Silents are Golden: 12 French Silent Film Recommendations
Thanks to pioneering inventors like the Lumière Brothers, who famously held the first public showing of motion pictures in Paris on December 28, 1895, France is often considered the birthplace of cinema. And beyond producing early cameras and projectors, France also contributed a great deal to the artistic side of cinema from the very beginning, inspiring filmmakers all over the world.
If you aren’t too familiar with early French films and are wondering where to start, here are a dozen eclectic recommendations ranging from whimsical short comedies to delicately-acted dramatic features.
12. The Merry Frolics of Satan (Les Quat’Cents Farces du diable, 1906)
Georges Méliès was one of the first filmmakers to recognize that film was wonderfully suited to telling imaginative, whimsical stories. Everyone’s familiar with the iconic A Trip to the Moon (1902), but another gem is The Merry Frolics of Satan, an adaptation of Faust. The charm of seeing our main characters sailing through the stars in a flying carriage pulled by a strange skeletal horse simply has to be experienced yourself.
11. Max Takes a Bath (Max prend un bain, 1910)
Years before the idea of a “movie star” would take hold in the 1910s, the dapperly-dressed comedian Max Linder was being recognized for his dozens of short, charming comedies, paving the way for all the comedians to follow him. Max Takes a Bath is readily available online and is a nice showcase for his subtle, situation-based humor with touches of absurdity.
10. La Roue (The Wheel, 1923)
Abel Gance’s (very) lengthy drama follows the travails of Sisif, a railroad engineer and widower who adopts the orphaned baby girl Norma. He raises her along with his little son Elie in a cottage surrounded by a railyard. Norma blossoms into a lovely young woman, and to his own horror, Sisif finds himself growing obsessed with her–and the tragic twists don’t end there. A darkly psychological tale, La Roue is stuffed with innovative editing and haunting visuals that greatly influenced fellow filmmakers, including some astonishing lightning-fast montages.
9. Ménilmontant (1926)
This exquisite, 40-minute piece of avant-garde by Dmitri Kirsanoff opens with a sudden, startling murder, and then follows two sisters as they try to start a new life in a poor neighborhood of Paris. One of the sisters falls for a charming young man, but in time she discovers he’s seduced her sister, too. Poetic and tragic, but nevertheless containing glimpses of hope, it features a wonderfully delicate performance by Kirsanoff’s wife Nadia that you won’t soon forget.
8. Visages D’enfants (1926)
Plenty of silent dramas did indeed have subtle, realistic storytelling, and few prove it better than this gem by Jacques Feydar It was filmed in the Swiss village of Grimentz and starred the child actor Jean Forest, who Feydar had discovered in Montmartre, Paris. Telling the story of a boy whose beloved mother passes away and who soon finds himself at odds with his new stepmother and stepsister, it’s a poignant work with many wonderfully naturalistic touches.
7. The Italian Straw Hat (1928)
On the day of his wedding, Fadinard’s horse eats a lady’s hat while she’s trysting with a lover behind a bush. Since going home hatless would surely wreck the lady’s reputation, the couple insist that Fadinard be responsible for finding an exact replacement–and fast. Rene Clair’s mildly risque farce adapts an 1850s play and sets it in 1895, and also imitates some of the early films from that Belle Epoque era.
6. The Haunted House (1907)
Often confused with several practically identical short films–the 1900s being a time when filmmakers copied each other shamelessly–Segundo de Chomón’s six-minute film features a house morphing into a face, a freaky crepe hair-bedecked demon, several odd-looking travelers and a brilliant stop motion sequence of a “ghostly” tea service. De Chomón worked in France for Pathé Frères and made a number of very Méliès-like films. Readily available online, The Haunted House’s surreal, anything-goes imagery is a particularly nice fit for Halloween.
5. The Policemen’s Little Run (1907)
When Mack Sennett talked about being inspired by French comedies, he was certainly thinking of a film like The Policemen’s Little Run. Short and sweet, it shows an impish dog stealing a leg of mutton from a butcher shop and being pursued by an entire bungling police force. You might call it a blueprint for the Keystone Cops films from the 1910s. The scene of the dog and cops climbing a building–thanks to some clever trompe l’oeil–will bring a smile to any face, if you ask me.
4. Cœur fidèle (Faithful Heart, 1923)
A tragic love triangle drama set in the ports of Marseille, Cœur fidèle took a lot of inspiration from La Roue’s innovative camerawork and editing. The director Jean Epstein was also a film critic during the ‘20s and he clearly took a keen interest in cinema’s artistic side. His story of the abused servant Marie, pursued by the loutish Petit Paul while she secretly loves the dockworker Jean, is masterfully filmed and brimming with creativity.
3. Ballet Mécanique (1924)
If you’re at all attracted to the avant-garde, you’ll enjoy this Dadaist film, the ancestor of countless experimental works that followed. A dizzying smorgasbord of montages, repeating shots, animation, dissolves, specials effects, and so on, it’s accompanied by a hyperactive soundtrack of bells, whistles, horns and pianos. Charlie Chaplin also shows up several times as a Cubist-style animation–the original title is technically Charlot présente le ballet mécanique.
2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Not only is The Passion of Joan of Arc one of the greatest silent films, but it’s one of the greatest films ever made, period. Its daring art style and cinematography somehow floats free of typical time periods–it stands on its own as a work of art. Jeanne Falconetti’s performance does more than justice to the great French saint, making the film a deeply emotional and moving experience.
1. Napoléon (1927)
No list of French silent film recommendations could be complete without mentioning Abel Gance’s masterpiece, one of the most ambitious and creative epics of the 1920s. The runtime is staggering–over five hours–but so are Gance’s achievements, from his fearless use of in-camera effects to his willingness to strap the camera to running horses and pendulums to create exciting shots. The famed “triptych” ending even experimented with the format of the screen itself. It was a film that was truly ahead of its time.
Varied as they are, these twelve recommendations are just scratching the surface of the many French silents you could watch. Take that as a happy challenge, and enjoy your future viewings!
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.