The greatest French films of all time

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French movies, which have received awards and acclaim all over the world, are renowned for excellent acting and exquisite directing. Many French learners find some films invaluable for helping them make progress with their studies, and also for gaining a better understanding of French culture. But which films can be considered to represent the best of their genre, while also being useful for anyone trying to consolidate their language skills?

France has long had a love affair with the cinema. After all, one of the first ever movies, L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, also known in English as The Arrival of the Mail Train or Train Pulling into a Station), was presented by two Frenchmen, the Lumière brothers, in 1895. And Georges Méliès’ 1902 film, Un voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), confirms that the French were also pioneers in the use of special effects.


The best French films


What is the definition of a ‘great’ film? It’s probably fair to say that it should leave a mark on a generation and continue to be a point of reference for movie fans. What sets the best French movies apart is that they are ‘carried’ by actors who light up the screen and have the ability to move us. These films, which focus on psychology rather than pure spectacle or eye-catching special effects, are sometimes also characterised by a wish to send a political message. Auteur or independent cinema embodies this fierce desire not to be dependent on the greedy world inhabited by producers. Its adherents loudly and clearly assert that a film must remain the original creation of its director. And yet if non-commercial cinema is to exist, then public funding bodies are required. In France, this essential role is filled by the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image), better known as the CNC. Financial support also comes from the subsidiaries of TV channels such as France 2, France 3 or Arte.


French comedies and romantic comedies


France has produced a large number of great comedies, some of which have long been popular with critics and (or) the public. Gérard Oury’s La Grande Vadrouille, released in 1966, is undoubtedly one of the best examples. The brilliant French comedians Louis de Funès and Bourvil play a conductor and a house painter respectively, who have to drive three British airmen into the free zone of wartime France. More generally, comedy is a genre which is particularly well represented in the French movie canon. Comedy films can also take a romantic turn, as in Pascal Chaumeil’s L’Arnacoeur (Heartbreaker), for example.


Animated films


French cinema also includes animated films – remember that the country has renowned expertise in this field. French cartoons make great exports and more than 6,000 people are employed in the industry. One example in this genre is Persépolis (Persepolis) by Franco-Iranian writer and director Marjane Satrapi. The film tackles a number of themes, such as political repression by the guardians of the revolution, the hardships experienced by the population, the horrors of war, exile, and the vital role played by the family unit in overcoming everyday challenges. And through a tale of science fiction, René Laloux’s La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet), released in 1973, is an allegory about the importance of culture and education. Another successful film is Les Triplettes de Belleville (The Triplets of Belleville), by Sylvain Chomet, while for younger viewers, Michel Ocelot’s films (Azur & Asmar, Kirikou et la sorcière [Kirikou and the Sorceress]) and Zarafa by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie are all great children’s movies.


Fantasy films


The French film catalogue also includes some masterpieces of the fantasy genre, and there’s one which occupies a particularly special place: Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast). This is a film which is worth watching and rewatching, such is its capacity to move with its poetic, dreamlike qualities which make it timeless. Jean Marais and Josette Day are simply unforgettable, inviting us to reflect on the meaning of the following quote: “Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome.”


Films based on works of literature


It would be impossible to discuss the best French films without alluding (not entirely impartially, we’ll admit) to films set in the South of France. The ‘Marseille Trilogy’, comprising the films Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936), offers one of the best-known accounts of life in the city and of the Mediterranean spirit. The famous card game scene is legendary, and we will never tire of hearing the great Raimu’s singsong accent.

Bridging the gap between literature and the silver screen, movie adaptations of literary works kill two birds with one stone: the book offers you a chance to improve your written communication skills, while the film will help to consolidate oral comprehension. And an adaptation that we enjoy might lead us to discover – or rediscover – the original book. This is why we suggest you don’t hesitate to watch or rewatch Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette, Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (Gérard Depardieu won the Cannes Best Actor award in 1990 for his portrayal of Cyrano), Robert Hossein’s Les Misérables, or Le Nom de la Rose (The Name of the Rose) by Jean-Jacques Annaud.


The great classics


Other films deserve the greatest of respect due to the influence they had on their era. This is true of the best films of the New Wave, a famous trend in French cinema which saw directors like François Truffaut (Jules et Jim), Jean-Luc Godard (Le Mépris [Contempt]), and Claude Chabrol (Le Beau Serge, La Cérémonie, etc.) achieve widespread recognition.

Finally, even without being a part of specific trends, some films are essential points of reference which have succeeded in moving generations of viewers. It would be impossible to draw up an exhaustive list of these cult French films, but movies such as Marcel Carné’s Les enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise, 1945), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear, 1953), Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), Louis Malle’s Au Revoir des enfants (1987) and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) all come heartily recommended. While any attempt to rank the best films will necessarily be subjective and incomplete, it’s important to bear in mind that French cinema is replete with hundreds of movies that fans of French language and culture simply cannot ignore!

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