French Impressionism

What it is…

A vaguely defined set of films made in Western Europe during the 1910s and 1920s that possess a number of stylistic similarities. It is named after the major movement in painting that flourished in and around France during the 19th century. Although France is considered the epicentre of this group of films, its ideas were being used by contemporary filmmakers in other parts of the world.

Who were its pioneers...

Like German Expressionism, French Impressionism has its roots, albeit tenuous, in its national painting. In fact, Jean Renoir, one of the filmmakers associated with the movement, was the son of renowned Impressionist painter Auguste Renoir. Other key figures affiliated with Impressionism are Abel Gance, Marcel L'Herbier, Germaine Dulac and Jean Epstein.

Why it is important...

Few film movements have had an impact as enormous as French Impressionism, and its influence can be seen in films ranging from the most experimental to the least innovative. Every time a filmmaker attempts to make the audience feel what the characters are feeling, he is, directly or indirectly, borrowing from this movement. The psychological implications of the techniques used by Impressionist films have been an object of study for years.

Where to find it...

In an elaborate passage in Germaine Dulac's The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), we see a young housewife, who has been locked inside the house by her cranky husband, reflecting about her situation. Dulac uses a host of techniques – slow motion, image distortion, double exposure, directional lighting and irises – to sketch the sensual experience of the lonely protagonist. The film, literally, presents a woman's view of her world.

How it is defined…


Like the Impressionist painters who registered the physicality of the paint brush on their canvases, Impressionist filmmakers sought to use the camera as a brush, registering characters' sensory impressions of the world on film. Moving away from the theatricality of most productions, these filmmakers sought to make films that were more medium-specific and use them as vehicles of personal expression.


The mantra of Impressionism in cinema was subjectivity and this subjectivity was literalised by the idea of using the camera as a substitute for human eyes. This resulted in a number of techniques including shooting from characters' points-of-view, unhinged camera movements, optical effects and tricks to illustrate bodily experience or state of mind. Unlike most films of the era, an element of ambiguity in the visuals was welcome.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 3:57:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/chennai/chen-columns/french-impressionism/article2801136.ece

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