Introduction to French Cinema

Module code: FR2023

Module co-ordinator: Dr Oliver Brett

In this module, we'll study two key aspects of French film history: the 1930s and New Wave cinema.

The 1930s: This part of the module will focus on the work of cinéastes and artists making films during the transition from the silent era into sound, as pre-war tensions rose across Europe. We will analyse the styles of these directors, from Jean Vigo's montage, influenced by the experimental effects of the surrealists and a painterly approach to light, to Julien Duvivier’s exoticising vision of colonial Algeria, Marcel Carné's intensely poetic version of realism, and Renoir’s satire of bourgeois society. We will explore some of the key themes and tensions of French cinema in the 1930s, including formal experimentation, class conflict and political subversion, and the yearning for escape.

New Wave cinema: In the second half of the module, we will study the film makers who challenged the narrative and stylistic codes and choice of subject matter of mainstream cinema in the late fifties and early sixties, and examine how well the label of 'New Wave auteur' sits with each of them. Exploring issues such as dance, crime, Hollywood glamour, gender politics, and the hidden trauma of war, we will analyse the ways in which these filmmakers approached film-making and investigate the social, political, and literary context within which they worked.

Set films are likely to include:

  • L’Atalante (dir. Jean Vigo, 1934)
  • Pépé le Moko (dir. Julien Duvivier, 1937)
  • Le Jour se lève (dir. Marcel Carné, 1939)
  • La Règle du jeu (dir. Jean Renoir, 1939)
  • Les 400 Coups (dir. François Truffaut, 1959)
  • A bout de souffle (dir. Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)
  • Hiroshima mon amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1962)
  • Cléo de 5 à 7 (dir. Agnès Varda, 1962)

By the end of the module, you'll understand concepts used in the analysis of film narrative and form, the stylistic characteristics of individual directors and the formal aspects of particular film movements, and the social and political contexts of the pre- and post-war periods of French cinema.


Each week you will attend one two-hour seminar and one two-hour film screening. The seminar will be structured differently each week, but will include introductory lectures, round-table seminars, and student-led group presentations.


  • One 2,000-word essay (50%)
  • One 1,500-word sequence analysis (40%)
  • A weekly seminar journal (10%)
  • Group oral presentations (nonassessed)

Recommended reading

  • Bordwell and Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (McGraw-Hill, 1990)
  • Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2005)
  • Emma Wilson, French Cinema since 1950: Personal Histories (London: Duckworth, 1999)
  • Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds.) French Film: Texts and Contexts, 2nd edn (Routledge, 2000)