The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


New Directions in French Cinema


From 1960 to 1993 France was Europe's leading filmmaking country, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Although attendances fell over the period, they held up much better than in other countries, even after the home video market took off in the late 1980s. In 1991, for example, France made more feature films (156), had more screens in operation (4,531), and sold more tickets (117. 5 m.) than any other western country except the USA. There are three main, and interrelated, reasons for the French cinema's good health: a state-inspired industrial structure that assists film production at every stage, from project to distribution, through its governing body the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC); a large reservoir of talent in every department of film-making; and a very receptive public and a lively film culture.

The period falls naturally into three broad phases, each beginning with a major politico-cultural event: the New Wave; May 1968; and the arrival of the Socialist government in 1981.


Several mechanisms helped to bring in the New Wave, which took the industry by surprise in 1959 (the term had been coined a year earlier by Françoise Giroud in the weekly L'Express). The political context was favourable: the newly installed Gaullist regime, keen to promote a homegrown industry to counter what it saw as the cultural menace of Hollywood and its large slice of box-office revenues, introduced the avance sur recettes system. This film subsidy, funded by a levy on ticket sales and repayable by a percentage of the film's takings, enabled many unknowns to get their first directing chance. That chance was eagerly seized on by a group of dynamic critics centred on the magazine Cahiers du cinéma, who carried many other new directors in their wake. Technical developments such as faster film stock and lighter cameras and sound recording equipment facilitated the location shooting, improvisation, and experimentation that were the hallmark of the New Wave directors. Another factor was the attitude of producers: the box-office success of And God Created Woman (Et Dieu créa . . . la femme, 1956), directed by 28-year-old Roger Vadim, had helped convince them of the viability of young film-makers.

In the aftermath of the May 1968 'events' the production system changed considerably. The avance sur recettes subsidy was reformed so that not only producers but directors could apply for it; membership of the eligibility committee was broadened to include industry representatives and prominent cultural figures instead of civil servants alone. A special fund was set up for first-time directors, and exhibitors got tax-breaks if they showed 'quality' French films.

Beginning in the early 1980s, even more comprehensive changes aimed at helping French film production were introduced by the Socialist Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, as part of his campaign against American'cultural imperialism'. He appreciably increased the avance sur recettes fund, helped distributors to modernize theatres, and in 1983 implemented a tax-shelter system which enabled individuals or companies to invest indirectly in film productions through financial vehicles called soficas.Sofica money went to about a third of all films produced in 1991. Television was encouraged to produce or co-produce films, and by the beginning of the 1990s the film branch of the television channel Canal Plus was investing more in the film industry even than the CNC. A new tax-break aid system was introduced for films with budgets over FF50m., and the number of expensive films being made increased. Changes of government during the 1980s and the election of a right-wing government in 1993 made little difference to the general drift of film policy. In 1993 the CNC's aid fund was further boosted by a 2 per cent tax on the sales of videocassettes; even more dramatically, the new French government fought hard during the 1993 GATT negotiations to secure a better share of the market for French (and other European) films in the struggle against Hollywood domination.


Although the traditional genres of French cinema -- poliders, comedies, social dramas, costume films, etc. -- continued to thrive throughout the period, and have held up on the whole much better than their equivalents in other European cinemas, the most striking development in French cinema has been the proliferation of auteur films, particularly in the years of the New Wave.


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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