Film & TV

Film 101: What Is an Auteur? Learn About Auteur Theory

Written by MasterClass

Jul 25, 2019 • 4 min read

The concept of the auteur—of the filmmaker as artist and author of his or her works—began in Paris, where filmmakers and critics reacted to the industrialization of filmmaking in the United States and Europe.

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What Is an Auteur?

The French word auteur literally translates to the english, “author.” Within the context of cinema, the word auteur is used to describe a director who exerts a high level of control across all aspects of a film. Auteur directors generally have a distinctive style from film-to-film and often fill other roles besides directing including: writing, editing, and sometimes acting in their own films.

What Is Auteur Theory?

Director François Truffaut, writing as a critic in the influential French journal Cahiers du Cinéma (Cinema Notebook), developed the concept of the auteur in his 1954 essay “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” (“A certain trend in French cinema”).

Truffaut wrote about the films of several new French filmmakers who he termed auteurs. He drew contrasts between auteurs and directors of mainstream studio movies—who he dismissed as merely metteur en scene, or “stagers” of a script written by another artist. Truffault argued that the filmmakers who made the best films were those who wrote and directed their own films and who had a unique, personal vision. Truffault called that approach La politique des auteurs (“The policy of the authors”). Truffaut’s ideas on film were embraced by an era of French filmmakers who were part of what he called La Nouvelle Vague (what English speakers call the French New Wave).

What Is the Difference Between Auteur Directors and Other Film Directors?

Auteurs wrote and directed films that went beyond surface level stories to ask bigger questions about human existence and explore deeper themes in a nuanced and skillful way. Whereas most directors translated scripts written by others to the screen, auteurs usually write their own screenplays or at the very least have a heavy editorial hand in the writing process.

The 3 Components of Auteur Theory

Andrew Sarris, film critic for The New York Times, expanded on Truffaut’s writing and set out a more comprehensive definition for auteurs according to three main criteria: technical competence, distinguishable personality, and interior meaning.

  1. Technical competence: Auteurs must be at the top of their craft in terms of technical filmmaking abilities. Auteurs always have a hand in multiple components of filmmaking and should be operating at a high level across the board.
  2. Distinguishable personality: What separates auteurs from other technically gifted directors is their unmistakable personality and style. When looking at an auteur’s collected works, you can generally see shared filming techniques and consistent themes being explored. One of the primary tenets of auteur theory is that auteurs make movies that are unmistakably theirs. This is in sharp contrast with the standard studio directors of the era who were simply translating script to screen with little interrogation of the source material or editorial input.
  3. Interior meaning: Auteurs make films that have layers of meaning and have more to say about the human condition. Films made by auteurs go beyond the pure entertainment-oriented spectacles produced by large studios, to instead reveal the filmmakers unique perspectives and ruminations on life.

Influence of Auteur Theory on World Cinema

Auteur theory gave rise to writer-director driven films as the studio system lost its stranglehold on American filmmaking in the middle of the twentieth century. These movies went against the grain of mainstream Hollywood entertainment with nuanced points of view and often darker narrative themes.

In France, Truffaut’s ideas gave rise to the French New Wave cinema, which included directors like:

  • Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless, 1960)
  • Agnès Varda (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962)

In the U.S., auteur theory spawned a new generation of filmmakers to explore stories and direct films in the mold of the French auteurs. American Directors who embraced auteur theory around this time included:

  • Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967)
  • Mike Nichols (The Graduate, 1968)
  • Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, 1967)

These young American directors were part of what would come to be known as the New Hollywood, and were inspired by Truffault and embraced many of the tropes and techniques of the French New Wave.

4 Auteur Filmmakers and Their Defining Films

  1. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941): Welles wrote, directed, produced, and starred in one of the earliest examples of true auteur-driven filmmaking, a motion picture that displays unparalleled technical and cinematic achievements (for its time).
  2. Alfred Hitchcock, Notorious (1948): Though Hitchcock isn’t credited with writing Notorious, critics point to it as a monumental film in his growth as a director. Hitchcock used complicated tracking shots that would become a hallmark of his films moving forward, while cementing his status as a true auteur.
  3. Spike Lee, Do the Right Thing (1986): While not the first film that Lee wrote, directed, produced, and starred in, Do the Right Thing is listed as one of the greatest films of all time, thanks to its exploration of racial tensions in Brooklyn. The film is archived in the Library of Congress, and cemented Lee’s place as one of the most influential auteurs in film history.
  4. David Lynch, Blue Velvet (1986): Blue Velvet, written and directed by David Lynch, established many of Lynch’s signature filmmaking motifs, such as his creation of polarized worlds and characters with distorted attributes.

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