In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section French Cinema

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Film Genres
  • Stardom and Performance

Cinema and Media Studies French Cinema
Ginette Vincendeau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0032


As befits the country of the cinema’s official “birth,” France boasts a long tradition of writing on film. In the 1920s, avant-garde filmmakers such as Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein started theorizing cinema’s specificity as a medium, while in the 1930s debates turned political. During that decade critics and historians, such as Georges Sadoul, began also to reflect on film history. Major works on French cinema, however, started to appear only after World War II. A first wave emerged from the postwar cultural effervescence and the rise of cinephilia, with new journals such as Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. Film critic André Bazin and his disciples (among them future New Wave filmmakers François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard) developed the politique des auteurs and wrote the first “serious” monographs about filmmakers—mostly American and French. In their wake auteurist works took off in the 1960s, as well as reflections on movements such as the New Wave and French cinema as a whole. A second wave followed the rise of academic film studies in the 1970s, initially with the accent on theory, and saw the internationalization of French cinema studies. In the 1980s and 1990s a “historical turn” generated influential studies—survey histories, anthologies, and accounts of specific periods and movements—in the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. Echoing the continuing spread of film studies courses and the buoyancy of French cinema, a third wave followed, with a discernible shift toward cultural and ideological approaches. In particular, issues of gender, ethnic, and cultural identity came to the fore, as well as film and philosophy, together with a marked interest in contemporary cinema. The enduring strength of auteurism means that some areas, notably popular genres, are still underexplored. Nevertheless, French cinema is now remarkably well mapped out.

General Overviews

Following the seminal book Sadoul 1962, overviews of French cinema have been in huge demand by students and the general public alike. The volumes below in their different ways steer a successful course between comprehensiveness and clarity. French-language books such as Billard 1995, Frodon 1995, and Pinel 2006 tend toward the more encyclopedic and include popular genre films, while Jeancolas 2005 is typical of an imprint known for its pithy but knowledgeable précis of various topics. The English-language books are more selective in their corpus, in line with the limited availability of French films outside France. A clear trajectory can be seen from Armes 1985, the work of an auteurist critic, to the more scholarly Williams 1992, and to Hayward 2005, which deploys a more theoretical, and feminist inspired, approach—these are to some extent reprised in Lanzoni 2015.

  • Armes, Roy. French Cinema. London: Secker & Warburg, 1985.

    The first major one-volume account of French cinema (to the mid-1980s) by a British writer—written from an auteurist perspective and canonical in its view of French cinema.

  • Billard, Pierre. L’âge classique du cinéma français: Du cinéma parlant à la nouvelle vague. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.

    A former film journalist turned historian and biographer, Billard brings in-depth knowledge of the French film industry to this well-documented account of French cinema from the beginnings of sound cinema to the New Wave.

  • Frodon, Jean-Michel. L’Âge moderne du cinéma français: De la nouvelle vague à nos jours. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.

    As well as being a journalist for Le Monde, writer and one-time editor for Les Cahiers du Cinéma Frodon is Pierre Billard’s son. This volume follows that of his father—Billard 1995—with an equally informed account of French cinema since the New Wave.

  • Hayward, Susan. French National Cinema. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

    The leading survey history of French cinema in the English language. Hayward’s account of the national specificity of French cinema is clearly marked by an interest in gender, ethnicity, and history, and is written in a lively style.

  • Jeancolas, Jean-Pierre. Histoire du cinéma français. 2d ed. Paris: Armand Colin, 2005.

    The author of numerous incisive volumes on different periods of French cinema (written from a left-wing perspective), Jeancolas here brings his considerable expertise as historian and critic to bear on this compact but very clear history.

  • Lanzoni, Rémi Fournier. French Cinema from Its Beginnings to the Present. 2d ed. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

    A popular textbook with students, this survey of French cinema does not offer new angles on the material but has the merit of inclusiveness, in particular of more recent works.

  • Pinel, Vincent. Cinéma français. Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 2006.

    A beautifully illustrated and informative summation of French cinema by a respected historian, bringing his authoritative perspective as a former director at the Cinémathèque Française.

  • Sadoul, Georges. Le cinéma français, 1890–1962. Paris: Flammarion, 1962.

    The leading French communist film critic for decades, Sadoul was one of the great pioneers of film history. Despite its early cutoff date, this is a milestone in the writing of the history of French cinema.

  • Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

    This substantial and scholarly account of French cinema up to the early 1990s is excellent for the period up to the New Wave, though less informative about the remaining decades.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.