Since the Lumière brothers hosted the first public screening of their 10 short films in December 1895, France has played a key role in the development of cinema, and it continues to be a dominant presence in world cinema.
With Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District now playing in cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema, we’ve drawn up a list of must-see French films, from the earliest sound films right up to the present.
Jacques Audiard’s ninth feature is his first contemporary film to move away from the crime genre that he has done so much to redefine since his debut with the noirish character study See How They Fall (1994). Adapted from Adrian Tomine’s superb graphic novel Killing and Dying by Audiard with co-writers Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, the film boasts cool, black-and-white imagery that contrasts with the passion of the four protagonists, whose lives intersect. Sexy, sensual and fun, it’s a youthful turn from a filmmaker who turns 70 this year.
Romance lies at the heart of Jean Vigo’s sole feature outing as director. It tells the story of Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), a young, recently married couple and their travails. Jean is a canal-boat captain. Juliette joins him on board, as they travel to Paris. But life turns out to be less adventurous than she expected, so she escapes to the city, only to realise that Jean is the person she wants to be with. Vigo shot on location, infusing the water-bound journey into the French capital with rapturous joy. The director saw a rough cut of his film, but died in 1934, aged just 29, before it was fully completed.
Actor Matthieu Kassovitz’s first film as director is a raging torrent. Shot in crisp black and white, it shifts between the Paris banlieue (suburb) of Chanteloup-les-Vignes and a chic part of the city centre as it traces a day in the life of Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Koundé). Opening with riots on the city streets following the assault in police custody of a local man (based on the actual killing of Makomé M’Bowole in 1993), the film details the rising tension between the three friends as they travel into the city and witness the stark contrast between their world and that of a privileged elite. The relationship between the young men’s community and the police has never been good. But with one officer having lost his gun in the riot and their friend’s condition deteriorating, the atmosphere in the banlieue reaches boiling point. Owing a huge debt to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), which is overtly acknowledged in one scene, La Haine is a startling alternative view of Paris that has lost none of its power with the passage of time.
The body of a woman is discovered in a ditch, covered in frost. Two men are interviewed on camera – the last one to see her alive and the one who found her. It could be the opening of a Scandi thriller. Instead, Agnès Varda traces the journey the young woman’s life took to end up lying by the side of a country road. Sandrine Bonnaire is riveting as Mona, a young woman, a vagabond, travelling the length of France by foot or through hitching rides. And Varda adopts a documentary approach in capturing her life. One of the most important filmmakers is French cinema, whose early work, such as La Pointe Courte (1955), Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and Le Bonheur (1965) captured the spirit of the era they were made in but also showed an interest in the way women were represented on the screen and in French life, Varda had an unlikely hit on her hands with this film. It’s also a bridge between her earlier fiction and the documentary work for which she would become better known later in her six-decade career.
A sprawling ensemble drama, Robin Campillo’s film charts the rise of the French wing of ACT UP during the early 1990s. The most prominent and outspoken AIDS/HIV activists at that time, ACT UP fought for greater research into the disease in order to stem a rapidly growing epidemic. They also battled for more support for those who had contracted the virus and faced a grim, then short-lived future. Balancing the discussions between the activists – some of the film’s most riveting moments capture the tensions as group members debate the best course of action to achieve their aims – with their attempts to raise public awareness and their personal lives, 120 BPM is an intimate epic that pays tribute to the bold trailblazers who fought for future generations’ wellbeing.
Like so many of the directors in this list, another Louis Malle film could easily have been included here. There are his two World War II dramas Lacombe Lucien (1974) and Au revoir les enfants (1987), his chamber conversation piece My Dinner with Andre (1981) or his superb crime drama Atlantic City (1980). But there’s so much to recommend his narrative feature debut. (He had already won the top prize at Cannes for his and co-director Jacques Cousteau’s 1956 documentary The Silent World.) Firstly, it’s got Jeanne Moreau at her sizzling best. It’s also a brilliantly conceived crime drama and the score is by legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. He recorded the iconic improvised soundtrack as he was watching the film for the first time. It perfectly captures the mood and tension of Malle’s thriller.
Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999) usually makes the cut when one of her films has to be recommended, and her loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s ‘Billy Budd’, which relocates the action from a ship at sea to a French Foreign Legion outpost on the coast of Djibouti is stunning. But there’s so much to recommend this beautiful portrait of Parisian family life. Father and daughter Lionel (Alex Descas) and Joséphine (Mati Diop) have a close relationship, but it is unbalanced by the arrival of Noé (Grégoire Colin) into their lives. Denis traces the cadences of their relationships perfectly and the music by Tindersticks captures the film’s tender mood. And the sequence featuring ‘Nightshift’ by the Commodores is a sensual delight. It’s one of Denis’ most generous and rhapsodic films.
Céline Sciamma’s second feature focuses on 10-year-old Laure who moves with her parents to a new home, cuts her hair short and for one lustrous summer passes herself off as Mickaël. The filmmaker said of the film, ‘I made it with several layers, so that a transexual person can say “that was my childhood” and so that a heterosexual woman can also say it.’ It’s Sciamma’s sleight of hand in the way she presents Laure/Mickaël’s daily life that makes this film so fascinating. And Zoé Héran is spellbinding in the lead role, particularly in the film’s denouement, which is both moving and a subtle plea for embracing inclusion.
Mia Hansen-Løve’s second feature as writer and director is an unsentimental portrait of family life before and after tragedy strikes. Grégoire (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) appears to live an enviable life. He is a happily married father of two and enjoys the successes of being a respected film producer. He’s about to embark on an ambitious new project and, with the exception of a few tantrums from his director, all seems to be going well. But how well do we know someone? Not their surface appearance, but their thoughts and fears? This disparity between inner and outer lives is what drives Hansen-Løve’s impressive drama.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance in film history of Jean-Luc Godard’s feature directorial debut. A key work of the French New Wave, the group of critics-turned-directors who overturned the French filmmaking establishment, Breathless is ostensibly a crime drama, but the way it was written, shot and performed ushered in a new style of filmmaking. From its jump-cut editing – a stark contrast to the slickness of classical ‘invisible’ editing – to its off-the-hoof location shooting style and meandering, philosophically minded script, the film is a rebel yell against the mundanity of what much cinema had become by the late 1950s. With Jean Seberg – and her hairstyle – and Jean-Paul Belmondo, Godard created two cinema icons.
The 400 Blows (1959)
Released just before Breathless and no less important a part of the French New Wave’s oeuvre, François Truffaut’s mischievous semi-autobiographical tale of a young boy’s life is less radical than Godard’s film, but its use of location and freshness compared to the mostly stale landscape of French cinema of the time still made it a cause célèbre. The first of five films featuring the character Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), The 400 Blows is an unadorned portrait of youth. Its ambiguous final shot, of Antoine’s frozen face, is one of the most poignant images in cinema.
Together with Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the darkly funny and slightly batty Delicatessen (1991) and City of the Lost Children (1995). They parted company before Jeunet dipped his toes in the Hollywood pool with the undercooked sci-fi sequel Alien Resurrection (1997). But it is for this Paris-set confection that Jeunet is now best known. It’s a swooning portrait of the titular heroine (played in a star-making turn by Audrey Tautou) and how she helps her neighbours, along with a will-they, won’t-they romance with Matthieu Kassovitz’s loopy Nino Quincampoix. Yes, the Parisian neighbourhood of the film bears no comparison with the real French capital, but Jeunet’s entire output is a collection of fantastical worlds, whether it’s a street around the corner, the battlefields of World War I or deep space.
Jean de Florette (1986)
Claude Berri’s adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s two-part story (Berri shot this film back-to-back with its sequel-of-sorts Manon des Sources) remains one of the most popular French period dramas. Unfolding just after World War I, the film focuses on the eponymous hero (Gérard Depardieu), who inherits a farm and decides to make a living from it. However, he is stymied by the vicious pettiness of his neighbour (Yves Montand) and his son (Daniel Auteil). Berri makes the most of the landscape and draws out three affecting performances from his leads. Montand, in particular, is superb as the mean César Soubeyran, a man eaten up by rage and jealousy. And it features an iconic score, albeit one more closely associated with Stella Artois TV ads these days.
Mati Diop was best known for her performances in Claire Denis’ films when she made the 2009 documentary short Atlantiques, about a group of young Senegalese men who discuss travelling by small boat to Europe. One of them eventually drowned attempting it. Jump forward a decade and Atlantics has become a narrative feature but drawing on the same themes. A group of men who cannot earn enough money in Dakar attempt the perilous journey into the Atlantic. Their boat capsizes and they all drown. But at night they return, taking over the bodies of the women who loved them in order to exact revenge on those who attempted to exploit them. Encompassing issues of immigration, economic inequality, racism and globalisation, Diop’s film is as ambitious as it is exhilarating. That she hits most of her targets is even more impressive for this first-time feature director.
Enter the Void (2008)
A film for which no description could do it justice. So, here goes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) lives in Tokyo with his younger sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta). He’s become obsessed with The Tibetan Book of the Dead. A petty drug dealer, he finds himself cornered in a toilet, with drugs, by the police. He’s shot dead and his spirit travels around the city, through hotel rooms and even into his sister, where he witnesses the moment of conception. The whole film is a drug-addled ride through a neon hell, albeit ending on a note of redemption. Its director Gaspar Noé is seen as one of the leading lights in a loose movement known as French Extremity cinema, featuring work that pushes at the boundary of form and morality. Enter the Void doesn’t so much push any boundary as leapfrog over the top and make its way to another plane of demented consciousness.
Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s present-day fable unfurls in a girls’ prep school. New pupils arrive in a coffin and those set to graduate undergo bizarre rites of passage. In between, the girls attend class, but none like any we would recognise. A sly take on the way conformity impresses patriarchal structures on women from a young age, Hadzihalilovic is expert at conjuring up an atmosphere that is potent with threat even if no danger is present. Like her subsequent – and even stranger – Évolution (2015), Hadzihalilovic’s fantasy is enticing and intoxicating.
Les Diaboliques (1955)
One of the finest psychological thrillers ever made, Henri Georges-Clouzot’s drama centres on Paul Meurisse’s vindictive school head Michel, his put-upon and physically frail wife Christina (Véra Clouzot), and Nicole (Simone Signoret), a teacher and Michel’s lover. Christina despairs of her husband’s cruelty. She guesses that Nicole harbours similar sentiments and together they decide to kill him. However, things aren’t quite as clear cut as Christina believes. Les Diaboliques is based on a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, and Alfred Hitchcock was so impressed with its adaptation that he approached the authors to ask what else they had that he could bring to the screen. Their 1954 novel The Living and the Dead eventually became Vertigo (1958)
La Grande Illusion (1937)
Too many anti-war films end up revelling in the conflict they’re purportedly condemning. Jean Renoir’s 1938 masterpiece – one of many across a long and brilliant career – sidesteps this problem by centring the action not on the battle, but within a series of prison camps. Like Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Renoir’s film contrasts characters who believe in the old-world approach to war – and its notions of honour and patriotism – and a more modern perspective, which sees its devastating impact on the world. It’s a powerful plea for a peaceful world while recognising the need to defend one’s freedom, but never regarding conflict as the end rather than the means.
Jean Cocteau’s fantasy remains the best version of this classic tale. Disney’s 1991 animation comes close, but what tips it in favour of this live-action version is the magic that Cocteau imbues every second of the time we spend in the Beast’s lair. Sculptures come to life, the walls have arms, the wind whispers and Jean Marais’ Beast is a sight to behold. Cocteau casts a hypnotic spell and his film is both timeless and bewitching.
THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964)
Jacques Demy’s most beloved film is a musical about everyday life. Catherine Deneuve, in a star-making role, plays Geneviève, who lives in the titular French coastal town. She has high hopes for life, but the reality of her situation soon settles in and she finds herself forced to compromise. This alone might have made for an affecting chamber drama. But Demy has the entire film performed as a series of semi-spoken songs and the town is transformed into a rhapsody of primary colours. A melancholy tale covered in a luminous wrapping, it’s a wondrous sight – and sound.
A masterpiece in minimalism, Robert Bresson’s tale follows a pickpocket as he reevaluates his life. Martin LaSalle plays Michel, who can feel the law closing in, but sees no other avenue open to him. Like all of Bresson’s films, the devil lies in the details of what takes place. There is little action in the filmmaker’s work, yet so much happens. It’s the inner life of his characters that interests Bresson most and his skill in drawing us into them is what makes him such a compelling filmmaker. There are no directorial pyrotechnics. This is cinema at its most bare.
Catherine Breillat goes hardcore – in more ways than one. A confrontational filmmaker, whose films eviscerate society’s patriarchal structures and misogyny, Breillat has never been one to shy away from controversy. Her sixth feature became one of 1999’s cinematic talking points. Detailing a young teacher’s encounters with a variety of sexual partners, Romance saw Breillat continue to challenge society’s mores when it came to women, their bodies and their sexuality. The film’s frankness, both in its drama and in featuring scenes of unsimulated sex, made it a must-see. But any viewer paying to watch something titillating was in for a shock.
Comic genius Jacques Tati’s earlier Monsieur Hulot’s films are probably more famous than his penultimate feature. But this is essential viewing because of the actor-filmmaker’s breathtaking vision of the world. He plays the hapless hero once again, a variation on the character he portrayed in Jour de Fête (1949), Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958). But here, Tati took complete control in creating the world around his character. The result plays out like a strange alternative reality – a speculative feature in which Paris and the modern world is both immediately recognisable and strangely otherworldly. Into this mix, Tati conjures up a series of perfectly executed comic set pieces. There’s nothing else quite like it.
In the early 1980s, the films of Jean-Jacques Beineix, Luc Besson and Leos Carax were grouped together by French critic Raphaël Bassan under the title Cinéma du look. They were defined by their focus on youth, obsession with surface detail, apparent shallowness and fascination with subterranean worlds. Beineix’s debut is a perfect example of this loose grouping. Its plot involves two recordings; one that highlights the corruption of a high-ranking police officer, the other a bootleg performance of an opera diva who refuses to be recorded. Both are in the possession of an opera-obsessed postman. And some tough cops are hunting him down. A breakneck thriller whose style is more important than its premise, Diva is a fun trip through Paris at night.
Pépé le Moko (1937)
One of French cinema’s finest examples of romantic fatalism, Julien Duvivier’s crime drama stars Jean Gabin as the titular antihero, a criminal mastermind who hides from law enforcement in Algiers’ Casbah. But an encounter with Gaby (Mireille Balin), a visitor from Paris, sets Pépé’s heart alight. Police inspector Slimane (Lucas Gridoux) sees the woman as a way to capture Pépé. Duvuvier balances the romance and adventure of the story perfectly, but it’s the atmosphere of the Casbah that makes the film so alluring.
Eyes Without a Face (1960)
1960 was a fine year for horror. Michael Powell produced the profoundly unsettling Peeping Tom. Hitchcock terrified his audiences with Psycho. Kim Ki-young had the domestic go batty in The Housemaid. Maria Bava channelled the evil dead for Black Sunday. And in Georges Franju’s visually dazzling Eyes Without a Face, young women in Paris were being kidnapped and killed so that a demented surgeon could complete his work. The surgeon in question, Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), is attempting to restore his daughter Christiane’s (Édith Scob) face to how it looked before she was involved in an automobile accident. Franju’s film shows very little but is deeply unsettling. It’s also a beautiful film, which only adds to the horror.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
One of the most beloved French films, completed against seemingly insurmountable obstacles during World War II, Marcel Carné’s tale of theatre life in 1830s Paris is a sumptuous, witty and resplendent wonder. Arletty plays Claire ‘Garance’ Reine, a star of the stage who is loved by four men, a mime, an actor, a criminal and an aristocrat. Unfolding over two parts, the film balances social comedy with a moving portrait of lost love. Like the rapture the characters feel, the film is intoxicating.