Auteur Theory: A Full Guide

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Photo Source: Chloe Zhao filming “Eternals” Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Whether it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s use of voyeuristic suspense or Greta Gerwig’s character-driven bildungsromans, certain directors infuse their films with a unique artistic sensibility. This highly recognizable cinematographic style and thematic focus separates the normative director from the auteur. To learn more about all things auteur theory, including its definition, examples, and issues, keep reading.

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What is auteur theory?

Alfred HitchcockAlfred Hitchcock Courtesy Library of Congress

Auteur theory is a theoretical approach that says the director is the major creative force behind a movie. “Auteurs” infuse films with their singular perspectives and trademark visual styles when translating them from screenplays to the screen. Critics use auteur theory to explore the ways these directors act as authors of their films.

What is the history of auteur theory?

Jane CampionJane Campion filming “The Power of the Dog” Credit: Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The theory has been around since the mid-1940s, when film theorist André Bazin watched films that were embargoed during WWII. He, along with Alexandre Astruc, noted the significance of directors in filmmaking, finding that directors shared their own perspective through use of lighting, camerawork, staging, editing, and the story. They called this concept “auteurism.”

Bazin later founded a periodical called Cahiers du Cinéma, which in 1954 published an essay by François Truffaut that criticized the “cinema of quality.” Truffaut finds fault in directors who adapt a literary work faithfully without changing any elements to reflect their own perspective. He praises directors who express their personality in their films with the phrase “la politique des auteurs,” or “the policy of the authors.”

This critique was widely read, referenced, and expanded upon—particularly by American film critic Andrew Sarris, who wrote “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” The essay develops auteur theory as a foundation for cinematic analysis and assesses American movies through the lens of their directors.

What is an auteur?

Spike LeeSpike Lee filming “Da 5 Bloods” Credit: David Lee/Netflix

Directors and studios both wield a strong influence over movies, leading many film theorists to interrogate the notion of just who is responsible for creating a film. Directors who are able to leave their indelible mark on films despite (or with the approval of) studio control are often called auteurs. An auteur is a director who is: 

Instantly recognizable: The main thing is name recognition. If you hear a director’s name, are you able to isolate things that will be in their new film? If hearing a director’s name conjures up certain characteristics—think of Wes Anderson’s vibrant color palettes, highly stylized symmetry, and eccentric narratives—then it’s likely they make auteur cinema. 

Transparent: To be an auteur, directors have to be willing to get personal about their thoughts on the world and how their film projects translate those views. However, it’s not just about being quirky or opinionated. Being an auteur means having a direct style of art associated with their voice as a filmmaker, and working consistently in that artistic space over and over. Their personality has to shine in a way that the audience finds relatable.

Consistent: No matter the story or genre, auteurs have hallmarks they carry from project to project—whether that’s a theme they often tackle or an actor they cast often. What do they think of the world? What shots do they like to use? Are there cinematographers or composers they work with over and over again?

Examples of auteur directors

Jordan Peele, Christopher Nolan, and Sofia CoppolaDFree/BAKOUNINE/Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

Auteur directors include:

  • Paul Thomas Anderson: “Licorice Pizza,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Punch-Drunk Love”
  • Wes Anderson: “The French Dispatch,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” 
  • Jane Campion: “The Power of the Dog,” “The Piano,” “Bright Star”
  • Frank Capra: “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” 
  • Ryan Coogler: “Black Panther,” “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station” 
  • Sofia Coppola: “Lost in Translation,” “The Virgin Suicides,” “Marie Antoinette” 
  • Alfred Hitchcock: “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo,” “Rope” 
  • Spike Lee: “Da 5 Bloods,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” 
  • Christopher Nolan: “Tenet,” “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” 
  • Jordan Peele: “Get Out,” “Us,” “Nope” 
  • Martin Scorsese: “The Irishman,” “Goodfellas,” “The Departed” 
  • Steven Spielberg: “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” 
  • Quentin Tarantino: “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” 
  • Chloé Zhao: “Eternals,” “Nomadland,” “The Rider” 

Their films often feel like personal works, since these directors have clear points of view and cinematographic styles. 

For example, in “Get Out,” “Us,” and “Nope,” Peele takes a radical socially conscious approach to horror that illuminates issues of class, race, and intergenerational trauma. Similarly, a distinctive blue color palette, investigation of identity, and romanticization of the West appears in Zhao’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” “The Rider,” and “Nomadland.” Viewers can anticipate the kinds of shots, scores, characters, and stakes any given film by these directors might portray. 

Historically, auteur theory has not applied to television, since TV directors usually  abide by how writers craft the story. This has changed in recent years with the proliferation of streaming services that sign ongoing contracts with TV directors. For instance, Ryan Murphy highlights marginalized characters and addresses issues of gender and sexuality in the shows he directs, making them highly recognizable—although it is worth noting that he wrote or co-wrote many of these shows as well.

What are some of the issues with auteur theory?

Citizen Kane“Citizen Kane” Courtesy RKO Radio Productions

Auteur theory’s focus on the director has led some to contend that it denies the importance of the screenwriter. Others follow in literary theorist Roland Barthes’ steps to say that authorial and directorial intent should not affect analysis, and that the text should stand alone.

Director vs. screenwriter: Some critics argue that auteur theory adulates the director while ignoring the screenwriter. In a series of essays on “Citizen Kane,” film critic Pauline Kael claims that oft-called auteur Orson Welles should not be lauded for directing the film. Instead, she says, more credit should be given to screenplay writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. 

Film theorist David Kipen agrees that the screenwriter should be thought of as a movie’s principal author. “A filmgoer seeking out pictures written by, say, Eric Roth or Charlie Kaufman won’t always see a masterpiece, but he’ll see fewer clunkers than he would following even a brilliant director like John Boorman, or an intelligent actor like Jeff Goldblum,” he writes of why the screenwriter has utmost influence on a film. “It’s all a matter of betting on the fastest horse, instead of the most highly touted or the prettiest.”

Death of the auteur: Alternatively, film critics who take a deconstructionist or textual approach find issue in auteur theory’s focus on any kind of authorial intent. Instead, they believe that meaning should be excavated from the film itself, or in viewer response to the film. 

Despite these issues, auteur theory is still a popular approach to film analysis. Directorial influence and artistry continues to fascinate viewers and critics alike.

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