There are numerous books on all aspects of French history and society -- ranging from the very general, such as the section on France in the Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition (Grolier, 1989), which presents an excellent, illustrated overview of the French people and their way of life, to the very specific, such as Judi Culbertson and Tom Randall's Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris (Chelsea Green, 1986), which depicts the lives of famous French and expatriates who are buried in Paris.
History -- In addition to the encyclopedia reference above, a broad overview of French history can be found in other encyclopedias and general history books. One very good one is History of France by Guillaume de Bertier de Savigny and David H. Pinkney, a comprehensive history with illustrations and plenty of obscure but interesting facts.
Two books that present French life and society in the 17th century are Warren Lewis's The Splendid Century and Madame de Sévigné's Selected Letters, edited by Leonard W. Tancock, which contains imaginative and witty letters written to her daughter during the reign of Louis XIV. Simon Schama's Citizens is a long but enjoyable new history of the French Revolution.
Moving into the 20th century, Pleasure of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment and Festivity in Turn-of-the-Century France, by Charles Rearick, depicts public diversions in the changing and troubled times of the Third Republic. Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 is a fascinating collection of excerpts from Janet Flanner's "Letters from Paris" column of the New Yorker. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre have written a popular history of the liberation of Paris in 1944 called Is Paris Burning?
Finally, two unusual approaches to French history are Rudolph Chleminski's The French at Table, a funny and honest history of why the French know how to eat better than anyone and how they go about it, and Paris: A Century of Change, 1878-1978, by Normal Evenson, a notable study of the urban development of Paris.
Travel -- Since 1323 some 10,000 books have been devoted to exploring Paris. One of the best is Paris: Capital of the World by Patrice Higonnet. This book takes a fresh, social, cultural, and political look at this City of Lights. Higonnet even explores Paris as "the capital of sex," and in contrast the "capital of art." The gang's all here from Balzac to Zola.
Showing a greater fondness for gossip is Alistair Horne in his Seven Ages of Paris. From the Roman founding up to the student riots of 1968, this is one of the most amusing books on Paris we've ever read. Horne is not a timid writer. He calls the Palais de Chaillot fascistic and hideous, the Pompidour Center a horror. We even learn that a woman once jumped off the Eiffel Tower, bounced off the roof of a parked car, and survived.
In The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, Edmund White wants the reader to experience Paris as Parisians do. Hard to translate exactly, a flâneur is someone who strolls, loafs, or idles. With White, you can circumnavigate Paris as whim dictates.
Biography -- You can get a more intimate look at history through biographies of historical figures. The best book yet on the architect who changed the face of Paris is Haussmann: His Life and Times and the Making of Modern Paris by Patrick Camiller. Hugh Ross Williamson brings to life Catherine de Médicis in his Catherine de Medici by combining text and magnificent illustrations from the art of the 16th century. This queen of France was the dominant personality during her nation's religious wars and mother of three kings of France, a queen of Spain, and a queen of Navarre.
Representing a very different era are A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's recollections of Paris during the 1920s, and Morley Callaghan's That Summer in Paris: Memories of Tangled Friendships with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Some Others, an anecdotal account of the same period. Another great read is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, by Gertrude Stein. It's not only the account of 30 years in Paris, but also the autobiography of Gertrude Stein.
Simone de Beauvoir, by Deirdre Bair, was described by one critic as ". . . a biography 'à l'Americaine' -- that is to say, long, with all the warts of its subject unsparingly described." The story of the great feminist intellectual was based in part on tape-recorded conversations and unpublished letters.
Colette: A Life, by Herbert R. Lottman, is a painstakingly researched biography of the celebrated French writer and her fascinating life -- which included not only writing novels and appearing in cabarets but also dabbling in lesbianism and perhaps even collaborating with the enemy during the Nazi occupation.
The Arts -- Much of France's beauty can be found in its art. Three books that approach France from this perspective are The History of Impressionism, by John Rewald, which is a collection of writings about and quotations from the artists, illuminating this period in art; The French Through Their Films, by Robin Buss, an exploration of more than 100 widely circulated films; and The Studios of Paris: The Capital of Art in the Late Nineteenth Century, by John Milner. In the last, Milner presents the dynamic forces that made Paris one of the most complex centers of the art world in the early modern era.
Nightlife of Paris: The Art of Toulouse-Lautrec, by Patrick O'Connor, is an enchanting 80-page book with anecdotes about the hedonistic luminaries of Belle Epoque Paris, with paintings, sketches, and lithographs by the artist.
Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet, by Otto Friedrich, takes its inspiration from the celebrated artwork in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. From here the book takes off on an anecdote-rich gossipy chain of historical associations, tracing the rise of the Impressionist school of modern painting, but incorporating social commentary, too, such as the pattern of prostitution and venereal disease in 19th-century France.
Fiction -- The Chanson de Roland, edited by F. Whitehead, written between the 11th and 14th centuries, is the earliest and most celebrated of the "songs of heroic exploits." The Misanthrope and Tartuffe are two masterful satires on the frivolity of the 17th century by the great comic dramatist Molière. François-Marie Arouet Voltaire's Candide is a classic satire attacking the philosophy of optimism and the abuses of the ancient regime.
A few of the masterpieces of the 19th century are Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, in which the carefully wrought characters, setting, and plot attest to Flaubert's genius in presenting the tragedy of Emma Bovary; Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a classic tale of social oppression and human courage set in the era of Napoleon I; and Selected Stories by the master of short stories, Guy de Maupassant.
Honoré de Balzac's La comédie humaine depicts life in France from the fall of Napoleon to 1848. Henry James's The Ambassadors and The American both take place in Paris. The Vagabond, by Colette, evokes the life of a French music-hall performer.
Tropic of Cancer is the semiautobiographical story of Henry Miller's years in Paris. One of France's leading thinkers, Jean-Paul Sartre, shows individuals struggling against their freedom in No Exit and Three Other Plays.
For more recent reads you might pick up a tattered copy of The Da Vinci Code (if you haven't already read it), or David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, revealing the viewpoint of an American tourist as he tries to absorb French culture.
Although Americans understood -- and very quickly, too -- the commercial wealth to be made from films, the French are credited with the scientific and technical inventions that made them possible. French physicists had laid the groundwork for a movie camera as early as the mid-1880s, and the world's first movie was shown in Paris on December 28, 1895. Its makers were the Lumière brothers, who considered filmmaking a scientific oddity and stubbornly confined its use to the production of international newsreels. Later, a vaudevillian actor and illusionist, Georges Méliés, used film to convey plot and drama.
Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont were the first to exploit filmmaking on a grand scale. Beginning in 1896, they produced and distributed their own films, building their company into a giant before World War I. When Gaumont made his first film, he enlisted his secretary, Alice Guy-Blanché, to create the plot, design the scenery, and direct it. She proved so successful that she was eventually promoted to the head of Paris's largest studio and became the world's first female director.
Before World War I the many talented actors arriving en scène included Max Linder, a popular French comic, whose style influenced Charlie Chaplin and helped him develop his keen sense of timing. After World War I a flood of film imports from the United States and an economic depression slowed down the growth of French filmmaking.
By the 1920s the French began to view filmmaking as an art form, and infused it with surreal and dada themes. These were eventually named avant-garde and included experiments viewed (sometimes skeptically, sometimes encouragingly) in Hollywood and around the world. Examples include Man Ray's Le retour à la raison (1923), Fernand Léger's Le ballet mécanique (1924), and Jean Cocteau's Le sang d'un poète (1930).
The golden age of the French silent screen on both sides of the Atlantic was 1927 to 1929. Actors were directed with more sophistication, and technical abilities reached an all-time high. One of our favorite films -- despite its mind-numbing length -- is Abel Gance's sweepingly evocative masterpiece Napoleon (1927); its grisly battle scenes are easily as chilling as any war film made today. Other highlights from this era include René Clair's Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (An Italian Straw Hat, 1927), Carl Dreyer's La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), and an adaptation of Emile Zola's Thérèse Raguin (1928) by Jacques Feyder.
Experiments with the early productions of "talkies" were less successful. One popular film director, Pagnol, declared outright that the role of films was to publicize to the masses the benefits of the theatrical stage. During this period, many of the counterculture's most gifted directors either left France altogether (as did René Clair, who emigrated to England in 1934) or died (Jean Vigo, Zéro de Conduite).
In 1936 the Cinémathèque Française was established to find and preserve old (usually silent) French films. By that time, French cinematographers had divorced themselves completely from the value system of the stage and had found a style of their own. An average of 130 films a year were made in France, by (among others) Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak, and Marcel Carne. This was also the era that brought such French luminaries as Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier to Hollywood.
During World War II, the best-known (to Americans) of the French directors fled to Hollywood. Those who remained were heavily censored by the Vichy government. Despite that, more than 350 French films, many relating to long past (and therefore uncontroversial) events were produced. Exceptions were Carne's Les enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945).
In 1946 France slapped a heavy quota system onto the importation of foreign (especially American) films. A semigovernmental film authority (le Centre national du Cinéma Français) financed independent French film companies and encouraged liaisons between the French and Italian film industries. Many directors who had supported the Vichy government's Nazi collaboration were soon accepted back into the cinematic community.
Two strong traditions -- film noir and a return to literary traditions -- began to flourish. Film noir included such existentially inspired nihilistic themes as André Cayatte's Nous sommes tous des assassins (We Are All Assassins, 1952) and Yves Allegret's Dedée d'Anvers (1948). Examples of the literary tradition include Bresson's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1951) and a film rendition of Stendhal's Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black, 1954) by Autant-Lara. By the 1950s comedy adopted a new kind of genre with Jacques Tati's Les vacances du Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot's Holiday). By the mid-1950s French filmmaking ushered in the era of enormous budgets, à la Hollywood, and the creation of such frothy potboilers as And God Created Woman, which helped make Brigitte Bardot a celebrity around the world, contributing greatly to the image in America of France as a kingdom of sexual liberation.
By the late 1950s François Truffaut, widely publicizing his auteur theories, rebelled with a series of short films (the most famous of which was The 400 Blows, 1959) that were partly financed by government funds, partly by wealthy benefactors. With Jean-Luc Godard (A bout de soufflé, or Breathless) and Claude Chabrol (Le beau Serge, 1959), they pioneered one of the most publicized movements in 20th-century French art, la nouvelle vague. In the early 1960s dozens of new directors joined the movement, furiously making films, some of which are considered classics, others of which have been thrown into the dustbin of forgotten artistic endeavors. Enthusiastically endorsed by the counterculture on both sides of the Atlantic, these directors included Renais (Muriel), Roger Vadim, Agnès Varda (Le Bonheur), Jacques Demy (Les parapluies de Cherbourg), Louis Malle, Chris Marker, and Marguerite Duras (Detruire, dit-elle).
After a switch to political themes (Costa Gavras's Z) during the 1968 rebellions (and a politically motivated abandonment of the film festival at Cannes by at least a dozen prominent French directors), French cinema turned to comedy in the early 1970s. Examples include Buñuel's Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) and Yanne's Tout le monde il est beau, tout le monde il est gentil (1972).
Many American films -- still shown rather frequently on TV -- were filmed in Paris (or else used sets to simulate Paris). Notable ones have included the classic An American in Paris, starring Gene Kelly, and Moulin Rouge, starring José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec. Truffaut's The Last Metro and Clément's Is Paris Burning? gained worldwide audiences, as did The Sun Also Rises, an adaptation of Hemingway's celebrated novel, with Ava Gardner and Tyrone Power. Last Tango in Paris, with Marlon Brando, was one of the most controversial films set in Paris, and the always provocative Roman Polanski used Paris as a setting for his Frantic.
La Belle Noiseuse, in French, with English subtitles, is a 4-hour film that opened in New York in 1991. Director Jacques Rivette tells the story of a once-celebrated painter, Edouard Frenhofer, who attempts to transform a beautiful young woman into his crowning masterpiece.
In 1992, Michael Bene directed Le ciel de Paris, about emotional isolation. The film, which opened in New York, starred Sandrine Bonnaire and Marc Fourastier. It was Bene's first and last feature film, as he died of AIDS before its release.
Betty Blue, the stylish Jean-Jacques Beineix film about a torrid summertime love affair, was released in English in 1992. It was first shown in France in 1986 when it was that country's nominee for the Oscar as best foreign film.
One French film that continues to be popular is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, which tugs at the heart strings. You'll fall in love with those scenes shot in Montmartre. You can also rent Le Placard by Francis Veber, starring Gérard Depardieu and dealing with gay life in French society.
The most recent French film to achieve world renown is La Vie en Rose, which won Marion Cotillard an Oscar in 2008 for her performance as "The Little Sparrow," Edith Piaf. This film documenting Piaf's tragic life is an astonishing immersion of one performer (Cotillard) into the body and soul of another (Piaf).
Today the transatlantic movie deal is a relatively common occurrence, and movie executives from California, New York, and Paris regularly collaborate and compete on films suitable for both cultures.
Music and France have gone together since the monks in the 12th century sang Gregorian chants in Notre-Dame. Troubadours with their ballads went all over France in the Middle Ages. In the Renaissance era, Josquin des Prez (c. 1440-1521) was the first master of the High Renaissance style of polyphonic vocal music. He became the greatest composer of his age, a magnificent virtuoso. Jean-Baptise Lully (1632-87) entertained the decadent court of Versailles with his operas. During the reign of Robespierre, Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle (1760-1836) immortalized himself in 1792 when he wrote La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. Regrettably, he died in poverty.
The rise of the middle class in the 1800s gave birth to both grand opera and opéra comique. Both styles merged into a kind of lyric opera, mixing soaring arias and tragedy in such widely popular hits as Bizet's Carmen in 1875 and St-Saën's Samson et Dalila in 1877.
During the romantic period of the 19th century, foreigner composers moving to Paris often dominated the musical scene. Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) was half French, half Polish. He became the most influential composer for piano and even invented new musical forms such as the ballade. Félix Mendelssohn (1809-47) had to fight against anti-Semitism to establish himself with his symphonies, concerti, and chamber music.
At the dawn of the 20th century, music became more impressionistic, as evoked by Claude Débussy (1862-1918). In many ways, he helped launch modernist music. His Prélude à L'Après-midi d'un Faune in 1894 and La Mer in 1905 were performed all over Europe. From Russia came Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), who made Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He achieved fame as a pianist, conductor, and composer. His Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) provoked a riot in Paris when it was first performed in 1913, with its pagan rituals.
A revolutionary artist, Yves Klein (1928-62) was called a "neo-Dada." His 1960 "The Monotone Symphony" with three naked models became a notorious performance. For 20 minutes he conducted an orchestra on one note. Dying of a heart attack at the age of 34, Klein is considered today a enigmatic postmodernist. Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) developed a technique known as integral serialism using a 12-tone system pioneered in the 1920s. As director of the IRCAM institute at the Centre Pompidou, he has influenced young musicians around the world.
France took to American jazz like no other country. Louis Armstrong practically became a national hero to Parisians in the 1930s, and in 1949 Paris welcomed the arrival of Miles Davis. Stéphane Grappelli (1908-97), a French jazz violinist, founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the most famous of all-string jazz bands. Django Reinhardt (1910-53) became one of the most prominent jazz musicians of Europe, known for such works as "Belleville" and "My Sweet."
Some French singers went on to achieve world renown, notably Edith Piaf (1915-63), "The Little Sparrow" and France's greatest pop singer. Wherever you go in France, you will hear her "La Vie en Rose," which she first recorded in 1946. Born in 1924, Charles Aznavour remains an eternal favorite. He's known for his unique tenor voice with its gravely and soulful low notes. Jacques Brel (1929-78), a singer-songwriter, has seen his songs interpreted by everybody from Frank Sinatra to David Bowie. A popular chanson singer, Juliette Gréco (b. 1927) became known as "the High Priestess of Existentialism" on Paris's Left Bank and was beloved by Jean-Paul Sartre. She dressed all in black and let her long, black hair hang free before coming to Hollywood and becoming the mistress of mogul Darryl Zanuck.
Among rock stars, the French consider Johnny Halladay (b. 1943) their equivalent of Elvis Presley. He has scored 18 platinum albums, selling more than 100 million records. Another pop icon is Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91). He was a master of everything from rock to jazz to reggae. Upon his death, President François Mitterrand called him "our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire." In the late 1990s, a dreamy French house music secured international notoriety with bands such as Air and Daft Punk. More recently, chart-topping indie band The Dø performed another first—headlining the French album charts with songs sung entirely in English.
Artists with immigrant backgrounds often are the major names in the vibrant French music scene of today, with influences from French Africa, the French Caribbean, and the Middle East. Along with rap and hip-hop, these sounds rule the nights in the boîtes of France's biggest cities. Khaled (b. 1960) from Algeria has become known as the "King of Raï." The most loved and influential French rapper today is MC Solaar (b. 1969); born in Senegal, he explores racism and ethnic identity in his wordplays.
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