I pity the French Cinema because it has no money. I pity the American Cinema because it has no ideas.
– Jean-Luc Godard
Paris is widely regarded as the cultural capital of the world. All kinds of major artistic developments which have affected the global perceptions and altered the course of cultural history since the French Revolution seem to originate in or are connected to Paris in some way. Everything French is a symbol of finesse, and often the French themselves are very high-brow about it.
One of the most important cultural developments of the industrial age has been the development of cinema. The Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, and Georges Méliès were the pioneers in this field. Film historians have attributed the development of the nascent stage of films, both as a technological development and as an artistic form, to these French pioneers. Thus, naturally what follows is that the French have always produced cinema not only as a consumable object of the modern world but also as a high art, thereby categorising it within the domain of fine arts. Since the inception of films, there have been quite a few important French film directors who deserve notable credit for their contribution towards elevating films as high art. French films have always been considered benchmarks in terms of technological developments in films, development of film forms and language and film aesthetics which have conditioned the films of elsewhere, across the world.
Among some of the most notable and important French directors over the years are Jean Renoir, Rene Clair, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and many more. The list can be pretty exhaustive and still not be definitive to provide a comprehensive idea about the talent of French film directors. However instead of listing the huge array of exceptional French filmmakers over the ages, a list of some of the most important and must watch French films over the years has been provided below.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’ Arc, 1928)
Critically acclaimed to be a true masterpiece by Carl Theodore Dreyer, this film offers a beguiling visual experience. One of the key elements of the film is its composition of the visuals which highlights the transcendental emotional nature of human beings. The film, a work of fiction, is based on real events from history i.e. the trial of Joan of Arc. Dreyer had researched for his film from the transcripts of the original trial to portray the story of a peasant girl’s ascension to martyrdom and sainthood.
The film depicts how the church arrested Joan, a peasant girl, on charges of heresy and blasphemies because it believes Joan’s visions are induced by the Devil, instead of God as Joan claims. How she then goes through a torturous ordeal by church authorities and finally succumbs to death only to attain sainthood, forms the rest of the film.
The film had faced its own fair share of dissent after release, as many felt it was blasphemous in its depiction of the church. Followed by such controversies, the film’s two successive versions were lost to fire and many ceased to consider it a masterpiece. However in 1981, a perfectly preserved version of the original film was found in a Norwegian mental hospital and since then it has been considered one of the first French masterpieces.
The Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu, 1939)
Jean Renoir is one of the modern masters of French filmmaking. He had been voted as the fourth most important filmmaker in BFI’s Sight and Sound poll in 2002. Descending from an important Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir was naturally inclined towards the visual arts. He is one of the unique filmmakers who have traversed from the Silent Era in cinema to the Talkie Era very successfully. This film is often cited as Renoir’s best film followed by The Grand Illusion (1937).
The film is a finely crafted satire which has a strange quality of simultaneously operating as a high drama and a music hall farce. Often it has been interpreted by viewers to possess a sense of fun similar to a comic play, something on the lines of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, it also possesses a quality of high art due to its sophisticated cinematography. A satire on the French society of that time, it depicts the story of how an aviator, his love interest, her husband and her husband’s secret mistress converge at a country mansion where all hell breaks loose. However, in depicting such a story the film does not at all resort to conventional elements of the film form, instead it operates as an amalgam of farce, drama, satire, comedy and romance.
Renoir’s particular distaste of the aristocratic upper class of the French society is very evident in the film. For him, this film is a subtle expression of his displeasure in a satirical way.
The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959)
A must-watch coming-of-age semi-autobiographical film, The 400 Blows is a film which features in the top ten list of films to watch of most eminent filmmakers. François Truffaut, the filmmaker – one of the pioneers of the French New Wave or Nouvelle Vague – debuted with this film. Originally, Truffaut was a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma along with another pioneer of the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Luc Godard. In the late 1950s, they paved the way for a rebirth of the film form not only in France but across the world. Soon this process gained an impetus with this film, which was the first film of the Nouvelle Vague.
The film’s main protagonist, played by Jean‑Pierre Léaud, has since this film collaborated with Truffaut on other films also. The film is an intense progression of an adolescent boy’s rebellion against the corrupt society he lives in. Truffaut borrowed incidents and elements from his own adolescence to develop the plot lending it an autobiographical touch.
The film itself was an experiment in highlighting the things he had argued for in his criticism of the traditional French cinema in Cahiers du Cinéma. Truffaut’s debut not only determined his capabilities as an able critic and filmmaker but also brought forth the notion of a Nouvelle Vague in which later his colleagues from Cahiers du Cinéma, such as Godard, Rivette, Chabrol, Rohmer all participated.
Hiroshima, My Love (Hiroshima Mon Amour, 1959)
Released within a week after The 400 Blows, this is a non-fiction in a list of fictional films. The film has been termed as a landmark film in the history of films and filmmaking. Simply said, it is a film about the relationship between time and memory. Alain Resnais’ central theme across all of his work was about this relationship. This film is the epitome of the reflection of this theme. The film is about a love story between a French actor and a Japanese architect, set in the city of Hiroshima which was recently rebuilt at that time after the destruction in WW II by a nuclear bomb.
The film is a modern masterpiece because its themes are universal even today, due to its propensity to highlight and juxtapose the themes of love and global nuclear destruction. The ability of mankind to love and to go to war all at the same time and yet, not accept the reality of the past to change the present is what the film deals with. The past relationship of the actress and lack of closure affects her current temporary relationship with the architect. Resnais subtly uses this to highlight our reluctance to accept the reality of Hiroshima and create a world without nuclear bombs.Memory, and the extent to which the past lives on in the present, was a central theme of much of Resnais’ work.
Though Resnais had been working since before the Nouvelle Vague however it is the Nouvelle Vague which escalated him among one of the most important filmmakers to come out of France.
Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960)
Within a year after The 400 Blows, Jean-Luc Godard tore into the film form through his magical cinema. Like a gust of cool air, Godard’s film brought in certain newness into cinema both in terms of craftsmanship and art.
Originally it was Truffaut who had developed the script based on a small news report.However, it was Godard who developed it but retained it as a simple story of a criminal hiding with his girlfriend, trying to dodge his inevitable fate. Another long standing actor-director association was formed here, when Godard cast Jean-Paul Belmondo as the main protagonist.
One of the most notable aspects of Godard was his cinematography. His cinematographer was Raoul Coutard who used hand-held shots, which were till then unheard of. Such a non-conformist approach towards the craft not only changed the form but redefined the conventions of filmmaking forever as it broke the general linear visual perspectives.
The film contains elements such as a staccato editing pattern, shooting in natural light, shooting in streets or real locations in an impromptu manner and creating a realistic illusion of film viewing where Godard repeatedly highlights to the audience that they are watching a fictional film. Breathless also borrows and richly pays tribute to already established and conventional film forms and genres, however it attempts to break them and unravel them to explore the disintegration of the filmic medium.
The Jetty (La Jetée, 1962)
Chris Marker was a filmmaker, poet, novelist, photographer, editor, and later a videographer and digital multimedia artist, whose La Jetée is one of the most influential, radical science-fiction films ever made.
Technically not a feature length film but still another important film of the Nouvelle Vague period, this short film can easily be attributed as one of the first science fiction movies to paint a dystopian war-ravaged world. The film works as a time loop and has inspired Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) and other mediums including a TV series and even a David Bowie music video. It is the first film to address the issue of time-travel in cinema. However, the most important and significant aspect of the movie lies elsewhere. The movie is purely composed of static images placed one after the other with a background narration. The movie contains no moving images as such except one, which demands a very attentive viewing.
The plot depicts a post WW III world devastated by nuclear war, where scientists have imprisoned survivors in the hope of sending them across time and undoing the present with help from past or future. The protagonist goes back in time and then into the future and falls into a vicious trap where he is hunted and killed and it is this event that the protagonist dreams of as a pre-war childhood memory.
The film is not only confusing and hallucinating at an initial watch, but also demands complete focus from the viewer to decipher it. Since the protagonist dreams of his death in the outdoor viewing pier at Orly Airport, near Paris, the name of the film refers to this jetty like structure.
Pierrot the Madman (Pierrot le Fou, 1965)
Godard’s tenth film in five years and one of the most important films of the Nouvelle Vague, Pierrot le Fou also stars Jean-Paul Belmondo. Godard is one of the few directors whose multiple films feature in various top film lists across the world. The film is aware of its attempt to disintegrate the genre of American gangster films which were popular among the European audience. Beautifully shot by Coutard, the film is often considered of lesser importance than Godard’s other works. However, this film was Godard’s experiment with colour and uses the technological developments of colour reels to marvellous effect. The film’s theme is as much about the incompatibility of the two genders, paying a cheeky homage to American pulp fiction as it is about the crisis of existentialism, which the modern consumer faces.
The film is about Ferdinand Griffon (Belmondo) eloping with Marianne (Anna Karina, then wife of Godard) and going on a crazy ride till the Mediterranean, being chased by gangsters after a dead body is found in Marianne’s apartment. At the end Griffon is defrauded by Marianne, and he shoots Marianne and her boyfriend and then attempts and succeeds at a disastrous suicide.
The film is situated in Godard’s filmography at a curious place where he is transforming from his previous traditional phase to a more experimental phase. A specific attempt, through a more accentuated staccato editing, at removing the audience’s focus from the plot is what Godard is aiming at here. From this film onwards, Godard gradually ceases to tell a story in an objective way and instead attempts to create subjective impressions. This is the key to understanding the abstract art that he was creating through the filmic medium.
Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, 2001)
Jean-Pierre Jeunet before this film was primarily known for Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children, Alien: Resurrection, among which the last was a major disappointment for movie goers. However, Amélie starring Audrey Tautou is one of the most refreshing films to come out of France in the new millennium. Amelie has a distinctive record on American soil of being the highest grossing French film.
Amélie is a home schooled girl who is like a moving quirky fairytale. She seeks to help lonely souls similar to herself and in the process the film depicts a wondrous journey. The opening sequence of the film is not only magical but also latches on us and takes us on a beautiful journey along with Amélie. At the end of this journey we finally find solace in Amélie’s own happiness as she begins afresh with a new relationship.
Amélie is, as the titular character herself, a very colourful film except the colour blue which was added specifically to provide contrast to other warm primary colours. Surprisingly it was not exhibited at Cannes that year for reasons as bizarre as the fact that the festival director didn’t find it interesting and the selection committee saw a work print without music. However keeping aside all this, this film is a refreshing watch and a curious romantic comedy to uplift a bad mood anytime.
The Diving bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, 2007)
Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir of the same name was translated into this BAFTA winning biographical drama in 2007 by Julian Schnabel. The film’s protagonist Bauby, played by Mathieu Amalric, suffered a stroke in his early 40s and since then was paralysed neck down and suffered from a locked-in syndrome. The memoir was written by Bauby with the only functioning part of his body, the left eye, blinking which he wrote a memoir with the help of his translator. The film courses through Bauby’s stroke, coma, subsequent paralysis and his triumph over his condition.
The suggestive title comes from Bauby’s belief that his body was submerged and weighted down with a heavy diving bell, however his imagination and memory were still free and as light as a butterfly’s wings. Often the audience sees the film or the events within it through the left eye and that makes for some visually stunning frames and compositions.
The film has also been marred with various controversies regarding factual depictions about the true story, however its winning streak in BAFTA, Golden Globes, Cannes, Cesar Awards and Oscar nominations have elevated it to status of a fine film with exceptional mastery over craft and technique.
Love (Amour, 2012)
The film is directed by Micheal Haneke, one of the modern masters of cinema, who is originally of Austrian origin. He is widely regarded for films like Funny Games (1997), Caché (2005), The White Ribbon (2009). Though the film is a French, German and Austrian co-production, however, it can be classified as a French film for its language. The film has won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Palm d’Or at Cannes and numerous other prestigious awards and is regarded as a seminal work of Haneke.
It tells the story of an elderly octogenarian married couple, both of whom were music teachers previously. They have a daughter also pursuing music settled in Britain. One day Anne, the wife, suffers a stroke and soon Georges, the husband, has to take care of her. Due to the lack of a caregiver or any other aid the limits of their relationship, and Georges’ ability and patience are tested. After two successive strokes, Anne’s condition deterioratesextremely and Georges takes up the mantle of a dutiful caregiver. The limit to which Georges is being pushed in ensuring a life of dignity for his wife and he is what the film is finally about.
The film has met with critical success and is an immensely sombre portrayal of the troubles of an elderly couple and their fight for survival and dignity.