Established by French engineer and inventor Léon Gaumont in 1895, the Gaumont Film Company is the first and the oldest in the world. Involved in both production and distribution, the studio has at this time nearly a thousand films in its catalogue, most of them in French. Gaumont’s history is inextricably linked to the history of the moving image. This is where the industry’s first female director, Alice Guy-Blaché, began her career; Gaumont British produced Alfred Hitchcock’s early work; the company has persevered through the Great Depression, two world wars, technological and aesthetic revolutions, spurred back into production by the French New Wave movement, and proceeding to embrace transnational partnerships, cutting-edge technologies and global distribution methods.
This year Memory! presents a colorful showcase of genres, eras, and whereabouts from that history. When the melodrama spectacular El Dorado came out in 1921, the Gaumont studio had been operating for 25 years and director Marcel L’Herbier was already experimenting with the next stage of the evolution of film, synchronized sound. Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduit, dir. Jean Vigo, 1933), perhaps the first residential school genre film, anticipates the various forms of realism that would emerge several decades later, by casting non-professional actors, while at the same time the film displays formalist elements in the organization of sound and picture editing. The Earrings of Madame de… (dir. Max Ophüls, 1953) is a social drama by a director who would become an influence on the work of young Stanley Kubrick, while Eyes without a face (Les yeux sans visage, dir. Georges Franju, 1960) became emblematic of the use of horror as social critique. In that same vein, Under the Sun of Satan (Sous le soleil de Satan, dir. Maurice Pialat, 1987) is a magical realist meditation on faith by a director who passionately shunned mass entertainment. Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni (1979), is an arthouse offering by a director who abandoned Hollywood to seek political and creative asylum in Europe after the McCarthy communist purges. Don Giovanni’s neo-classicism is counterbalanced by the hugely successful mélange of high fashion, design and popular entertainment space extravaganza The 5th Element (Le 5e element, 1997) starring Bruce Willis, Gary Oldman, Ian Holm, Milla Jovovich, Chris Tucker and directed by Luc Besson, one of France’s most recognized action/adventure filmmakers. Another comedy on the list is The Brain (Le cerveau, dir. Gérard Oury, 1969), starring the unforgettable and multitalented Jean-Paul Belmondo and the comedian Bourvil, known for La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At, 1966). The most recent film in the selection is Nicolas Refn’s Only God Forgives (2013). Representative of Gaumont’s global endeavors, this crime drama is an international coproduction filmed on location in Thailand, starring Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas and Vithaya Pansringarm.