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French & Francophone Film: A Research Guide

Early and Silent Film

Napierkowska. 1910-1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

"Je vous aime" ("I love you"): These were some of the first words spoken on film when, in 1892 Étienne-Jules Marey employed his chronophotographic gun to capture moving images on celluloid.

Decades before, however, inventors had created devices such as the phénakistiscope, zoetrope, and praxinoscope which served as inspiration for movie cameras, yet these machines never became widely used because they lacked mechanized movement.

Around the same time that Marey was perfecting his fusil photographique (photographic gun), the Lumière brothers, Louis Jean and Auguste Marie Louis, branched out from their photo equipment manufacturing business to develop the cinématographe. And they succeeded. In 1895 in Paris, the brothers screened their film La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon) for a crowd that included Georges Méliès and Léon Gaumont.

The brothers made several dozen films over the course of their careers, producing newsreels and documentaries, as well as inventing the concept of film narrative through comic/gag movies.

Their methods and equipment became ubiquitous around the globe as Lumière assistants were sent around the world to film, screen movies, and educate aspiring filmmakers.

Meanwhile, the French film industry was in its infancy. Star Film (also known as Manufacture de films pour cinématographes) was established in 1897 by Méliès, an illusionist-turned-director. Méliès used techniques such as trap doors, from the theater world, in his films, and he also experimented with photographic techniques such as superimposition to create the first science fiction films and costume films. As well, he directed "artist conceptions" of historical events such as the coronation of King Edward VII, and fantastical féeries (fairy plays), an established and popular French theatrical genre.

Several years after Méliès began his work, in 1901, the Pathé brothers began production and distribution work. They responded to the public appetite for sensational entertainment and built a film studio just outside Paris, in Vincennes, which would become a hub of French film production.

In addition, one of their main innovations was renting films instead of selling them, thus securing a virtual monopoly on film exhibition.

Charles Pathé continued to expand the French film industry, selling exhibition rights and building British-inspired movie palaces. He also encouraged film and theater collaboration with the Académie française and Comédie française to encourage stage actors from those classical institutions to move into film acting, lending the form greater prestige and developing what would come to be known as films d'art.

World War I brought serious interruptions to French film production, and production companies were obligated to make propaganda films or else dismally predictable, uninspired work that audiences rejected. By extension, French film production slowed and was almost decimated by unstable financial and social conditions created by the war. France also lost its important American market as the US took a nationalist economic turn and limited the number of imported films. This restriction was generally accepted by the US public due to the fact that Americans had begun to regard European film as morally questionable.

As Hollywood developed its aesthetic and film system on the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, American films began to inspire future French directors such as Abel Gance and writers such as Louis Aragon. Through exposure to the experience of Americanized film spectatorship as well as via contact with non-French cinemas, these artists acted as the avant-garde, pushing the boundaries of film and leading the cinematic art and the French film industry out of its nascent stages.

The bibliography below lists films and resources covering the era of early and silent films 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.