(An Alternative) Top French Films List
Watching films (with or without subtitles) is up there with the best and most enjoyable ways of perfecting your foreign language skills. It improves your comprehension, gives you an idea of how the language is spoken in the real world beyond the classroom, and provides a window onto a country’s culture and cinematic output. This method is a very badly kept secret, so if you’ve been learning French for a while now, chances are you’ll have had a good browse of all the ‘Top 10 French Films’ content that the Internet has to offer. Amelie, Intouchables, and La vie en rose will doubtless be familiar names and firmly ticked off your list. So, intrepid language learner, if you’re ready for something new, here are a few hidden gems you may or may not have heard of but that you MUST watch as you continue your journey into the fabulous world of French cinema.
Dans la maison, 2012
François Ozon is a prolific director whose vast output has, in my opinion, been mixed, but Dans La Maison is one of his best. It begins simply enough with a French teacher who is very impressed by an unexpectedly mature and intriguing piece of writing that one of his pupils has handed in. But it goes on to explore surprising themes of story-telling, authorial control and the boundaries within a student/teacher relationship, becoming something of a psychological thriller at times. This quirky, cerebral little film will be an absolute delight for the book lovers among you, or anyone who appreciates the power of a well-told story.
Une femme est une femme, 1961
You haven’t truly experienced French cinema until you’ve had a taste of the delicious absurdism of La Nouvelle Vague, starting with Jean-Luc Godard’s exquisite films. While his most famous, À bout de souffle, is an undisputed masterpiece, Une femme est une femme has always held a special place in my heart. And I’m not alone; this film’s whimsy and sweetness, coupled with the delicately melancholic tone that pops up at unexpected moments, make it a favourite for many Goddard fans. Protagonist, Angéla’s, desire to have a child is not shared by her partner, and the scattered plot centres around the path down which this divergence leads her. A tongue-in-cheek homage to the American musical genre, Une femme est une femme is utterly charming from start to finish - watch it!
Gainsbourg: une vie héroïque, 2010
Even if biopics aren’t generally your thing, I urge you to give this one a watch. Joann Sfar’s tribute to the ever-controversial French musical icon, Serge Gainsbourg, delights in its depiction of the rock’n’roll ups and downs of the artist’s colourful life. If you know Gainsbourg’s story, you’ll be captivated by Sfar’s exploration of his life’s greatest hits, so to speak, from his famous love affairs to the shocking music he wrote. And even if you don’t, it’s an excellently acted and incredibly creative stand-alone piece that runs on an intriguing blend of humour and darkness. Either way, you’ll love it.
Les amants du flore, 2006
This one’s for the more advanced learners out there. Set in the fast-speaking, fast-thinking world of the mid-century intellectuals of the Sorbonne, this high-quality made-for-TV film depicts the fascinating relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (For those unfamiliar with these big names in French philosophy, Sartre was the existentialist rockstar behind Being and Nothingness and Simone de Beauvoir produced the groundbreaking feminist oeuvre The Second Sex.) Les amants du flore is set over a large chunk of their lives and explores the intricacies of their relationship from their university days into their later years as world famous intellectual heavyweights. Strongly recommended for French learners in pursuit of a challenge.
Feu Follet, 1963
The heaviest and most raw film on this list, Louis Malle’s Feu Follet is an intense but incredibly beautiful watch. It depicts a man’s struggle to return to the outside world after emerging from a rehabilitation clinic. Having for so long seen life through the lens of his alcoholism, the adjustment is challenging and leaves him with a vast number of questions about his existence and who he is. It’s beautifully shot and Maurice Ronet delivers an incredible performance. The consuming atmosphere of simultaneous emptiness and desperation won’t let you forget it in a hurry, and it’s an excellent Malle to start with.
Appartement des filles, 1963
On a lighter note, Appartement des filles was an utter delight to stumble across unexpectedly on Youtube (back in the days when full films could be found in abundance there). The story goes that the director, Michel Deville, originally tried to make a gangster film but it ended up accidentally becoming a comedy satirising the genre they were aiming for. In it, scheming gold trafficker, Tibère, charms his way into a gang of young off-duty cabin crew (who all live together in the titular appartement des filles) and enlists their help in his shady deeds. The plan takes an unexpected turn and hilarity ensues. If quirky, carefree 60s rom-coms are your thing (and you can stomach a few of-their-time clichéd depictions of air hostesses), you’ll love this quaint but quick-witted film.
Après Mai, 2012
Après Mai is set during an under-explored but fascinating period; the years after France’s famous, historically very romanticised, cultural uprising that took place in May 1968. At this time, the scent of revolution was in the air but, as the film shows, many didn’t really know what to do with it. It’s a film that depicts intellectual and artistic inaction; the atmosphere is full of expectation but nothing ever materialises. Concrete acts repeatedly elude the characters; paintings are agonised over and questions are left unanswered. If you have a Sunday afternoon to devote to an indie film in which nothing really happens, but in the most beautiful way imaginable, give Après Mai a watch. And listen out for the amazing soundtrack.
Le silence de la mer, 2004
It wouldn’t be a French film list without a nod to France’s rich canon of films depicting the Second World War, specifically the Vichy regime. The French Resistance plays an important part in the country’s collective cultural imagination and directors have explored it in many different ways. One that stands out is Le silence de la mer’s delicate depiction of a form of resistance that was discussed a lot during the time of France’s occupation: silence. When a Nazi soldier is garrisoned at the house of a young woman and her grandfather, their response is a staunch refusal to speak to him. As the film goes on, they learn more about the soldier and ambiguous feelings begin to develop on both sides. For anyone who loves a thoughtful, evocative period drama, I strongly recommend this one. The book that it’s based on is also worth a read if you want to delve deeper into the topic of the occupation.
Un héros très discret, 1996
While we’re on the subject of WW2, Un héros très discret takes a very dark period and produces a film that is (for the most part) light-hearted and entertaining. When Albert fails to be called up to fight, he creates a persona for himself, setting out to make people believe that he had a senior role in the military during the war. You won’t fail to titter (and sometimes gasp) at the lengths he goes to make his play-acting convincing, and the places that this leads him. The film stars a young Mathieu Kassovitz, who directed La haine and went on to star in Amėlie, and is unexpectedly charming, whilst never quite abandoning the seriousness of its subject matter.
Les chansons d’amour, 2007
Movie musical lovers, this last one’s for you. Les chansons d’amour combines the lightness and irreverence of the musical genre with the edginess of its contemporary urban setting. Ismaël, a young Parisian, enjoys a relatively uncomplicated, if a tad unorthodox, life with his two girlfriends until an abrupt event midway through the film causes him to rethink what he wants. The film’s diverse themes include polyamory, bereavement and Paris living, though it presents a slightly alternative picture to the postcard-perfect, Eiffel Tower-bejewelled image that you may be used to. Well worth a watch if you like a musical with teeth.
Now, get watching!
Hopefully you’re now brimming with fresh ideas for your next French film night. These are only my own personal recommendations, but I truly believe that every one of them will make you extraordinarily happy that you chose to embark on your French learning journey, and excited for what’s to come. Bon visionnage!
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