You Gotta Know These French Directors
- Georges Méliès (1861–1938), a professional magician, made some of the earliest narrative films and pioneered many filmmaking techniques, such as dissolves, multiple exposures, and the use of storyboards. He made several films inspired by the surreal voyages described in the works of Jules Verne, such as The Conquest of the Pole (1912), The Impossible Voyage (1904), and his most famous film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), which features an iconic shot of a cannon-propelled space capsule landing in the eye of the moon.
- Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948) invented a motion-picture camera and projector called the Cinématographe, from which the term “cinema” is derived. In 1895, the Lumière brothers shot the 46-second film Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon and showed it as part of a paid public screening of ten films in December of that year, an event that is often regarded as the birth of cinema. According to a famous rumor, when the brothers publicly screened their film L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), the sight of a train directly approaching the screen caused audience members to panic and run to the back of the room.
- Jean Renoir (1894–1979), the son of the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, had a career that spanned the silent film era to the early 1970s during which he worked in France, Hollywood, and India. Renoir’s films La Grande Illusion (1937), about a group of French officers during World War I plotting an escape from a German prisoner-of-war camp, and The Rules of the Game (1939), a satire about the French aristocracy on the cusp of World War II, are considered two of the best films ever made. When making his 1951 Technicolor drama The River in India, Renoir employed future director Satyajit Ray as a location scout.
- Robert Bresson (1901–1999) was known for his sparse and minimalist style, use of almost-exclusively non-professional actors, and the strong Catholic themes of his films. Bresson’s 1956 film A Man Escaped is influenced by his own experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Bresson’s 1959 film Pickpocket, a character study of a thief who believes himself to be above conventional morality, deeply influenced the works of Paul Schrader. Bresson also directed Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), which follows a donkey who is given to many cruel owners, and explicated his approach in a collection of aphorisms titled Notes on the Cinematograph.
- Jacques Tati (1907–1982) was a mime who turned to film directing in the 1930s. In many of his films, Tati played a clumsy character named Monsieur Hulot, who had a characteristic stumbling walk and a recognizable overcoat and pipe. These films include Playtime (1967), which is set in a futuristic Paris, Mon Oncle (1958), a satire of the consumerism of postwar France, and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953), which is renowned for its visual gags.
- Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–1973) was renowned for his films noir and gangster films, which include Le deuxième souffle (1966), Le Doulos (1962), Le Cercle rouge (1970), and Bob le flambeur (1956). The best-known of these films is Le Samouraï (1967), which stars Alain Delon as the professional hitman Jef Costello, who lives in a bare apartment with a small caged bird. Melville’s 1969 film Army of Shadows, which concerns the French Resistance during World War II, was unpopular upon release for casting Charles de Gaulle in a positive light; de Gaulle was particularly disliked at the time because of the May 68 political revolution of the prior year.
- Alain Resnais (1922–2014) belonged to the Left Bank of the French New Wave, a community that tended to produce more intellectual, literary films compared to the rest of the movement. Resnais was known for his experimentation with narrative forms and his close collaborations with literary authors. Novelist Marguerite Duras wrote the screenplay for Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, which is about the romance between an unnamed Japanese architect and French actress, told in conversations between them intercut with brief flashbacks. Alain Robbe-Grillet supplied the screenplay to Resnais’s 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad, a disorienting film in which a man played by Giorgio Albertazzi attempts to remind a woman played by Delphine Seyrig of an affair they may have previously had. Resnais’s short 1956 documentary Night and Fog documents the horrors of Nazi death camps.
- Agnès Varda (1928–2019) was a Left Bank filmmaker whose debut film La Pointe Courte (1955) is often cited as the first film of the French New Wave. She is best known for her 1962 feature Cléo from 5 to 7, which follows a young singer in real time as she awaits the results of a test that will tell her if she has been diagnosed with cancer. Other major films by Varda include Vagabond (1985), a nonlinear drama examining the death of a drifter named Mona, Le bonheur (1965), about a man who finds happiness both in his marriage and in an extramarital affair, and Faces Places, a 2017 documentary in which Varda and the street artist/photographer JR travel around rural France and create portraits of the people they come across.
- Jean-Luc Godard (1930–2022) was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) that revolutionized cinema as an art form in the late 1950s. His film Breathless featured a then-unconventional use of jump cuts, in which footage is removed from the middle of a continuous shot to communicate the passage of time. The film features Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a criminal styling himself after Humphrey Bogart who is sheltered while on the run from the police by Patricia, played by Jean Seberg. In a string of 1960s films such as A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Le Petit Soldat, Band of Outsiders, Alphaville, and Pierrot le Fou, Godard cast the actress Anna Karina, to whom he was married from 1961 to 1965. The year 1967, during which Godard’s films Two or Three Things I Know About Her, La Chinoise, and Week-End were released, marked the transition between his New Wave period and his more politically radical films of the next decade, some of which were made with the Dziga Vertov Group of Maoist filmmakers that he assembled. Godard continued to make films during the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, shooting the highly experimental 2014 film Goodbye to Language in 3D.
- Jacques Demy (1931–1990) was known for his brilliantly colorful films with musical scores that took inspiration from Hollywood musicals and opera. His 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg stars Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as the young lovers Geneviève and Guy, who are separated when Guy is drafted to serve in the Algerian War. Deneuve returned to star in his 1967 film The Young Girls of Rochefort, which concerns the twin sisters Delphine and Solange, who move together from the title seaside town to Paris, where Solange is romanced by an American composer played by Gene Kelly. A 1993 documentary on the making of The Young Girls of Rochefort was directed by Agnes Varda, to whom Demy was married until his 1990 death from HIV/AIDS.
- François Truffaut (1932–1984) was another co-founder of the French New Wave, making his mark on the movement with the 1959 film The 400 Blows. The film is about the juvenile delinquent Antoine Doinel, an alter-ego of sorts of Truffaut, who runs away from home and school, is arrested for stealing a typewriter from his stepfather, and escapes a juvenile detention center in order to see the ocean. Truffaut made four subsequent films continuing the story of Doinel: Antoine and Colette (1962), Stolen Kisses (1968), Bed and Board (1970), and Love on the Run (1979). In the influential French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, Truffaut articulated what became known as auteur theory, which likens the film director to an “author” who shapes every aspect of a film according to a personal vision. Jeanne Moreau starred as the woman at the center of a tragic love triangle in Truffaut’s film Jules and Jim (1962). Other major films by Truffaut include the gangster film Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and the metafictional Day for Night (1973) which won him the Best Foreign Film Oscar.
- Claire Denis (1946–present) is a contemporary filmmaker whose upbringing in France’s African colonies informed several of her films, such as her debut feature Chocolat (1988), White Material (2009), and her best-known film, Beau Travail (1999). Loosely based on Herman Melville’s novel Billy Budd, Beau Travail stars Denis Lavant as Galoup, Adjudant-Chef in the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti, who attempts to murder a fellow Légionnaire. Denis cast Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche in the 2018 film High Life, in which criminals serving death sentences are sent on a dangerous space mission. Her 2008 film 35 Shots of Rum is an homage to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Auroni Gupta.