10 great French films of the 1930s

As Jean Renoir’s piercing satire La Règle du jeu arrives on Blu-ray, we celebrate the golden age of French cinema between the coming of sound and the outbreak of World War II.

25 May 2023

By David Parkinson

La Règle du jeu (1939)

In making his celebrated country-house satire La Règle du jeu (1939), Jean Renoir sought to depict a society dancing on a volcano. And for much of the previous decade, French cinema itself had seemed on the edge of a precipice. Yet it produced a string of exceptional features. Indeed, you’d need a top 30 to do justice to the output of this golden age and recognise the achievement of such often overlooked talents as Raymond Bernard, Marc Allégret and Pierre Chenal.

Among the issues filmmakers had to contend with was the conversion to sound. Whereas the Hollywood studios had major backers to fund the transition, France’s independent companies found costs prohibitive, especially with the global economic depression tightening its grip. Moreover, talkies lacked the universality of silents. Consequently, until dubbing processes were refined, producers had to shoulder the additional expense of shooting foreign-language versions of their films for export.  

Sound brought new possibilities too, of course, particularly for writers and stage stars. And filmmakers were able to call on the services of émigré cinematographers and production designers, who brought with them the techniques that underpinned the studio-bound authenticity of the atmospheric prevailing style known as ‘poetic realism’. 

Often inspired by populist novels centring on the everyday lives of ordinary people, films such as Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936) reflected the optimistic mood generated by the left-wing Popular Front coalition, which came to power in 1936. But, as war with Germany became an increasing inevitability, a sense of despondency seeped into fatalistic melodramas like Renoir’s Les Bas-fonds (1936) and La Bête humaine (1938), which would have a profound effect on film noir in post-war Hollywood.

To herald La Règle du jeu’s debut on UK Blu-ray, here are some of the 1930s’ most glittering achievements.

La Règle du jeu is out now on BFI Blu-ray.

The Blood of the Poet (1930)

Director: Jean Cocteau

The Blood of the Poet (1930)

It always frustrated Jean Cocteau that his first venture into filmmaking should so often be linked with Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or (1930). They may have both been sponsored by the Vicomte de Noailles (whose cameo Cocteau was forced to cut at the insistence of his family). But, while Buñuel’s surrealism prompted him to use dreams to explore social or psychological realities, Cocteau sought to recreate a state of inner consciousness that was devoid of symbolic or allegorical meaning. Some have seen the journey of the poet (Enrique Rivero) as a commentary on the anguish of creativity, as he struggles to exert his control over the mouth he is drawing or the statue he has carved. However, biographical references are dotted throughout the action, along with allusions to desire, despair and death. 

Although he didn’t return to cinema for over a decade, Cocteau would complete his Orphic trilogy with Orphée (1950) and Le Testament d’Orphée (1960).

À nous la liberté (1931)

Director: René Clair

À nous la liberté (1931)

Sharing a cinematographer (Georges Périnal) and a composer (Georges Auric) with Cocteau’s debut, René Clair’s third talkie also benefited from the genius of production designer Lazare Meerson. In Clair’s anti-capitalist satire, Meerson’s cavernous sets establish the similarity between the prison and the factory, which provide the backdrop for the friendship between old lags Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand). 

As with Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931), Clair makes innovative use of sound, as flowers appear to sing and industrial machinery feels almost orchestral. Following on from the trudging rhythms of the prisoners’ clog-steps, the tone becomes increasingly lighter, as Louis escapes to run a phonograph factory, where Emile discovers the joys of dehumanisation in much the same way that Charlie Chaplin would in Modern Times (1936). In celebrating the quirkiness of existence, Clair confirmed his knack for sight gags, notably with the bicycle race, the portrait pelting, and the fat-cat scramble for fluttering banknotes.

L’Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo

L’Atalante (1934)

After school satire Zéro de conduite (1933) ran into trouble with the authorities, producer Jacques-Louis Nounez coerced Jean Vigo into adapting a Jean Guinée story about newlyweds on a goods barge. Named after the vessel, L’Atalante is a catalogue of contradictions, as melodrama and the avant-garde, convention and anarchy, docu-realism and surrealism, and lyricism and grit ingeniously come together. 

Admittedly, the travails of Juliette (Dita Parlo), both on the barge and alone in Paris, don’t bear close feminist scrutiny. But she causes skipper Jean (Jean Dasté) to question his macho posturing during an epiphanal underwater sequence and brings out the nurturing side in rascally crew member Père Jules (Michel Simon), a collector of curios who is a kindred spirit to the vagrant character Simon had played in Renoir’s Boudu, Saved from Drowning (1932). Sadly, Vigo died at the age of 29, shortly after the ignominious release of what is now acknowledged to be a poetic-realist masterpiece.

La Kermesse héroïque (1935)

Director: Jacques Feyder

La kermesse héroïque (1935)

Following the weighty dramas Le Grand Jeu (1934) and Pension Mimosas (1935), Jacques Feyder turned to this adaptation of a Charles Spaak short story for light relief. Set in the Flemish town of Boom in 1616, it chronicles the response of the female population when their menfolk feign death to avoid a confrontation with an approaching Spanish duke and his army. 

With costumes and set design modelled on 17th-century paintings, the film vividly brings the period to life. However, the subject matter proved contentious, with Feyder’s Belgian compatriots accusing him of lampooning the country’s occupation during World War I. Indeed, despite Feyder winning best director at the Venice Film Festival, Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels banned the film for its subversive take on collaboration. Others have seen it in retrospect as a Pétainist playbook, while François Truffaut – in his hothead days as a critic for Cahiers du cinéma – detested it for being “pleasant and perfect”.

The Story of a Cheat (1936)

Director: Sacha Guitry

The Story of a Cheat (1936)

A man of the stage who had dismissed cinema during the silent era, Sacha Guitry recognised that sound could enable him to reach an unprecedented audience. In adapting his only novel, therefore, he resisted prevailing canned-theatre techniques to achieve a unique cinematic style. Apart from one brief sequence, the dialogue is entirely restricted to the rattling narration of the cheat (Guitry), a middle-aged man writing a memoir of his paradoxical jousts with fate and morality. 

As the flashbacks play out in elegant pantomime, Guitry anticipates the French New Wave by incorporating self-reflexive gambits like the vanishing of the poisoned relatives from the dinner table, the whip-pan transitions, the disguise montage, and the reversal of the footage of the marching soldiers to highlight the artificiality of the filmic process. Orson Welles would borrow the spoken credits idea for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Yet, for all its influence, this innovative example of pure cinema remains criminally underrated.

La Belle Équipe (1936)

Director: Julien Duvivier

La Belle Équipe (1936)

Acting as a barometer of national self-esteem, Jean Gabin is the most iconic French actor of the 1930s. Thanks to François Truffaut’s damning appraisal in his landmark essay ‘A Certain Tendency of French Cinema’, however, Julien Duvivier, the director who did much to shape Gabin’s screen persona in six pictures, has been dismissed as a journeyman lacking personal perspective. 

Duvivier’s La Bandera (1935) or Pépé le Moko (1937) could have made this list instead, but this cynical commentary on the utopian ideals underpinning the Popular Front is more intriguing and provocative. Gabin plays one of five working-class lottery winners who pool their resources to open a riverside guinguette (tavern). However, their solidarity proves superficial and it’s a shame that writer Charles Spaak’s prescient assessment of the state of the nation was compromised by the imposition of a happy ending, which remained in situ until Spaak and Duvivier’s estates won a case to restore their pessimistic denouement. La Belle Équipe remains ripe for rediscovery, like Duvivier’s entire oeuvre.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Director: Jean Renoir

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Inspired partly by Renoir’s wartime friendship with French pilot Armand Pinsard, this prisoner-of-war drama is much more than a pacifist tract. The futility of combat is certainly a key theme, especially bearing in mind the deteriorating diplomatic situation when filming began in late 1936. But Renoir and the prolific screenwriter Charles Spaak were as much intrigued by the class connections and chasms between Wintersborn commandant Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim) and his French captives: the aristocratic Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), Ashkenazi bourgeois Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) and working-class Breton, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin). 

Race, gender and notions of duty and honour are also explored, with Renoir’s characteristic humanism and visual inclusivity. No wonder Goebbels branded it “Cinematic Public Enemy No 1”. Yet its critical reputation has dipped over the decades, as cultural and intellectual preoccupations have shifted. Nevertheless, the ensemble still excels, while the cinematography by Claude Renoir (the director’s brother) retains its sinuous finesse. Moreover, the central message remains potent.

Gueule d‘amour (1937)

Director: Jean Grémillon

Gueule d‘amour (1937)

Reuniting after Pépé le Moko, Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin played two more film-noir prototypes in director Jean Grémillon’s third collaboration with screenwriter Charles Spaak. Drawn from a novella by André Beucler and partly filmed at UFA’s Babelsberg studio in Berlin, the story opens with Lucien Bourrache (Gabin) being the toast of the regiment, courtesy of his reputation as a lady killer. On travelling from barracks in Orange to Cannes to collect a small inheritance, however, he falls under the spell of Madeleine Courtois (Balin), the dictionary definition of a femme fatale, who will not only lure Lucien off the straight and narrow, but will also ensnare his trusting friend, René (René Lefèvre). 

Despite the comic relief provided by Marguerite Deval and Jean Aymé, as Madeleine’s mother and butler, this is a remorselessly sombre drama, with Lucien symbolising a nation losing its way, as the poetic-realist dawn is enveloped by an expressionist cloud.

The Baker‘s Wife (1938)

Director: Marcel Pagnol

The Baker‘s Wife (1938)

Like Sacha Guitry, writer Marcel Pagnol had his own distinctive approach to filmmaking. Heading his own production company, he was free to operate as an auteur, whether adapting his own plays or the work of Jean Giono, whose rustic sagas provided the inspiration for Jofroi (1933), Angèle (1934) and Regain (1937), as well as this amusing, if fitfully brooding and sexually archaic parable. It details how the residents of Sainte Cécile rally round to persuade Aimable Castenet (Raimu) to begin baking again after wife Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc) absconds with a handsome shepherd. 

The ensemble playing is wonderful, but Raimu excels as the distraught baker, as he had as the waterfront barkeep in Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy of Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936). His dislike of acting outdoors necessitated some studio shooting, but Pagnol makes atmospheric use of the Provençal countryside around the cliff-edge village of Le Castelet.

Le jour se lève (1939)

Director: Marcel Carné

Le jour se lève (1939)

Jean Gabin’s decade had been leading to the doom-laden attic room in which he barricades himself in Marcel Carné’s fatalist classic. Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert had been heading in the same direction with Le Quai des brumes and Hôtel du Nord (both 1938), which conveyed the creeping desolation to which France succumbed between the Popular Front’s collapse and the outbreak of war. 

Gabin’s factory drone François had hoped for happiness with florist Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent). But her attachment to a performing dog trainer Valentin (Jules Berry) prompts François to seek solace with Valentin’s former stage assistant (Arletty). With the action confined to Alexandre Trauner’s evocative sets, the events that lead François to murder are revealed in flashback as he awaits his inescapable fate. The results still crush the soul eight decades after Le jour se lève was banned by the embattled government for its defeatist passivity. Fortunately, RKO failed in its quest to destroy every print prior to the release of the 1947 Hollywood remake, The Long Night.

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free