In the simplest terms, a film auteur is the “author” of a film – someone who both writes and directs. However, the phrase “auteur” also carries certain connotations of art and artistic vision. A film auteur is often a writer and director of a unique and even personal style of films.
The term originated in France as the outline for a theoretical approach to film-making wherein “the director is seen as the central creative force in a motion picture”1.
This initial definition has been maintained over the decades since the auteur theory’s emergence, with the term film auteur being applied almost exclusively to film directors who write and produce films which serve as “a medium for the personal artistic expression of the director”2.
Is there a firm line between a “regular director” and a film auteur – a writer-director who works to express a “personal artistic vision”?
The answer is a qualified no. This question is similar to asking if there is a firm line between “literature” and “popular fiction”. There is no clear line, but over time the distinction does become codified, clarified and demarcated regarding the art, the artist, and the categories to which they belong.
In addition to expressing a particular and unique cinematic vision, the film auteur is generally somewhat prolific. The phrase auteur should evoke ideas of a role, a position in relation to the medium, a creative and progenitive ownership of a craft, in this case the craft and medium of film-making.
So, the term film auteur then is a perennial title that describes a career in cinema as a visionary writer and director of films.
A short list of writer-directors who own the title of film auteur should clarify the concept rather finally. Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurisawa, and Woody Alleneach are representative members of the club du auteur.
Though Bergman and Kurisawa did not work in English, their eminence in 20th century film ought to make them recognizable names. Bergman’s produced some of the most stunning psychological films ever made, applying Freudian and Jungian concepts of dream, the meaning of symbols, and psychoanalysis to narrative films. The Seventh Seal is perhaps his best known film in America today, though it is only one of his dozens of films.
Kurisawa’s name may be more recognizable in America due to the continued popularity of his film Seven Samurai. Like Bergman, Kurisawa was a prolific film maker who used the medium of cinema to express and explore his personal vision of humanity and its struggles to find happiness and live compassionately. Also like Berman, Kurisawa influenced generations of film-makers. (Between the two of them, Akira Kurisawa and Ingmar Bergman wrote an incredible 139 films, from 1936 to 2008* and directed nearly as many of their own works.)
A contemporary example of a notable film auteur is Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino has been writing and directing movies for a couple of decades now and his films remain unique for their artistic vision. Marked by chapter orientation, verbal play, and gritty violence, Taratino’s films serve as a commentary on 20th century film, combining the qualities of various genres to express his own aesthetic vision. As the author of numerous gangster comedies, this aesthetic would seem to have something to do with the (narrow) space between humor and violence.
Here is a short list of Quentin Tarantino’s films: Pulp Fiction; Reservoir Dogs; Kill Bill.
Spike Lee is another film auteur working today, however Lee does not write all of the films he directs. He did get his start as a writer-director with films like Do the Right Thing and She’s Gotta Have It. And he continues to produce work that is expressive of his personal vision, as a film auteur must if he is to maintain his membership in the film auteur club.
*According to IMDb.com, Kurisawa’s first film was made in 1936 and his last credit appears in 2008. Bergman’s final writing credit (2005) comes from a theatrical version of one of his films. Each film auteur died, however, before their last credits appeared.