Simply put - the Auteur Theory holds that a film is a reflection of the personal creative vision of the director - that he or she the author of the film like a writer is the author of a novel. The natural line of thinking from this in film criticism is that a film’s quality is tightly intertwined with the film director. As Truffaut said, “There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors”
But to really understand the impact of this idea which doesn’t seem all that controversial on the surface especially in today’s media environment, we must consider it in a historical context. And to do that we must look at early 20th century French cinema.
France has always had a special place in filmmaking history - from the first public film exhibition in the Grand Cafe in Paris in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers to the works of Georges Melies. Though Hollywood and American films would quickly dominate international cinema even in the early silent era, the French film industry was an important artistic force through the 1920s with Paris a major cultural center of Europe cultivating avante garde films like Un Chien Andalou by Spanish director Luis Buñuel and coauthored by Salvador Dali - to The Passion of Joan of Arc by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.
The arrival of sound in French film spelled the end of this experimental avante garde. This new technology sort of caught French filmmakers with their pants down as they had developed sound technologies but held no patent rights. Instead the French would have to license this technology from American and German companies which came with heavy fees.
Until Sound, most French filmmakers were small artisan operations. Sound changed that and powerful organized Foreign studios began to move in. In 1930 Paramount opened a studio in Joinville to make films into different languages. A year earlier in 1929, German sound film company Tobis-Klangfilm opened studios in the Parisian suburb of Epinay.
From this Epinay studio would come one of the first internationally recognized artistic triumphs of the sound era - Sous les toits de Paris - under the Roofs of Paris in 1930 by René Clair.
As French theaters converted to sound, Musicals and “filmed theater” became the rage adapting literary and dramatic works for movie going audiences. The grandiose musical films would start to see artistic pushback in 1934 with the rise of Poetic realism - those were studio shot films with a fatalistic view of life: focusing on disappointment, bitterness and nostalgia. Perhaps the most prominent Poetic Realist was Jean Renoir whose films enjoyed much international success, with La Grande Illusion in 1937 being the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Picture Category - then called Outstanding Production.
But war, especially a World War, disrupts everything. When the Nazis marched into Paris, many filmmakers, including Renoir, fled. Those that stuck around continued working under German occupation - making “escapist” films and adapting literary works under the watchful eye of German and Vichy Censorship. British and American films were outright banned, so French cinema took off, even more heavily reliant musicals and stage plays as a pleasant distraction to the grim realities of war.
When hostilities ceased, French cinema was actually quite strong and a source of national pride - culminating in 1945’s Les Enfants du paradis- The Children of Paradise by Marcel Carné.
A National center for Cinematography was founded in 1946 to support a strong national cinema. But when the ban on American films was lifted, Hollywood films rushed in even encouraged in generous quotas in exchange for French luxury items in the Blum-Byrnes trade agreement to pay off war debts, French film production went back to a pre war average of 100-120 films annually. The difference now was they were more highly organized, more polished, and more crafted than before.
But the French output was lacking something in artistic quality - at least to a group of young men who desperately wanted to be filmmakers themselves. Against this old guard “Tradition of Quality” a new generation of outsiders - film critics - would establish a new way of thinking about cinema as art.