Retrospective of the 100 greatest films of French Cinematography

Unusual French movies from the half of the fifties

The period in French Cinematography when story and dialog were more
important then innovations in film expression

At the first glance, the films gathered in this programme “100 greatest films of
French Cinematography” - Les grandes manoeuvres, René Clair 1955, And
God Created Woman / Et Dieu… créa la femme,
Roger Vadim 1956, Frantic/
Ascenseur pour l'échafaud
, Louis Malle 1958 - do not have a lot in common,
except the time in which they were made. The first movie is the masterpiece of
the late phase of French - and even world - cinematography. The other two are
the first and maybe the best movies of two famous directors of the younger
generation at the time. Vadim is justly not considered an important director
while similar opinions sometimes occur, unjustly, for Malle as well.
Nevertheless, those three movies had all, in their own way, had a similar role
when they were made, at a time when the French cinematography was dominated by
adaptations of literary pieces in which story and dialogues were more important
then innovations in film expression. Naturally, this approach was foreign to
Clair, who grew in the period of sound movies; at the beginning of sound movies
he used more noises and music than dialogues and all the way to the end he paid
more attention to the film images than to dialogues. Films of Vadim and Malle
are considered as an avant-garde of the New Wave, whose representatives are
critics of monthly paper “Cahiers du cinéma” in which they totally renounce
(excessively) the values of the mainstream in French cinematography.

Even though we can find in Great Manoeuvres some similarities with French
vaudeville and comedy at the turn of the 20th century, Clair was able to tell a
fairly poor story of the bet of young, brilliant colonel in a little town just
before the World War I by means, mainly, of innovative director’s solutions and
less by dialogue. Great interpretations of greatest French actors at the time
contributed to it: Gérard Philip as a colonel (only four years later he died of
cancer at 37 and is less known to younger film fans) and Michele Morgan in a
role of a timid and unreachable woman that he has to seduce and, along the way,
by whom he has to have his attitude changed.

Clair balances with remarkable skill between comedy and drama, laughter and
emotion, or carelessness and melancholy and makes an authentic movie as
different from the main tendencies as from the “new wave.”

And God Created Woman / Et Dieu… créa la femme “ by Roger Vadim about an
18-year-old girl in love with one brother and marrying the other and then
becoming the lover of the first one, expresses among the first filmmakers (not
only in France but in the world) unrepressed female sexuality and search for
emancipation provoking the astonishment of the public which brings him closer to
the “new wave” because they treated French cinematography as sterile and

Vadim had promoted his first wife at the time into one of the greatest stars of
world film (she had a small role in Les grandes manoeuvres), by playing
similar roles of the uninhibited young women mostly in the mediocre movies
showing more her beauty then acting abilities.

Still, her personality no doubt expressed some changes in the behaviour that had
started to become generally accepted at that time when she gained world-wide

The connection of Malle’s Frantic with the “new wave” is more complex and
firm, even though he had also made a big star of his actress Jeanne Moreau
(after more then ten years of her not overly-successful career). She also breaks
the conventions but with a role of an intelligent and ironic woman often aware
that she will loose in the battle with the grey unsatisfying reality. Even
though Malle’s film was based on a literary model– a crime story by Noël Calef -
the visual in it overshadows the verbal and it firmly establishes a modernistic
poetics dominated by a youth’s enthusiasm and unconventional storytelling of
lovers trying to cover up an almost perfect murder. Far more important than
action is the atmosphere that owes a lot to the great cameraman, Henri
Decaë, who had a breakthrough with this movie, and great music (with a long solo
improvisation) by Miles Davis, which was a great help to an astonishing (for the
first movie) directing virtuosity of Louis Malle. Special attention is to be
paid to the almost “bressonian” perfection in showing a detail and using the

The time that has passed since then has, without a doubt, not diminished the
value and appeal of Les grandes manoeuvres and Frantic, but And
God Created Woman
has lost its provocative tone because of a freer
perception of eroticism on the movies and in society nowadays (and some of its
flaws are more visible). All three movies remind us of the times when not only
American cinematography dominated the movie halls and when French cinematography
(with great works even today but without such an impact) made a big difference
in filmmaking tendencies (Tomislav Kurelec).