French Impressionism

Movements

French Impressionism Movement and Impressionist Film List

Article Film List

Update 11/05/2021
Origin France
Most Active Years
Movement No 3/4

Introduction to French Impressionism

Following the Cinema of Attractions and Film d’Art, France was home to another movement that shaped cinema. French Impressionism, an avant-garde movement, soon replaced the Film d’Art movement, which rose to prominence with adaptations of theatre productions. French Impressionism was going to provide its audience with a cinema experience very similar to today’s cinema at a fairly early stage in the history of cinema.

JAccuse

What is French Impressionism

French Impressionism is a movement that has been formed with non-narrative avant-garde movements and carries the innovative cinematic language to the main movement. Cinema techniques developed in avant-garde movements have been conveyed to a larger audience in France with the narrative structure of French Impressionism.

Origin of the Term Impressionism

French Impressionism was an art movement that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s. In this movement, the artists who produced works moved away from reality in their depictions and produced depictions and narrations in accordance with the feeling they wanted to be perceived. To put it simply, instead of depicting the facts, there was a depiction in accordance with the desired emotion to appear in an art lover. Over time, the movement made ground in many art disciplines, including cinema.

Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)
Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise)

The word impressionism is used to describe this method of depiction and narration in art disciplines.

Background

There were many different cinema movements in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cinema of Attractions and Film d’Art were the two most prominent of these movements. Especially with the Film d’Art, cinema transformed into an industry in France. The world’s largest studios such as Pathé and Gaumont, as well as some of the world’s most important movie theatres, were in France. Alongside main movements, many avant-garde movements also found their way into the French cinema.

In parallel to the financial ecosystem created by the Film d’Art, avant-garde cinema was also on the rise. Although avant-garde cinema was on the rise across Europe compared to Hollywood cinema, the diversity in France was greater than in other countries. There were many films shot in non-narrative avant-garde movements such as Surrealism, Dada and Cinema Pure in France. Avant-garde movements were not the main movements. They did not have very large audiences, distribution networks or large production budgets, but they were critical for cinema. Avant-garde movements were a field where the experimental experience of cinema was accumulated. The ones who produced works in this field were filmmakers who could not be included in the main movement, did not want to be included or wanted to change it. Examples are Abel Gance, Jean Epstein, Marcel L’Herbier, and others.

With Avant-garde cinema, the components of cinema such as camera movement, shape, light, rhythm, frame and narrative changed in an unprecedented way. The cinematic components within the films were manipulated at an advanced level, removed from the film or made the main element of the film. All these took place within the motivation to create an aesthetic cinematic language. Over time, the techniques of non-narrative movements such as Surrealist Cinema, Dada Film and Cinema Pure in avant-garde cinema were conveyed to the main movement. In this transfer, French Impressionism played an important role with its narrative structure.

French soldiers march past the Petit Palais (1916)
French soldiers march past the Petit Palais (1916)

Before and after the First World War, like in all other European countries, filmmakers in France were assigned by the state to the battle line. Filmmakers and cinema equipment were used for documentation purposes on the battlefield. This meant a halt to the cinema industry for France. Pathé, which started with the equipment business and became one of the world’s largest production companies, and its biggest rival, Gaumont, were significantly affected by the 1st World War.

Pathé and Gaumont had large movie theatres that they set up especially for the Film d’Art. The decline in film production due to the shifting of the crew and equipment to the 1st World War caused the movie theatres to remain empty. The resulting film deficit opened up a wide screening area for Hollywood movies. During and after the war, Hollywood films were watched much more than French films. Many of the French filmmakers who could not find a place in their own movie theatres began to pattern their films after Hollywood films. This happened not only in France but also in all European countries with cinemas.

Beginnings

French cinema was affected by many negativities such as the expansionist policy of Hollywood cinema, the Film d’Art movement that brought the cinema under the influence of capital, and the 1st World War. Despite everything, some companies continued to support innovative directors such as Abel Gance, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L’Herbier and Jean Epstein, who did not lose their artistic motivation. Some of these directors responded to all negativity and obstacles with the French Impressionism movement.

Abel Gance
Abel Gance

Before innovative directors, cinema turned into an extension of theatre or literature, especially under the influence of the Film d’Art movement. The talents of cinema were put aside and theatrical productions or literary works were filmed. Innovative directors argued that cinema should feed on itself and its techniques should come out within itself. Gance, Delluc, Dulac, L’Herbier, Epstein, and other leading directors of the movement began to put this perspective into practice in many avant-garde movements, particularly French Impressionism.

It was very difficult for avant-garde productions to find a place in the French cinema industry shaped by Pathé and Gaumont. Non-narrative avant-garde movements were not easy to understand for the audience of main movement films. Watching these films despite their short duration required serious effort. The narrative, which was the most important habit of the audience, was not in the film. The shootings could be disturbing because they were experimental. Funding for non-narrative avant-garde films was difficult because the audience could not watch these films. Impressionist films increased the viewing rate of avant-garde films by main movement audiences with their narrative-including structures. Thus, both avant-garde approach met with the audience and avant-garde films started to be funded.

Main Period

There were many financial difficulties during the main period of the French Impressionism movement. Directors developed different funding methods in order to continue producing in an avant-garde movement that is not accepted by the main movement.

Some impressionist directors had the opportunity to divide their time between avant-garde projects and more profit-oriented films. For example, Germaine Dulac, who spent most of his career producing traditional dramas, made some notable Impressionist films, including La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) (1923) and Gossette (1923). Similarly, Jean Epstein, one of the leading directors of French Impressionism, directed many costume films. Jacques Feyder was among the commercially successful French directors in the 1920s and besides this, he managed to shoot very important Impressionist films.

Abel Gance began his career as a screenwriter in 1911 and made his first impressionist film in 1918. Later, he started his own production company and got the chance to make a lot more impressionist films in number.

Some directors, on the other hand, founded their own companies and continued to produce impressionist films. After his successful work for Pathé, Gance founded Films Abel Gance in 1919. In 1922, Marcel L’Herbier founded Cinegraphic after a conflict with Gaumont over Don Juan et Faust (1922). This company was involved in the production of many of L ‘Herbier’s later works. Epstein founded Les Films Jean Epstein in 1926. He made some of the most important films of the Impressionist movement with this company.

Main movement companies also contributed to impressionist films. Gaumont, who created Théâtro-Film, earned most of his money from TV series shot by Louis Feuillade. Some of this money was transferred to the films of the impressionist directors. For example, some of the films of Marcel L’Herbier, whose first work Rose-France (1919) was an impressionist film, were brought to life by Gaumont. The films that have been supported financially did not attract much attention. But these films were crucial to the rise of avant-garde cinema and ultimately French cinema.

Another company, although not of French origin, made great contributions to impressionism in its early years. After the October Revolution, the Russian production group Yermoliev, who fled Russia after the Soviet Government nationalized the film industry, settled in Paris in 1920. Yermoliev changed its name to Films Albatros in 1922. Although Films Albatros shot popular fantasies and melodramas, it also undertook the production of some impressionist films.

Another source of funding for films was to establish small cinema clubs. There were directors appearing in closed groups who were able to make successful films independently by screening avant-garde films.

Soviet Rhythmic Montage
Soviet Rhythmic Montage

While the French Impressionism movement continued its development, it was also influenced by other movements. French Impressionism was characterized by the pictorial movement from 1918 to 1922, and the Soviet Rhythmic Montage in parallel with the rise of Soviet Montage cinema from 1923 to 1925.

Characteristics of French Impressionism

Impressionist Theory

The main purpose of the impressionist films was not to leave the transfer of emotion between the film and the audience to the statements of the characters or the very expressive acting performances. It was intended to use the abilities of cinema to convey emotion and create the character. Impressionist films conveyed the emotion they had to convey by successfully using the camera, light, depth of field, time-space shifts, effects, montage and other techniques.

The techniques used in French Impressionism are classified by David Bordwell as follows.

  1. Camerawork

1.1. Camera distance: close-up (as synecdoche, symbol or subjective image)

1.2. Camera angle (high or low)

1.3. Camera movement (independent of subject, for graphic effects, point of view)

  1. Mise-en-scene

2.1. Lighting (single source, shadows indicating off-screen actions, variety of lighting situations)

2.2. Décor

2.3. Arrangement and movement of figures in space

  1. Optical devices

3.1. As transitions

3.2. As magical effects

3.3. As emphasizing significant details

3.4. As pictoral decoration

3.5. As conveyors of abstract meanings

3.6. As indications of objectivity (mental images, semi-subjective images, optical subjectivity)

  1. Characteristic editing patterns

4.1. Temporal relations between shots (Flashback or fantasy)

4.2. Spatial relation between shots (synthetic, glance/object, crosscutting)

  1. Rhythmic relations between shots

French Impressionism was not only in response to movements such as Film d’Art, but also to Hollywood cinema, which was spreading rapidly in France and all over Europe. Impressionist films cared about conveying emotions as well as narrating events. In Impressionist films, manipulating storyline and subjectivity, using flashbacks, making memories and dreams part of the story, using optical techniques, special effects, and camera movements in unusual ways were important tools of narration and emotion transfer.

La souriante Madame Beudet (1923) consists almost entirely of the main character’s fantasy life and her imaginary escape from a dull marriage.

In La Roue
In La Roue

In La Roue (1923), Norma’s image appears on the smoke of the locomotive engineer who fell in love with her.

In L’argent (1928), L’Herbier’s camera floats through gigantic rooms then ironically falls from the dome of the Paris stock exchange towards the crowd.

These and many more were techniques that provided important gains for the transfer of emotion in cinema. Adjusting the plan times according to the emotion to be conveyed, screen ratios, moving the camera on cars, rails or locomotives to give the camera dolly experience, diversification of lens use, use of filters or distorted shots, shadows, dark areas, and depth of field formed the characteristic structure of impressionist films.

The biggest reason impressionist films successfully used unconventional techniques was because of their avant-garde backgrounds. Impressionist films used the techniques that had been used and developed for a long time in avant-garde movements, within the narrative structure. In doing so, it effectively benefited both storytelling and avant-garde movements. French Impressionism’s narrative avant-garde structure evolved in a way that can be accepted by audiences caught between Hollywood and Film d’Art films. Eventually, it took place in the history of cinema as a widely accepted movement.

End of French Impressionism

The positive results of the innovative approach brought to the main movement by avant-garde features gave the impressionist filmmakers the hope that their films would outpace Hollywood films. With this motivation, a lot of financial burden and responsibility was taken and films were made. But making money through impressionist films was generally not easy. The audience preferred Hollywood films. Impressionist films were sometimes difficult to understand due to their avant-garde components. The failure of the expected success at the box office economically eroded the impressionist directors and filmmakers. The continued impact of the war economy was also one of the economic difficulties.

Some impressionist filmmakers brought their films closer to the main movement in order to escape the economic downturn. Many directors gave up their independence. But that did not work either. By 1929, many producers and companies were on the verge of bankruptcy.

The arrival of talking pictures in the cinema affected a lot of things during this period. Impressionist filmmakers focused on conveying emotion using visual narration techniques. With the advent of sound technology in the cinema, it was possible to convey the emotion to the audience without the need for any visual narration technique. This was, in general, inconsistent with the method of impressionism. Although the audience improved their approach to impressionist films over time, watching talking films was a brand new experience. The audience preferred to focus on main movement films where they could best experience talking films instead of impressionist films.

With the sound coming into the cinema, the technical team and equipment needs arose. Workload and duration of employment increased at every stage of production. As a result, film production costs also increased. The French film industry contracted financially and there was no more spending on avant-garde movements, including French Impressionism. Impressionist filmmakers and companies either went bankrupt or were sold to large companies. With these developments, the number of impressionist films produced decreased considerably.

The Influences of French Impressionism

The revolutionary approaches brought by French Impressionism caused the emergence/shaping of different trends and movements in cinema. German Expressionism, Film Noir, and Soviet Montage cinema were among the early cinema movements where the effects of impressionist cinema were prominently noticeable. Over time, the impressionist theory became a theory that became valid for the whole of cinema.

German Expressionist filmmakers were greatly impressed by the narrative techniques of the French Impressionist theory. Many of these narrative techniques were transferred to German Expressionism and continued to be developed and used.

These techniques developed by German Expressionism were later taken to America with Film Noir. With Neo Noir and Future Noir, which came after Film Noir, other sub-movements were prominently shaped by the impressionist theory. The influences of French Impressionism had a wide impact on cinema that has survived to this day. The methods of conveying emotion and understanding the personality of the character permanently changed in cinema.

Exceptions

Impressionist Film List

*Films sorted by release year, from newest to oldest.

The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl (1928) Jean Renoir, Jean Tédesco

An impoverished girl tries to sell matches on NYE. Shivering with cold and unable to sell her wares, she sits in a sheltered nook. Striking a match to keep warm, she sees things in the flame.


The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) Jean Epstein

Allan visits the sinister Usher family mansion, where his friend Roderick is painting a portrait of his sickly wife Madeline. The portrait seems to be draining the life out of Madeline, slowly leading to her death.

Watch 63min

LArgent

L’Argent (1928) Marcel L’Herbier

Nicolas Saccard is a business tycoon. Nicolas is nearly ruined by his rival Gunderman, when he tries to raise capital for his company.

Watch 195min

Six et demi onze

Six et demi onze (1927) Jean Epstein

A renowned doctor and his brother live and work together until the brother falls in love with Marie, a singer, and gives up medicine to be with her. After a time however, she misses her old life and goes back on the stage.

Watch 84min

The Three Sided Mirror

The Three-Sided Mirror (1927) Jean Epstein

A wealthy young businessman consecutively falls in love with a classy English woman, a Russian sculptress, and a naive working-class girl.

Watch 45min

Napoleon

Napoleon (1927) Abel Gance

A film about the Napoleon Bonaparte’s youth and early military career.


The Living Dead Man

The Living Dead Man (1926) Marcel L’Herbier

A man escapes his dreary life when a corpse found in a creek is mistaken for his own.


Menilmontant

Ménilmontant (1926) Dimitri Kirsanoff

A couple is brutally murdered in the working-class district of Paris. Later on, the narrative follows the lives of their two daughters, both in love with a Parisian thug and leading them to separate ways.

Watch 38min

Nana

Nana (1926) Jean Renoir

When the vivacious and beautiful Nana bombs at the Théâtre des Variétés, she embarks on the life of a courtesan, using her allure and charisma to entice and pleasure men.

Watch 150min

visages denfants

Mother (1925) Jacques Feyder

A man whose wife has died remarries, and his new wife has a daughter of her own from a previous marriage. The man’s young son, however, who loved his mother deeply and misses her terribly, resents his father’s new wife, not wanting her to take the place of his beloved mother, and makes life miserable for his new stepsister.

Watch 114min

La belle Nivernaise

La belle Nivernaise (1924) Jean Epstein

Bargeman Louveau finds an abandoned boy, Victor, and with the authorities permission takes him back to his own family where he raises him. 10 years later Victor and Louveau’s daughter Clara have fallen in love.


Linhumaine

L’inhumaine (1924) Marcel L’Herbier

Claire Lescot is a famous first lady. Young scientist Einar Norsen is in love with claire. When she mocks at him, he leaves her house with the declared intention to kill himself.

Watch 135min

The Wheel

The Wheel (1923) Abel Gance

Sisif, a yaoung railwayman, saves a young girl named Norma orphaned by a train crash. Sisif raises her as his own daughter alongside his son, Elie. As Norma becomes an adult, Sisif grapples with whether to tell Norma the truth about her parentage.


Le brasier ardent

Le brasier ardent (1923) Ivan Mozzhukhin

A woman named simply “Elle” is haunted by a dream in which she is drawn towards a man tied to a burning stake, and finds her real life resembling the dream.


The Faithful Heart

The Faithful Heart (1923) Jean Epstein

Marie wants to escape from her job and also from her lover, Paul, an unemployed drunk. She dreams of going off with Jean, a dockworker. The two men quarrel and fight over Marie on two occasions, but Paul retains a hold over her.


Coster Bill of Paris

Coster Bill of Paris (1922) Jacques Feyder

A poor vegetable peddler in Paris runs afoul of the law and finds himself ground up in the cogs of the corrupt French judicial system.

Watch 50min

Eldorado

Eldorado (1921) Marcel L’Herbier

Sibilla works as a dancer in El Dorado, a cabaret in Granada (Andalusia, Spain) trying to earn enough money to take care for her sick child.


JAccuse

J’accuse! (1919) Abel Gance

The poet Jean is in love with François’s wife. The tension between the two men will be replaced by friendship when they go to the same front to fight. War will test their company.

Watch 166min

The Tenth Symphony

The Tenth Symphony (1918) Abel Gance

A woman of quality is innocently implicated in the suicide of her lover’s sister, and is then blackmailed by him, while he courts her sister-in-law. Her husband, believing wife to be unfaithful, writes his greatest symphony as a record of his grief.

Watch 80min

Major Impressionist Directors

  • Abel Gance
  • Jacques Feyder
  • Jean Epstein
  • Marcel L’Herbier
  • Jean Renoir

Notable Impressionist Films

  • J’Accuse! (1919)
  • The Wheel (1923)
  • L’inhumaine (1924)
  • Napoleon (1927)
  • L’Argent (1928)

References

Routledge
Wikipedia
Cinecollage
European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction
By Ian Aitken





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