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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Avant-garde and Surrealist

Phillipe Halsman, photographer. Salvador Dali A.1948. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, as the cinema industry was transitioning to talkies and the world staggered from one global war towards another, an art movement of Surrealists, Dadaists, Cubists, and the avant-garde (sometimes called "vanguard" or "forerunners" in English) became centered in Paris, the art world capital.

These filmmakers challenged social norms by confronting audiences with films such as Ballet mécanique/Mechanical Ballet (1924, dir. Fernand Léger), Entr'acte (1924, dir. René Clair), À propos de Nice/About Nice (1930, dir. Jean Vigo), and Un Chien andalou/An Andalusian Dog (1929, dirs. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel), films that still shock and provoke today. In fact, at a screening of L'Âge d'Or/The Golden Age (1930, dir. Buñuel), members of the fascist Ligue des Patriotes/League of Patriots rioted in reaction to the film. Because of its "provocations," it was banned in France until the 1970s.

The purpose of these films was not to entertain audiences, but to alter their perceptions, critique and satirize society, condemn materialism, and prioritize the unconscious. They were products of a zeitgeist disillusioned by the shock of total war and severe economic depression.

The ensuing political upheavals from wars, revolutions, and financial disasters worldwide brought immigrants to France, and these newcomers transformed filmmaking and film theory. They brought new ideas about film from countries such as Russia and later the Soviet Union where the director/critic Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925; October: Ten Days that Shook the World, 1928) and director/critic/film-school founder Lev Kuleshov (The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, 1924; By the Law, 1926) were developing groundbreaking theory on the psychological effects of film editing. Transnational techniques and theories gleaned from these international peers would eventually be manifest in French filmmaking.

Immigrants to France such as cinematographer Boris Kaufman (L'Atalante, 1934; On the Waterfront, 1954) thus began their careers, and artists such as the American Man Ray, the Spaniard Salvador Dalí, the Italian Luigi Pirandello, and the Belgian Jacques Feyder collaborated with French filmmakers, adapting each other's work, appearing in each other's films, and designing each other's sets.

In contrast, the entertainment film industry meanwhile evolved toward greater profitability. Therefore, out of necessity, the industry gravitated toward more commercially viable productions. Period costume dramas and adaptations of French novels such as Les Misérables (1934, dir. Raymond Bernard) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc/The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) present a stark contrast to the aforementioned experimental, shoestring-budget films being made at the same time.

However, whereas the avant-garde filmmakers were motivated by philosophy, mainstream ones had more concrete concerns, financing perhaps the foremost among many.

Financial instability had a devastating effect on the French film business. Studios had had to adapt to audience demand for talkies, which were more expensive to make and which necessitated the renovation of cinemas for sound. This in turn caused the industry to further transform as studios merged due to the cost of exhibition circuits, distribution, and sound equipment required for talkies. In addition, rights to technology and production were slowly sold from French companies to foreign entities.

As a result, by the beginning of World War II, annual French film production was abysmally low.

Despite these challenges, this environment was subsequently nurturing another generation of directors including Jean Renoir, Jacques Feyder, Marcel Carné, and Jean Grémillon, who responded with films which arguably saved French cinema.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering the avant-garde era 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.