10 great French debut features by women directors

From Agnès Varda to Mati Diop: how these first fiction features announced the arrival of formidable talents.

Chocolat (1988)MK2

If the invention of film can be traced back to a pair of Frenchmen, and the first projection of a film for a paying audience to Paris in 1895, their female compatriots were hot on their heels. Only one year later, in 1896, Alice Guy-Blaché, a former secretary to Léon Gaumont, made her first film. The print seems to have been lost, but Guy-Blaché had paved the way for other women to enter the industry. As she put it in a 1914 interview for The Moving Picture World: “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason she cannot master every technicality of the art…”

Problems with archiving make it difficult to trace the order in which groundbreaking works from the likes of Guy-Blaché, Musidora and Germaine Dulac were released, but their legacy can be seen in the films of subsequent generations of female filmmakers, including Claire Denis, who seems to have inherited Guy Blaché’s pioneering spirit and who, like Guy-Blaché, cut her teeth as an assistant to some of cinema’s great men before stepping out from their shadow with an astonishing debut. 

Chocolat (1988), Denis’ semi-autobiographical first film, newly released on BFI Blu-ray, is set in 1950s Cameroon, where Denis spent time as a child, and is told from the point of view of a young girl called France. At once a profoundly intimate family study and a sweeping critique of broader historical concerns, its careful balance of the personal and political finds echoes in a number of other assured debuts by female French filmmakers…

La Pointe Courte (1955)

Director: Agnès Varda

La Pointe Courte (1955)

The great Agnès Varda has described her first film as having “hit like a cannonball”, not least “because I was a young woman” when it was released. A graceful study of a Parisian couple falling apart and coming back together during a visit to the husband’s hometown of Sète (where Varda spent most of her teenage years), La Pointe Courte is viewed by many as the first film of the French New Wave, displaying many of the features that would become hallmarks of the movement, including the combination of professional and non-professional actors, a mixture of fiction and documentary elements, and a careful attention to the ordinary life of people and places. 

But the film is remarkable as much for its production context as its aesthetics. Inspired by a visit to the eponymous La Pointe Courte, the city’s fishing quarter, Varda set up her own co-op and made the work on a shoestring budget, depending on the goodwill of her crew and cast, including leads Philippe Noiret and Silvia Monfort.

Sambizanga (1972)

Director: Sarah Maldoror

Sambizanga (1972)

The daughter of emigrants from Guadaloupe, Sarah Maldoror studied film with Mark Donskoi in Moscow then worked as an assistant on The Battle of Algiers (1966) before directing a series of short films. Her first feature film, based on the novella The Real Life of Domingos Xavier by José Luandino Vieira, is set in 1961 at the onset of the Angolan War of Independence and follows the struggles of Angolan militants involved in the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), an anti-colonial political movement with which Maldoror’s husband, Mário Pinto de Andrade, was closely involved. 

Comparisons have rightly been made with Pontecorvo’s film, as well as Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), but Maldoror’s film adds a vital feminist element to its depiction of class struggle, paying close attention to women’s contribution to the fight for liberation. Once a rarely seen gem, it was restored in 2021 by the African Film Heritage Project and released for home viewing by Criterion in 2022.

Peppermint Soda (1977)

Director: Diane Kurys

Peppermint Soda (1977)

A diabolo menthe – the original French title of Diane Kurys’s charming coming-of-age film – is a lurid green concoction of mint cordial and sparkling water, and the favoured drink of Anne (Eléonore Klarwein), the film’s 13-year-old heroine. Kurys, who had no prior filmmaking experience, conceived of the film as a girl’s-eye-view tale of teen angst, an antidote to the numerous films about male adolescence that trailed in the wake of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).

Based on the experience of Kurys and her sisters in 1960s Paris, the film moves from the myopic (Anne’s anxiety around starting her period) to the global (elder sister Frédérique’s involvement in protesting the Algerian war, and dawning awareness of the import of her Jewish roots), all the while remaining rooted in the sisters’ shared tenderness and frustration. Kurys produced a sequel, Cocktail Molotov, in 1980; the films are dedicated to her own sister, “who still hasn’t given me back my orange sweater”.

A Real Young Girl (1976) 

Director: Catherine Breillat

A Real Young Girl (1976)

Provocatrice Catherine Breillat published her first novel, L’Homme facile (A Man for the Asking), in 1965, aged 17. It was immediately banned by the French government for readers under 18. Filmed a decade later, A Real Young Girl (Une vraie jeune fille) is based on her fourth novel, Le Soupirail, and is hardly less incendiary. Twenty-year-old Charlotte Alexandra plays 14-year-old Alice, home from boarding school for the summer of 1963 and wracked with sexual longing. She masturbates incessantly, sometimes with a spoon, and indulges in surreal fantasies, including one about a local youth inserting worms into her vagina. 

The film’s depiction of adolescent sexuality is shocking in its frankness, clearing the path for writers and filmmakers such as Marie Darieussecq and Céline Sciamma, and setting the tone for Breillat’s subsequent film work, which foreground female desire and agency in ways that are often discomfiting but never gratuitously so.

Will It Snow for Christmas? (1996)

Director: Sandrine Veysset

Will It Snow for Christmas? (1996)

A former art director, Sandrine Veysset was only the second woman director to win a César award (following Euzhan Palcy’s 1984 win for Sugar Cane Alley), winning best debut feature with her melancholic pastoral, Will It Snow for Christmas? The film was produced by the late Humbert Balsan and inspired by a conversation with Léos Carax, for whom she briefly worked as a driver, about her childhood on a farm near Montpellier. Its grainy super-8 aesthetic – it was shot on Super 16 stock and blown up to 35mm – lends a home movie feel to this tale of a mother and her seven children living a hand-to-mouth existence on a remote farm owned by her callous lover.  

In My Skin (2002)

Director: Marina de Van

In My Skin (2002)

Although she has gone on to direct other films, including one that screened out of competition at Cannes, Marina de Van’s career never quite lived up to the promise of In My Skin. But then again, the film is a hard act to follow. It exploded into the cultural consciousness in 2002, spawning a vast number of think pieces and academic articles grappling with the question of how to take this extraordinarily graphic film, in which de Van also stars as protagonist Esther, a promising young career woman who, following a car accident, embarks on a process of self-mutilation that becomes increasingly extreme as the film progresses, and increasingly difficult to watch. 

Its formal (de)composition, devolving into a series of split screens, reflects de Van’s conviction that “in our society we are utterly alienated from our bodies… as though our bodies could have their own lives and we wouldn’t necessarily know about it.”

Innocence (2004)

Director: Lucile Hadžihalilović

Innocence (2004)

An exercise in atmosphere, Innocence is a dazed and dreamy experience of life in an odd, somewhat sinister girls’ school, where new girls arrive entombed in coffins and older ones perform public dances for an all-male audience in a surreal, Lynchian theatre. 

Throughout, the spectre of paedophilia hovers, as does the suspicion that the girls are being groomed for a future beyond the school’s walls, but Lucile Hadžihalilović refuses concrete answers, preferring to let her audience steep in the elemental sounds of rushing water and whispering winds and to draw our own conclusions as to the fate of these jeunes filles en fleur. Her soundscape is like a more delicate but no less unnerving version of the trademark ‘rumble’ that underpins much of the work of her early collaborator (and spouse) Gaspar Noé.

All Is Forgiven (2007)

Director: Mia Hansen-Løve

All is Forgiven (2007)

Mia Hansen-Løve’s first feature was jointly awarded the 2007 Louis Delluc prize for best first film, alongside Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies; for my money, Hansen-Løve’s debut is the stronger of the two. Both have gone on to have extraordinary careers as two of the most significant filmmakers – regardless of gender – in contemporary French cinema, but while Water Lilies has the feel of a filmmaker still testing the water, All Is Forgiven shows, even at this early stage, a remarkable consistency of vision, of a par and in a continuum with much of Hansen-Løve’s later work. 

Ostensibly the story of a failed poet and recovering drug addict loosely based on her own uncle, the film in fact is a study in female subjectivity and adolescence ripening into adulthood. The features that would make Hansen-Løve’s later work so immersive – the judicious use of pop music, naturalistic lighting, emphasis on conversation and art as vocation – are all present in this remarkably assured debut.

Atlantics (2019)

Director: Mati Diop

Atlantics (2019)

Namesakes but no relation, both Mati Diop and Alice Diop, the director of Saint Omer (below), were mentored by Claire Denis, and both started out as documentary filmmakers, making Atlantics and Saint Omer their fictional debuts. But their first fictional works are so exceptional that omission from this list would be an injustice. Mati Diop, the niece of pioneering Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, starred in Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008) as the slight but resilient Jo, a young woman of mixed racial and national heritage who is, for the most part, at ease with the contradictions that involves, yet fascinated with where that leaves her. She brings this sense of curiosity to her 2019 film Atlantics, which developed from her 2009 documentary short about Senagalese migrant workers attempting a life-threatening boat crossing, but throws in an element of magical realism, creating a mesmerising, moving ghost story that draws on both Christian and Islamic myth. 

Atlantics was the film first directed by a Black woman to compete at Cannes, and was Senegal’s entry for best international feature film at the 92nd Oscars.

Saint Omer (2022)

Director: Alice Diop

Saint Omer (2022)

Alice Diop’s first fiction feature, Saint Omer is inspired by the 2016 trial of Fabienne Kabou, who was convicted of leaving her child on a beach to die. Guslagie Malanda plays the woman accused of filicide – here named Laurence Coly – while Kayije Kagame is Rama, a French literature professor attending the trial. Pregnant Rama seems to recognise something of herself in Laurence, a philosophy graduate who, like Rama, is in a relationship with a white man, and shares a similarly vexed relation to her Senegalese mother.  

The narrative is fairly straightforward, but we’re never quite sure what we’re seeing in Saint Omer. While it raises questions about migration, post-colonialism and parenthood, this is a film that, as Diop puts it, we feel more than understand. According to Denis herself, who is a close friend of Diop’s: “It is a very special film.”