Art Cinema

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Art Cinema


The term "art cinema" is one of the most familiar in film studies, marking out simultaneously specific filmmakers, specific films, specific kinds of cinemas, and, for some writers, specific kinds of audiences. The filmmakers implied by the term are such European auteurs as Michelangelo Antonioni (b. 1912), Federico Fellini (1920–1993), Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930), and Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918); the films include L'Avventura (1960), (1963), À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) and Det Sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957). The cinemas are small film theaters, rather than the picture palaces of old or the multiplexes of the present, screening new films but having a repertory function as well; the audiences for the art film are drawn from the highly educated urban intelligentsia. These features, however, are only the predominant connotations of the term, which has a range of uses and connotations, so it is useful to distinguish between extended and restricted definitions of art cinema.

The extended definition suggests an "art film" presence in the history of cinema virtually from the beginning, incorporating historical instances stretching back to the years before World War I; it retains relevance throughout the history of film and possesses a certain amount of currency in relation to contemporary cinema. The restricted definition refers to the emergence in the 1950s of a strand in European cinema with a distinct set of formal and thematic characteristics, specialized exhibition outlets, specific artistic status as part of "high culture," constituting in some respects cinema's belated accession to the traditions of twentieth-century modernism in the arts. The two senses are interrelated and art cinema in the restricted sense can be regarded as part of the historical continuum embodied in the extended definition as a key, though bounded, phase in the history of a particular kind of film.


The extended definition of art cinema marks off films that can be differentiated from commonplace entertainment cinema in terms of source material and intended audience. Alongside such popular genres of early cinema as actualities, trick films, chase films, and comedies were brief films drawn from the traditional elements of "high culture," that is, adaptations from classic drama and literature and films based on historical events. This dimension of the art film emerged most forcibly in France during the years before World War I, with films from the appropriately titled Le Film d'Art company, and there were equivalent trends in Germany and Italy. At this time, the contours of the art film begin to form in terms of its relationship to orthodox and established high culture—literature, history, and the fine arts—together with the aspiration on the part of producers to attract a more "respectable" and educated audience than the urban working classes that patronized the nickelodeons. Art cinema's project was the transformation of a cultural phenomenon with origins in fair-grounds, vaudeville theaters and music halls, and improvised screening venues, into a cultural activity comparable to the established art forms.

However, the most important phase in the early history of art cinema was the 1920s. The major European film industries had been severely effected by World War I, and Hollywood had established itself as the main provider of entertainment cinema in many parts of the world. In the course of reconstructing their film industries, Germany, France, and the Soviet Union, in particular, created a diverse range of cinemas, making films that differed in key respects from the Hollywood films that filled European screens. Such films reflected an attempt to establish alternatives to the evolving Hollywood cinema of stars and genres and were recognized by intellectuals and artists in such metropolitan centers of culture as Berlin, Paris, London, and New

b. Ferrara, Emilia-Romagno, Italy, 29 September 1912

Antonioni is synonymous with the notion of art cinema. His film career began in 1942 when he worked on Roberto Rossellini's Un Pilota ritorna (A Pilot Returns) and Marcel Carnés Les Visiteurs du soir (The Devil's Envoys), and, despite suffering a stroke in the 1980s, Antonioni has remained sporadically active.

His first feature film was Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), but it was his sixth feature film, L'Avventura (1960), that thrust him into public prominence. Though it was booed off the screen at the Cannes Film Festival, it was defended by Rossellini, among others, and went on to win the festival's Special Jury Award. It was followed by La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), and Il Deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964), all featuring the actress Monica Vitti, who had played the central character in L'Avventura. While the early 1960s films all centered on a female character, Antonioni's next three fiction films—Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), and The Passenger (1975)—placed a man at the center of the narrative and were set in London, California, North Africa, and Spain rather than Rome and Milan. They were made in English for an international market produced by his fellow Italian Carlo Ponti and the American major studio—MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer). Antonioni returned to the ethos of the early 1960s films with Identificazione di una donna (Identification of a Woman, 1982) and Al di là delle nuvole (Beyond the Clouds, 1995).

The films display a number of the key characteristics of the European art film. Embodying a somewhat bittersweet perspective, they focus on the intimate personal lives of affluent urban professionals. Stylistically, the films employ the meandering narratives characteristic of art cinema, in which the protagonists, enveloped in their inner turmoils, wander aimlessly through visually dramatic landscapes and cityscapes and are often captured in meticulously composed off-centered images, clinging to the edges of the frame. The films also refuse the neat closure of the classical film.

Antonioni's significance as a director is likely to rest on his early films of the 1960s, although a rounded picture of his achievements requires attention to his documentary work and and his color experimentation in The Red Desert and The Mystery of Oberwald (1981). Shot on videotape and in the thriller format, the later film serves as a loose narrative basis for the director's existential concerns while also representing the film noir dimension of his works, which can be discerned as well in The Story of a Love Affair, with the disappearance of Anna in L'Avventura, the mysterious death in the park in Blow-Up, and the man on the run in Zabriskie Point. Roland Barthes attested to Antonioni's high standing in the world of cinema when he suggested that the filmmaker's work stands as a challenge to all contemporary artists.


Cronaca di un amore (Story of a Love Affair, 1950), L'Avventura (1960), La Notte (The Night, 1961), L'Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), Identification of a Woman (1982), Beyond the Clouds (1995)


Antonioni, Michelangelo. The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema. Edited by C. di Carlo and G. Tinazzi. New York: Marsilio, 1996.

Cameron, Ian, and Robin Wood. Antonioni. New York: Praeger, 1971.

Chatman, Seymour. Antonioni, or, The Surface of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. L'Avventura. London: British Film Institute, 1997.

Rohdie, Sam. Antonioni. London: British Film Institute, 1990.

Tom Ryall

York as art films. These countries did have their equivalents to the American entertainment films, but the art strands represented distinctive approaches to filmmaking that were aligned with the modernist and avant-garde artistic currents of the time: expressionism, surrealism, dadaism, and constructivism. In France, such films as La Souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet, 1923), Ménilmontant (1926), and La Coquille et le clergyman, (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928) deployed a range of techniques to represent the inner psychological life of their protagonists, while such filmmakers as René Clair (1898–1981) with Entr'acte (1924), and Salvador Dali (1904–1989) and Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) with Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929) defied the narrative logic of mainstream Hollywood films. The German film acquired an international prominence with the appearance of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920), a self-consciously artistic film that combined the psychological qualities associated subsequently with the French films with an approach to mise-en-scène influenced by expressionist drama and painting. Though most German films during the period were commercial genre pieces, historical spectaculars, and thrillers, the handful of expressionist films that followed The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari have imprinted themselves on film history as founding examples of art cinema both through their eccentric style and their international circulation through specialized cinema clubs and societies. In particular, the other important art cinema of the 1920s came from the Soviet Union, where Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953) made formal and narrative innovations in terms of montage. Such films as Bronenosets Potyumkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), Oktyabr (Ten Days That Shook the World and October, 1927), and Mat (Mother, 1926) also injected a political edge into the art film. In economic terms, art films were financed from a mixture of sources including the state itself in the case of the Soviet film, large commercial concerns such as Germany's Univesum Film Aktiengesellschaft (Ufa), smaller specialist firms, and private financing by the filmmakers themselves or by wealthy patrons. In 1920, the German government instituted financial incentives for exhibitors screening films with artistic and cultural value, a move that many governments would later emulate in order to protect and foster an indigenous cultural cinema.

The 1920s saw the establishment of a number of the parameters for the art film, in particular its status as a challenge artistically, culturally, and financially to the Hollywood film, which had established itself as the exemplar of cinema in most countries of the world. The art film presented a parallel experience—complex artistic films instead of entertainment narratives, intimate screening venues instead of picture palaces, intellectual journals instead of fan magazines—addressed to audiences familiar with modernist developments in literature, music, and painting. The territory staked out by the art film of the 1920s was defined in the polarized terminology of "art versus entertainment" and "culture versus commerce," conceptual couplets that still inform thinking about the medium.


The demise of the art film in the 1930s is often attributed to the advent of the sound picture, which escalated production costs and fostered a conventional approach to narrative and representation. Yet it has been suggested that some strands of the cinema of the period do bear the marks of art cinema in some respects. For instance, the state-sponsored documentary film supervised by John Grierson (1898–1972) has been proposed as Britain's art cinema, the drab though realist subject matter and the often innovative form of the films differentiating them from the escapist Hollywood cinema that dominated British screens; similarly, it is argued that the poetic realist films from the French cinema with their gloomy narratives culminating in the death of the hero as in Marcel Carné's (1909–1996) Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938) and Le Jour se lève (Daybreak, 1939) offer a different, more downbeat experience compared to the American films with their characteristically optimistic endings. Yet, these arguable instances apart, the renewal of the art impulse in film did not occur in a significant sense until the 1940s, with the key films once again coming from European industries engaged in a postwar rebuilding process. Italy played a major role with neo-realist films, such as Roma città aperta (Open City, 1945) by Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) and Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948) by Vittoria de Sica (1902–1974), and the success of such films in America paved the way for the development of the specialized exhibition venue—the art house, the "sure seater"—in the large cities and university towns.

There were a number of reasons for the increased prospects for foreign films in the American market in the late 1940s. These range from reduced production levels at the Hollywood studios, which created gaps in the market; concerted efforts by the British, Italian, and French industries to distribute their films in the United States; the move toward "runaway production" by American companies, which gave the majors an investment stake in British, French, and Italian films; the changing composition of the audience from a family one increasingly catered to by television to one dominated by young people; and an interest in European culture among the returning service personnel who had spent some time in England, France, and Italy during the war. It has also been suggested that the changing audience tastes consequent upon the demographic shift went in the direction of films with mature, adult, serious thematic concerns, qualities that were to be found in the new European films.

One adult dimension of the foreign film, which became an important marketing feature, was the liberal approach to the representation of sexuality. This became more marked with foreign films from outside of the "art" sector, such as Et Dieu … créa la femme (And God Created Woman, 1956) and the phenomenon of the actress Brigitte Bardot (b. 1934), but prior to that even a serious political narrative such as Rossellini's Open City was marketed in the United States with one eye on the hints of lesbianism and drug use in the film. In this respect, the art cinema was an important agent in the erosion of the careful censorship of films in America. Indeed, a court case involving a segment of the 1948 Italian film L'Amore known as The Miracle, prompted the US Supreme Court to issue a landmark judgement in 1952 that conferred upon films the constitutional guarantees that already protected freedom of speech and the free press. By the early 1960s Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), a classic art film, had an American trailer that simply featured the film's sex scenes with a voice-over acclaiming the film as "a new experience in motion picture eroticism."

This period saw the formation of art cinema in its most prominent connotation—the restricted sense—with the directorial debuts of a number of the key directors and the emergence of some of the key actors identified with the art film. Robert Bresson (1901–1999), Luchino Visconti (1906–1976), and Ingmar Bergman made their first features in the 1940s, followed by Federico Fellini (who had worked with Rossellini) and Michelangelo Antonioni in the early 1950s. Later in the decade, French directors including Alain Resnais (b. 1922), Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut (1932–1984), Claude Chabrol (b. 1930), and Eric Rohmer (b. 1920) directed their first features and were collectively dubbed the "Nouvelle Vague," or New Wave. The definitive "art house" films created by these filmmakers include Bergman's Smultron stället (The Seventh Seal, 1957) and Wild Strawberries (1957), Visconti's Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers, 1960), Fellini's La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life, 1960) and (1963), and Antonioni's L'Avventura, La Notte (The Night, 1961), and L'Eclisse (Eclipse, 1962). The key films from the French New Wave included Chabrol's Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1959), Godard's À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960), Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima My Love, 1959) and L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), and Truffaut's Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). Such films also produced a galaxy of "art film stars" who were often closely associated with particular directors. Major examples include the work of Liv Ullman (b. 1938), Ingrid Thulin (1929–2004), Max Von Sydow (b. 1929), and Harriet Andersson (b. 1932) with Bergman; Monica Vitti's (b. 1931) work with Antonioni; Giulietta Masina (1921–1994) and Marcello Mastroianni's (1924–1996) work with Fellini; Jean-Pierre Léaud's (b. 1944) work with Truffaut; Anna Karina's (b. 1940) work with Godard; and Stéphane Audran's (b. 1932) work with Chabrol. Other stars of the art film not as closely linked to particular directors include Catherine Deneuve (b. 1943), Jeanne Moreau (b. 1928), Jean-Louis Trintignant (b. 1930), Alain Delon (b. 1935), Dirk Bogarde (1921–1999), and Terence Stamp (b. 1939).


For many theorists, art cinema, at least in the restricted sense, is defined through narrative and textual qualities that run counter to the body of conventions associated particularly with the Hollywood studio picture but also characteristic of the conventional cinemas in many countries. The traditional qualities of the linear narrative with a finite ending, clarity of plot, such unobtrusive use of film techniques as camera movement and editing, the underlining of thematic and narrative points through repetition, sharply delineated characters and empathetic character identification techniques were jettisoned by the art film. In their place came oblique, non-linear, and episodic narration strategies, a commitment to "realism," both in terms of surface detail and complex character definition, thematic ambiguities, and overt displays of cinematic style. Whereas mainstream films concentrated on character behavior, action, and plot, art films tended to delve into character psychology and sensibility, to investigate the drama of the interior. The narrative economy and speed of the classical film gave way to the temps mort (dead time) of the art film. Although thematically broad, it is possible to argue that art cinema as part of its "realist" project often focuses upon the existential problems of the bourgeois intelligentsia, which constitute a meditative mirror for the supposed audience of urban intellectuals. In addition, unlike the authorial anonymity associated with mainstream filmmaking, art films are assumed to possess a strong, identifiable authorial presence. That is, the films are expressions or constructs traceable to the director, and as such they are the centerpiece of the critical discourses that focus upon the art film.


In addition to different textual qualities, art films were characteristically screened in venues other than the commercial cinema circuits. The 1920s saw the development of a range of different and separate exhibition venues, for example, cinema clubs, film societies, and dedicated repertory cinemas. France was central to this trend with the ciné club movement, and although Britain did not contribute much in the way of films to the new art cinema, it was prominent in the development of alternative exhibition venues with the establishment of the Film Society in London in 1925. In America, some art films were imported in the 1920s, and there were attempts to establish art cinemas. Among the proponents were Symon Gould's International Film Arts Guild, which organized foreign film screenings in New York and Philadelphia, and the club network of the Amateur Cinema League. These distribution methods led to what became known as "the little-cinema movement."

In America after World War II emerged a small but perceptible art house segment that screened foreign, particularly European films, and by 1950 it registered sufficiently in the industry to be included as a specific listing in the Film Daily Year Book. Though such cinemas screened the now-acknowledged early classics of art film by Rossellini and De Sica, they also played host, for example, to a variety of British films, including Laurence Olivier's (1907–1989) Shakespeare films, Henry V (1945) and Hamlet (1948), The Red Shoes (1948) by Michael Powell (1905–1990) and Emeric Pressburger (1902–1988), The Fallen Idol (1948) by Carol Reed (1906–1976), and Ealing comedies, for example, Tight Little Island (Whisky Galore!, 1949). As the juxtaposition of a Rossellini film and an Ealing comedy suggests, the films screened in art cinemas in both the United States and Britain ranged beyond the restricted definition of the art film to incorporate foreign films of various kinds. A rounded picture of the art film of the postwar period based upon the exhibition dimension could also include a number of other filmmakers and works: for example, the Spanish director, Luis Buñuel's films Viridiana (1961) and Belle de jour (1965) and the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's (1922–1975) Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964) and Teorema (Theorem, 1968). They also include works by the Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa (1910–1998), Kenji Mizoguchi (1898–1956), and Yasujiro Ozu (1903–1963); the Indian director Satyajit Ray (1921–1992); and the Polish director Andrzej Wajda (b. 1926), creator of the war trilogy Pokoleni (A Generation, 1955), Kanal (1957), and Popiól diament (Ashes and Diamonds, 1958). There were also a number of "new waves" including young filmmakers from Central Europe such as Miloš Forman (b. 1932), Vĕra Chytilová (b. 1929), and Jiří Menzel (b. 1938) from the former Czechoslovakia, Miklós Jancsó (b. 1921) from Hungary, Jerzy Skolimowski (b. 1938) and Roman Polański (b. 1933) from Poland, and Dušan Makavejev (b. 1932) from the former Yugoslavia. In addition, there were the politically conscious films of Latin American directors such as the Brazilian Glauber Rocha (1938–1981) and Fernando Solanas (b. 1936) from Argentina. British filmmakers, including Karel Reisz (1926–2002) and Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994), created such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), This Sporting Life (1963); Tony Richardson (1928–1991) made Tom Jones (1963), and the British work of the American Joseph Losey (1909–1984), particularly The Servant (1963) and Accident (1968), though circulating as mainstream films in their home country, tended to be regarded as art films when screened abroad. There was also a belated resurgence of postwar German cinema with the emergence of such directors as Alexander Kluge (b. 1932), Volker Schlöndorff (b. 1939), Werner Herzog (b. 1942), and Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945–1982).

This heterogeneous array of films became familiar elements of minority cinema during the 1950s and 1960s, sharing the specialized art cinema exhibition space with the iconic art films from France and Italy. Also during this period, the film festival became an important means of publicizing art films to an international audience and ensuring their circulation through the art cinema circuits in the United States and Britain. The most prestigious, the Venice and Cannes festivals, both originated in the 1930s, though the Cannes Film Festival did not truly begin until 1946; subsequently, they were joined by a range of venues in Britain and other European countries (Edinburgh, Berlin, Barcelona, and London), the United States (San Francisco, New York), and Australia (Melbourne, Sidney).


In terms of the extended definition of art cinema—a cinema of formal innovation, a cinema aligned with the latest trends in literature and the fine arts, a cinema that targets an audience outside of the typical young adult demographic—the notion of art cinema nearly retains a degree of currency.

Many recent filmmakers from most of the filmmaking countries of the world have made films that explore the potential of cinema to do more than tell simple stories and offer the experience of spectacle; films that do the kinds of things traditionally associated with the world of art; films that premiere at the world's leading film festivals; films that circulate internationally. Pedro Almodóvar (b. 1949), Krzysztof Kieślowski (1941–1996), Ken Loach (b. 1936), Mike Leigh (b. 1942), Michael Haneke (b. 1942), Robert Altman (b. 1925), Wong Kar Wai (b. 1958), Jane Campion (b. 1954), Béla Tarr (b. 1955), and Theo Angelopoulos (b. 1935) have made films that in various different ways carry on the traditions of complexity and formal innovation associated with art cinema. In America, the work of independent filmmakers such as David Lynch (b. 1946) and Jim Jarmusch (b. 1953) achieves a similar complexity while the films of experimental British directors such as Peter Greenaway (b. 1942) and Derek Jarman (1942–1994) have blurred the distinction between the avant garde cinema and the art film.

The pessimistic view of contemporary cinema is that the polarized battle for cinematic hegemony in the early twentieth century was won by entertainment and commerce interests at the expense of art interests. However, a more optimistic view is that artistic influences have infiltrated commercial filmmaking to the extent that the traditional oppositions of "art and commerce" and "culture and entertainment" have less force than previously. Moreover, despite the high profile of spectacular blockbusters, contemporary cinema offers a wide spectrum of experiences. The multiplex cinema is the potential home to films at all ranges of this spectrum because it has the screen capacity to host the latest Hollywood blockbuster as well as the new Almodóvar, in the process making the notion of a separate art cinema venue redundant. If the reality of multiplex programming does not always confirm this possibility, then art cinema in the future may well depend upon television—a major source of art film financing in Europe dating from the 1970s—and on the development of the less expensive methods of digital production and exhibition.

SEE ALSO Exhibition;Fine Art;New Wave


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Tom Ryall