The Narrative Avant-Garde is one of the most neglected movements in screen history. Coinciding with German Expressionism and Soviet Montagism, it arose in France in the 1920s as a conscious reaction against the increasing mundanity and market dominance of Hollywood movies. Yet the Impressionism of the early outings was gradually supplanted by a Surrealism practiced by the likes of René Clair and Luis Buñuel, whose later successes rather overshadowed the achievements of Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, Marcel L'Herbier and Jean Epstein.

Born in Warsaw, Epstein had been raised in Switzerland and educated at the University of Lyon, where he first became aware of moving pictures. Indeed, he served as secretary and translator to Auguste Lumière and began making his own films in 1922. Coeur fidèle (1923) was the 26 year-old's third outing and owed much to the influence of Abel Gance''s ambitious experiment in rapid, rhythmic montage, La Roue (1923). However, in deciding to place greater emphasis on the visual aspects, Epstein settled for a rather conventional storyline that he later attempted to justify by claiming he had concocted `a melodrama so stripped of all the conventions ordinarily attached to the genre, so sober, so simple, that it might approach the nobility and excellence of tragedy'.

Set on the same Marseilles waterfront that would provide the backdrop for Marcel Pagnol's Marius trilogy, the action centres on Gina Manès, an orphan who is shamelessly exploited by foster parents Claude Benedict and Madame Maufroy at their dockside bar. One of the regulars is the brutal drunk Edmond Van Daële, who decides to abduct Manès, even though she is in love with stevedore Léon Mathot. Van Daële takes her to his hometown and arranges their wedding at the fairground. But Mathot attempts to rescue her and is jailed for a year after Van Daële stabs a gendarme.

On his release, Mathot returns to the bay to find Manès living in dire poverty with a sickly infant. Disabled neighbour Marie Epstein acts as a go-between, but her own feelings for Mathot lead to her chalking a heart on a wall, which Van Daële - whose mind has been poisoned by prostitute Madeleine Erickson - takes as a sign of his wife's infidelity.

The denouement is riddled with inevitabilities, as Epstein evinced his theory that the majority of movie-goers could only fathom the basest form of melodrama. Moreover, the performances veer from the captivating restraint of Manès and knowing mumming of the director's sister (who also co-wrote the scenario) to the grandiloquent gesturing of the male leads and the minor characters, which would have seemed old-fashioned to contemporary audiences who had become accustomed to the greater naturalism of such American stars as Lillian Gish.

However, the imagery that Epstein created with cinematographers Léon Donnot, Paul Guichard and Henri Stuckert is simply exceptional. The location sequences anticipate both Poetic Realism and Neo-Realism in their unforced authenticity, while the use of close-up to confront the viewer with the immediacy and intensity of Manès's suffering must surely have inspired Carl Theodor Dreyer's method of framing Renée Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927). Similarly the way in which Epstein filled dead space within the mise-en-scène with streamers and other props and employed filters to mask the scene and focus the gaze presages the technique that Josef von Sternberg perfected in his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich in the early 1930s.

But it's the process photography that has earned Coeur fidèle its reputation as a masterpiece of photogénie. In addition to revitalising such staples as superimposition, wipes, irises and dissolves, Epstein also made innovative use of variegated film speeds, canted angles and subjective perspectives. He also experimented with freeze frames, non-linear flashbacks and rhythmic montages that gave the viewer a still-unusual insight into the psychological state of the characters. The carousel sequence is particularly celebrated for the way in which Epstein juxtaposed and double exposed images of the flying planes with close-ups and point-of-view shots to convey Manès's anguish at being forced into marriage with a man she despises and fears.

Yet, such is Epstein's control that nothing feels gratuitous. Indeed, the visual style reinforces the subtle power of Manès's expressivity and this insistence on making form as crucial as content to the conveying of time, thought, memory and space came to typify the cinema of Alain Resnais some three decades later. Resnais began making 8mm films as a teenager prior to studying acting. Graduating from the IDHEC film school in 1945, he made his directorial debut with the 16mm feature Ouvert pour cause d'inventaire (1946). But he made his name with a series of exceptional shorts. Several focused on art and artists and the likes of Van Gogh (1948), Gauguin and Guernica (both 1950) are long overdue DVD release, along with his fascinating study of the Bibliothèque Nationale, Toute la mémoire du monde (1956) and the industrial duo, Le Mystère de l'atelier quinze (1957) and Le Chant du Styrène (1958).

However, his finest short subject was Nuit et brouillard/Night and Fog (1955), which touched on the themes of time and memory that would dominate his feature work and introduced the ambitious tracking style that became his trademark. François Truffaut considered this 33-minute documentary to be the greatest film ever made. Yet, neither Resnais nor writer Jean Cayrol was particularly keen to work on it.

Inspired by a 1954 exhibition at the Institut Pédagogique National, producer Anatole Dauman asked Resnais to direct a study of the Holocaust. But Resnais was reluctant to express opinions on an event he had not witnessed at first hand and agreed only if Cayrol scripted the commentary. However, the novelist, who had survived Mauthausen and recorded his feelings in the 1946 volume Poèmes de la Nuit et du Brouillard, had no desire to revisit painful memories and was only persuaded to accept the commission by Chris Marker.

The juxtaposition of colour images of the deserted environs of Auschwitz and Maïdenek with monochrome stills and newsreel footage gives the film a chilling immediacy, while also suggesting Resnais's perennial themes of memory and the difficulty of recollection. Abetted by Cayrol's commentary (voiced with a disconcerting lack of emotion by Michel Bouquet) and Hanns Eisler's sombre score, Resnais's prowling camera forces the viewer to look at what now seem unremarkable places and contemplate how easily they could become sites of mass extermination. The contrast between these stark realities and the stylised recreations of Hollywoodised versions could not be more marked.

Yet some critics were less than impressed by Resnais's decision to impose an artistic aesthetic on such harrowing material. Others lamented the failure to count the 300,000 murdered gays and lesbians among the other ethnic, religious and political groupings who perished alongside the Jews, while others still dismissed the film's conclusion that such atrocities have always happened and will continue to do so unless we exercises constant vigilance as a feeble lesson to draw from such unprecedented barbarism.

But while Night and Fog all too evidently reflected the failings of imperfect humanity, it remains a powerful and profoundly moving memoir to the dead. Moreover, it encouraged others to explore the Shoah in greater depth.

Steeped in modernist and literary influences, Resnais emerged as a key figure in the Left Bank group with Hiroshima mon amour (1959), which along with Truffaut's Les 400 coups and Jean-Luc Godard's A Bout de souffle brought the nouvelle vague to international attention.

In 1957, Resnais had been approached by some Franco-Japanese producers to make a film exploring life in Hiroshima since the catastrophe of August 1945. Unwilling to repeat the formula employed in his Holocaust masterpiece, Night and Fog, Resnais asked novelist Marguerite Duras to collaborate on a piece in which the `atomic agony' was a facet of the action rather than its fulcrum. What resulted was the first truly modernist feature. But while its release in 1959 coincided with the launch of auteur cinema, this was very much a collaborative effort, with Sacha Vierny and Michio Takahashi's location photography being intricately linked by Henri Colpi's editorial team and sensitively complemented by Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue's contrasting musical contributions.

The action centres on a French actress in Hiroshima to make a film about peace, whose affair with a married Japanese architect reawakens memories of her romance in wartime Nevers with a German soldier. But the storyline is almost immaterial. This is a film about memory, experience and representation. But rather than tackle their themes in a traditionally linear manner, Resnais and Duras borrowed the Proustian idea of involuntary association to create what Resnais called `a sort of poem in which the images would act as counterpoint to the text'. Thus, Emmanuelle Riva is able to recall her past via a subliminal flash cut between the hands of her sleeping Japanese lover and his dying German counterpart and similar instances of metaphoric logic dictate that her recollections continue to intrude upon her present for the remainder of her stay.

In order to achieve this temporal and spatial dislocation, Resnais had to devise a new film grammar and the viewer has to concentrate throughout to make the links between events in occupied France and liberated Japan. Thus, he juxtaposed scenes of her post-collaborationist suffering with the tragedies that befell Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, in the process, he succeeded in questioning both the nature of narrative truth and the reliability of remembrance. In this regard, his use of clips from Hideo Sekigawa's dramatic reconstruction Hiroshima are particularly contentious, as rather than urging us to learn from the lessons of history, Resnais seems to be suggesting that the only way in which humanity can cope with the atrocities it has perpetrated and endured is continuously to forget.

A very different strategy for coping with conflict is delineated in Roberto Rossellini's General Della Rovere (1959), an adaptation of Indro Montanelli's fact-based novel that won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. Yet Rossellini disliked the picture intensely, as he felt it compromised the experimental style that would become the trademark of his period dramas in the ensuing decade.

If con man Vittorio De Sica has learned anything during the Second World War it's the value of telling people what they want to hear. Consequently, he strides around Genoa in 1943 convincing oppressed Italians and occupying Germans that the conflict is alternately shocking and glorious. He also manages to persuade the relatives of political prisoners that he has contacts on the inside who can be bribed into making life a little easier for their loved ones. But, while desk sergeant Herbert Fischer is readily in cahoots with De Sica, there's no guarantee that any of the hard-earned funds proffered to them reach their supposed destination after the scoundrels have taken their cut.

De Sica needs a steady supply of cash to sustain his gambling habit. But even he draws the line sometimes, as while he is prepared to scam the gullible Giovanna Ralli, he treats girlfriend Sandra Milo with greater respect (even though he is two-timing her). It's this talent to deceive that catches the eye of SS colonel Hannes Messemer when De Sica is reported to the authorities by Anne Vernon, a wealthy prisoner's wife who sees through his racket. However, Messemer is anything but an honourable man himself, as he wants De Sica to impersonate a heroic Italian general who was killed during a botched raid in order to gain the trust of the partisans and discover the identity of their ringleader.

Enticed by the prospect of a pardon and a safe passage to Switzerland, De Sica accepts the offer. But he soon comes to appreciate the hardships endured by the detainees, many of whom are tortured to betray their secrets. Moreover, on reading the messages scrawled on the cell walls, he realises the seediness of his scheme. Thus, he reneges on his deal with the sadistic Messemer and takes his place before a firing squad to protect Giuseppe Rossetti.

Contemporary critics bemoaned Rossellini's use of Piero Zuffi's Cinecittà sets, as they supposedly compromised his neo-realist principles. But this has little of the spirit of Rome, Open City (1945) or Paisà (1946), as the chameleonic director was already moving towards the historical realism that would characterise features like The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966). He loathed the commercialism of the storyline and the easy pluck of the reformed cad. Yet it's hard not to be beguiled by De Sica's performance or to admire Messemer's display of calculated Nazi cunning, Carlo Carlini's monochrome photography and Renzo Rossellini's evocative score.

Italian director Sergio Sollima also considers the qualities that make a good leader, while questioning popular conceptions of the Old West in Faccia a Faccia/Face to Face (1967). Coming between La Resa dei Conti/The Big Gundown (1966) and Corri, Uomo, Corri/Run Man Run (1968), this spaghetti western may not have done as much for Sollima's career as the `Dollars' trilogy did for Sergio Leone's. But it helped ease his transition from making rather kitschy sword-and-sandal adventures to tough urban crime thrillers and it's to be hoped that Faccia's companion pictures will find their way to disc in this country soon.

While convalescing in Texas, New England academic Gian Maria Volonté is outraged by the treatment being meted out to shackled bandit Tomas Milian by a callous sheriff and his deputies. However, in attempting to give the wounded Milian succour, Volonté succeeds solely in becoming his hostage and only escapes execution by promising to nurse his captor back to health.

Alone in the wilderness, the pair develop an uneasy relationship, with Milian seeming to respond positively to the liberal professor's theories on violence and crime. However, when Milian hatches a plan to reform his gang, Volonté is so seduced by thrill of illegality that he begins to challenge Milian's authority after the band settles a dispute between corrupt bigwigs in Purgatory City and resorts to its old ways by robbing a mail coach. But, just as Volonté begins to acquire a taste for criminality after killing a man to save his new friend during a shootout, Milian decides to lay low in the backwater of Puerta de Fuego after new recruit William Berger (who is really an undercover Pinkerton agent) guns down lawman Federico Boido on the well-heeled Angel del Pozo's property.

This moment of weakness allows Volonté the chance to seize control. But the bank robbery he devises in a nearby town goes horribly wrong and he returns alone to the isolated settlement that the authorities have long needed a pretext to raid, as it's home to numerous reformed outlaws who have previously evaded capture.

It's fascinating to witness Volonté's physical and psychological transformation in this underrated genre picture. Initially feeble and pompous, he objects vehemently when Milian's men read aloud the letters from which they are stealing after the attack on the mail coach and then uses cutting logic to chastise Southern aristocrat Lidia Alfonsi after she casually refers to a runaway `slave'. Yet, by the time he leads the bank raid, Volonté has assumed the demeanour of a desperado and he thinks nothing of jeopardising the idyllic community that has given him sanctuary.

Becoming increasingly vigilant and thoughtful, where he would once blunder in all guns blazing, Milian's own transformation is equally accomplished, as is William Berger's duplicitous turn as the detective, who murders a man in cold blood to earn Milian's trust and then exploits his growing reluctance to use a six-shooter in order to arrest him. Carol André also shows well as the cowgirl besotted with Milian, as does Jolanda Modio, whose naked river bath signals Volonté's shocking shift from city slicker to frontier brute.

But Sollima deserves much of the credit for persuading these excitable actors to tone down their performances and their pitch is as perfect as Ennio Morricone's score, editor Eugenio Alabiso's pacing and cinematographer Rafael Pacheco's camera moves. Italian genre cinema is too often dismissed for its excesses, but this is worthy of comparison with anything produced in the 1950s by Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher.

Cultures also clash in Pigs and Battleships (1961), Shohei Imamura's darkly comic adaptation of a Kazu Otsuka novel that presents those enduring the postwar American occupation of Japan not as the vanquished or the oppressed, but as opportunists out to exploit the victors at every turn. However, this yen for a dollar leaves many trapped between the Yankees and the yakuza.

Operating in the red light district that has sprung up beside the US Naval base at Yokosuka, Hirojuki Nagato is a small-time crook with big ambitions. His boss, Tetsuro Tamba, would probably be more ruthless if he didn't suffer from debilitating stomach cramps. But he still has fingers in several pies, thanks to his connections with shady financier Taiji Tonoyama and vicious Hawaiian Japanese Akira Yamauchi.

Tamba wants Nagato to take the rap for a murder and he is tempted because he needs the cash to set up a pig-farming business that would supply the base and the various clubs and brothels frequented by the service personnel. Moreover, disappearing for a while would solve one of his domestic problems, as girlfriend Jitsuko Yoshimura is pregnant and she may have followed her sister's example and become an American's mistress by the time he is released. However, Nagato is betrayed by his potential partners, while Yoshimura is subjected to a pitiless assault by three sailors in a seedy hotel room. Thus, before anyone can steal his animals, Nagato arms himself with a machine-gun and releases six lorry loads of them into the neighbouring streets.

Imamura served as Yasujiro Ozu's assistant on Early Summer (1951), The Flavour of Green Tea Over Rice (1952), and Tokyo Story (1953) and he finally ended the decade-long wait to rebel against his master's quiet compassion and rigorously restrained visual style with this scathing denunciation of the corruption underpinning the relationship between the Japanese and their American, Chinese and Korean guests in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Nobody emerges from this snapshot with much credit. But, for all the grafting of the yakuza and grasping of the families pushing their daughters into American beds, the most sickening incident involves Yoshimura being raped by sailors callously singing `I've Been Working on the Railroad' and then being arrested as the guilty party.

Imamura's anger at this national debasement is most evident in this sequence, as he lifts the camera to survey the scene and then begins to rotate the image to convey both Yoshimura's feelings of confusion and disgust and the vicious circle into which she and the entire country have become ensnared. However, as Shinsaku Himeda's vibrant photography and Toshiro Mayuzumi's playfully emphatic score suggest, this is not a wholly pessimistic picture, as Imamura and screenwriter Hisashi Yamanouchi allow Yoshimura to leave in search of a fresh start with a factory job in Kawasaki.

Another doomed union is chronicled in Carmen (1984), Francesco Rosi's lavish adaptation of the 1875 Georges Bizet opera that was itself based on an 1852 novella by Prosper Mérimée. Adding spoken dialogue to lend a touch of dramatic authenticity, Rosi also makes evocative use of his Andalusian locations to open out the action and ensure that the music seems more natural without diminishing its thrilling artifice.

Some time in the 1820s, Navarrese corporal Don José (Plácido Domingo) is stationed at the fortress in Seville. Shortly after his arrival, he receives a letter from his dying mother urging him to marry the demure Micaëla (Faith Esham). However, he is soon entranced by Carmen (Julia Migenes-Johnson), a gypsy temptress whom he and comrade Zuñiga (John-Paul Bogart) arrest after she knifes a co-worker during a fight at the local cigarette factory.

Carmen tempts José into letting her escape and he is demoted as punishment. But she seems to have genuine feelings for him and refuses to help friends Mercédès (Susan Daniel) and Frasquita (Lillian Watson) assist smugglers Dancaïre (Jean-Philippe Lafont) and Remendado (Gérard Garino) with their contraband. However, when they urge her to persuade José to join their band, she attempts to seduce him and he is forced to desert after nearly coming to blows over her with Zuñiga.

However, no sooner has José taken the irrevocable step than she jilts him for dashing toreador Escamillo (Ruggero Raimondi) and José becomes so deranged with jealousy that he takes a shot at his rival. He laughs it off and invites Carmen and her friends to watch him fight a bull in the square the following day. But José lures Carmen away from the crowd and begs her to take him back. When she refuses, he stabs her and is discovered lamenting both his crime and his loss.

Such is the quality of Bizet's score that it's impossible not to be swept away by this passionately melodramatic tale. Lorin Maazel conducts the Orchestre National de France with suitable brio, while Antonio Gades (who choreographed several of Carlos Saura's magisterial flamenco pictures) contributes some vivacious folk dances. Moreover, the performances of Domingo and Migenes-Johnson are superb (although some purists may bridle at a soprano singing a mezzo-soprano role). But Rosi and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis make such glorious use of the colours in both the natural landscape and Enrico Job's costumes and sets that this is as much a visual as an aural treat.

The same is very much true of Zoltán Huszárik's Szindbád (1971), which was drawn from the much-loved, but seemingly untranslatable short stories of Gyula Krúdy and was voted the best Hungarian film of all time by domestic audiences. With Zoltán Latinovits inheriting a role that Vittorio De Sica declined because the producers wouldn't hire his son to compose the score, this is a fin de siècle rake's progress that seems to have been designed to cock a snook at the long, stately takes of Miklós Jancsó by showing that potentially contentious symbolism could also be obscured by flashbacking non-linearity and sensual surrealism. However, four decades after its completion, it has lost none of its lustre or its power to enthral and bemuse.

A roué who has devoted himself to seduction and pleasure, Latinovits is coming towards the end of his life. But, while he seems proud of his gift for seducing women without disclosing his feelings for them, he is sufficiently troubled to imagine his decaying carcass being rejected by his past conquests and begins a memorial odyssey in which each fresh reminiscence is triggered by a tiny detail that takes him back to a specific time and place - and the woman who made them special.

Although he enjoyed engaging in florid correspondence with Anna Nagy, Éva Ruttkai, Bella Tanay and Mária Medgyesi were among his favourite old flames. However, Erika Szegedi committed suicide, while Ildikó Bánsági may well have been his own daughter. But if his recollection occasionally fails him, brothel madam Margit Dajka is always there to guide him with her exhaustive diary of his antics.

Yet, while there is clearly an intriguing story to tell, Huszárik is far more interested in the form than the content. Every shade and fold in Nelly Vágó's costumes is lovingly captured by Sándor Sára's camera, which also revels in the period trappings of Tamás Vayer's production design. But the lens alights upon food and flesh with even more reverential finesse and this luxuriance gives the action a tactility that film rarely succeeds in conveying. Even the impressionistic structure achieved by Huszárik and co-editor Mihály Morell seems driven by the sights, sounds and smells in Latinovits's subconscious and this Proustian desultoriness makes the liaisons seem all the more callously romantic.

This need to sharpen the edge of the lothario's charm makes it difficult to imagine De Sica in the role. But Latinovits has a reckless chic that makes him irresistible even as he's being detestable, while his relishing of the beauty laying itself before him somehow takes the chauvinist curse of his cruelty. Sadly, both actor and director would commit suicide while still relatively young men. But they bequeathed a film of intoxicating voluptuousness that is worth catching if only for the ice-skating sequence and the candlelight excursion.