In film criticism, the 1950s-era Auteur theory holds that a director's films reflect that director's personal creative vision, as if he or she were the primary "Auteur" (the French word for "author"). In some cases, film producers are considered to have a similar "Auteur" role for films that they have produced.
In law the Auteur is the creator of a film as a work of art, and is the original copyright holder. Under European Union law the film director shall always be considered the author or one of the authors of a film.
Auteur theory has had a major impact on film criticism ever since it was advocated by film director and film critic François Truffaut in 1954. "Auteurism" is the method of analyzing films based on this theory or, alternately, the characteristics of a director's work that makes her or him an Auteur. Both the Auteur theory and the Auteurism method of film analysis are frequently associated with the French New Wave and the film critics who wrote for the influential French film review periodical Cahiers du cinéma.
Truffaut and the members of the Cahiers recognized that moviemaking was an industrial process. However, they proposed an ideal to strive for: the director should use the commercial apparatus the way a writer uses a pen and, through the mise en scène, imprint their vision on the work (conversely, the role of the screenwriter was minimized in their eyes). While recognizing that not all directors reached this ideal, they valued the work of those who neared it.
Truffaut's article dealt primarily by his own admission with scenarists or screenwriters. Precisely the screenwriting duo, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost who Truffaut believed simplified and compromised many of the great works of French literature in order to support the political topic of its day. In his article, he quotes the director Claude Autant-Lara describing his adaptation of Raymond Radiguet's Devil in the Flesh as an "anti-war" book when the book pre-dated the Second World War. The term auteur described by Truffaut is applied to directors like Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Jacques Becker, Jacques Tati, Robert Bresson who aside from having a distinct style also wrote the screenplays or worked on the screenplays of the film as well. The auteur theory in its embryonic form dealt with the nature of literary adaptations and Truffaut's discomfort with the screenwriters Aurenche's and Bost's maxim that any film adaptation of a novel should capture its spirit and deal only with the "filmable" aspects of the books. Truffaut believed that film directors like Robert Bresson using the film narrative at its disposal could approach even the so-called "unfilmable" scenes, for which he used the film version of Georges Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest as an example.
Much of Truffaut's writing of this period, and of his colleagues at the film criticism magazine Cahiers du cinéma, was designed to lambaste post-war French cinema, and especially the big production films of the cinéma de qualité ("quality films"). Truffaut's circle referred to these films with disdain as sterile, old-fashioned cinéma de papa (or "Dad's cinema"). During the Nazi occupation, the Vichy government did not allow the exhibition of U.S. films such as The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane. When French film critics were finally able to see these 1940s U.S. movies in 1946, they were enamoured with these films.
Truffaut's theory maintains that all good directors (and many bad ones) have such a distinctive style or consistent theme that their influence is unmistakable in the body of their work. Truffaut himself was appreciative of both directors with a marked visual style (such as Alfred Hitchcock), and those whose visual style was less pronounced but who had nevertheless a consistent theme throughout their movies (such as Jean Renoir's humanism).
The "Auteur" approach was adopted in English-language film criticism in the 1960s. In the UK, Movie adopted Auteurism, while in the U.S., Andrew Sarris introduced it in the essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962". This essay is where the half-French, half-English term, "Auteur theory", originated. To be classified as an "Auteur", according to Sarris, a director must accomplish technical competence in their technique, personal style in terms of how the movie looks and feels, and interior meaning (although many of Sarris's auterist criteria were left vague). Later in the decade, Sarris published The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, which quickly became the unofficial bible of Auteurism.
The Auteurist critics—Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Éric Rohmer—wrote mostly about directors (as they were directors themselves), although they also produced some shrewd appreciations of actors. Later writers of the same general school have emphasised the contributions of star personalities like Mae West. However, the stress was on directors; and screenwriters, producers and others have reacted with a good deal of hostility. Writer William Goldman has said that, on first hearing the Auteur theory, his reaction was, "What's the punchline?"
The Auteur theory was also challenged by the influence of New Criticism, a school of literary criticism. The New Critics argued that critics made an "intentional fallacy" when they tried to interpret works of art by speculating about what the author meant, based on the author's personality or life experiences. New Critics argued that that information or speculation about an author's intention was secondary to the words on the page as the basis of the experience of reading literature.