I love film, and I love French. Taking a French cinema class seemed like the perfect marriage of the two. The course seemed a bit daunting, as I feared I would not be able to speak about films in the same capacity that I could in English, but as time went on, the universality of film and my passion for it took over, and the words, regardless of language, came easily. French films are really where film started, and the knowledge garnered from that course continues to be insightful and relative to every film I have seen.
I remember seeing several documentaries on George Melies and the Lumiere Brothers, three pioneers in the world of film. They were influential, and I understood their role in the early days of film but never experienced their works in their entirety. By watching their films, I was able to better understand what cinema was all about. These gentlemen were innovators. They were on the forefront of film discovery and method. There were really no other people filming, and so these men sought out what it meant to film. There were no rules—they made them.
Méliès used illusion, magic, and mystery to perform spectacles on the reel. In small cinema salles, audiences were amazed and fooled by the magic Melies performed through splicing and multiple exposures. His longer stories, like Le Reve d’un Astrome (The Astronomer’s Dream), 1898, and Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon),1902, contain iconic images that have imbedded themselves in our minds and in the fabric of cinematic history.
The Lumière Brothers used film to a completely different effect. They captured the life of the passerby by setting up a camera on the street. What is considered the first film Sortie de l’usine Lumiere de Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory in Lyon), 1895, captured the exit of workers. The fluid movements of people in unison, going in every which direction, captured the beauty in an otherwise banal moment. There is no plot in any conventional sense, and its 52 seconds do not meet the standard two-hour run-time. But the essence of filmmaking still lies within it. Film is a medium that can capture anything and make it a point of intrigue.
As we passed the naissance of film in the early 19th century, the evolution of film and filmmaking progressed at a rapid pace. Solidifying itself as an artistic medium in France, film started to become an integral part of society in other parts of the world. Film was able to document the societal sentiments and disposition during World Wars in a way other media could not with films like La Grande Illusion, 1937. It also offered up critiques of public life and challenging viewers with a variety of emotional depth in films like Le jours se leve (Daybreak),1939, and Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows),1959.
Before taking the class, I had actually watched several of the films from The New Wave era of the ’60s. These are the films that stick with me to this day and continually bring a smile to my face. Watching them again was a treat. The New Wave era saw artists break away from conventional storytelling mechanisms to try for something new—in a sense, to reinvent the rules. They wanted to tell a story differently and in doing so challenge viewers visually and cerebrally. Watching some of these films again confirmed my love of them. Au bout de souffle (Breathless), 1960, Paris nous appartient (Paris Belongs to Us), 1960, and Cleo de 5 a 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7), 1962, all critiqued societal structure in their respective plots, as much as they did through their unconventional filming techniques.
What that class gave me, more than a deeper appreciation of the art of filmmaking, was the notion that people deal with the same existential issues, regardless of geographical location. Those things manifest themselves in every facet of our lives. That makes the Lumière Brothers’ first film as poignant as a New Wave film with a clear and pointed message.
And that is what makes film such a great medium—it is able to break down events ordinary or extraordinary in the same fashion and speak to something more profound. The camera is just the same in that way—it captures what it sees.
Featured Image By Associated Press