I can’t lie, studying French at University and in school made me believe French cinema consisted of weird angle shots, awkward silences and generally lots of pensive pretentiousness that I have to admit I never really understood. My cultural epiphany came one day as I watched my mother diligently sit through an entire French film in silence, only to realise the movie was not a silent movie but she just had put the television on mute by mistake (true story). In this moment I realised, maybe our fear of French cinema comes from the hipsters, university and other sometimes overly-snobby bodies alike, but really we do not know what true French cinema actually is. So I started doing some investigations of my own, out with the University curriculum (why do Universities make you watch the worst films?) and realised there was a world of French fun out there to be had. So, here I give you the list of some great movies that I really enjoyed and that helped me open up to the cinematic delights of the French silver screen. I have included actors as well to look out for, most of which you will recognise the name of already but if you like them it will lead you to follow more of their films.
My Top French Films
I was absolutely obsessed with this French coming of age film when I was a teenager so it is perhaps nostalgia speaking but I still have a big soft spot for it even now. The story of this brooding Frenchman (played by Romain Duris) and his 6 flatmates from varying nationalities captures the spirit of Erasmus life and student living so perfectly that it will make you cackle all the way through it. The cast is perfect, the shots are gorgeous of both Barcelona and Paris and the stereotypes are spot on. This was the film that first inspired me to learn languages and move abroad.
Plus point: Also features a young Audrey Tautou playing a very convincing whiny girlfriend.
Jeunet’s masterpiece is probably one of the most popular (if not most popular) export from French cinema and it is very easy to see why. I won’t give anything away because this film should be in your top films to watch before you die anyway. All I will say is it became so famous because it captures everything that the cinema should, magic, beauty, mystery, romance and a killer score. A real work of art and a perfect example as to why Audrey Tautou went on to become a renowned name in not only France, but the whole world.
The ultimate story of growing up in Paris during the 1980s, this film is what made Sophie Marceau a household name (which she then ruined in Braveheart). The film is older so there are no teenagers taking Instagram selfies, but other than that the film has aged very well and is proof teenagers, all over the world, throughout the decades are all the same. A real cult classic.
For me, La Haine is the number 1 French film to watch. It was made in 1995 and instantly became a classic in the same league as Trainspotting or Pulp Fiction. Despite the film being made over 20 years ago, not only does it appear not to have aged in cinematography but in cultural references either- the plot is just as relevant nowadays as it was when it was first made. The constant cycle of poverty and integration problems that plague Paris still to this day are sharply put into context and make this huge point of social controversy a little more manageable to understand, especially for the foreign viewer. The film is also a testament to the three actors, who basically carry the entire film themselves.
Gritty police drama about the complex dynamics of the Police and the public in France. This film, just like La Haine, is not a feel-good movie. However, similarly, it also won many awards for its real-life portrayal of a less than perfect system. For me, this film was really important in understanding the political problems of crime and law in Paris as well as other big cities in France. What was specifically controversial was the particularly difficult topic of the Roma Gypsy community within the context of European city life.
You have most likely heard of this recent film which became massively popular all over the world and for very good reason. It is the ultimate mix of grimy reality with a feel good factor that only the cinema can offer. This film is the film you watch after La Polisse and La Haine, to see that maybe things can get better in otherwise trying times. The story is one of the French bourgeoisie meets the suburbs of Paris. A young, disenfranchised youth comes to work for a very rich paraplegic and the two form an unexpected bond which gives both parties hope and inspiration to carry on finding positives in an otherwise bleak-looking future. It is also based on a true story, so all your tears are real.
I do not even know where to start with Les Choristes. The story of a teacher who goes to teach music in a school for troubled boys, it is like Dead Poets Society but with musical numbers which will give you shivers down your spine. This film is absolutely fantastic and if you have had a bad day, or a bad week or even a bad month, it will give you a lasting feeling of warm and fluffiness. Seriously, not enjoying this film is a sure sign of psychopathy.
These two films come as a pair as Manon des Sources is a very important sequel to the Jean de Florette. Both films are just as fantastic as each other and have become classics in French cinema. This time you are transported to the south of France with an all-star cast and some of the best performances from the likes of Gérard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, Emanuelle Béart, YvesMontand and many more names. Everything about this film has made it an iconic classic in French cinema, from the complex relationship to the beautiful shots and music of life “en Provence”. An absolute must see for any film buff.
The southern accents in the film make it even more worthwhile
Based on a true story of the Jewish people who were arrested in Paris in 1942 and rounded up and confined in the Winter Velodrome. The story is from the viewpoint of one survivor and is of course, like every film pertaining to the Holocaust, very harrowing. A must watch to realise that Nazi sentiment was not one that was simply confined to Germany, but that spread around all of Europe, France included.
Tips on Cinema going in France
- If you are living in France and under 26 years old, going to certain cinemas will massively reduce the entry price
- If you want to see an English-speaking film in France, make sure it is VO (Version Original) so that you do not have to sit through the painful experience of a badly dubbed film (clue: all dubbing is badly done).