Lockdown has you feeling low? Take a look at some of the greatest French films ever made as we journey through the history of the country’s film industry. This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of great French films out there. Then then, I’ve put together a list of my favorite things about each.
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For the price of a cup of coffee, you can see all of the French films listed below, and we’ve supplied links to the sites where you may do so.
Also, I’ve grouped the finest French films into three broad categories: the best classic French films, the best French New Wave films, and the best contemporary French films.
The Best Classic French Films (1930s and 40s)
Defining “classic” French cinema can take all day, but for this blog article, I’m focusing on the 1930s and 1940s. A sampling of my favorite French films from this era:
1) The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir (1939)
The Jean Renoir picture La Règle du Jeu (1939) was released just months before the start of World War II. Critics and the general public were largely outraged by it. The majority of the action takes place in a rural house outside of Paris, where a group of affluent French individuals and their staff are seen. Plenty to like in the film, including frequent switching of partners, Shakespeare-esque misidentifications, and good old upstairs/downstairs analogies. In addition, the film’s style, which employs extended shots and spontaneous conversation, has made it a significant influence (only one third of the film was scripted). Film director Jean Renoir plays the wise and melancholy Octave in the film.
2) Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné (1943)
Marcel Carné’s 1943 film Les Enfants du Paradise, which was made under the German occupation of France, is more often known as Children of Paradise. However, the term “Children of the Gods” might be preferable. Paradis refers to the second balcony or gallery in a theater, which in English is informally referred to as “the gods” in the title of this work. It is set in the Parisian theater scene between 1820 and 1830 and relates the story of a courtesan, Garance, performed by one of the greatest actresses in French cinema, Arletty. Four men are vying for the attention of our lovely courtesan: a mime artist, an actress, a notorious criminal, and an aristocrat. Nothing about that doesn’t scream “romp” more than that.
3) The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir (1937)
Without actual fighting scenes or much bloodshed, Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a war picture. In writing the script, Renoir drew on his own experiences as a World War I flyer. Jean Gabin, one of the film’s stars, even wears Renoir’s uniform in the movie. A German prisoner of war camp is the setting for the beginning of La Grande Illusion. Though the film’s plot revolves around numerous attempts to flee, the film’s message is clear: class transcends borders. French and German aristocrats realize they have more in common with each other than with their lower-class counterparts in their own countries. Due to its anti-war message, the film was initially banned in France and Germany. Although in recent years, it has appeared on numerous lists of the greatest French films, it is still a popular choice today.
The Best New Wave French Films (1960s)
Known as the Nouvelle Vague, the French New Wave emerged in the latter half of the 1950s and was characterized by a number of stylistic and technological breakthroughs, including the use of handheld cameras and little to no lighting. Among the best French films of the 1960s are:
4) Jules & Jim, François Truffaut (1962)
Classic French New Wave film Jules & Jim tells the narrative of Jim, the French bohemian Jim, the bashful Austrian Jules & Catherine, the flamboyant free spirit. Before, during, and immediately following the First World War, the film takes place. As they fight for opposing causes, Jules and Jim are constantly on edge, which adds to the drama. Catherine’s signature winged eyeliner and the tomboyish look she adopts as the film progresses give Jules & Jim a distinct 1960s vibe.
5) Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard (1960)
Breathless, the North American release of Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle, attracted international attention to the French New Wave. A Bout de Souffle is a notable French film, usually featured on lists of the greatest of all time. But it’s also a good show to see in and of itself. The story revolves around Michel, a fugitive criminal, and Patricia, a young American living in Paris. Even if your French is rusty, you’ll have little trouble following along thanks to Patricia’s American accent and Michel’s sluggish drawl.
The Best French Films of the Past Twenty Years (2000 – Present)
6) Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)
Amélie is one of the most popular French films in the English-speaking world, especially among students of French and those who aspire to live in Paris. There’s no doubt about that. Despite her eccentricities, Amélie is a lovable figure. It’s a story that’s both engrossing and wacky. And Montmartre’s arty, eccentric scenes are a joy to behold. Do keep in mind, though, that if you ever decide to make the move to Paris, don’t hold your breath, you know?
7)The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano (2011)
“Intouchable” is a famous tale of an unexpected connection between an elderly white paraplegic and the young black man he is hired to care for. The opulent aristocracy and the impoverished banlieues of French society are contrasted in the film, and it succeeds well in doing so. There are some obvious plot holes here, but the overall effect is still a lovely comedy.
8) Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard (2012)
Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone is a French-Belgian film that was shot in France and Belgium and directed by him. Ali, a young, unemployed father, is the focus of the film, which follows his efforts to provide for his son. An tragedy at a marine tourist attraction leaves Stéphanie with life-altering injuries and a newfound love for Ali. An excellent piece of work, but it’s far from a light-hearted experience. It can be a little depressing at times. It’s not all bad, though; there are some uplifting moments as well.
9) La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan (2007)
Non-linear sequences of major events are used to portray the tale of Edith Piaf’s life in the 2007 biopic. As surprising as it may seem, the film completely ignores one of Piaf’s most interesting and possibly essential periods of her life: World War II. As a high-ranking Nazi in occupied Paris, Piaf entertained the Nazis while simultaneously aiding the escape of POWs. It’s an impressive film, but Marion Cottilard’s utter transformation into Piaf’s pop-eyed, buck-toothed Piaf is the most striking aspect of it.