Cinema and Media Studies Cinephilia
Annie Fee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0278


The French term cinéphile can be traced back to the heyday of French film production in the early 1910s just before the outbreak of World War I. The Parisian film press used cinéphile to describe a cinema lover, the opposite of the cinéphobe, or one who hates cinema. The latter felt that the new medium was a vulgar, immoral, and mindless leisure activity. Against a background of anti-cinema or cinephobic sentiment among the governing and ecclesiastical elite, the press described any state representative or other notable who demonstrated a strong support for cinema as a cinéphile. In 1928, when the words cinéphile, cinémathèque, cinémanie, and cinéphobe first appeared in the French dictionary (Larousse du XXe siècle [Paris: Librairie Larousse]), the terms were unfamiliar enough that one journalist told his readers not to confuse the root ciné with the Latin word for ash—cinis. Cinéfier, belonging to the family of cinéraire (funeral urn) and incinérer (cremate or burn), the journalist told them, had nothing to do with the word cinégraphier, the former meaning “to reduce to ashes,” and the latter meaning to make a film. This lexicon has merged in the past decade, as many critics, filmmakers, and cultural commenters fear that the culture of cinephilia is about to go up in smoke—“to return to ashes,” or cinis. They attribute this to changes in spectatorship and audience taste, the ubiquity of digital projection, the increase in mobile screen technologies, the practice of online viewing, and the closing of traditional art cinema venues. It was Susan Sontag’s essay “The Decay of Cinema” (Sontag 1996, cited under Key Texts) that first sounded the death knell for cinephilia as a “specific love of cinema.” Sontag’s essay—cinéraire, or funerary in its tone as the author evoked the death of cinephilia—was the beginning of a now-familiar eulogizing, nostalgic trend in texts by cinephile critics and film scholars alike.

Key Texts

As Willemen 1994 notes, cinephilia is both a cultural phenomenon that can be situated within a particular historical period and a relationship to cinema. Since Willemen 1994, a new wave of scholarly interest in cinephilia has harnessed the phenomenon to develop new approaches to film. Willemen 1994 introduced the term “cinephiliac moment” and anchored to this term are several key characteristics of cinephilic experience that serve as touchstones for future scholars: spectatorial pleasure, fetish, intertextual citation, cinephilic collection, nostalgia, and memory. These scholars have in common an interest in the filmic fragment that creates a moment of pleasure, a pleasure that is accidental and contingent and that ruptures with the film’s linear narrative. The fleeting nature of this cinephiliac moment means that any discussion of the pleasure it provides is always connected with discussions of personal memory, nostalgia, absence, and loss. Cinephilic nostalgia can thus relate to a moment of viewing pleasure recollected from the past or to a collective nostalgia for the historical moment in the 1950s when classical cinephilia emerged in connection to the French New Wave filmmakers, Cahiers du Cinéma, and the mythology surrounding Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque Française—a historical overview provided in de Baecque 2003 and mourned in Sontag 1996. Indeed, many scholars of cinephilia today share the filmic pleasures of the Cahiers critics, notably a taste for Classical Hollywood cinema. Understanding the specific pleasures offered by Hollywood cinema’s mise en scène structures the enquiry of both Richards 2013 and Keathley 2006. On the level of filmic reception, Keathley’s theorizing of the “cinephiliac moment” as an image-moment appreciated by a cinephile spectator “with special abilities” perpetuates a dichotomy between the critical “cinephile” spectator and the “ordinary spectator.” In this sense, Keathley echoes the critical writings of Louis Delluc and Jean Epstein, who, as Willemen 1994 points out, mobilized the term photogénie “to demarcate one set of viewers from others” (126). Jullier and Leveratto 2010, on the other hand, champions the “ordinary cinephile” and celebrates the diversification of cinephile publics in the digital age while critiquing the hegemony of the Cahiers du Cinéma brand of classical cinephilia championed in de Baecque 2003. Other scholarship calls for a decentering of the concept of cinephilia to account for the multiple ways in which film appreciation intersects with class, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities. Sellier 2008 (cited under French Postwar Cinephilias) is grounded in feminist film historiography and opposes the rosy view of the New Wave cinephilia of the 1950s, criticizing it as elitist, individualistic, and masculine. Valck and Hagener 2005, Shambu 2014, and Rosenbaum 2010 are similarly optimistic about “new cinephilia” in the age of DVDs, video on demand (VoD) and the Internet. Elsaesser 2005 historicizes cinephilia, tracing parallels between the 1950s French model as “cinephilia take one” and the practices of the new generation of cinephiles, or “cinephilia take two.”

  • de Baecque, Antoine. La cinéphilie: Invention d’un regard, histoire d’une culture, 1944–1968. Paris: Fayard, 2003.

    De Baecque’s study is historically and site-specific, restricted to the circle of 1950s Parisian filmmaker critics of Cahiers du Cinéma fame. De Baecque is particularly interested in the cinephiles’ creative activity of writing criticism, and the author traces the beginnings of film aesthetics emerging from intellectual cinephilia. See Jullier and Leveratto 2010 and Sellier 2008 (the latter cited under French Postwar Cinephilias) for counter approaches to French cinephilia.

  • Elsaesser, Thomas. “Cinephilia, or the Uses of Disenchantment.” In Cinephilia: Movies, Love, and Memory. Edited by Marijke de Valck and Malte Hagener, 27–43. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

    Elsaesser’s tone is nostalgic as the author traces the history of cinephilia from its “originary moment” in the Cahiers de Cinéma to the period of “disenchantment” with the emergence of academic film studies and screen theory. Ultimately, the author sees the irrecoverability of filmic experience and, more importantly, of “filmic memory” as anxieties at the heart of both classical and contemporary cinephilic practices.

  • Jullier, Laurent, and Jean-Marc Leveratto. Cinéphiles et cinéphilies: Une histoire de la qualité cinématographique. Paris: Armand Colin, 2010.

    Jullier and Leveratto’s study of different ages of cinephilia seeks to move beyond de Baecque’s approach (see de Baecque 2003), which is confined to the cinemagoing habits and cultural practices of a group of famous cinephiles and their preferred films. The authors advocate for the technical knowledge and undervalued connoisseurship of “ordinary cinephiles.”

  • Keathley, Christian. Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.

    One of the first book-length studies on cinephilia, Keathley is interested in the way in which cinephilia might be rewoven into the academic discipline of film studies as an alternative approach to theories of spectatorship. Jullier and Leveratto 2012 (cited under Cinephilia in the Digital Age) argues that this approach is emblematic of “the usual confusion between cinephilia and the transmission of cinema heritage” (152).

  • Richards, Rashna Wadia. Cinematic Flashes: Cinephilia and Classical Hollywood. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

    Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s historical-materialist approach, Richards uses neglected “cinephiliac moments” as entry points into the cultural history of studio-era Hollywood. Using four case studies, the author privileges alternative practices that fall outside the conventional narrative of studio-era standardization.

  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226726663.001.0001

    Each essay in this collection resonates with global reconfigurations of cinephila at specific moments of media change. The first essay, “Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia” (pp. 3–9), offers a critical glance at how the DVD has changed cinephile culture. In another essay, “Film Writing on the Web: Some Personal Reflections” (pp. 277–284), Rosenbaum addresses the impact of the Internet on traditional film criticism. Each text is enlivened by personal cinephile anecdotes from his long experience as a critic working in Paris and New York.

  • Shambu, Girish. The New Cinephilia. Kino-Agora 8. Montreal: Caboose, 2014.

    Shambu’s monograph is the first book-length study to deal with cinephilia as a cultural and historical phenomenon and as a spectatorial experience. The author places Susan Sontag’s essay (Sontag 1996) in the context of changes to the film consumption landscape that has accompanied the DVD and the Internet. Like de Baecque 2003, Shambu describes the importance of rituals, such as conversation, collection, and writing, and the various forums of cinephilia, such as the Internet and film magazines.

  • Sontag, Susan. “The Decay of Cinema.” New York Times Magazine, 25 February 1996: 60–61.

    Sontag laments the demise of cinema or, rather, cinephilia in the context of a decrease in art house cinemas and art house audiences in New York. As Jullier and Leveratto 2010 points out, Sontag’s cinephilia is the classical postwar French cinephilia of de Baecque. Many scholars have since responded by arguing that developments in film exhibition caused by new technologies are, in fact, a positive change.

  • Valck, Marijke de, and Malte Hagener, eds. Cinephilia: Movies, Love and Memory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005.

    For Hagener and De Valck, cinephilia has become “an umbrella term for a number of different affective engagements with the moving image” (p. 14). Their argument that the intertextuality of contemporary film is a cinephile “act of memory” opens the path for creative new practices of cinephilia. The introduction offers a summary of recent scholarship on “new cinephilia.”

  • Willemen, Paul. “Through the Glass Darkly: Cinephilia Reconsidered.” In Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory. By Paul Willemen, 223–257. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

    Willemen was the first to locate 1920s debates on photogénie as the “privileged moment” for the emergence of cinephilia. The author argues that the recognition of photogénie demarcated a set of spectators—cinephiles—from mere cinemagoers. Importantly, Willemen argues that to understand the cultural politics of the term “cinephilia” it must be re-embedded within the cultural and historical context in which the term “photogénie” took on the connotations of intellectual film analysis.

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