5 French films you MUST know!
The first detective story and the first science fiction film were created on the Seine, and in the following decades genre cinema developed more and more: swashbuckler films, crazy comedies, exciting crime stories and action films, and in recent years also transgressive horror films co-creating the New French Extremity trend. In France, the careers of directors operating within the framework of auteur cinema, characterized by an original approach to the film medium, also flourished. Thanks to them, artistic trends were formed: Impressionism, Poetic Realism, New Wave, Cinéma du look. It is a very difficult task to choose five exceptional films made in this country, but I think that the list presented below is representative.
Port of Shadows (Le quai des brumes), 1938, dir. Marcel Carné
An example of poetic realism, one of the most important artistic trends in interwar Europe. Visually, we have here a cinema similar to film noir, telling the story with an image full of darkness, ominous chiaroscuro, strong contrasts of black and white. The script is filled with a gallery of diverse personalities learning the bitter taste of disappointed hopes. It stars Michèle Morgan and Jean Gabin who are like Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942). They are wanderers looking for their own place where they would feel happy. It’s been 80 years since the premiere of the film, but its good dialogue and evocative imagery still determine the strength of this work, its timelessness. It is not as spectacular as perhaps Marcel Carné’s most famous film, Children of Paradise (1945), but it’s equally deep, original and thought-provoking.
Vivre Sa Vie (Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux), 1962, dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Another famous trend in the history of French cinema is the New Wave. It was short-lived, but it had a significant impact on cinematography not only in Europe, but also, for example, in America. Its leading representative was Jean-Luc Godard, and one of the stars was his wife Anna Karina. The story of Nana, a saleswoman from a record store who leaves her husband and child and becomes a prostitute, would lose a lot if she were deprived of the innovative formal side and the natural and subtle, and at the same time very sensual, lead actress. The film differs significantly even from the classic representatives of the New Wave. At times it resembles a quasi-documentary, semi-amateur relationship with a large role of improvisation not only by the actors, but also by the director. This spontaneity may be only apparent, because surprisingly many borrowings from literature and movies have been crammed in here. It is also not certain whether the director is aiming at comedy, tragedy, or perhaps creating a new kind of art. But despite these doubts, one thing is certain – it is a valuable film puzzle, with which the time spent can hardly be considered wasted.
Belle de Jour, 1967, dir. Luis Buñuel
Spanish director Luis Buñuel made few films in his homeland, mostly working in Mexico and France. For Belle de Jour, he received the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Unable to find fulfillment in marriage, Séverine becomes a prostitute. She differs from other ladies of loose morals, called beauties of the night, in that she works in the afternoon to make it before her husband returns from work. Buñuel, one of the leading surrealists, made sure that the story had a hidden psychological depth. It is an ambiguous, enigmatic film. The director strikes at the bourgeoisie, showing that hypocrisy and corruption lie behind high culture and refinement. In the foreground is the charming Catherine Deneuve in one of her most famous incarnations. It is also one of Buñuel’s most visually beautiful films.
The Big Blue (Le grand bleu),1988, dir. Luc Besson
The best example of Cinéma du look, i.e. cinema that delights primarily with its visual side. Three Frenchmen were considered to be the main representatives of the trend: Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Leos Carax. This type of cinema is also called neo-baroque. The Big Blue is a special achievement, born from passion for diving and fascination with the depths of the sea. Underwater photos are exceptionally beautiful and hypnotize the viewer. The script was inspired by the French-Italian rivalry between two deep sea divers, Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorki, but it is by no means a biographical film about their lives. It is a tribute to Nature, its power, which arouses both fascination and fear. One of the characters states that when he is at the bottom, he finds it difficult to find a reason to return to the surface. These words describe this character well – he feels better in the company of dolphins than people. Although the tone of the film is dramatic, there is no shortage of caricature and humor – if only thanks to the excellent performance of Jean Reno.
Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os), 2012, dir. Jacques Audiard
Jacques Audiard is the son of one of the most respected dialogists of French cinema, Michel Audiard. Together with his father, he collaborated on the screenplay of The Professional (1981), and years later he found his right place in the director’s chair and won, among others, the Golden Palm for the film The Immigrants (2015). His earlier picture, Rust and Bone, is a very honest and devoid of cheap sentimentality story about the relationship of two life shipwrecks. They meet by chance, and what they have in common is that life gives them a hard time. Audiard does not follow the beaten path, he treads his own path and leads his characters, putting obstacles in front of them, causing them pain, watching them struggle with their own weaknesses. The greatest blockages are created by the human psyche, any physical limitations can be overcome. It sounds naive, but the film is not like that, it grips the heart and is deeply memorable. And Marion Cotillard is one of the best actresses of today, and in this film she proves her class.
Honorable mentions divided by genre
Historical film: Queen Margot (La reine Margot), dir. Patrice Chéreau, 1994 – an excellent interpretation of bloody historical events. Moral rot in the Catholic world shown through the eyes of a seemingly cold, but in fact emotional woman. The screen is full of emotions, and the characters from the pages of history – thanks to outstanding acting – come to life in front of the viewer, co-creating a credible image of the era.
Horror film: Eyes without a Face (Les yeux sans visage), dir. Georges Franju, 1960 – a unique position that keeps you in suspense, intrigues, but is also able to shock. What is shocking is the content rather than the form, because the film is about madness that is born of love. The mood of the story is beautifully built, there is horror, melancholy and tenderness in it.
Crime film: The Red Circle (Le cercle rouge), dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970 – an extremely atmospheric gangster drama, in which the schematic plot is accompanied by a lot of eloquent silence and monotony, but it is presented in such a thoughtful way that it attracts attention. Renowned actors also testify to the high rank.
Comedy: La Grande Vadrouille, dir. Gérard Oury, 1966 – a classic of the genre, provides a large portion of entertainment every time you watch it. Bourvil and Louis de Funès are extremely funny in a duet. Their previous joint film – The Sucker (Le corniaud, 1965) – is also very successful, although the production of La Grande Vadrouille was more risky due to the fact that the action was set during the Second World War.