What is… Film à Clef?

Film à clef, or film à clé, is a type of film based on real life but played out as fiction. The term is French for ‘film with a key’, with the ‘key’ referring to the process of swapping out real names with fictional ones. It is the film version of roman à clef, which is the literary, and presumably original, equivalent.

This type of film is different from biopics, whether they’re based on a real person or not, as they’re not played as fact; it’s told solely as fiction. A common type of film à clef is when a fiction film is based on the writer’s personal experiences.

There are countless examples of film à clef, but some of the more notable ones include:

  • Citizen Kane – Kane was based on American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.
  • Magnolia – apparently loosely inspired by director Paul Thomas Anderson’s experience of dealing with the death of his father from cancer.
  • Lost In Translation – Scarlett Johansson and Giovanni Ribisi’s characters are believed to be based on writer/director Sofia Coppola and her ex-husband Spike Jonze.
  • Saving Private Ryan – Loosely based on the story of the Niland brothers.

Do you have any others that spring to mind? Is there a film of type that’s a favourite of yours? Drop a comment below and let me know.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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58 thoughts on “What is… Film à Clef?

  1. Mark Walker says:

    Wonderful little piece of knowledge here, Chris. You have educated me once more. I wonder if The Big Lebowski could be classed as one? The Dude was based a real guy named Jeff Dowd and Walter was pretty based on director John Milius. Some or most of the events from the film actually took place.

  2. theipc says:

    I love these pieces you do – great stuff! The only thing that comes to my mind is the characters of Kramer and George Costanza on Seinfeld….

  3. Gene says:

    Ahhh, very cool. Did not know that. This is probably one of those things where most people will never know if this or that film they love is actually loosely based on real stories. Saving Private Ryan for example. That’s in my all-time top 10 and I had never heard of the Niland brothers. Thanks Chris!

  4. keith7198 says:

    Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter? 😀

    No seriously, great write up. This is a term I had not heard of even though I’m a big fan of French film. Very cool.

  5. Zoë says:

    I really do enjoy these informative posts you put out occasionally. Very interesting!

  6. Thanks for posting this! I learned something today. That makes me happy.

  7. ruth says:

    Hi Chris!! Glad to have this educational series back. Always nice to learn something new so thanks!

  8. Paul S says:

    I wasn’t even aware of the term Film à clef until I came across your article, but I actually watched one last weekend, Sweet Smell of Success where Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker was based on powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell.

    Other’s that spring to mind are Scorsese’s Casino which was based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and the Stardust casino, and Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart.

  9. ckckred says:

    Nice post. I’m a big fan of film a clefs. Some other examples would include Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

  10. Victor De Leon says:

    Great post! Very thought provoking. Good job!

  11. karamelkinema says:

    Yay for continuing the series Chris! I read some of your older entries and these little nuggets of article is fun to read and informative!
    Now i know these type of films has a name!

  12. Jon Harrison says:

    Thanks for the introduction of this term! While reading this I would think Hitchcock and the whole theories with Rear Window. I was wondering would Leatherface, and Hannibal Lector be correct?

  13. Maybe Eraserhead? I know that he had something going on his life that, in his way, was shown on screen.

  14. HHmmm. Film à clef. I’m thinking ‘All the King’s Men’ about corrupt senator, Huey Pierce Long. Isn’t the 1979 film, ‘The Rose’ with Bette Midler about Janis Joplin? How about ‘The General’s Daughter’ with John Travolta? Awesome post, Chris.

  15. davecrewe says:

    Neat! I’d never heard of this term before. I’ll have to find a good excuse to work it into an article and sound all educated and such 🙂

  16. Cool post! I know something new now. Maybe The Devil Wears Prada? Supposedly Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) and Runway magazine are substitutes for Anna Wintour and Vogue.

  17. elina says:

    Thanks for sharing this! It’s a great thing to bring into conversation at tomorrow’s breakfast table with my host parents who recently claimed I don’t know shit about films 😀

  18. Tyson Carter says:

    Debbie Does Dallas? 😉

    Fascinating insight here as always Chris, great work 🙂

  19. Niejan says:

    I learned something new today: CHECK. 😀

  20. vinnieh says:

    Highly interesting post.

  21. Great post. Boardwalk Empire springs to mind at the moment – not quite a film but plenty cinematic. Have to say it’s the show I’m most looking forward to seeing back on UK screens this autumn!

  22. johnlink00 says:

    Scrolling around the webs today, so I’m a month late to the party here. But great post. My favorite is probably The Insider. The best TV series is Boardwalk Empire. And the best example of a FAKE film a clef would be Fargo since the Coen brothers decided to add that it was based on a true story even though it was not.

  23. Brian says:

    Reminds me of the film “Adaptation” (2002) with Nicholas Cage, who is a screen writing trying to write a film about a book, but always referencing to himself for the story… the movie ends up becoming the story about the story. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0268126/

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