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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide


Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964, photographer. Portrait of Jean-Louis Barrault, and Madeleine Renaud. 1952. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Gérard Depardieu. Brigitte Bardot. Catherine Deneuve. Jean-Paul Belmondo. Juliette Binoche. Jean Gabin. Maurice Chevalier.

In French, the English word "star" is reserved for major actors such as these who have achieved global recognition, and another generation of les stars is becoming familiar to American audiences: Omar Sy, Marion Cotillard, Camille Cottin, Jean Dujardin, Wilson Lambert, Vincent Cassel, Djamel Debbouze, Gad Elmaleh, Romain Duris, Mathieu Kassovitz, and more.

The business of cinema and the star system has changed drastically since the first films premiered, and this research guide provides suggestions for learning more about the topic through resources available through the Library of Congress catalog.

During the silent era, many of the first French film actors crossed over from the world of vaudeville, music halls, and boulevard theater, and they did not necessarily even need to speak French. Actors "spoke" through intertitles that could be changed depending on the film's distribution, and dubbing was also used to accommodate the linguistic requirements of audiences.

Pre-talkies, Gabriel Leuvielle, better known as Max Linder, became the first global movie star. After getting his start in the theater, he worked for Pathé Frères and developed the character "Max," a wealthy playboy who gets in trouble because he enjoys the good life a bit too much. The most well regarded of all these is Max: Victime du Quinquina/Max: Victim of Quinine/Max Takes Tonics (1911), which Linder also directed.

The star system developed very differently in Europe than it did in Hollywood, with studios exerting much less control over actors. In fact, many French film actors worked film-to-film, not in contract with any particular studio. In addition, events such as World War II impacted the film industry more severely than in the US. For example, after the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, many actors, directors, writers, and technicians fled to Switzerland, England, and America, with mixed success in Hollywood.

The New Wave brought a new type of actor to French film, many of whom had minimal to no training, one example being Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de souffle/Breathless (1960). Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played the character Antoine Doinel in several films such as Les 400 coups/400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut), was only fourteen and had minimal acting experience when he began his career. Mbissine Thérèse Diop, star of La Noire de.../Black Girl (1966, dir. Sembène Ousmane) is another example of a successful untrained Francophone actor.

In the 1970s-1980s, actors returned to la tradition de qualité, a more tightly controlled method of acting first prevalent in the 1930s-1940s. Stars such as Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve were prolific during this era, with career-defining performances in films such as Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982, dir. Daniel Vigne; remade in Hollywood as Sommersby [1993, dir. Jon Amiel]) for Depardieu, and Indochine (1992, dir. Régis Wargnier) for Deneuve.

The faces of contemporary Francophone film actors have become more diverse, reflecting the geographical spread of Francophone filmmaking and of changing demographics. Success by actors such as Abdellatif Kechiche, Gad Elmaleh, Jamel Debbouze, Rabah Nait Oufella, Roschdy Zem Déborah Lukumuena, Omar Sy, Lucie Zhang, and Loubna Abidar demonstrates the wide reach of Francophone film, not to mention the increasingly visible faces of hyphenated France: Algerian-French, Moroccan-French, French-Italian, etc.

Below are some of the Library of Congress' biographies and essays in English and French on Francophone film stars and the star system in France.

Suggested titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.