Cinema was officially born in France: on December 28, 1895 the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière organized the first public and paid show of the Cinématographe Lumière at the Grand Café in Paris, a device patented by them that allowed the projection of moving images, surpassing the limits of the kinetoscope of Thomas A. Edison (1893), capable of allowing only a close view. The event, which met with immediate success, was followed by the appearance of numerous equivalent devices, to make very short documentaries such as those presented at the Grand Café. The future of the new invention seemed defined, when Georges Méliès had the idea that he diverted the course of what would become the seventh art, transforming an animated show, devoid of a precise identity, in a form of representation alternative to theater. “What interested Méliès was the ordinary in the extraordinary, while Lumière was interested in the extraordinary in the ordinary” (quoted in J. Aumont, L’œil interminable. Cinéma et peinture, 1989; trans. It. 1991, p. 7). With this definition Jean-Luc Godard liquidates in a few words the two paradigmatic figures of the dawn of cinema: the Lumière, who represented technology and realism, and Méliès, or the union of art with artisan creativity, in short the fiction. The characteristics of these pioneers are however more complex, since the Lumière family only after the invention and experimentation of some famous gags (such as L’arroseur arrosé, 1895) focused on industrial activity and the scientific possibilities of the new instrument, while Méliès, for his part, experimented with many of the future professions of cinema (operator, director, producer), thanks to a polyvalent professional training, expert as he was not only in painting, directing and scenography, but also the techniques of prestidigitation and optical illusion. While the operators of the Lumière (including Alexandre Promio) in a few years invaded the world to resume the most exotic views, Méliès created with the new medium an appendage of the imagination, a hybrid between poetry and scenic make-up, looking for those magic that the theater could not offer (Le voyage dans la Lune, 1902, The journey into the Moon). In this regard it is necessary to mention the technical experiments (superimpositions and optical-mechanical effects,
According to Physicscat, France gave birth not only to the creative dimension of cinema, but also to the industrial one, thanks to Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont (see Gaumont). The first set up the Pathé Frères company in 1896, and between 1903 and 1906 organized it according to a vertically integrated company model that, starting from 1907, would be imitated by the American production companies: in fact, he placed scenographers under his own direct dependencies, operators and directors (including Ferdinand Zecca), and built and managed soundstages and (since 1906) screening rooms. In 1907 Pathé went from selling to renting films, inaugurating the modern distribution policy, and soon became a multinational with offices in all countries: for a few years it was the largest production company in the world, coming to occupy the three quarters of the French market and one third of the US market. In 1908 he created the Pathé journal, which was followed in 1910 by the Actualités della Gaumont et Cie.
French cinematography, although it had achieved a solid economic and commercial structure, had not progressed in the same way in terms of quality: the tricks of the beginning were repeated, the gags of the café-concerts were repeated or dramas inspired by the news were made, in confused films and excessively short (from 6 to 15 minutes), still lacking their own narrative articulation as well as new expressive elements that were being developed elsewhere. After the brilliant inventions of Méliès, the France had not been able to evolve the cinematographic language, unlike the Brighton School. English (1896-1907) and the American David W. Griffith (from 1908). In 1908, to counter the crisis that was looming on the horizon, two bankers, the brothers Paul and André Lafitte, founded the Film d’art company, which had the aim of ennobling cinema by making it an art form: the first film was the Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908) by André Calmettes and Charles-Gustave-Auguste Le Bargy, played by actors of the Comédie française. The Lafitte were soon imitated by Gaumont with the Films esthétiques and by Pathé with the Société cinématografique des auteurs et gens de lettres (SCAGL). The new repertoire included both classic tragedies and famous literary texts, transposed with popular and entertaining intentions (the cineromanzi, on the English model).
The French film industry, which in 1913 accounted for 90% of world production, lost its hegemony following the Great War: US films occupied in France a third of the market as early as 1916, and half in 1918. Also on the qualitative level, despite the presence of personalities such as Max Linder and Louis Feuillade, French cinematography made poorer contributions than the Italian, Scandinavian and American ones: therefore they landed in Italy, where they could find better engagements, many technicians and comedians of Pathé, including André Deed (renamed in Italy with the name of Cretinetti). Linder instead remained in France, where he transformed the comic from a coarse genre to a more refined one, based on precise and often ironic gestures: his stay in the United States (1916-1923) influenced Charlie Chaplin, who declared that he was indebted to him. The most significant idea, however, was that of Feuillade, of Gaumont, who invented the serial film (v. serial, film), with Fantômas (1913-14), from the feuilleton of P. Souvestre and M. Allain, Les vampires (1915-16; The vampires or The knights of darkness) and Judex (1917): all detective works with fantastic and mysterious elements; even in this case, however, it was more of a commercial enterprise than a real aesthetic change.
The end of the conflict saw German competition join US competition: in 1920 French productions thus came to cover just one sixth of their market. On the artistic level, however, there was a new creative phase, that of Impressionism. This current, formed mostly by directors who had also been writers and essayists, sought in reality those intrinsic qualities that could be revealed by the cinematographic image (defined by the term photogenic). Intellectuals such as Ricciotto Canudo and Louis Delluc faced the problem of providing a theoretical status to the new art. Delluc, in particular, was among the first defenders of an independent criticism in contrast to the promotional one paid for by the productions, becoming the spokesperson for the directors of the rebirth of French cinema, including Abel Gance and Marcel L’Herbier; to attempt a practical experimentation of his theoretical concepts he also faced directing (Fièvre, 1921; La femme de nulle part, 1922). In 1920 he founded the first film club (a term he coined himself): in the wake of this initiative, others were inaugurated, such as the Club des amis du septième art, promoted in 1921 by Canudo, and in a short time a real circuit was created in Paris where avant-garde and militant films were screened, up to to form a new space parallel to that of consumption. Encouraged by Delluc, L’Herbier was also an essayist, organizer and animator of the avant-garde in the 1920s; more interested in the expressive qualities of the image than in the textual and screenwriting aspects favored by Delluc, he created Inhumaine (1924; Futurism), a fantastic melodrama that stages the aesthetic taste of the time, an anthological work on art deco but of little commercial success, and Feu Mathias Pascal (1925; The late Mattia Pascal), with whom he achieved notoriety, taken from L. Pirandello and played by Ivan Mo-sjoukine (Mozžuchin) and rookie Michel Simon. Gance, in La roue (1923; The rose on the rails), had already enriched the cinematographic language in the direction of an at times excessive virtuosity; but his key work remains Napoléon (1927; Napoleon), one of the greatest French blockbusters of all time, an emphatic, epic-lyric work, rich in symbolism, with an initial duration of 8 hours. It presented many novelties: the camera was extremely mobile, and the projection was spread over three screens that widened the visible field or served as a narrative counterpoint to each other (an ante litteram multivision). Among the other names of the period, in addition to Jacques de Baroncelli (Le père Goriot, 1923) and J. Feyder (Crainquebille, 1922), that of a former assistant director of Delluc, Jean Epstein, theorist and essayist, emerges, who dealt with both the documentary (Pasteur, 1922, directed together with Jean Benoît-Lévy; Finis terrae, 1929) and the feature film, with La chute de la maison Usher (1928), a work with rarefied sets and optical effects, which aimed at the metaphysical purification of the expressionist style and outlined a type of horror composed of anxieties and expectations (it is in fact considered fundamental for the development of the genre). Germaine Dulac became the most important female name in interwar cinema: after meeting Delluc, she turned to the avant-garde trend with Le diable dans la ville (1925), directed together with Léon Mathot, and created the controversial La coquille et le clergyman (1928), with a surrealist trend, written by Antonin Artaud but later disavowed by him. The advent of sound signaled the end of Impressionism: most directors were unable to adapt to technical and stylistic changes, and even if some authors continued to make films for decades (Gance even up to the 1960s), they managed to produce at most consumer works, which almost never aroused the interest of critics. The cinema of the 1920s also saw the presence of films influenced by Dadaism and Surrealism, starting with Man Ray’s 1923 short film Retour à la raison. These works, often opposed by the public and banned by censorship, maintained a spirit of experimental provocation and did not reach the consumer circuit. The main ideas were different: from the need to create a sort of automatic cinema, marked by the pure movement of objects (Le ballet mécanique, 1924, by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy) or by abstract geometric shapes (Anémic cinéma, 1925, by Marcel Duchamp), up to the coexistence of dream images and decontextualized body details. The most important personality was undoubtedly that of the Spanish Luis Buñuel, who, in Un chien andalou (1929), directed with Salvador Dalí, and L’âge d’or (1930), which later became the manifesto of surrealist cinema, formulated, according to original and paradoxical narrative methods, an anticlerical and anti-bourgeois critique, full of symbolic images, some of which are remarkably effective. The short film Entr’acte (1924) by René Clair is also very close in spirit and style. Despite this creative fervor, in the 1920s the French film industry saw the crisis that began in 1914 continue: production gradually decreased, reaching 52 films in 1929 (against 1350 American and 192 Germans), which represented little more than one tenth of those in circulation in France, while those in the United States were about half.