As someone who was introduced to French cinema a mere year and a half ago, I could see how it could sound hypercritical to make the claim that French films are much better than American films. On the other hand, if I’ve seen American films for the past 22 years and was able to come to this conclusion after only a year and a half of experiencing French films, it goes to show how incredibly different the two are, further proof that one can indeed be clearly better.
To begin, the most distinguishable difference between the two is plot. I admit, watching French films for the first time can be exhausting, and I won’t judge if you fall asleep here and there. After all, it can be easy to get bored from watching two hours of pure dialogue in which a guy and a girl discuss love and philosophy and one’s whole world view is flipped upside down, leaving audiences to question their own morals and the meaning of their entire existence on Earth (“My Night At Maud’s” (1969)).
But seriously, it can be difficult to sit back and not be given the usual ‘Hollywood style’ format of a film. This style is known as the five-act structure. Act one involves setting up exposition, the rising action begins in act two, the climax begins to build in act three, act four focuses on the aftermath of the climax and act five finishes the film with resolution, according to the Nashville Film Institute. This structure appears with almost every commercial American film, such as “Casablanca” (1943), “The Godfather” (1972), “Back to the Future” (1985), “The Mask” (1994) and more.
However, in the late 1950s, French filmmakers collectively decided to reject this structure, a movement known as the French New Wave. Thanks to cinema critics such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer, who “pushed against big film studios controlling the creative process,” as a Masterclass article put it, French filmmakers were able to focus on creating what films are meant to be: art. This rejection of a proven-to-be successful structure comes as no surprise as the French were, after all, the first ones to make a film (“Film historians call ‘The Arrival of a Train,’ by the Lumiere brothers, the birth of the medium,” reads an article in The Guardian), so who is going to tell them what to do?
This attitude — one that can’t be bought or sold — is what truly defines the difference between French and American cinema. The French will make films that tell stories that they feel need to be told, regardless of whether it is ‘exciting’ or ‘expensive’ enough to studios or even audiences. Art shouldn’t be made with marketing as a No. 1 focus, it should be made for the purpose of being thoughtful and, of course, artistic.
In my opinion, watching one person walking around and contemplating life as they go through their day (such as in “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962)), is much more artistic than watching a big-name celebrity go through the same problem-then-solution format again and again. Going against the grain and allowing directors to have complete creative freedom without the fear of studios breathing down their backs ensures that French films right off the bat are going to be more substantial in terms of storytelling.
“Americans go to the movies to be entertained,” wrote Bob Moss, author and film blogger, in his article for Immigrant Magazine. “They do not like having to think a lot as they watch the film and rarely think about its messages or meaning after leaving the theater. European films, however, require constant attention and a good memory. Their goal is to make you think.”
I cannot conclude my argument of French cinema being superior without mentioning the film “Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945) directed by Marcel Carné. “Les Enfants du Paradis” is a perfect film, and if everyone could only watch one film in their entire life, it should be this one. From the mise en scène, to the storytelling and the overall message, it shows what film has the power to do. If new to French cinema, I would suggest viewing “Breathless” (1960), “La Femme Nikita” (1990) or for a newer film, “Lost Illusions” (2021). Just remember one thing: be open-minded.