This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive “best of” list of French film in general.
I should preface this by saying that I took nearly nine years of French classes. For a few years, I was really blessed to have a teacher that felt we not only needed to learn the language, but vital elements of French culture as well. French film was a staple in our classroom, and I cannot thank that teacher enough for exposing me to all the wonderful films that she did show us.
So, in no particular order, here are my favorite French films of all time that I feel give a good feel for French film across the ages that I thoroughly enjoy and recommend (and have recommended) to people.
- LA HAINE (Hate) — 1995
La Haine is the story of three friends in a Parisian banlieue (French for ghetto, colloquially speaking) and I don’t have a better way of describing this film other than a Molotov cocktail to the face. It was renowned in France when it was first released for its depictions of violence and police brutality; it still remains a hallmark in my French film collection simply because of how powerful the movie is. It also is one of several stellar collaborations between Mathieu Kassovitz (dir: Brotherhood of the Wolf, The Crimson Rivers, Gothika – sadly) and Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s 12, Derailed).
The movie spans 24 hours in the lives of the three friends, one of whom is hospitalized after suffering a vicious incident with the police. His two friends roam the streets after the night of a huge riot in Paris with reserves of anger, malice and discontent built up after years of discrimination.
I seriously view La Haine as a landmark film, period. It made a huge impact on me as a teenager.
- LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) — 1964
Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is a musical. Don’t let that throw you off; this movie ranks as one of my top five of all time easily. Guy and Genevieve are young and in love when Guy is called up to serve in the French Army for the war in Algeria. His two year term seems to be a lifetime to the pair, and after Guy leaves, Genevieve discovers she is pregnant. Genevieve’s meddling mother and a jewels dealer named Roland do little to help already complicated matters.
More than anything, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is about love lost and love found. It’s beautiful and has one of the best endings to a movie I’ve ever seen. The soundtrack and score will stick in your head for the rest of your life; I can probably still hum you half of the songs right now.
Bonus points: This is a film by Jacques Demy and it stars Catherine Deneuve as Genevieve. (The direction is perfect and the cinematography is amazing all the way around.)
- LES DIABOLIQUES (The Diabolical Ones, I suppose, is the best translation) — 1955
The local headmaster of a school is a bitter, abusive man, and his sickly wife has had enough. Teaming up with the husband’s mistress, another teacher at the school, the wife decides to take some action. The mistress and the wife lure the husband to a weekend getaway, poison and then drown him in the bathtub and promptly dump his waterlogged body into the school’s pool. Charming, right? Except when the newly crowned headmistress has the pool drained…there’s no body there! And strange things start happening around the school, all uniquely connected to the supposedly deceased headmaster.
I could’ve probably predicted the ending of Les Diaboliques from the beginning of the movie but you get so sucked into this little world that you forget about untangling the twisted plot threads. An excellent suspense/thriller film.
- LE PACTE DES LOUPS (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) — 2001
In the tiny country village of Gevaudan, a mysterious beast is killing off villagers. The Beast of Gevaudan has gained notoriety around the entire country and so an irritated king sends one of his best naturalists, along with his Native American companion, Mani, to kill the beast. Fronsac, the naturalist, finds himself embroiled in Gevaudan’s social enigmas and works to discover who and what are behind the killings.
The main thing about Le Pacte des Loups is that it’s extraordinarily difficult to nail down what kind of movie it is; it’s got action, martial arts (yes — you read that correctly), romance, drama and comedy. It’s a great movie, and I’m glad that it received some measure of publicity here in the States.
- LE CERCLE ROUGE (The Red Circle) — 1970
Le Cercle Rouge is bar none one of the best heist movies I’ve ever seen. Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville and featuring a great plot full of twists and turns, this is a fantastic film. One of the best gifts I ever received was the Criterion Collection edition of this film for my birthday from a coworker.
Plus, Yves Montand was a badass.
- LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Beauty and the Beast) — 1946
Anytime someone comments to me that they don’t like black and white films, my instinct says to sit them down in front of the nearest television and find a copy of La Belle et la Bete as soon as possible. It’s gorgeous, and a older, less-Disneyfied version of Beauty and the Beast. It shows, I think, what one can do truly with a limited budget and a great vision. Directed by the immortal Jean Cocteau, I don’t think that anyone’s done Beauty and the Beast better (including those Disney bastards).
- AU REVOIR, LES ENFANTS (Goodbye, Children) — 1987
Director Louis Malle took an incident from his own life and turned it into a movie — an apology of sorts for a childhood misdeed. In wartorn France, children at a Catholic boarding school are kept mostly from the ravages of World War II, until a mysterious new student shows up one day with a peculiar name. The priests seem very keen on keeping his existence a secret…and then the Nazis begin to enter the school, bringing with them an end to the innocence of every child in the school.
Au Revoir, Les Enfants is a sad film, but a serious departure from many of the war films you see made. Reportedly, the instance this movie is built around happened because of Malle himself and it was one of his last films that he ever made. It wreaks havoc with your emotions, but is worth the view.
- L’ARGENT DE POCHE (Small Change) — 1976
First of all, I much prefer the literal translation of L’Argent de Poche, which is “Pocket Change” in French, rather than Small Change, as the film is titled in English. The movie, directed by Francois Truffaut, is a slice of life for several schoolchildren in varying age ranges. It’s sweet; it’s sad; it’s masterfully done. Moreover, it pretty accurately represents children as they are, instead of cloyingly sweet like they’re sometimes portrayed.
Well worth it to watch; I guarantee by the end of it, you’ll never forget that “J’ai faim!” means “I’m hungry!” in French.