By the early 1970s, the effects of the New Wave and of May 1968 had dissipated. Certain directors, such as Truffaut, were reintegrated into the French mainstream and directed films that clearly continued the tradition of French cinema associated with figures like Guitry and Renoir. Conversely, Godard and Rivette experimented with form and content, while others, like Bresson—never part of the New Wave—steadfastly pursued a personal itinerary. Directors like Louis Malle pushed the boundaries of film content with productions like Le Souffle au coeur ( Murmur of the Heart , 1971), about incest, and Lacombe Lucien (1974), about a young peasant who collaborates with the Germans. In the aftermath of the New Wave, a new generation of young filmmakers emerged that included Maurice Pialat (1925–2003), Jacques Doillon (b. 1944), and Jean Eustache (1938–1981), who continued the auteurist tradition inaugurated by the Cahiers group. More importantly, the role of cinema in French culture changed irrevocably, as it was no longer the primary medium of mass entertainment. By the end of the 1970s, more people watched films on television than in theaters.
By the mid-1970s, French culture had freed itself from the rigid hierarchies and social behaviors that previously characterized everyday life; however, the utopian environment anticipated by the activists in the 1960s did not become a reality. Censorship policies were abandoned (though the category X was created for taxation purposes). The result was a flourishing tradition of soft-core pornography, exemplified by Emmanuelle (1974), directed by Just Jaeckin (b. 1940). Global consumerism appeared as if it would successfully colonize French culture, which seemed in danger of losing its specificity.
An exception to this trend was the growing tradition of women's cinema, which gravitated to the Festival international de films de femmes (French International Women's Film Festival), established in Sceaux in 1979 and moved to Créteil in 1985. A number of significant women filmmakers emerged from the woman's movement
during the 1970s and went on to make important contributions to French cinema, including Yannick Bellon (b. 1924), Diane Kurys (b. 1949), and Coline Serreau (b. 1947). The influx of women filmmakers such as Christine Pascal (1953–1996) and Brigitte Roüan (b.1946) who emerged through festivals and as graduates of French film schools, continued to grow over the next two decades. Significant women directors who appeared in the 1980s and 1990s include Josiane Balasko (b. 1950), Claire Denis (b. 1948), and Catherine Breillat (b. 1950).
During these years Hollywood film gained new ground, further diminishing an audience already depleted by television. Nevertheless, French cinema remained a force in French culture. Popular comedies such as Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob ( The Adventures of Rabbi Jacob , 1973), starring Louis de Funès, continued to have strong box-office appeal. But by the late 1980s, Hollywood films systematically outperformed French films at the French box office. The growing prominence of the Césars, the French "Oscar" (first awarded in 1976 and initially dismissed by the international film industry), testified to the continuing importance of film within French culture, despite diminishing box-office returns. By the 1990s, half of the French population would watch la nuit des Césars (the night of the Cesars) on television.
The government's sustained support for the film industry in France reflected this centrality. Under the socialist government (1981–1995), support was stronger than ever before, ensuring the survival of the industry during a period in which the European cinema as a whole suffered a serious decline. Initiatives inaugurated by Minister of Culture Jack Lang (b. 1939), including the creation of eight maisons de la culture (regional cinema centers), encouraged regional filmmakers. However, on the whole, Paris remained at the heart of French feature-length production through the 1970s and 1980s. A significant diversification of perspective resulted from the number of foreign directors who exploited the favorable conditions offered to the film industry by the French government. Directors such as Joseph Losey, Ettore Scola, Otar Iosseliani, Hugo Santiago, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Raoul Ruiz, Andrzej Zulawski, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kiéslowski, and Emir Kusturica all made films in France, financed, at least partially, by French money.
During the 1980s, encouraged by the Socialist government, the liberalization of French culture and society continued, manifested in cultural pluralism and cultural sensitivity. For example, under the leadership of French comedian and film actor Coluche (Michel Colucci; 1944–1986), the artistic community created Les Restos du Coeur, which provided free meals for the homeless. In general, the 1980s were marked by disillusionment with social reform and economic change, leading to the rise of individualism of the 1990s and the gradual disappearance of the political film in France.
Until the mid-1980s, the success of popular cinema in France depended in large part upon film series coproduced by stars such as Belmondo, Alain Delon (b. 1935), and Funès. By the mid-1980s, this generation of stars had died or aged, and French cinema moved away from formula-driven production. Films such as Trois hommes et un couffin ( Three Men and a Baby , 1985) and La Vie est un long fleuve tranquil ( Life Is a Long Quiet River , 1987), box-office successes, were exceptions rather than the rule and did not fit any well-defined template. The number of box-office entries continued to fall, and by 1993 box-office receipts for French films were significantly less than for their Hollywood counterparts. The strategies and financial incentives promoted by Lang during this period insured that French filmmaking remained financially healthy; however, the industry's hold on French minds and culture waned. In particular, the youth segment that dominated audiences was more interested in foreign productions than in French material, an attitude that was reflected in the rise of international co-productions.