The Recurring Motifs of French Cinema

Watch any genre or sub-genre enough and you’ll eventually pick up several recurring elements and themes. Prime example: cop films and low angle shots, occasionally of helicopters. Hot Fuzz (2007) famously spoofed it from Bad Boys (1995). Having watched an absurd amount of French films in the last 50 days, I can assure you that French cinema is no different. Here are some recurring themes that appear all over the history of French cinema.

Zéro de Conduite (1933)

Restless Youth
The French love it when their kids are rebellious and troubled, a little more adult than their counterparts in other countries. The most famous example is obviously François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). But Truffaut was echoing Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933). A decade after Truffaut’s seminal masterpiece, he co-produced another monumental film about restless youth, Maurice Pialat’s L’Enfance Nue (1969). Pialat struck again in 1983 with A Nos Amours. Louis Malle tapped into the restless youth reservoir three separate times- Murmur of the Heart (1971), Lacombe Lucien (1974), and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987). René Clément got into the action with Forbidden Games (1952), and Robert Bresson made his entry with Mouchette in 1967.

Visual Trickery
This particular theme was most prevalent for six decades, starting with the father of special effects, Georges Méliès, in the late 19th century. Méliès’ feats were astounding, and established the template for special effects both in France and the rest of the world. Abel Gance followed through the age of French Impressionism with heavy use of camera motion, photo filters, triptych, and superimposition. Luis Buñuel’s most notable work, Un Chien Andalou (1929), is riddled with visual trickery in an attempt to shock audiences, an effort he continued in L’Age D’Or in 1930. At that point, Jean Cocteau took the baton and ran with it in his Orphic trilogy- The Blood of  a Poet (1930), Orpheus (1950), and Testament of Orpheus (1959). Directly in the middle of that trilogy, Cocteau made the special effects-laden La Belle et la Bête in 1946. The trickery has continued even today, with Jean-Pierre Jeunet orchestrating bizarre, askew worlds in films like Delicatessen (1991), The City of Lost Children (1995), and even Micmacs (2009).

J’Accuse (1919)

Anti-War Films
The first three major movements of French cinema each boasts at least one anti-war film. Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919) and Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (1932) were bookend anti-war films in the age of French Impressionism. Poetic realism provided one of the most timely anti-war films, and perhaps the best, with Grand Illusion (1937) on the verge of World War II. The French New Wave added Les Carabiniers (1963) to the canon. The Sorrow and the Pity is a stunningly thorough anti-war documentary. And more recently, Joyeux Noël (2005) took a decidedly anti-war stance.

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Conceptual Surrealism
The most prominent examples are all from Buñuel, who established his career as a monument to surrealism. In addition Un Chien Andalou and L’Age D’Or, Buñuel’s French surrealist works include The Phantom of Liberty (1974), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and The Milky Way (1969). Alain Resnais carried on the grand tradition with films like Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and Last Year at Marienbad (1961), each using surrealist concepts to convey the shaky nature of memory. La Grande Bouffe (1973) is surrealist, if less overtly. Cocteau denied being a surrealist though it’s hard to ignore the elements in his films. More recently, La Moustache (2005) carries the motif. René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) is a cornerstone of the movement.

Forbidden Games (1952)

World War II Guilt
All of Europe dealt with the post-war era in their own way. In France, it mostly manifested itself as guilt. Forbidden Games and Au Revoir Les Enfants took a look at what it did to the children. Le Corbeau (1943), Lacombe Lucien (1974), and Children of Paradise (1945) mocked Vichy collaborators. And The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) put all of it on display.

Banyuls-Sur-Mer on France’s southeastern coast is just 400 miles from Algiers, Algeria. The French held Algeria as a territory into the 1960s, and it caused loads of problems. As a result, the French-Algerian conflict, and Algeria in general, shows up all over French cinema. Pépé le Moko (1937) features a Parisian gangster hiding out in Algiers. The Battle of Algiers (1966) deals directly with it and places terrorism on full display. Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (1960) was his take on the Algerian crisis. The last decade has seen a rebirth of the theme, appearing in several films.

I Stand Alone (1998)

Shocking Content
It’s easy to point to the New French Extremity in the last 15 years as providing shocking content. And there’s no doubt that directors like Gaspar Noe (I Stand Alone, Irreversible), Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl), and Xavier Gens (Frontiers) have added a great deal to the amount of shocking content coming out of France. But they weren’t the first, or even close to it. Luis Buñuel’s two surrealist titans- L’Age D’Or and Un Chien Andalou– horrified audiences at the time. Louis Malle tackled incest (Murmur of the Heart) and suicide (The Fire Within, 1961). Malle’s The Lovers (1958) was banned in locations throughout the United States for explicit sexual content. The Battle of Algiers was startlingly frank with regard to terrorism. Even one of the very first movies ever made, a documentary no less, caused audiences to fear that a train was about to run them over in Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896).


Filed under French Film, Movies

17 responses to “The Recurring Motifs of French Cinema

  1. Wonderful post. I’m pleased to say I’ve seen a lot of the movies mentioned on this page and I couldn’t say the same a year ago. I love that you’ve watched so many French films recently. A movie I’ll add to the mix that could fit under the anti-war category but is more about politics than war is Chris Marker’s Grin without a Cat (1977). The best documentary ever made. In fact, when it comes to Marker, there’s a wealth of great stuff to be discovered. His quasi-documentary Sans Soleil (1983), one of my favourite films, is a staple of the experimental genre and an important French movie. The subject of Algeria has showed up in some Marker films, and most recently Michael Haneke’s Cache.

    The New French Extremity has gone to some dark places, too. My favourite film of that genre is I Stand Alone, but Man Bites Dog is also worth a mention.

    I also love French films that employ visual trickery, including but also beyond Bunuel. Delicatessen, which you mentioned, is one of my favourite comedies of all time.

    Another French film that doesn’t get enough attention and fits into various categories is Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice. Incredible short film.

  2. Nice introduction to French themes John. The Frenchmen have brought a lot to films! Their influence is endless!

  3. yeltnuh

    fantastic. thanks.

  4. I wrote a huge report (seventeen pages!) on Catherine Breillat. She has some wild stuff to her name. I’ll never forget seeing Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell. Never. Very interesting and top notch stuff, John. As always.

    • Thanks, Steve. I actually haven’t seen any Breillat (yet)- she’s on my checklist for next year. But her exploits, so to speak, are legendary. Or maybe notorious is a better word.

  5. Breillat is something else! My big observation about French Cinema is the amount of voiceover. It just seems that there is more in French movies than in American films.

  6. I think Jean Rollin should also be mentioned as a precursor/influence to the New French Extremity. His late 60s and 70s horror films have a lot of shocking exploitative material.

    • Ha… those Rollin films slay me. He had no shame at all.

      I want to see a double feature of The Grapes of Wrath and The Grapes of Death.

  7. I’m glad to see Phantom of Liberty and The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeois mentioned– I feel like those are two movies among Buñuel’s oeuvre that get overlooked, which is weird because they’re two of his best. (I’d argue, anyways.) Amazing that something as short as Un Chien Andalou can overshadow works that are much larger.

    The French also love their existential gangster movies, even when the protagonist isn’t a gangster himself but a melancholy guy caught up in a gangster plot (Shoot the Piano Player). One only need observe the works of Jean-Pierre Melville– Le Doulos, Le Samourai— to delve into the underworld of French crime cinema.

    • Very astute observation re: the gangster movies. It’s actually the motif that I had written down originally, but excluded, if only because noir and gangsters are sort of universal. But there’s no denying that Melville’s films, and other films like Touchez Pas au Grisbi and Rififi (and Shoot the Piano Player), have added their own French flair to the genre.

      You’ll never catch me underestimating Bunuel. Phantom is actually my second favorite movie ever made. I love the bejeezus out of every French movie he ever made, and I enjoy several of his Spanish language films. Honestly, there’s not a Bunuel film that I regret having seen.

  8. goregirl

    Great post John! As many films as I have seen, I still have so many more still to see! You cite so many films I have yet to see! I have not seen a ton of Bunuel films, but he nonetheless made my favourite director list! I love that guy to bits! One thing I have noticed in the French films I have seen are anti-reilgious themes, be it Catholicism or other. But than again, that seems to be a common theme in a lot of foreign films I watch. I would like to do a list like this for Italian films. Could not help but notice your comment about a Grapes of Wrath and Grapes of Death double bill! Hilarious! Before I edited my review for Grapes of Death I called it Grapes of Wrath several times.

    • It’s so funny you mention that about the French and anti-religious themes. When I saw those Melies shorts, a few of them were pretty ballysy for the early 20th century. In the discussion post-film, someone asked the guy leading the discussion (a Frenchman/French professor/French film professor) about it and he kind of talked about how the French have some antagonism (not his words) towards their Catholicism. It was great. The Temptation of St. Anthony and The Devil in a Convent, specifically, are a few that were ballsy for the time.

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