For Movie Lovers! French Film Awards and Movie Terms

Since we’re in the middle of awards season, and the Académie des arts et techniques du cinéma recently held its 44th César Awards, it seems fitting to discuss the awards that are distributed in France for achievements in film and to go over some of the terminology used in the field of cinema. We might hear of awards being given out to meilleure actrice or meilleur film d’animation, and understand that these are being given for best actress and best animation film. There are indeed plenty of terms used in French cinema that are very like the terms used in English, which makes sense, since much of the early development of motion pictures took place in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

44th César Awards | Source: Académie des César

The Role in the History of Cinema

France has played a major role in the development of cinema, from its origins involving a motion picture camera using celluloid film in the late 1880’s to the use of the cinématographe, a device that could both project and shoot images, in its first commercial demonstration in 1895. In addition to its pivotal role in the filmmaking process, France has also contributed to the art of filmmaking and to raising the profile of cinema as a serious subject of study. 1951 saw the founding of the magazine Cahiers du cinéma, with some of its contributors going on to become well-known directors in their own right, many of whom were part of the Nouvelle vague movement. François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard were a few to bring us classics of this genre, such as Jules et Jim, L’Amour l’après-midi, and Et Dieu... créa la femme. Since then we have seen other films d’auteur as well as a variety of genres, including the Cinéma du look of the 1980’s and the realism that was prominent in France in the 1990’s.

Critics' Picks - Critics' Picks: 'Jules and Jim' | The New York Times

Those who are interested in studying cinema may enroll in courses at the Université de Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, which offers extensive courses in cinema, ranging from  “Création, production et distribution” to “Politique du rire”. For those who are not university students, there are institutions such as the Forum des images, a.k.a. the Vidéothèque de Paris, which offers screenings of films centered on different themes throughout the year, as well as talks, archives, and resources at the Bibliothèque du cinéma François Truffaut. Such resources give ample background for those interested in what makes certain films stand out to members of the Académie des arts et techniques du cinéma, the juries of the Festival de Cannes, and the Académie des Lumières, who distribute awards at the ceremonies listed below.

Université de Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle | Source: Wikipedia

Three French Film Awards

1- Nuit des César

The Nuit des César is usually held during the month of February, although at its inception in 1976 it was held in April. Founded by Georges Cravenne, who was inspired by the Oscars ceremony held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles, the Nuit des César is France’s national awards ceremony, organized by the Académie des arts et techniques du cinéma. The César awards are named for César Baldaccini, the sculptor who created the trophies given to winners in a wide variety of categories, ranging from meilleure actrice, mentioned above, to meilleur espoir masculin, an award introduced in 1983.

Nominations for César Awards are made by ballot, from around 4,000 professionals in the field of cinema. Nominees are then voted upon for best in their category in a second round of ballots. The ceremony is held at various venues, including the Salle Pleyel, where the 2019 César Awards Ceremony was held, and the Théâtre du Châtelet, where the ceremony was held in 2016. Attendees include many illustrious names from the field of cinema, along with other prominent figures, including Anne Hildago, the mayor of Paris, who was present at the 2018 ceremony at the Salle Pleyel.

The year 2018 was a very productive year for France, with a wide offering of films in cinemas and average monthly box-office sales of 18 million, according to the Le Billet culturel on France Culture. The film Jusqu’à la garde, the first directed by Xavier Legrand, won in four categories: meilleur film, meilleur scénario original, meilleur montage, and meilleure actrice. Léa Drucker gave a poignant acceptance speech for meilleure actrice, recognizing all of the women who have struggled with issues such as the custody battle and domestic abuse represented in the film. Alex Lutz, accepting the meilleur acteur award for his role in Guy, which he himself directed, cited the essayist and philosopher E.M. Cioran, saying: “Dans un monde sans poésie, les rossignols se mettraient à roter”.

Le discours engagé de Léa Drucker, Meilleure Actrice (Jusqu'à la Garde) - César 2019

2- Festival de Cannes

The Festival de Cannes was first held in 1946 as a way to raise the profile of new films, contribute to the development of cinema, and promote the film industry worldwide. It had a rocky start, with initial attempts at holding the festival being interrupted by World War II, and the post-war years introducing budgetary setbacks. In its first year, 21 countries presented films and by 2017 over 120 countries were represented. It is usually held in May and has different sections, including “Un certain regard”, “Cinéfondation”, and “Cinéma de la plage”, as well as those that are in competition for the Palme d’or.

Logo of Palme d'Or | Source: Wikipedia

As the festival is only open to professionals, attendance is by invitation only, although since 2011 the opening film has been released simultaneously at the festival and in French cinemas, as a way to acknowledge the importance of films reaching a broad audience. Its red carpet fashion is a perennially discussed event, receiving extensive media coverage and providing material for well-known television shows including Fashion Police, whose original host, Joan Rivers, created waves with her sharp, acerbic and sometimes controversial commentary on stars’ sartorial choices.

The festival itself is not without drama. In 2004, Wong Kar-wai’s film 2046 premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, although it arrived late, straight from the film reels of the laboratory, and continued to be edited until its release in autumn of that year. The film took so long to make that the actors in the film joked that it would actually be finished in the year 2046. In 2011 Kirsten Dunst won meilleure actrice for Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but looked on in horror during the film’s press conference, as the director made very tasteless comments referring to the Third Reich, including speculation that his subsequent film could be called The Final Solution. This resulted in Lars von Trier being declared a persona non grata at the Festival.

3- Prix Lumières

The Prix Lumières de la Presse Internationale was established in 1996 to recognize achievements made in French language films. Reflecting the Golden Globes, which are bestowed by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the Prix Lumières are organized by the Académie des Lumières, which consists of over one hundred correspondents from the foreign press who are based in Paris. The ceremony takes place in January or February, before the César awards. Although winners of the Prix Lumières can sometimes signal the results of the Césars, as did Alex Lutz’s meilleur acteur win this year, membership constituted by the foreign press gives outside perspective on French cinema, which may diverge significantly from French reactions.

Categories for the Prix Lumières include many of those seen in other awards ceremonies, with meilleur film étranger being replaced by meilleur film francophone in 2003. In its first year the meilleur film and meilleur réalisateur prizes went to Mathieu Kassovitz’s film La Haine, which depicted a day in the life of three young men from a quartier difficile of one of Paris’ banlieues in the wake of police brutality that has affected their neighborhood. Subsequent winners have included Agnès Jaoui’s Le Goût des autres, which she co-wrote with Jean-Pierre Bacri, and which won meilleur film, meilleur réalisateur, and meilleur scénario in 2001. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie followed in 2002 for meilleur film, with Audrey Tautou winning meilleure actrice for her portrayal of the title character.

Along with its focus on French language films, the Académie des Lumières is able to promote francophone films having smaller budgets by working with different cultural institutions both in France and abroad. This year’s winner of meilleur film francophone, Lukas Dhont’s Girl, had a relatively low budget of €1.5 million, but was a widely discussed film and received critical praise as well as criticism for its depiction of a transgender girl who aspires to be a ballet dancer. It was screened in the “Un certain regard” section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2018, where Victor Polster won a prize for meilleur acteur, and was nominated for a César by the Académie des arts et techniques du cinéma for meilleur film étranger.

GIRL by Lukas Dhont (Official International Trailer)

10+ Useful French Terms about Movies that You Should Know

The following terms are useful if you are studying cinema, or if you just want to have a discussion about the latest film you saw:

Number French English Number French English
1 un film d’action action film 9 un drame drama
2 un film d’amour romance 10 un film de guerre war film
3 un film d’aventure adventure film 11 un film historique historic film
4 un film biographique biopic 12 un film d’horreur horror film
5 une comédie romantique romantic comedy 13 un film muet silent film
6 un film comique comedy 14 un film de science fiction science fiction
7 un documentaire documentary 15 un film à suspense,
un thriller
suspense, thriller
8 un dessin animé cartoon 16 un western western

Sometimes the post-viewing discussion of a film can be as interesting as the film itself! In any case, here are some terms that are useful in these discussions:

Number French English Number French English
1 un arrêt sur image freeze-frame 8 un fondu fade-out
2 la bande sonore sound track 9 un gros plan close-up
3 le bruitage sound effects 10 tournage en extérieur on location
4 un cadre frame 11 hors champ off-camera
5 un champ-contrechamp shot reverse shot/
shot countershot
12 un panoramique panning
6 un écran screen 13 un travelling tracking shot
7 les effets spéciaux,
les truquages
special effects

Whether or not you are a cinephile, you could very well be listening to a discussion on French television or radio in which people use the above terms. There is even a radio show on France Culture called Hors-champs, which consists of interviews with people in the artistic and cultural world who are not necessarily in the limelight du jour. Cinema-related words and phrases are also useful for those who are filming their next YouTube video or story for IGTV. One never knows when an opportunity might arise to collaborate with a French-speaking personality.


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