The first French film I ever saw in theaters was Swimming Pool by François Ozon, which left me feeling like I just took a masterclass in artistic filmmaking. At that point in my life I had already been heavily inspired and influenced by many other films (mostly American indies), but there was something about this small art film from France that was fundamentally different from what I knew, and I wanted to know why.
It didn’t take me long to figure out this special quality I found in Swimming Pool wasn’t unique to just this one film. It was something that existed in so many films originating in France – starting with the New Wave of the 1960’s and continuing up until many of today’s modern masterpieces.
In a lot of ways, it made sense that French films have always been on the cutting edge. After all, the French invented motion pictures and have continued to redefine the medium over the past 100+ years, which has resulted in a legacy of some of the best films ever made.
They’ve benefited from a very unique ecosystem in which their films have the ability to make their money back domestically (in France), and don’t need to rely heavily on foreign sales in order to make a profit. This has allowed filmmakers from France to tell stories that are highly relevant to their culture and are full of creative risks, as there is no pressure to pander to a more broad global audience.
That’s not to say that French films have not had a major impact on cinema across the globe, in fact the opposite is true. Much in the same way that American cinema influences the world when it comes to commercial films, France has arguably shaped the world of cinema from an artistic standpoint more than any other country.
Their influence is so deep rooted that all of us are using their techniques, their language, and their sensibilities without even realizing it. Just look at the terminology we use as filmmakers – auteur, montage, mise en scène – France’s hand in cinematic history is undeniable and is a part of every working filmmaker today.
I’ve often attributed France’s dominance in film to their cultural appreciation of cinema. Watching a film is different in France. More people go to the movies there than any other country, or at least that’s what suggested by the fact that there are more movie theaters in Paris (per capita) than any other city in the world. People in France don’t simply look at movies as entertainment, but as culturally significant pieces of art. They are discussed, dissected, and celebrated extensively, and this cultural involvement has led to some of the best films ever made.
As a filmmaker that is drawn to art films, I’ve spent a lot of time watching, analyzing, and studying French films, and have consistently asked myself what it is that makes them so incredible and unique.
Is it their masterful use of subtext? Their unapologetic exploration of controversial themes? Their ability to break the rules so brilliantly?
It’s all of the above, and much more…
We may not all be working in a creative ecosystem that resembles that of France, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a lot from French cinema, or apply their creative techniques to our own work.
With that in mind, I want to use this article as a means to share some of the most important artistic lessons I’ve learned from French films over the years. I truly believe that no matter what your sensibilities may be as a filmmaker or what genre you may be working in, we can all take a page from their book.
So without further ado, let’s jump in –
Working From a Place of Confidence
One of the most obvious qualities that separates French films from the rest of the pack is the tremendous confidence in their artistic decisions. No matter how risky or controversial a film may be, the French tend to execute their ideas with a degree of self assuredness that is rarely seen in other world cinema, and it’s extremely refreshing. They seem to understand that no film is going to appeal to everyone, and the more you try to water down your boldest ideas to make them digestible for the largest possible audience, the less important those ideas become.
Many filmmakers in other parts of the world are guilty of not listening to their creative instincts, and avoiding risk to the detriment of their final product. They may be tempted to explore a controversial topic, but back off in fear that larger audiences will be turned off. Or they may want to experiment with a new creative technique on set or in the edit, but instead take a more traditional path to avoid critical backlash.
But if I’ve learned anything from French films, it’s that creative risks executed with confidence are risks well worth taking. Not everyone will agree every creative decision that you make, but these choices will result in original material that is unique to your voice. So if you have idea that breaks the mold, go all in. Do it unapologetically, and don’t filter it out of fear of not being accepted.
Character + Scenario = Story
Often times, filmmakers write their films with a specific plot in mind first, and then later develop characters that will most effectively move the plot points from A to B to C. There is certainly nothing wrong with this approach, and every filmmaker/writer will have their own techniques for when it comes to the writing process… But in my opinion, starting with plot can lead to underdeveloped characters, which are really the lifeblood of any film.
Something that I’ve always loved about French films, is that their plots often come second to their characters. This is true even of French genre films that on the surface may feel very plot driven, but at their core are really character studies.
The French call the screenplay the “Scenario”, which I think speaks to their larger philosophy on storytelling as a whole. I’ve come to interpret French stories as often using the following formula: Character + Scenario = Story. By placing a richly developed character into a difficult scenario, a beautiful story emerges that is ripe with creative possibilities.
One example that comes to mind is the film La fille seule (English: A Single Girl), which is a story that is extremely simple, yet profound at the same time. The film centers around a young woman that just found out she is pregnant and needs to tell her boyfriend, all while juggling her first day at a new job. It all takes place in a single day and is very thin from a plot perspective, but is still riveting to watch thanks to the brilliant pairing of character and scenario.
It’s important to recognize that many of the best plots unfold organically from characters making real decisions as they respond and react to challenging circumstances. Taking this approach to the writing process may result in a narrative that has loads of plot points, or it may have very few. Either result is perfectly okay, as long as the narrative is ultimately determined by the character’s decisions, whatever they may be.
Moral Choices Resonate With Audiences
At the heart of many great French films are the moral choices that the protagonist is faced with, and that we as the audience are ultimately forced to confront as well. Tackling morality in film is one of the most powerful tools we have as filmmakers, and allows us to tell stories that by nature are universally important.
As filmmakers, we’re always looking for the best ways to connect with our audiences, and there are many ways to achieve this goal, not all of which involve morality in the slightest. For instance, many Hollywood features use massive action sequences and eye popping visuals as a means to appeal universally to the biggest demographic possible… Sometimes this works, and other times it doesn’t. But you don’t need any of these Hollywood bells and whistles to find a universal commonality with audiences across the globe. You’re far better off simply focusing on a morally grounded message that is universal to the human experience.
A case in point is the Palm d’Or nominated 2 Days 1 Night (directed by the brilliant Dardenne brothers), which presents a morally rich, but very simple plot in a package that is completely stripped down and raw. The film follows the lead character (played by Marion Cotillard) as she desperately attempts to get her job back after being away for some time following a nervous breakdown. The entire film centers around conversations she has with other colleagues that must vote on whether or not to re-hire her at work, and through this basic premise we learn so much – not just about the characters in the films, but about ourselves and society as a whole.
Moral choices are understood by people of every age, race, and nationality, and don’t require money to write into our scripts. If we fail to explore morality in our work, we are missing a huge opportunity to say something important with our art, and to share that message with as many people as we can.
Make The Audience Work
French filmmakers seem to have a true respect for their audiences, and rarely do any hand holding from a story telling perspective. Presumably this is because French audiences have thrived on intellectual films for so long that there is almost an unspoken agreement between the filmmaker and the audience that they will be an active participant in the movie-going experience.
This ideology equates to films that are designed from the ground up to challenge viewers, and requires them to pick up on subtext and read between the lines, understanding that what isn’t shown is just as important as what is.
When crafting a film, there are a lot ways to keep the audience involved. For instance minimizing unnecessary exposition or covering key scenes from a highly subjective point of view (that may leave out critical facts) are a couple ways to do it… But regardless of which techniques you may use, they lesson here is that audiences are far more satisfied when they are put to work. They don’t want to be pushed along the journey with a heavy hand. They want to navigate the journey themselves.
Achieving this is a delicate balance though, as you never want to confuse your audience by omitting too much information, or using gimmickry to force unexpected twists and turns. But if you can give your audience just enough information to keep their minds working, but not so much that it feels manipulative or contrived, they will leave the theater feeling emotionally stimulated and mentally rewarded.
Aim For Realism In Endings
People often associate American films with having positive endings, and French (or to a larger extent, European) films with having negative endings. In some cases, this assumption may be true, but I would argue that what we can learn from the endings of French films isn’t that the story needs to end on a down note in order for it to be taken seriously, but rather that it must be realistic.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a happy ending, as long as that ending is the logical and most realistic way to end the story that has been set up over the past 90 minutes. Upbeat endings in films often get a bad rap, not because the idea of a positive outlook is so bad, but rather because they are often heavily contrived.
How many times have you seen a film that was thrilling all the way up until the end, but then lost you with an unrealistic ending that just felt false and manufactured? Most of the time, this is the case because the filmmakers to some degree believed that a happy ending would leave the audience with a more positive view of the journey they just went on. But this logic is really only accurate if the happy ending is also a realistic ending. It needs to work in context, not just in isolation.
French films don’t exclusively have depressing endings. Many of them have happy endings that work extremely well, as they are born from a place of realism. These endings aren’t designed to manipulate the audience into feeling good, they are simply the realistic and logical conclusion of the story, and for that reason they are satisfying.
Similarly, French films that have darker endings are treated the same way. They aren’t designed to end on a downbeat just to shock the audience or to be pretentious. They are offering a realistic look into a story that may very well end in tragedy, and that tragic reality likely teaches us something about ourselves and the human condition.
There is no better way to expand your horizons and deepen your understanding of film than to simply go out and watch as many films as possible. Not just French or American films, but work from all over the world and from all generations. Hopefully this article has given you a small taste of some of the lessons I’ve learned from exploring my own curiosity and indulging in great cinema, and has motivated you to do the same.
If you’re ready to get inspired by some incredible French films, I recommend starting with some modern films like The Kid With a Bike, Young & Beautiful, or RAW. And for some New Wave gems, be sure to check out Contempt, Jules et Jim, and the one that started it all – Breathless.