema of the 1920’s was remarkably diverse” (135). Williams explained that unlike other filmmakers, Clair was willing to compromise by exploring different styles. Another very influential name who was not afraid to try many things nor stand up for what he believed in was Jean Renoir.

Rene Clair and Jean Renoir were both successful in the silent and the talkie eras. “Sound film changed these men’s work bringing to it consistency, force, and a new means of storytelling that audiences and critics alike found compelling and satisfying” (186). Renoir had a love for actors, which many people later followed (especially in present day), but he was also against the anti-Semitism that plagued France during the second World War and even stood up to one of the most powerful Nazis, causing him to leave France for America.

Williams explains in a large part of the book how both of the wars, in different ways, had a very big impact on film, both good and bad. Renoir was bold in his filmmaking, not afraid of violence as well as techniques in films such as ‘Rules of the Game’ with great long takes and deep focus. The way that Alan Williams created this text was very uniform all the way through. It was bold of him to write a book that should be an entire textbook of knowledge and fit it into merely 400 pages, but he did it well and the read was not hard to follow.

Williams does a nice job of introducing almost every new important player in the book by giving a bit of background knowledge on each one. There is a huge advantage to doing this because the reader is able to get a feel for the people he is talking about. We learn about Louis Lumiere’s physical ailments as well as his father’s poor marketing skills. We learn that Rene Clair wanted to be a poet before he became a journalist, filmmaker, and critique. Williams also does a nice job of separating each person with more of the story of France during this time and how the changes of the film industry continued.

The disadvantage of writing in this way is there is a lot of information that can get lost along the way. Not only is the reader bombarded with lots of information that can get confusing, especially if they are not familiar with French names or words along the way, but there are also ideas that can be missed when concentrating so much on the people who made the films, both significant and not. For example, the concept of Nation Cinema is explained in depth in Susan Hayward’s French National Cinema.

She poses a very interesting uestion, “Since the history of cinema coincides with this hundred-year span, it invites the following questions: to what extent and how does cinema reflect the texture of a society on a national level? ” (15). In Williams book, we learn all about the development of cinema, the important players in that development, and peripheral influences on cinema, but he never explains how the people of the nation of France were as a whole when film came about. What is national cinema? Don’t the viewers play an important role in national cinema?

Williams is missing the other side to the story. We know how the wars, monopolies, and fires influenced the filmmakers, but what about the film watchers? This must be because the target audience for this book is not necessarily people looking for French history. The target audience must be only people looking to see how film developed in France, most likely film students. Being a film student myself as well as a cinema minor, this book was very enjoyable to read. There were many aspects of the book that both surprised me and stood out.

First was Williams multiple explanations of Thomas Edison’s impact on cinema. I not only found out that he was a big player in the development of film, but I also discovered that for a genius, he made a lot of bad moves. He not only took complete credit that should have been shared with his assistant Dickson, but he misjudged the industry that he helped start. It seemed as though he was more interested in monopolizing the business instead of seeing its true potential, which hurt him in the end. Another discovery that I found interesting was Williams many mentions of hard work.

He explained that the “…Gaumont company valued hard work and compensated it well” (68). He also mentioned that, “One secret of Linder’s success was that he put twice as much time, effort, and thought into each film as did his competitors” (60). He also mentioned on many occasions the success of different filmmakers by their attention to detail like Louis Lumiere, or their fearlessness like Clair, Renoir, and specifically Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. This was not a discovery to me but more of an interesting theme that I continued to spot as the book moved forward.

I don’t know if this something that Williams is trying to preach, but it is obvious that he values hard work, bravery, and boldness in cinema. I think this was important for Williams to do. It not only gives credit to the people he clearly studies and cares much about, but it credits the industry as a whole. Not everyone can make a movie and make it well. Now knowing The History of French Filmmaking I can confidently say a lot went into the development of this media, and seeing what the film industry is today, it was well worth it.

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