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A Bastille Day Salute: 10 French Films to See

by Borderstan.com — July 14, 2011 at 9:39 am 1,488 4 Comments

Mary Burgan, Borderstan Movie FanEditor’s note: This column originally ran July 12, 2010. Vive le France!

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From Mary Burgan

I have always wanted to be able to speak French. I’ve told myself that I’ll be ready to converse each of the few times I’ve landed in Paris. Then someone at the counter asks me a question and I panic and say, Parlez-vous anglais, s’il vous plaît?

That may be why I try to go to every French movie that comes out in America. I dream that if I go enough, I’ll master the language.

But mastering French is not the only reason to see French films. The best reason is that they are wonderful. I find French actresses–Deneuve, Huppert, Binoche, Béart, for example–extraordinarily beautiful and dynamic on the screen. (I can’t say the same about beauty for French actors because Montand, Depardieu, and Auteuil seem kind of homely and dull for my American taste. I make an exception for Alain Delon.)

In honor of Bastille Day on the 14th, I thought I would give a quick overview of French cinema — and give you my list of 10 French films that you should see.

The Total Effect

But  of course the best thing about French films is the total effect–sometimes heart-breaking, often satirical and even brutal. Perhaps the biggest scare I ever got at the movies was when I saw Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (les Diaboliques in France) a few years after it was released in 1955. The scare at the end is even more heart-stopping than the surprise ending in Psycho. I won’t give away either here.

I saw my first foreign films when I was in the relatively sophisticated environs of graduate school. The ones from France that stay with me to this day are Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (La Grande illusion, 1937), René Clément’s Gervaise (1956) and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961).

I was stunned by the tragic humanity of Renoir’s masterpiece and fascinated by the period detail of Clément’s version of Zola’s  novel, L’assommoir. I was also  transfixed by the tragic beauty and art of Austrian actress Maria Schell as the title character. I must confess that I was totally lost in Resnais’s Marienbad, a script he wrote with Alain Robbe-Grillet; I left the theater satirically chanting French words like monde, profonde, automne and mort under my breath. I suppose I should have been ashamed of myself.

I have continued my exploration of French films up to this day–always trying to avoid reading the subtitles, and always failing. And so here are some of the really great French films I’ve seen since my student days. I won’t say much about them, except to assure any reader that they are très, très worth watching.

10 French Films to See

  1. From 1974, François Truffaut’s Day for Night (La Nuit américaine). Of course, there are many other great films by Truffaut.
  2. From 1982, The Return of Martin Guerre (Le retour de Martin Guerre) by Daniel Vigne, based upon an incident in the Middle Ages and showing that French historical films can be excellent in detail as well as drama. Incidentally, Depardieu is terrific in this film.
  3. From 1984, Claude Berri’s wonderful Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs (Manon des Sources), depicting the grasping Provençal family chronicled in Marcel Pagnol’s L’Eau des collines. Depardieu is terrific here, and so are Montand and Auteuil.
  4. From 1987, Louis Malle’s memoir of being a French schoolboy during the Nazi regime–Au revoir, les enfants. (It was promoted with its French title in a perhaps more linguistically sophisticated America? Somebody’s learning French here!)
  5. From 1992, A Heart in Winter (Un coeur en hiver), by Claude Sautet, which stars Emmanuelle Béart and Daniel Auteuil. Okay, I was wrong about Auteuil; his quiet failures carry this great movie’s themes, though the chamber music of Ravel, played by Béart, belies them.
  6. 1994’s Blue (Bleu) by the Polish director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. who worked in French and mainly with French actors on his masterful trilogy, Trois couleurs: rouge, blanc, et bleu.  Blue is the best, mainly for the stunning performance by Juliette Binoche and the mesmerizing score by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner–essential to the film’s poignancy.
  7. 2001’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) is actually by a German director, Michael Haneke, and is based on a novel by an Austrian writer, Elfriede Jelinek. But it counts because it is in French and stars the amazing French actress, Isabelle Huppert.
  8. To lift the spirit, a happy film from 2004 that gave rise to a best-selling c.d. in France–The Chorus (Les Choristes). The music is heavenly.
  9. And finally, two of the best movies of the past decade: From 2004, Hidden (Caché) directed by the German Michael Haneke, again, and featuring Juliette Binoche, again, with Daniel Auteuil.
  10. And from 2008, I Have Loved You So Long ( Il y a longtemps que je t’aime) directed by the French writer Philippe Claudel with a stunning  performance by the bi-lingual British actress, Kristen Scott Thomas.

What Are Your Favorites?

I’ve left out many wonderful movies that cross the language barrier through the universal power of their cinematography, imagery, dramatic humanity. Now, chers amis, recommend your own favorites by making a comment s’ils vous plaît!

Vive le cinéma français!

Comments (4)

  1. Allyson McGill

    Eh bien, Marie! J’adore des films (filmes?) de Truffaut! And now, having exhausted my lame French, let me say that I enjoyed your review of French films and am delighted to have so many titles to add to my To See list! I have only seen a few of the ones you have mentioned (“Day for Night” being a special favorite, though “400 Blows” by Truffaut is on my Top Ten list). Recently, Mike and I watched a remastered version of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” which has been on my list since grad school (as in, “Oh, yes, I keep meaning to see that!”). A young, breathtaking Deneuve–and an entire movie that is sung, really an operetta. I hadn’t known that about the film, so it was quite a surprise–as were the candy box colors. Oh, those French!

    In grad school, I saw as many French movies as I could, and one subset was anything with Depardieu. Have you seen his Cyrano?

    But always, I come back to Truffaut. That is my true French love affair.

  2. How have you left out Le Fabuleaux Destin d’Amelie Poulain????

  3. I have to agree with Allyson, “400 Blows” is also pretty high up on my list. I’ve been watching a lot of French comedies lately. One of my all time favorites is “Tatie Danielle”, and a relatively recent choice would have to be “La Doublure”. Daniel Auteuil can throw a fit like nobody’s business.

  4. Thanks for all the suggestions. I did see Amelie, but I wasn’t as taken as most people were, though it’s a wonderful film. As for 400 Blows, I thought I should include only one Truffaut, and so I took my personal favorite. I haven’t seen some of the others mentioned, but they are going right onto my Netflix qeue. Merci bien!

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