Here my is journey through (more recent) highlights of French Film
For many of us, however, I suspect French film begins with Breathless, the Jean-Luc Godard film from 1960. With it’s natural light photography, street style, jump cuts, existential wit and low-budget, on-the-hoof energy, it could be said to be the beginning of modernity itself at the movies. You could make a case for it being the most influential film of all time, the story of a petty gangster (Jean-Paul Belmondo) on the run after killing a cop and hiding out with his girlfriend Patricia (crop-haired Jean Seberg) while she sells newspapers on the Champs Elysees.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972)
Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel took up residence in France for the later part of his career and directed this scabrous comic classic about a dinner party that never really happens. It’s a dig at the restrictive etiquette of bourgeois society which straitjackets people into repetitive behaviours and deadens them to authentic reaction. Aided by a great cast including Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig, Bulle Augier and Michel Piccoli, Bunuel does it all with a light touch as bemusing as it is amusing. Hence the central images of the food never being eaten, sex being interrupted, drinks never being served and the dinner party guests processing down a long road to nowhere.
Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)
Louis Malle’s personal masterpiece recalls a real-life incident in 1944 when three Jewish boys were taken away by the Nazis from his Catholic boarding school. Malle reconstructs the story tenderly and brilliantly, creating a noble hero of the headmaster Pere Jean. The film beautifully recaptures the chill of the school and the wintry bleakness of the Occupation, flecked with moments of warmth and friendship and schoolboy jollity. The film – which was a huge success nationally and internationally, winning the Golden Lion at Venice and nominated for an Oscar – did much to awaken France, gently, to its own complicity in the Holocaust.
Jean de Florette/Manon des Sources (1986)
Based on the pastoral novels of Marcel Pagnol, Claude Berri’s blockbuster production become one of the towering achievements of modern French cinema, reviving the industry’s international reputation and sparking a craze for all things Provencal. The first film stars Yves Montand, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil, whose performance as villain Ugolin set him on his way to matching his co-stars’ legendary status. Perhaps now seen as old-fashioned and corny, the melodrama of the tale and the sumptuous photography of simple rural life proved hugely attractive to audiences worldwide. It’s the story of hunchback Jean (Depardieu) who inherits a farm from his mother, Florette. He tries to make it work but is thwarted by the dastardly acts of Ugolin and Le Papet (Auteuil and Montand) who block up the natural spring that should irrigate the land. The second part of the diptych introduced audiences to the titular Manon, played by Emmanuelle Beart making a memorably clothes-free entrance and taking her revenge on the family that ruined her father.
Along with Luc Besson’s Subway, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s cult hit Diva kicked off the style-heavy cinema du look which took Parisian thrillers into realms of fantasy and dream, although anchored in economic decay and marginalised younger characters existing on the fringes. Perhaps its best-known sequence is the nightmare-like chase through the underground (similar to the car chase in the tunnels in Subway). Told with visual flair, it’s a striking juxtaposition of beauty with underworld grime, the gorgeous aria from La Wally sung by soprano Wilhelmenia Fernandez rising above the dirty city. The director scored an even bigger hit with his next movie Betty Blue, the poster for which adorned thousands of student walls throughout the late 1980s.
La Haine (1995)
Following three french youths on a simmering housing estate on the edge of Paris, Matthieu Kassovitz’s film defined le cinema de banlieu, giving French film an urban edge and anger previously unseen and inspiring its own take on hip hop culture. Vinz (played by Vincent Cassel in a star-making breakthrough) stokes up anti-police sentiment while the film also gave voice to the rising resentments of the second-generation Arabs, as played by Said Taghmaoui and Africans, represented by Hubert Kounde’s aspiring boxer. The anger is palpable but lightened by superb camerawork, cool black and white photography and a thumping soundtrack which gave a sense of youthful rebellion back to French cinema.
Distinctive and bonkers in equal measure, Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s inventive debut feature took the world by storm, breaking out of its quirky visual niche to define a certain outlandish, comic new era of French farce. Set in a crumbling apartment block, M. Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) runs a butcher’s shop with echoes of Sweeney Todd, where clownish Luison (Dominic Pinon) becomes the object of affection for Julie, the butcher’s daughter, who tries to save him from her father’s cleaver with the help of vegetarian troglodytes. Its most famous moment is the bed-squeaking sequence, when the butcher’s love-making beats in time to the tenants’ other activities. Unique in style and humour, the film became a by-word for the new decade of French design, invention and offbeat humour.
Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Blanc, Rouge (1993-4)
Starring three female icons of the era Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob, Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski created the must-see mystical cinema experience of the decade, loosely based on the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity summarised by the tricolour flag. Although released individually, they are now often viewed as one, all scored by award-winning composer Zbigniew Preisner. Part thriller, part ghost story, part meditation, the films deal with space and time and the connectedness of human behaviour, how what we do will have repercussions elsewhere in the universe.
One of the great films of this century finds Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche as a well-heeled Paris media couple whose world is shaken by finding mysterious video tapes of their own house under surveillance. The tapes are wrapped in a child-like drawing featuring death. Auteuil’s George thinks he knows who is behind the threatening missives, the answer lying in his guilty, post-colonial past. Austrian director Michael Haneke uses all his tricks of menace and deception to create an atmosphere crackling with tension and violence, right up to its maddening, mysteriously disturbing open-ended final shot.
8 Femmes (2002)
Francois Ozon became one of the most prolific and internationally-known French directors of the new century, cementing his reputation with this delirious, camp spoof starring a practical who’s who of French actress talent: Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Virginie Ledoyen, Ludivine Sagnier and Firmine Richard are all suspects in the murder of a man in a big country house. The Agatha Christie-style mystery is hardly the point, as Ozon delights in sending up old Hollywood musicals and burlesque farce, all the while asking us to tell the difference between truth and illusion.
Un Prophete (2009)
Jacques Audiard stunned the world with his stylish, brutal prison thriller telling the story of the rise of an Arab inmate Malik (Tahar Rahim) within the walls of a Paris jail, including overcoming the threatening Corsican mafia, lead by Niels Aarestrup’s Cesar who first takes Malik under his wing. Audiard swiped at wider society, at the racial divisions and factions using the microcosm of crime and prison, but he also restored a swagger of cool to French cinema, as he had done with his previous thriller The Beat My Heart Skipped. He went on to win the Palme d’Or for Dheepan in 2015, but we all know that was a belated reward for the cinematic brilliance of Un Prophete.
The Artist (2011)
An affectionate tribute to silent-era Hollywood, Michel Hazanavicius’ film took the world by surprise when it went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture, making stars of actor Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo and a dog called Uggie. It was the first silent film to win, and the first French film. With nods to the greats of the silent era – Murnau, Chaplin, Lang – The Artist is both gorgeous parody and eloquent. exhilarating meditation on love, pride and being heard.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) – featured image
Director Abdellatif Kechiche won the Palme d’Or at Cannes alongside his two actresses Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux for this searingly sexy, achingly tender exploration of young lesbian love and the freshness of new experience. A coming-of-age (literally) tale, it charts the emotional love story of school girl Adele who falls for a blue-haired artist called Emma and, through her, enters a new world of art, bohemian parties and insatiable sex. Kechiche – whose Secret of the Grain from 2007 is also a masterpiece – examines class and snobbery (here the bourgeois Emma elevates and educates the working class Adele) as well as the emotional turmoil of new love in a film that revels in physicality and sexuality. The lengthy and graphic sex scenes became a point of notoriety when the actresses complained (much later) that they were exploited in making them, but the finished product is hardly that, so tenderly and beautifully is it filmed, so open and raw is its heart. A magnificent achievement.