A Brief History of French Cinema

First and foremost, France is the birthplace of cinema, so it’s not surprise that it’s responsible for many of the significant contributions to the art form. France is the most successful film-industry in Europe in terms of number of films produced per year. In 2015, for example, France produced a whopping 300 feature-length films!

A Bit of History

The Birth of Cinema

The French film industry in the 19th and 20th centuries was among the most important in the world. Les frères Lumière invented the cinématographe, and produced what is considered to be the first film called “L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat.” This was in Paris in 1895.

l'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la ciotat
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de la Ciotat

World War I/II

Many notable films were produced between when film first appeared in France, and the appearance of the ever-famous Nouvelle Vague era. After World War I, the French film industry struggled because of a lack of capital. But between the World War I and World War II, French impressionist cinema appeared for the first time, as well as poetic realism in French cinema. At the tail-end of the second World War, Marcel Carné’s “Les Enfants du Paradis,” was created and released. This film came to be voted the best French Film of the Century in the 1990’s.

Les Enfants de paradis
Les Enfants du Paradis

Nouvelle Vague

Let’s dive into French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague era. This is a French film movement that emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s. New Wave filmmakers were inspired by their rejection of the traditional film conventions that were dominating France at the time. Also inspired by inconoclasm, it is referred to as one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema. The New Wave was known for radical experimentation with editing, visual style, and narrative, and engaging in social and political changes of the era.

New wave cinema collage


“Cinema du Look” appeared in the 1980’s, a French film movement that favoured style over substance, and spectacle over narrative. This movement referred to films that had a slick visual style and focused on young, alienated characters. Several big-ticket French movies were produced in the ’90’s, and French cinema was going strong. Some of these movies were even those that launched the careers of some big Hollywood stars, such as Natalie Portman and Milla Jovovich.

Now that you have a bit of background, you’re ready to read my list of must-see French movies!