french impressionist cinema

est. 1918 – 1930

French cinema has always been at the forefront of cinematic innovations, and one of its most remarkable and influential periods is the era of French Impressionist Cinema. Rooted in the artistic revolution of the late 1910s in France, this film movement unveiled a new dimension of narrative, aesthetics and the emotional resonance in film.

Origins of French Impressionist Cinema

In the wake of the cataclysmic World War I, and its devastating effect on France and its people, a deep undercurrent of existentialism followed through the cultural landscape. It was in this atmosphere of post-war contemplation that a hunger for a new artistic language emerged. This language would strive to convey the profound intricacies of life and human emotion, capturing the essence of a world forever changed by the trials of the Great War.


Much like the visual innovations of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, the French Impressionist cinema found kinship in celebrating the transitory qualities of light and color. It is, arguably, the movement that sparked scholarly film criticism.

French Impressionist Cinema - Napoleon (1927) by Abel Gance
Napoleon (1927) by Abel Gance

Characteristics, Prominent Filmmakers and films

French Impressionist Cinema is characterized by its non-linear editing, innovative lighting techniques, efforts to depict dream sequences and fantasies, and a various creative approaches to narrate stories from a protagonist’s perspective. While these techniques are widely familiar to contemporary film enthusiasts, their integration into cinema owes much to the pioneering groundwork laid by movements like French Impressionism. For instance, Abel Gance ushered the concept of employing widescreen format and fast cutting (a film editing technique which refers to a series of extremely short shots strung together to tell a story), to elevate the cinematic experience with his 1927 film, “Napoleon.”


The Impressionist cinema grappled with the complexities of urban life, technological advancements, and the human experience in the modern world. It offered a unique lens through which to view the societal changes of the era. Filmmakers focused on delving into the inner world of characters, exploring their emotions, desires, and landscapes of their consciousness. Jean Epstein’s film “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1928), explored the mysteries of time, memory and human perception, creating a dreamlike narrative tapestry.


Notably, French Impressionist Cinema provided a platform for female directors like Germaine Dulac to make their mark in a male-dominated industry, addressing themes of gender and sexuality with nuance and boldness. She is best known today for her 1922 Impressionist film, “The Smiling Madam Beudet” which delved into the emotional depths of women’s subjectivity. It is often viewed as one of the first feminist films. Her cinema offered a distinct feminist perspective, challenging traditional gender roles.

GIF from Menilmontant (1926) by Dimitri Kirsanoff
Menilmontant (1926) by Dimitri Kirsanoff
GIF from The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) by Jean Epstein
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) by Jean Epstein

Legacy and Influence of French Impressionist Cinema

Despite its relatively short existence, French Impressionism continues to influence contemporary filmmakers and artists. Commitment of pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression and its emphasis on the emotional and subjective aspects of storytelling remain relevant today. Directors like David Lynch, Terrence Malick and the New Wave’s Jean-Luc Godard have all acknowledged the impact of the movement on their own works.


French Impressionist Cinema is a testament to the boundless creativity and artistic exploration that can occur within the realm of filmmaking. Its legacy endures as a source of inspiration for those who seek to experiment with storytelling techniques, and convey the intricate tapestry of human emotions on screen.

The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) by Germaine Dulac
The Smiling Madame Beudet (1923) by Germaine Dulac

Please refer to the Listed Films for the recommended works associated with the film movement.