The first ever public exhibition of a moving picture — which we would now call a cinema screening — took place in France, with the Lumière brother’s ‘L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat’ in 1895. Since then, the art form has gone from strength to strength.
Our list here is a miniscule peek into the vibrant and varied world of French cinema, but they should be considered essential viewing if you’re interested in the form, and they are certainly a few of my favourites.
Jules and Jim (François Truffaut 1961)
There are a lot of cinematic depictions of best friendship but this has to be one of the very best. The film depicts Jules and Jim’s friendship as it traverses girls, art, holidays, even a world war. It also depicts the sadness that comes with the realisation that a friendship isn’t so easy to maintain as you get older and fall in love with the same woman. The performance by Jeanne Moreau as Catherine is incredible and career defining. Watch it on Kanopy.
Amelie (Jean Pierre Jeunet 2001)
You’ve already seen this film, haven’t you? This is kind of the apex of modern indie romance. It’s quirky, its cute, its beautiful. If you’ve not already watched it, then Amelie is about to become your new favorite movie. This film is where I first saw one of my all-time favourite techniques which is very professionally called: little mini-narratives within the main narrative. It depicts Audrey Tautou at her most sweet and impish and Paris in its most nostalgic and bohemian. Catch it on Amazon Prime.
Delicatessen (Jean Pierre Jeunet 1991)
Delicatessen is set in a post-apocalyptic France. Clapet, a butcher, owns the apartment building above his shop. And he kills and butchers unsuspecting handymen to sell the mystery-meat to his tenants. This film is a black comedy… Obviously. Delicatessen is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Angel-A (Luc Besson 2006)
The story of this film is fine, but it’s not going to change your life; it’s kind of a gritty It’s a Wonderful Life. What we’re really here for is the heart-breakingly gorgeous cinematography. It’s shot in black and white and it’s captivating and stylish: pretty much every frame works on its own as a beautiful image. Angel-A doesn’t seem to be available to stream so invest in a DVD copy of this visual masterpiece.
La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson 1990)
This is another Luc Besson film but instead of monochrome stills, here we get punchy action with another impressive female lead. La Femme Nikita follows a woman who goes from criminal street-urchin, to condemned prisoner to government secret agent. The film follows her emotional journey as she learns about love, trust and femininity. This stylish crime-thriller spawned various lesser versions including a tv series of the same name and a remake called Point of No Return which you don’t need to watch… Again, you’ll need to get this on DVD as it’s not available for UK streaming.
Breathless (Jean-Luc Goddard 1960)
Breathless is the kind of cultural touchstone that is forever etched in history. Though the film came out in 1960, it is still as surprising and fresh today as it was almost 60 years ago. As Jean-Luc Goddard himself once said: ‘all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.’ Somehow, Breathless not only gets away with lacking the conventions of a regular movie (coherent plot, visual continuity…), but thrives in fact. Watch Breathless on GooglePlay.
Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville 1972)
Okay yes this is another crime movie… But I like crime movies! And I can only tell you about what I know. Le Cercle Rouge is about a bunch of trench coat wearing, gun toting, cigarette smoking men on both sides of the law. The plot of this film inspired Oceans Eleven. There is nothing extra in this film, everything is so spare and deliberate; so precise and measured. It’s wonderful to watch such tightly exact film making. Catch it on Amazon Prime.
L’Atlante (Jean Vigo 1934)
L’Atlante is a romance. But that hardly matters. The film depicts the classic narrative of a migration from rural landscape to bustling city and with it gives us a brilliant depiction of the grubby mechanics of modern industry. The film is full of symbols and talismans and it’s history is tragic and fascinating: definitely worth investigating. L’Atlante is available on GooglePlay.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche 2013)
Based on a graphic novel of the same name, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a controversial film both for its production and content. The film uses realism to depict a relationship between two girls over the course of several years. Although it recieved some very positive reviews, it has also been criticised as being reductive and demonstrating a gratuitous idea of lesbian relationships. Blue is the Warmest Colour is available on Netflix.
La Cage aux Folles (Édouard Molinaro 1980)
Based on the play of the same name, La Cage aux Folles is a fun, joyous, flamboyant film that is truly a pleasure to watch. The film depicts a gay couple whose son is marrying into a conservative family (with cishet parents), hilarity ensues. This film is properly funny and not only in its content; in its execution too. In fact, I’m going to watch it now. Catch La Cage aux Folles on Amazon Prime.