French Impressionism: 1918-1929

Coeur fidèle (Jean Epstein, 1923)

"During the silent era, a number of film movements in France posed major alternatives to classical Hollywood narrative form. Some of these alternatives - abstract cinema, Dada filmmaking - are not specifically French and constituted instead a part of the growing international avant-garde. But two alternatives to the American mode remained quite localized. Impressionism was an avant-garde style that operated largely within the film industry. Most of the Impressionist filmmakers started out working for major French companies, and some of their avant-garde works proved financially successful. In the mid-1920s, most formed their own independent companies but remained within the mainstream commercial industry by renting studio facilities and releasing their films through established finns. The other alternative movement, Surrealism, lay largely outside the film industry. Allied with the Surrealist movement in other arts, these filmmakers relied on their own means and private patronage. France in the 1920s offers a striking instance of how different film movements may coexist at the same time and place." [1] Between 1918 and 1929, a new generation of filmmakers sought to explore the cinema as an art. Their films displayed a fascination with pictorial beauty and an interest in intense psychological exploration.

"World War I struck a serious blow to the French film industry. Personnel were conscripted, many film studios were shifted to wartime uses, and much export was halted. Yet the two major firms, Pathé Fréres and Leon Gaumont, also controlled circuits of theaters. They needed to fill vacant screens, and so in 1915, American films began increasingly to flood into France. Represented by Pearl White, Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin and Ince films, De Mille's The Cheat, and William S. Hart (affectionately named "Rio Jim" by the French), the Hollywood cinema dominated the market by the end of 1917. After the war, French filmmaking never fully recovered: in the 1920s, French audiences saw eight times more Hollywood footage than domestic footage. The film industry tried in several ways to recapture the market, mostly through imitation of Hollywood production methods and genres. Artistically, however, the most significant move was the firms' encouragement of younger French directors: Abel Gance, Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L'Herbier, and Jean Epstein.

These directors differed from their predecessors. The previous generation had regarded filmmaking as a commercial craft, but the younger filmmakers wrote essays proclaiming cinema was an art comparable to poetry, painting, and music. Cinema should, they said, be purely itself and should not borrow from the theater or literature. Impressed by the verve and energy of the American cinema, the young theorists compared Chaplin to Nijinsky and the films of Rio Jim to The Song of Roland. Cinema should, above all, be (like music) an occasion for the artist to express feelings. Gance, Delluc, Dulac, L'Herbier, Epstein, and other, more tangential members of the movement sought to put this aesthetic into practice as filmmmakers." [1]

The Impressionists' Relation to the Industry

"These filmmakers were aided by the crises that plagued the French industry. Because companies would often shift their policies or reorganize, filmmakers had various ways of obtaining financing. Some Impressionist directors also divided their time between avant-garde projects and more profit-oriented films. Germaine Dulac made some important Impressionist films, including La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet) and Gossette (both 1923), but she spent much of her career making more conventional dramas. Similarly, Jean Epstein directed costume pictures in between some of his most experimental works. Jacques Feyder was among the more commercially successful of French directors in the 1920s, making a huge hit, L'Atlantide, in 1921; yet he made Impressionist films from 1923 to 1926. Few Impressionists had the luxury of working full-time in their preferred style, yet they kept the movement going for over a decade.

La dixième symphonie (1918)

Despite their avant-garde proclivities, these directors had to make their way within the regular commercial firms. The first to depart from established stylistic traditions was Abel Gance, who had entered filmmaking in 1911 as a scenarist and then began directing. With a passion for Romantic literature and art, however, Gance aspired to make more personal works. His La dixième symphonie (1918) is the first major film of the Impressionist movement. It concerns a composer who writes a symphony so powerful that his friends consider it a successor to Beethoven's nine symphonies. Gance suggests the listeners' emotional reactions to the score by a series of visual devices. Such attempts to convey sensations and emotional "impressions" would become central to the Impressionist movement.

La dixième symphonie was produced by Charles Pathé, who continued to finance and distribute Gance's films after the director formed his own production company. This was a risk for Pathé, since some Gance films like J'accuse! and La roue were lengthy and expensive. Yet Gance was the most popular of the Impressionists. In 1920, an informa l poll ranked the public's favorite films. The only French productions near the top were by Gance (the favorites being De Mille's The Cheat and Chaplin's short comedies).

The other major firm, Gaumont, was making most of its money from Feuillade serials. It invested some of the profits in a group of films by Marcel L'Herbier, whose debut work, Rose-France, was the second Impressionist film. This allegory of war-battered France was so symbolic as to be nearly incomprehensible, and it was not widely seen. Still, L'Herbier made two more Impressionist films, L'homme du large and Eldorado, for Gaumont, and by 1920 critics began to notice that France had a cinematic avant-garde.

La souriante Madame Beudet (1923)

Even Jean Epstein, who was to make some of the most experimental of the Impressionist films, began with a quasi-documentary, Pasteur (1922), for Pathé. Germaine Dulac was hired to direct her avant-garde character study The Smiling Madame Beudet by the Film d'Art company, which originated the project as an adaptation of a recent successful play.

Indeed, in these early years, the only Impressionist filmmaker who remained at the periphery of the industry was critic and theorist Louis Delluc. Using inherited money and assistance from other filmmakers, he supported the tiny companies that produced his low-budget films like Fièvre (1921). A few years later, Jean Renoir, son of painter Auguste Renoir, ventured into different types of avant-garde filmmaking, including Impressionism, supported by his own money (derived in part from selling some of his father's paintings). Another Impressionist filmmaker, Dimitri Kirsanoff, worked with the most limited means of all, scraping together funds without any production company and making inexpensive films like L'ironie du destin and Ménilmontant.

Le brasier ardent (1923)

One other firm made major contributions to Impressionism in its early years. The Russian production group Yermoliev, fleeing the Soviet government's nationalization of the film industry, settled in Paris in 1920 and reorganized as Films Albatros in 1922. At first this firm made popular fantasies, melodramas, and the like. The company's lead actor, Ivan Mosjoukine (who had changed his name from the Russian Mozhukhin), quickly became a major French star. In 1923, Albatros produced one of the most daring of the Impressionist films, Le brasier ardent, codirected by Mosjoukine and Alexandre Volkoff. In 1924, it made Kean, directed by Volkoff and starring Mosjoukine. Though a small company, Albatros was profitable, and it also produced Impressionist films by French directors: Epstein worked there in the mid-1920s, and L'Herbier's company coproduced Feu Mathias Pascal with Albatros.

The most prolific and successful directors of the movement were able to start their own companies. After his early successes for Pathé, Gance formed Films Abel Gance in 1919 (though it did not become financially independent of Pathé until 1924). After a disagreement with Gaumont over Don Juan et Faust in 1922, L'Herbier formed Cinegraphic. This firm produced most of L'Herbier's subsequent 1920s work and also financed Delluc's L'inondation and two Impressionist films directed by one of L'Herbier's main actors, Jaque Catelain. Epstein formed Les Films Jean Epstein in 1926 and kept it going for two years, during which time he made some of the Impressionist movement's most daring films." [2]

Impressionist Theory

"The style of the Impressionist movement derived partly from the directors' beliefs about the cinema as an art form. They expressed these beliefs in poetic, often abstruse, essays and manifestos, which helped define them as a distinct group.

The Impressionists saw art as a form of expression, conveying the personal vision of the artist: art creates an experience, and that experience leads to emotions for the spectator. Art creates these feelings not by making direct statements but by evoking or suggesting them. In short, artworks create fleeting feelings, or impressions. By the 1920s, this view of art was a bit old-fashioned, being rooted in nineteenth-century Romantic and Symbolist aesthetics." [2]

Coeur fidèle (1923)

"Between 1918 and 1928, in a series of extraordinary films, the younger directors experimented with cinema in ways that posed an alternative to the dominant Hollywood formal principles. Given the centrality of emotion in their aesthetic, it is no wonder that the intimate psychological narrative dominated their filmmaking practice. The interactions of a few characters, usually a love triangle (as in Delluc's L'inondation, 1924; Epstein's Coeur fidèle, 1923, and La belle Nivernaise, 1924; and Gance's La dixième symphonie, 1918, would serve as the basis for the filmmaker's exploration of fleeting moods and shifting sensations.

As in the Hollywood cinema, psychological causes were paramount, but the school gained the name Impressionist because of its interest in giving narration considerable psychological depth, revealing the play of a character's consciousness. The interest falls not on external physical behavior but on inner action. To a degree unprecedented in international filmmaking, Impressionist films manipulate plot time and subjectivity. To depict memories, flashbacks are common; sometimes the bulk of a film will be one flashback or a series of them. Even more striking is the films' insistence on registering characters' dreams, fantasies, and mental states. Dulac's La souriante Madame Beudet (1923) consists almost entirely of the main character's fantasy life, her imaginary escape from a dull marriage. Despite its epic length (over five hours), Gance's La roue (1923) rests essentially on the erotic relations among only four people, and the director seeks to trace the development of each character's feelings in great detail. Impressionism's emphasis on personal emotion gives the films' narratives an intensely psychological focus.

The Impressionist movement earned its name as well for its use of film style. The filmmakers experimented with ways of rendering mental states by means of cinematography and editing. In Impressionist films, irises, masks, and superimpositions function as traces of characters' thoughts and feelings. In La Roue, the image of Norma is superimposed over the smoke from a locomotive, representing the fantasy of the engine driver, who is in love with her.

In Eldorado (1921) a man's tipsiness is conveyed by means of a curved mirror that stretches his body sideways

To intensify the subjectivity, the Impressionists' cinematography and editing present characters' perceptual experience, their optical impressions. These films use a great deal of point-of-view cutting, showing a shot of a character looking at something, then a shot of that thing, from an angle and distance replicating the character's vantage point. When a character in an Impressionist film gets drunk or dizzy, the filmmaker renders that experience through distorted or filtered shots or vertiginous camera movements.

The Impressionists also experimented with pronounced rhythmic editing to suggest the pace of an experience as a character feels it, moment by moment. During scenes of violence or emotional turmoil, the rhythm accelerates-the shots get shorter and shorter, building to a climax, sometimes with shots only a few frames long. In La Roue, a train crash is presented in accelerating shots ranging from 13 frames down to 2, and a man's last thoughts before he falls from a cliff are rendered in a blur of many single-frame shots (the first known use of such rapid editing). In Coeur fidèle, lovers at a fair ride in whirling swings, and Epstein presents their giddiness in a series of shots 4 frames, then 2 frames, long. Several Impressionist films use a dance to motivate a markedly accelerated cutting rhythm. More generally, the comparison of cinema to music encouraged the Impressionists to explore rhythmic editing. In such ways, subjective shooting and editing patterns function within Impressionist films to reinforce the narrative treatment of psychological states.

L'argent (1928)

Impressionist form created certain demands on film technology. Gance, the boldest innovator in this respect, used his epic Napoléon (1927) as a chance to try new lenses (even a 275mm telephoto), multiple frame images (called Polyvision), and widescreen ratio (the celebrated triptychs). The most influential Impressionist technological innovation was the development of new means of frame mobility. If the camera was to represent a character's eyes, it should be able to move with the ease of a person. Impressionists strapped their cameras to cars, carousels, and locomotives. For Gance's Napoleon, the camera manufacturer Debrie perfected a handheld model that let the operator move on roller skates. Gance lashed the machine to wheels, cables, pendulums, and bobsleds. In L'argent (1928), L'Herbier had his camera gliding through huge rooms and even plummeting straight down toward the crowd from the dome of the Paris stock exchange.

Such formal, stylistic, and technological innovations had given French filmmakers the hope that their films could win the popularity granted to Hollywood's product. During the 1920s, the Impressionists operated somewhat independently; they formed their own production companies and leased studio facilities from Pathe and Gaumont in exchange for distribution rights. Some Impressionist films did prove moderately popular with French audiences. But by 1929, most foreign audiences had not taken to Impressionism; its experimentation was attuned to elite tastes. Moreover, although production costs were rising, Impressionists such as Gance and L'Herbier became even more free-spending. As a result, filmmakers' companies either went out of business or were absorbed by the big firms. Two behemoth productions of the decade, Napoleon and L'Argent, failed and were reedited by the producers; they were among the last Impressionist films released. With the arrival of the sound film, the French film industry tightened its belt and had no money to risk on experiments." [1]

The End of French Impressionism

"In the late 1910s and the first half of the 1920s, the Impressionists formed a tightly knit group, supporting each other in their mission to establish an a lternative, artistic cinema. By mid-decade, they had succeeded to a considerable extent. While many of their films did not attract large audiences, they often received favorable reviews and were appreciated by the audiences of the cine-clubs and art theaters. In 1925, Leon Moussinac, a leftist critic sympathetic to the Impressionists, published Naissance du cinema ("The Birth of the Cinema"); there he summed up the movement's stylistic traits and the theoretical views of its filmmakers. Largely based on Delluc's writings, Moussinac's account stressed expressive techniques like slow motion and superimpositions, and it singled out the Impressionist group as the most interesting French filmmakers. His summary came at an appropriate time, since no significant concepts were developed in Impressionist theory after this point.

Finis terrae (1929)

There was also a growing sense that the very success of Impressionism had led to a diffusion of its techniques and hence to a lessening of their impact. In 1927, Epstein remarked, "Original devices such as rapid montage or the tracking or panning camera are now vulgarized. They are old hat, and it is necessary to eliminate visibly obvious style in order to create a simple film." Indeed, Epstein increasingly presented simple stories in a quasi-documentary style, using nonactors and eliminating flashy Impressionist camera work and editing. His last Impressionist film, Finis Terrae, portrays two young lighthouse keepers on a rugged island; subjective camera techniques appear mainly when one youth falls ill. Epstein's early sound film, Mor-Vran (1931) eschews Impressionist style altogether in a restrained, poetic narrative of villagers on a desolate island.

Perhaps because the style's techniques were becoming somewhat commonplace, other Impressionist filmmakers began to experiment in different directions. If the era from 1918 to 1922 can be said to have been characterized primarily by pictorialism, and the period from 1923 to 1925 by the addition of rhythmic cutting, then the later years, 1926 to 1929, saw a greater diffusion in the movement. By 1926 some Impressionist directors had achieved considerable independence by forming their own small producing companies. Moreover, the support provided by the cine-clubs and small cinemas now allowed the production of low- budget experimental films. As a result of both these factors, the late Impressionist period saw a proliferation of short films, such as Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant and the four films produced by Les Films Jean Epstein.

La coquille et le clergyman (1928)

Another factor diversifying the Impressionist movement was the impact of experimental films. Surrealist, Dadaist, and abstract films often shared the programs of the cine-clubs and art cinemas with Impressionist films in the mid- to late 1920s. These tendencies were lumped in the category of cinema pur. Dulac wrote and lectured extensively in favor of cinema pur, and in 1928 she abandoned commercial filmmaking to direct a Surrealist film, La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman). Thereafter she concentrated on abstract short films

Such stylistic diffusion might eventually have destroyed any unity among the Impressionists' work and ended the movement. In any event, the late 1920s saw a swift decline in these directors' independence. For one thing, their situation as small producers had always been shaky. They did not own their own studios but had to rent facilities for shooting. Each film had to be financed separately, and a filmmaker's credit was typically based on the success of the previous film.

The introduction of sound in 1929 made it virtually impossible for the Impressionists to regain their independence. Sound production was costly, and it became more difficult to scrape together financing for even a short, low-budget, avant-garde feature . In 1968, L'Herbier recalled the situation:

When sound arrived, the working conditions in the profession became very difficult for a director like me. lt was out of the question, for economic reasons, to envision films in the talking era like those which we had made in the silent era, perhaps even at the author's [i.e., the director's] expense. One had to censor oneself considerably and even, in my case, to adopt forms of cinema which I had always held in contempt. All at once, we were constrained, on account of talk, to do canned theater pieces, pure and simple.

Although the French cinema of the 1930s created several distinctive trends, none of the major Impressionist filmmakers played a prominent role in that creation. Despite the Impressionist films' limited circulation abroad, they influenced other filmmakers. The freely moving camera used to convey a character's perceptual experience was quickly picked up by German filmmakers, who popularized this technique and usually have gotten credit for inventing it. Perhaps the most famous artist to carry on the Impressionist tradition was the young designer and director Alfred Hitchcock, who absorbed influences from American, French, and German films during the 1920s. His 1927 film The Ring could pass for an Impressionist film, and during his long career, Hitchcock became a master of the precise, using camera placement, framing, special effects, and camera movement to convey what his characters see and think. Character subjectivity has long been a staple element of storytelling, and the Impressionists were the filmmakers who explored this aspect of film most thoroughly." [1]


  • La dixieme symphonie (1918)
  • J'accuse! (1919)
  • Rose-France (1919)
  • Le carnaval des vérités (1920)
  • L'homme du large (1920)
  • Fievre (1921)
  • Eldorado (1921)
  • La femme de nulle part (1922)
  • Don Juan et Faust (1922)
  • La roue (1923)
  • L'auberge rouge (1923)
  • La souriante Madame Beudet (1923)
  • Gossette (1923)
  • Coeur fidele (1923)
  • Crainquebille (1923)
  • Le marchand de plaisirs (1923)
  • Le brasier ardent (1923)
  • L'ironie du destin (1923)
  • La galerie des monstres (1924)
  • L'inhumaine (1924)
  • Kean (1924)
  • Une vie sans joie (1924)
  • La belle Nivernaise (1924)
  • L'inondation (1925)
  • Visages d'enfants (1925)
  • La fille de l'eau (1925)
  • L'affiche (1926)
  • Feu Mathias Pascal (1926)
  • Gribiche (1926)
  • Ménilmontant (1926)
  • Six et demi onze (1927)
  • La glace a trois faces (1927)
  • Napoléon (1927)
  • La chute de la maison Usher (1928)
  • La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)
  • L'argent (1928)
  • Brumes d'automne (1929)
  • Finis terrae (1929)