As a historical romance between two women set on an island in Brittany, Portrait of a Lady on Fire sounds like standard prestige-picture fare: a stately tale of burning desire and repression, with unsubtle parallels to our own time. But even if Céline Sciamma's film teems with lustful glances and pointed critiques of marriage and patriarchy, it's infinitely more interesting, sensuous, and arresting than that description makes it sound. With its overt feminism and depiction of the burgeoning identity of a young female artist, the film inevitably conjures recent fare like The Souvenir and Greta Gerwig's Little Women, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the most compelling and quietly radical among them: an enigmatic film about the battle waged between realism and expressionism.
Louis Malle's Calcutta (1969) is comprised of footage left over from the shooting of Phantom India, a seven-part TV documentary that aired in France and England in 1969. The former is a fascinating piece of ethnographic filmmaking, but mostly for all the wrong reasons: every difficult, unanswerable question about the ethical obligation of the outsider artist and the voyeuristic nature of film recording is posed by Calcutta (often, one senses, inadvertently). It purports to be an unvarnished document of a poverty-stricken metropolis in flux, but really it's a document of how artists try to lend themselves legitimacy by exoticizing the "Other" while neglecting to explore the object of their study with any empathy or respect.
Early in the film Climax, we witness something that's never been present before in the work of Gaspar Noé: euphoria. It comes from a jaw-dropping dance number, filmed with characteristic bravado in one continuous take by Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie. In a vacant school, in front of a glittering French flag, a virtuosic dance troupe leaps, contorts, gyrates, and performs other feats of bodily insanity to a thumping techno beat. It's a moment of both cinematic and athletic mastery, radiating with joy and energy, and it feels like a radical breakthrough in the career of a director who's so often seen as nihilistic and puerile.
Pickpocket, the first film that Robert Bresson directed from an original script not based on a previous literary work, is a radically internalized film. Not unlike Bresson's previous film, A Man Escaped (but more audaciously), Pickpocket has a general plot outline and even a few scenes that suggest an action-thriller: an aimless young man in Paris decides to become a pickpocket, evades the police, and collaborates with two other thieves to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Parisians' pocketbooks. (Rumor has it that Bresson was even inspired by Samuel Fuller's pulpy 1953 film Pickup on South Street.) But Bresson uses this concept as a springboard to confront existential despair, to philosophize about the (perhaps fruitless) search for meaning, to expose a character's soul onscreen. This was the first true elaboration of Bresson's austere, "transcendental" style (to use Paul Schrader's description), and it still feels jarringly uncompromising.
If The Night of the Hunter (1955) is the most savagely beautiful fairy tale in the history of movies, Georges Franju’s Eyes without a Face is a close second. The contradictory tone of Franju’s film—it’s chilly and tragic, lurid and graceful—is essential to its ethereal horror, a lingering unease as solemn as it is terrifying. Like many of the best horror movies, it holds the awful corruptibility of man in one hand and an empathetic pity in the other, taking advantage of the horror genre’s potential to show human beings at their best and worst extremes.
The Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès are often credited with laying the foundation for two divergent paths in film history: a documentary-like inclination towards realism in the former, and an emphasis on fantasy and spectacle in the latter. It is indeed hard to overstate the importance of both traditions in the ensuing century-plus of movies, but there’s a third and maybe equally significant influence that emerged from early French cinema. The crime serials that started populating storefront cinemas in France in the 1910s—by which point the powerhouse production companies (like Gaumont and Éclair) had already been established and urban audiences had begun flocking to movies as the modern era’s pop-culture medium of choice—walked a fine line between mainstream entertainment and subversive surrealism. French artists like Louis Aragon and Andre Breton praised such serials for inscribing the headlong velocity of the twentieth century onscreen.