Lockdown getting you down? Join me for a brief tour through the history of French cinema, as we share some of the best French movies of all time. Of course, there are far too many excellent French films to list in one short blog post. But I’ve put together a selection of my favourites.
All of the French films listed here are available to watch online for not much than the price of a café au lait, and for your viewing convenience, we’ve included links to where you can watch them.
I’ve also divided my selection into three rough categories: the best Classic French movies, the best of French New Wave Cinema, and the best French films of the 2000s.
The Best Classic French Films (1930s and 40s)
We could spend all day debating the meaning of “classic” French cinema, but for the sake of this blog post I’m defining it as the 1930s and 40s. Here are a few of my favourite French films from this period:
1) The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir (1939)
La Règle du Jeu, the 1939 film by Jean Renoir was released a few months before the Second World War began. It was met largely with protests and disapproval by both critics and the public. It depicts a group of upper-class French people and their servants, and takes place mostly at a country house outside of Paris. The film has plenty going for it, including the frequent swapping of romantic partners, Shakespeare-esque cases of mistaken identity, and good, old-fashioned upstairs-downstairs parallels. It’s also an influential film in terms of its style, which makes use of long takes, and improvised dialogue (only one third of the film was scripted). Director Jean Renoir himself appears in the film as the wise and melancholic Octave.
Available on Amazon Prime Video
2) Children of Paradise, Marcel Carné (1943)
Made during the German Occupation of France, Marcel Carné’s 1943 film Les Enfants du Paradis is usually known in English as Children of Paradise. But a better title would be Children of the Gods. The paradis in the title refers not to actual paradise, but to the second balcony or gallery in a theatre, which in English is colloquially known as “the gods”. Set in the Parisian theatre scene of the 1820s and 30s, Les Enfants du Paradis tells the story of Garance, a courtesan played by one of the immortals of the golden age of French cinema, Arletty. Our beautiful courtesan is courted by four would-be suitors: a mime artist, an actor, a well-known criminal, and an aristocrat. If that doesn’t sound like a romp of a film, I don’t know what will.
Available on Amazon Prime Video
3) The Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir (1937)
Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion is a war film without the battles, or – for the most part – bloodshed. Renoir drew on his own experiences as an aviator in the First World War to write the film. One of the film’s stars, Jean Gabin, even wears Renoir’s own uniform. La Grande Illusion begins with the capture of two aviators, who are taken to a German prisoner of war camp. Though the plot of the film deals with various attempts at escape, the point it’s making is clearly one about class transcending borders. Aristocratic characters from France and Germany find they have more in common with each other than with their own countrymen of the lower classes. The film was initially banned by both French and German authorities due to its anti-war message. These days though, it consistently appears on lists of the best French films of all time.
Available on Amazon Prime Video
The Best New Wave French Films (1960s)
Beginning in the late 1950s, the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague style involved technical innovations such as shooting with portable equipment with little to no lighting, and often involved a certain level of narrative ambiguity: the questions raised in the film are not necessarily answered by the end. Here are a couple of the best French films from the 1960s:
1) Jules & Jim, François Truffaut (1962)
A true classic of the French New Wave, Jules & Jim tells the story of a tragic love story between French bohemian Jim, the shy Austrian Jules, and the charismatic, free-spirited Catherine. The film is set before, during and immediately after the First World War. This provides dramatic tension, as both Jules and Jim fear coming face to face with the other as they fight for the opposing sides. In spite of the setting, Jules & Jim has a very 1960s feel to it, reflected in Catherine’s iconic winged eyeliner and the tomboyish style she develops as the film goes on.
2) Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard (1960)
Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle was released in North America as Breathless, and brought international attention to French New Wave cinema. A Bout de Souffle is an influential film, frequently appearing on lists of the best French films of all time. But it’s also an enjoyable watch in its own right. The plot follows Michel, a wandering criminal, and Patricia, a young American in Paris, and is as much a romance as it is a drama. It’s also a good one to watch (without subtitles) if your French is rusty, as Patricia’s American accent and Michel’s slow drawl make it quite easy to understand.
The Best French Films of the Past Twenty Years (2000 – Present)
1) Amélie, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)
Beloved by students of French and anyone who dreams of living in Paris, Amélie is probably one of the best-known French films in the English-speaking world. And, I would say, deservedly so. The main character, the shy and eccentric Amélie, is endearing. The plot is as compelling as it is whimsical. And the scenes of arty, quirky Montmartre are delightful. Just… don’t expect your life to be exactly as pictured if you ever do move to Paris, you know?
2)The Intouchables, Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano (2011)
A sweet, funny, if somewhat unsubtle film, Intouchable is a classic tale of unlikely friendship, between a young black man and the elderly white paraplegic he is hired to take care of. The film is clearly trying to get a message across about the duality of French society, with rich aristocrats on one side and the deprived banlieue on the other. However, it’s not as ham-fisted as it could have been, and works surprisingly well as a charming comedy.
3) Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard (2012)
Rust and Bone is a French-Belgian film by French director Jacques Audiard. It follows Ali, a young, unemployed father trying to make ends meet for his son. The film follows Ali’s developing relationship with Stéphanie, who works at a local marine tourist park before a tragic accident transforms her life. It’s brilliantly written and acted, but it’s certainly not a cheerful watch. In fact, it can be a bit grim at times. But there are some heart-warming moments too.
4) La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan (2007)
The 2007 biopic of Edith Piaf tells the story of the French singer’s life in a somewhat bizarre non-linear series of key events. While this is slightly odd for a biopic, what is even stranger is that the film completely skips over one of the more interesting and arguably important period of Piaf’s life: the Second World War. During the war, Piaf sang for high-ranking Nazis in occupied Paris, but also aided in the escape of PoWs. This aside though, it’s an impressive film, not least because of Marion Cottilard’s utter transformation into the pop-eyed, buck-toothed Piaf.
What have we missed?
Do you have a favourite French film that I haven’t included in this list? Are you outraged that what you consider to be THE best French movie of all time hasn’t been listed? This list of course represents my personal taste, and I can’t help but notice that there’s a huge, gaping hole between 1962 and 2001. Were there even any French movies made between those years? Let me know in the comments!
Need more ideas for your next movie night? We’ve got you covered!