If it wasn’t for French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, the inventors behind cinematograph in 1895, who knows how film would be like today? While we usually flock to the box office for the next big Hollywood masterpiece, the French film industry is actually one of the most highly respected in the world, having produced some of the world’s best movies while showcasing iconic talents such as Audrey Tatou, Omar Sy, Marion Cotillard, and Isabelle Huppert.
And with Netflix slowly adding French series such as La Révolution and Lupin, it won’t be surprising if they decide to incorporate more foreign language films for movie buffs everywhere. And if you’re a romantic Francophile who’s keen on picking up the language, but can’t go on a soul-searching trip to France at the moment, what better way to do so than familiarising yourself with la langue française than enjoying some of the best French cinema has to offer? Now, we can’t promise to list down every masterpiece – we’d be here forever – but here are 12 worthy films to check out on your next binge across various genres, from unique comedies to New Wave classics.
La Vie en Rose
To this day, Marion Cotillard remains the first and only actor to win an Academy Award for a French-language performance, for her portrayal of the inimitable chanteuse, Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose. The film chronicles the life of the legendary singer, going from a young girl who once lived with prostitutes, her struggles with love, loss, and alcohol abuse, and becoming the woman whose voice is synonymous with France.
A whimsical classic, Audrey Tatou plays the titular character – a sweet, highly imaginative waitress who eventually overcomes her shyness and loneliness by devoting her life to bring happiness to others. This is one of those feel-good films where you’ll find yourself charmed by every aspect of it, while serving as worthy escapism to Paris – specifically Montmartre – far better than a certain 2020 comedy.
À bout de souffle
Those passionate about cinema will no doubt be familiar with Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, À bout de souffle, which is one of the earliest, most influential films of nouvelle vague cinema. It’s the first feature-length work of Godard, as well as Jean-Paul Belmondo’s breakthrough performance as an actor. The film basically tells the love story between a dangerous criminal and an aspiring journalist. Though if you’re planning on watching this, you might want to brush up a little bit of your French, as the ending cleverly plays with ambiguity that may not translate as well when read in English subtitles.
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For the horror fans, there’s little that does better than Raw, directed by Julia Ducournau about how a young vegetarian’s first year at veterinary school develops a shocking craving for flesh after tasting meat for the first time. And by that, we mean human flesh. Violent, gory, disturbing, and literally primal, Raw is not your ordinary horror coming-of-age flick, but a visceral film that will definitely leave even those with a stomach of steel, a tad bit queasy.
Ma Vie de Courgette
Yes, the main character’s nickname literally means ‘zucchini’, but don’t let the silly title and adorable animation fool you into thinking that Ma Vie de Courgette isn’t a serious movie. This film, while colourful and delightful in its animation, stars characters you can’t help but care for, as it takes you on a visual journey through dark, emotional depths of being an orphan.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play an elderly couple, Anne and Georges in this heart-wrenching film about love, responsibility, and loss. After Anne suffers a series of major health issues, Georges becomes Anne’s dutiful caretaker – despite the strain the situation puts on him. As obviously stated in the title, Amour is a story about love, and the work that it takes to see it through the hardship and pain life throws at them.
Before Lupin, there was Intouchables. Omar Sy’s name rose to prominence in the French acting world thanks to this 2011 film, which is based on a true story about a wealthy quadriplegic and his caregiver, and the unlikely bond that they share. Full of touching moments and effortless comedy, Omar Sy and co-star François Cluzet put on charming performances, while showcasing a side to people with disabilities in a way that we may not be aware of.
For her unflinching performance in revenge story Elle, Isabelle Huppert was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Here she plays a CEO of a successful video game company, who seeks revenge against the man who raped her in her own home. Of course, only Paul Verhoeven could be the director behind this film – who is known for blending graphic violence with eroticism. This sadistic drama clashes with a unique examination of one woman’s complicated response to rape, and how she goes above and beyond to regain control.
What if we told you that there’s a movie about a man stalking a woman – and it’s actually funny? Bear with us on this, Rosalie Blum brings you probably the least threatening stalker in the world, in the form of main character Vincent Machot – a shy, prematurely balding hairdresser, who has a loopy, domineering mother.
After the latter manipulates him into procuring her crab and lemon for dinner, Vincent meets shopkeeper, titular character Rosalie Blum, who he swears he has met before. This eventually leads Vincent to basically stalking the middle-aged woman, but we quickly learn that Rosalie is completely aware of his stalking, and rather than confront him (or call the police), she instead enlists the help of her niece to stalk him right back. Interested in the twist? You’d have to watch the film to find out how everything pans out.
Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud
Malaysia had its first screening of Cigarettes et Chocolat Chaud (also known as The Fabulous Patars) back in 2017 during the Alliance Française Kuala Lumpur’s annual Le French Festival, where the film’s star Gustave Kervern also made his first visit to our country. Directed by Sophie Reine, this heartwarming comedy follows Kervern’s character, Denis, a single father who struggles working two jobs and raising his two young daughters – one of which is unknowingly battling Tourette’s Syndrome.
If just so happens that you’re trying to pick up French and German at the same time, you can give 2016 film Frantz a go, starring Pierre Niney and Paula Beer. Beer plays a young German woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I, and meets Niney’s character, a French soldier who met the fiancé during the war. While Frantz takes on a slower pace, it certainly excels in getting “slow storytelling” just right, keeping you intrigued and on edge with each passing minute.
This black-and-white drama is a captivating yet hard-hitting look into the racial and economical divisions that affected Paris in the ‘90s. The film chronicles the 24-hour life of three friends living in the city’s low-income banlieues, and their struggle with the police.
Following its critical acclaim in France, Alain Juppé, the Prime Minister of France at the time even arranged for a special screening of the film for the cabinet, which required the ministers to attend. According to a spokesman for the Prime Minister, that despite disliking some of the anti-police themes in the film, Juppé had found La Haine to be “a beautiful work of cinematographic art that can make us more aware of certain realities.”