Film Movements in Cinema: French Impressionism

The horrors and the atrocities of the First World War provided existential fodder for the rise of the French Impressionist movement, which focused on silent film and spanned a time period of approximately 1918 to 1930.

The movement was unequivocally and unapologetically rooted in French nationalism. The production houses of the time we’re hungry for anything that wasn’t American and as a result, we’re extremely supportive of its native filmmakers, who were committed to delving into the deepest, darkest reaches and recesses of the human psyche in terms of their storytelling and how it was captured on film.

Innovation in French Impressionistic Filmmaking

Keep in mind that this was during the silent film era, so there was much more of an emphasis on the visuals to convey the story, and as a result, filmmakers pushed the envelope in terms of developing a non-linear editing style as well as employing new camera styles, which included POV and widescreen angles.

They loved to experiment with new lighting styles, and the directors weren’t afraid to employ extreme measures in order to achieve the desired effect, such as putting a cameraman on a pair of roller skates.

French Impressionistic Filmmaking Subject Matter

As stated before, the storytelling tended to be dark in nature and didn’t shy away from taboo subjects; one such film entitled The Seashell and the Clergyman, directed by Germaine Dulac, did a deep, disturbing, albeit surreal dive into the psyche of a priest who had designs on a general’s wife. One writer humorously stated the title’s seashell was something “you definitely wouldn’t put anywhere near your ear.”

Filmmakers went from the initiate and at times, disturbing, to sweeping epics such as Napolèon.

Notable French Impressionism Filmmakers

Notable filmmakers of the time included Jean Epstein, Abel Gance, Marcel L’Herbier, and the aforementioned Germaine Dulac.

Notable French Impressionism Films

Notable films of the French Impressionist movement included The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928), Napolèon (1927) Fievre (1921), The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) and The Faithful Heart (1923).

French Impressionism’s profound impact on French Cinema was far-reaching and is reflected in the later films of Alain Resnais, Jean Cocteau, and Marcel Carné to mention a few.

French Impressionism Fun Facts

  • If you thought James Cameron’s Titanic was long, try sitting through Abel Gance’s The Wheel which was a three-evening event.
  • If you thought to switch out Titanic’s two VHS tapes was too much to ask, imagine the projectionist who had to maintain and switch out The Wheel’s 32 reels! Talk about a workout!
  • Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921) was one of the first recorded cases of production going over budget. (Take that, Heaven’s Gate and John Carter of Mars!)
  • Visionary director Stanley Kubrick called Napoléon “really terrible. Technically (the director) was ahead of his time and he introduced new film techniques… but as far as story and performance go, it’s a very crude picture.”
  • The British Board of Film Censors summarily dismissed The Seashell and the Clergyman as “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless. If there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable”.

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