French Impressionist Cinema

French Impressionist Cinema, also sometimes known as The First Avant-Garde or Narrative Avant-Garde, is a name for a loose association of French films and filmmakers operating primarily between 1919 and 1929. Although different scholars have reached different conclusions as to whether French Impressionist Cinema can even be classified as a cohesive movement, it is generally considered to be one of the important branches of early international cinema and its influence today is widespread.[1]


Although France had been one of the centers of film in the medium's formative years, the trauma of World War One reduced the country to a struggling footnote in film history after 1918. Unable to compete with Hollywood on a large scale, France's film exports were mostly limited to those countries with which it already had steady cultural exchange, such as Belgium, Switzerland, and the French colonies. This created the opportunity and need for films of a distinctly French style (as opposed to, for example, Germany, where productions often closely imitated typical American ones).[2] In particular, the phenomenon of the "boulevard melodrama" developed to cater to the large number of women filmgoers who were left after the war. These movies, often adapted from theater productions, were shorter than the popular Hollywood fare of the time and focused on character psychology rather than grand spectacle. Since expensive displays of the Hollywood sort were beyond the reach of smaller French producers, they instead concentrated on finding innovative ways to portray their characters' inner states. It was from this openness to experimentation that the French Impressionist Cinema movement arose.[3] Directors like Abel Gance, Marcel L'Herbier, Germaine Dulac, and Jean Epstein worked part-time on projects that truly pushed the boundaries of cinema, while continuing to serve their studios with somewhat more conventional work. Under this cooperative arrangement, Impressionist directors were able to expand their movement for over a decade while remaining supported by their commercial-minded employers. Abel Gance probably kicked the Impressionist Cinema off in 1918 with La Dixième symphonie, which featured characters' reactions to a beautiful piece of music being visually illustrated by superimposition and other tricks. Gance's other films such as J'Accuse and La Roue remain some of the greatest examples of French Impressionist Cinema. Another filmmaker, Marcel L'Herbier, worked under Gaumont, the other major firm besides Gance's Pathé. His truly innovative films included Rose-France and L'Homme du large. Germaine Dulac, who often directed more standard dramas, was bolder than most Impressionists in daring to base an entire film, The Smiling Madame Beudet, around a character's subjectivity. Jean Epstein's Coeur fidèle pioneered free-moving camerawork in an effort to express its heroine's inner state.[4]


Whether French Impressionist Cinema even ought to be considered a film movement in the true sense is itself a highly contentious point. The fact is that films considered Impressionist bear a wide variety of qualities, and there was no centrally-run effort to coordinate these productions under a specific set of goals. However, certain characteristics can be determined to circumscribe the movement, the most prominent of which is put best by Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell-- "The Impressionists saw art as a form of expression, conveying the personal vision of the artist: art creates an experience, and that experience leads to emotions for the spectator.... In short, artworks create fleeting feelings, or impressions."[5] Impressionism was based around the theory of photogénie, which is not the same as being photogenic but instead describes a unique quality that objects take on when they are photographed. Photogénie is, in a sense, the new life of an object on film, which is informed by cinematic decisions like framing, optical effects, and so on. Impressionist directors saw this principle as the distinguishing strength of the film medium, rather than narrative, which they believed to belong to the older arts of literature and theatre. Film, as a new art and a synthesis of all other arts, had the unique ability to render character's subjective experiences through visual elements of photogénie. In this way, Impressionism was truly the cinema of subjectivity. Directors used point-of-view (POV) shots to show what a character saw, and filters to distort that character's vision or to point out the focus of their attention. They used masks to reshape a shot and emphasize its photogénie. They superimposed one image onto another to suggest character's thought process or to evoke an inner "impression." They blurred the image, distorted it with mirrors, set the lens out of focus, or did anything else to convey their characters' subjective inner states. Additionally, they were the first to use so-called "subliminal cuts" by editing together shots of only a few frames each into sequences that flashed like lightning.[6] An interesting point of comparison is Impressionist Cinema with Impressionist Painting. Although these two movements have little or no connection whatsoever, Impressionist Cinema can be best understood by the analogy that just as the painters used spots of color to force viewers to complete the picture in their minds, so did the filmmakers use editing and invasive camera techniques to force viewers to experience the "impression" in their minds.[7]


French Impressionist Cinema had a wide influence that can be easily seen as early as 1924, in F. W. Murnau's kammerspiel The Last Laugh. In this film, Murnau made use of a free-moving camera and of numerous picture distortion techniques to convey his protagonist's inner struggle.[8]

External Links



Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell (2003). Film History: An Introduction. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. ISBN: 0-07-038429-0

Online Sources:
Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/24/10.

Art+Culture. Portal for artistic knowledge and discovery. Retrieved 10/24/10.

The Life Cinematic. Film and movies message board. Retrieved 10/24/10.
  1. ^ Wikipedia. Retrieved 10/24/10.
  2. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, pp. 71-72.
  3. ^ Art+Culture. Portal for artistic knowledge and discovery. Retrieved 10/24/10.
  4. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, pp. 74-84.
  5. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 77.
  6. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, pp. 77-82.
  7. ^ The Life Cinematic. Film and movies message board. Retrieved 10/24/10.
  8. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 155.