My 36 favorite French movies

Aug 31, 2008 (Updated Sep 15, 2008)

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The Bottom Line I adore Simone Signoret, Alain Delon, Charles Boyer, and Fanny Ardant, and films directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

I've been meaning to update my survey of post-WWII German movies, but am afraid to open an old review with so many links. So, I decided to take a whack at listing my favorite French movies for the writeoff of our prime Francophile, Ms. Fields, aka Ifif1938 without whose aid I would not know how to forge the links here. (The boldfaces French titles are my actual list of favorites.)


I haven't seen it in a long time, but at least when last I saw it, I loved Jean Vigo's "Zero de Conduite" (Zero for Conduct, 1933) about a rebellion in a boarding school (with less fatal impact than the sort of remake by Lindsay Anderson as "If..."). Vigo also directed the beloved, genial barge comedy "L'Atlante" (not "Steamboat Bill, Jr." but what else is? the film title is the name of the barge, captained by Jean Dasté, who has just married Dita Parlo; the movie largely belongs to Michel Simon as the mate who becomes a go-between).

For pre-WWII comedies, I found considerable amusement in Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved from Drowning" (1932, remade as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills), a very primitive sound film, and "The Crime of M. Lange" (1936).

Renoir's "La règle du jeu"(1936, pluralized to "Rules of the Game" is frequently high on lists of the greatest movies ever. Its greatness is lost on me. In contrast, I do get Renoir's "La grande illusion" (1939) with Jean Gabin, Erich von Stroheim and the latter's geranium.

And is "Liliom," (the basis for the Rodgers and Hammestein musical "Carousel") directed by Fritz Lang after he fled Nazi Germany a "French" movie. It is one of the few movies in French with Charles Boyer that I've seen. (Alain Resnais's 1974 "Stavisky" is another set in that era, but made long after it... with a soundtrack by Stephen Sondheim(!). And Anatole Litwak's version of "Mayerling" (1936) with Danielle Darrieux as the woman for whom Archduke Rudolph, the heir to the Hapsburg throne shoots himself.. And Darrieux again teamed with Boyer in "The earrings of Madame de..." (1953), the greatest Boyer film in any language.)

I am not a big fan of pre-war Jean Gabin, but, contrary to the conventional wisdom that (the great!) "Maltese Falcon" (1941) was the first noir, I think that Gabin appears in two prewar noirs, "Le Quai des brumes" (Port of Shadows, 1938), and "Le jour se lève" (1939) both directed by Marcel Carné from scripts by Jacques Prévert. The latter two are also responsible for the comedy "Drôle de drame ou L'étrange aventure du Docteur Molyneux" (1937, known in the epinions database as "Bizarre, Bizzare" And Jean Renoir's adaptation of Émile Zola's La bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1940), starring Gabin and Simone Simon, and a precursor to "Double Indemnity," the great noir directed by Billy Wilder.

(Some day I should rewatch the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali surrealist comedy "L'age d'or" (Age of Gold, 1930), again


During the Nazi occupation of France, two great films were made: "Le corbeau" (The Crow, 1943), Henri-Georg Clouzot's portrait of a village beset with anonymous denunciations (behavior encouraged by the Nazis, but to my mind the movie shows it as despicable) and the Marcel Carné/Jacques Prévert "Les enfants du Paradis" (Children of Paradise, "Paradise" being the name of the theater; 1944) probably the greatest backstage movie ever made with Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault especially outstanding. But, boy is it long! (I'd also mention the movie Renoir made in Hollywood with Charles Laughton as a meek schoolteacher eventually standing up to the Nazis, "This Land Is Mine" in 1943.)


Another German-born exiled director, Max Ophuls, directed Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, and Vittorio de Sica in a great film about adultery and sophistication, "The Earrings of Madame de..." (1953).

When Henri-Georges Clouzot was allowed to return to directing, he made the classic thriller "Diabolique" (the French title is "Les diaboliques," indicating both women: Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot. I think I prefer Clouzot's earlier noir "Quai des Orfèvres" (aka "Jenny Lamour," 1947) And his South American nitroglycerine-driving thriller "Le salaire de la peu" (1953) with Yves Montand has had a well-deserved rediscovery. Plus the documentary of Picasso painting onto glass through which the camera is gazing, "Le mystère Picasso" (1956).

Simone Signoret was outstanding in Ophuls's "Le ronde." Her triumph in French was "Le casque d'or" (Helmet of Gold, 1952), a period gangster film directed by Jacques Becker, who also made the great gangster noir with Gabin "Touchez pas au grisbi" (Hands Off the Loot, 1954)

Which segues naturally to Jean-Pierre Melville, and my favorite French film: "Le samouraï" (The samurai, 1967) with Alain Delon as the hit man who has been betrayed and is on the run. Melville also directed Delon in the great "Le cercle rouge" (The Red Circle, 1970), which has a great turn as an alcoholic safecracker by Yves Montand and an implacable police inspector played by Gian Maria Volontè. In between these two great doomed criminal movies, Melville directed the great movie about the wartime Resistance "L'Armée des ombres" (Army of Shadows, 1969), recently released to deserved acclaim here. Melville cast Delon as a policeman foiling an arch-criminal played by Richard Crenna(!) in the 1972 "Un flic," which is very good, but not great as the other two Melville movies with Delon are.

I also have to include the heist movie "Mélodie en sous-sol (Any Number Can Win, 1963, directed by Henri Verneuil) and "Deux hommes dans la ville" (1973, written and directed by José Giovanni) for teaming Delon with Jean Gabin -- the great gangster movie figures of two epochs together (thrice, actually, but "The Sicilian Clan" (1969, also directed by Verneuila) isn't as good. Michel Bouquet plays an Inspector Javert in the 1970s update of "Les Misèrables" (Delon had already turned in a 1960s version of Jean Valjean being harassed by Van Heflin in "Once a Thief," the first film in which I saw Delon). Lino Ventura played another relentles cop (albeit with some sense of irony) in "Sicilian Clan."

And one of my favorite French films is the adaptation Melville directed in 1950 of Jean Cocteau's "Les enfants terribles" (The Strange Ones rather than The Terrible Children in English) with Nicole Stéphane and Edouard Dermith as the incestuous siblings.

Dermith succeeded Jean Marais as Cocteau's amour and star. And what is my favorite Cocteau movie? Franju's adaptation of "Thomas l'imposteur" (1964), I think, but I haven't seen it in a very long time, so the choice has to be Marais as "Orphée" (1950) or as the beast in "La belle et la bête" (1946). Both are indispensable iconic movies.

Similarly, I think that Robert Bresson's "Pickpocket" )1959) has to make the list along with "Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut" (A Man Escaped, 1956). Both are minimalist masterpieces with tight focus on the hands of the protagonists (I'll leave the action of Divine Grace to others to interpret). Bresson's 1951 adaptation of Georges Beranos's Journal d'un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) is also a great movie, though not a likable one. (And I actively dislike many of Bresson's later stripped down films.)

I think that "Jeux interdit" (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément in 1952) is a great movie with one of the great child performances in an incomprehensible adult world ever (by Brigitte Fossey, who later turned up in Truffaut's "The Man Who Loved Women" and in another movie with a great child performance, "Cinema Paradiso"). The film is too painful to like (ditto for the gritty 1995 "La haine," written and directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, focused on youth of three ethnicities in the slums circling Paris.) The Clement movie I like is his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley with Alain Delon as Tom Ripley, "Plein soleil." "Purple Noon" is a peculiar translation--it is the blazing Mediterranean sun, not any purple tint, as if there ever was one at noon! A more lurid American title for this 1960 masterpiece is "Lust for Evil.".

The work of the nouvelle vogue (New Wave) that remains most intriguing to me is Alain Resnais's "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" (1959) in which a one-night stand between Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada has powerful backstories of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, where his family was, and her affair with a German officer that was punished by her head being shaved after the defeat of the Germans. I remember being very impressed by Resnais's film about a veteran of the Spanish Civil War played by Yves Montand who is still fighting Franco three decades later, "La guerre est finie" (1966). Recently, this seemingly ultra-serious director, now in his 80s, has been making musicals, including "Coeurs" (Private Fears in Public Places, 2006).

The film by Jean-Luc Godard most relevant to the Bush administration's embrace of torture is "La petit soldat" (The Little Soldier, with Michel Subor and Ana Karina, 1963), but my favorite is the very odd sci-fi detective movie "Alphaville" (1966) with the delirious romanticism of my second favorite 20th-century poet (Paul Éluard; the first is Prévert) mouthed by tough guy Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) with Ana Karina as the somewhat zombified damsel to rescue.

My favorite François Truffaut movie is "Tirez sur le pianiste" (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), based on a hard-boiled American novel by David Goodis with Charles Aznavour as the piano player. There are gangsters and snow, but mostly there is Aznavour. (I have a weakness for "La sirène de Mississippi" (Mississippi Mermaid, 1969) with Jean-Paul Belmondo waiting for and then pursuing his mail-order bride played by Catherine Deneuve).

Deneuve starred in my favorite post-Mexican movie directed by Luis Buñuel, "Tristiana," but that was filmed in Spain and is in Spanish.

I get a kick out of Jeanne Moreau and Brigitte Bardot as entertainers mixed up in the Mexican Revolution in Louis Malle's "Viva Maria!" (1965--both women play characters named "Maria). I greatly admire Malle's "Lacombe, Lucien" (1974), but my favorite Malle film is the coming-of-age during the 1950s "La souffle au coeur"(1971) with Benoît Ferreux as the fifteen-year-old jazz aficionado with the heart murmur, and Lea Massari as his very attractive mother. (Malle is also the only director who got Miles Davis to record a soundtrack -- for "Ascenseur pour l'échafaud" (Elevator to the Gallows , 1958), the fatalistic film that made Jeanne Moreau a star.

Bertrand Tavernier has had a distinguished career. (More people should see his 1992 "Undeclared War.") My clear favorite, "'Round Midnight" (1986), shows another French jazz fan François Cluzet dealing with one of his idols, saxophonoist Dexter Gordon (called "Dale Turner," but largely playing himself; Herbie Hancock is also there).

That reminds me of the neo-noir "Diva" (1981,adapted and directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix), a puzzling mix of gangster film and opera diva-worship -- with Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez as the soprano, singing the aria from "La Wally," Frédéric Andréi playing Jules, the diva-worshipper, and Richard Bohringer playing the mysterious savior of Jules from Taiwanese mobsters. (This recently made it to DVD, and I'll get around to watching the DVD some time...

Claire Denis's adaptation of Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd about tongue-tied innocence and provocative jealousy, Beau travail, had Michel Subor as the Claggart figure persecuting Gregoire Colin as a French Foreign Legion soldier in the desert outpost of Djibouti. It looks amazing.

And -- reverting to coming of age under the shadow of the Algerian conflicts -- I was enamored with "Les roseaux sauvages" (Wild Reeds, 1994), directed by André Téchiné, just as its teenage protagonist, played by Gaël Morel (who also starred in "Full Speed" and "Three Dancing Slaves"[Le Clan]) was by the one played by Stéphane Rideau (who also starred in "Full Speed" (directed by Morel), "Come Undone" [Presque rien] and "Three Dancing Slaves").

I was even more engaged by the young gay Arab in the title role of "Drôle de Félix"(Adventures of Felix, 2000, codirected by Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, who also made "Ma vraie vie à Rouen" (My Life on Ice, 2002) and the even more engaging "Crustacés et coquillages" (Côte d'azur, 2005)), a scenic and poignant road movie as Felix heads south to try to meet his father.

About the work of the Krzysztof Kieslowski/Krzysztof Piesiewicz duo (in Polish and in French), I am ambivalent. I find the parts of their "Dekalogue" quite uneven. I dislike their "La double vie de Véronique" even with Irène Jacob as both Veroniques. I admire (but can't like) the first film of their "trois coleurs" (three colors) trilogy, "Bleue" (Blue, 1993) with a grief-stricken Juliette Binoche. The farcical "Bialy" (1994) does nothing for or to me, but the third, "Rouge" (Red, 1994) I find fascinating. The relationship that the model Valentine (Irène Jacob) develops with the misanthropic retired judge played by Jean-Louis Trintignant is very odd and someting of a miracle (at least for him).

I'm awe-struck by "La Reine Margot" (Queen Margaret, 1994, directed by Patrice Chéreau) with Virna Lisi as an appropriately scary Catherine de Medici, Daniel Auteuil as survivor Huguenot Henri ("Paris is worth a mass) de Navarre, Vincent Perez as the dashing La Môle, and Isabelle Adjani in the title role. The movie has so much graphic violence that I don't think I can say that I like it, so for a swashbuckler, I'll go with "Le hussard sur le toit" (The Horseman on the Roof, 1995, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau) with Olivier Martinez as the dashing title character and Juliette Binoche as the worthy object of his love. (Rappeneau also made the odd black comedy about the fall of France in 1940, Bon Voyage, in 2003.)

I was very impressed by Ariane Mnouchkine's lengthy 1978 biopic "Molière" and wish that I could watch it again, but it is not available on DVD, alas. I was charmed by Laurent Tirard's 2007 biopic focused on the younger Molière (his death to a variant of Lully's "Shivering chorus" was one of the most memorable parts of Mnouchkine's) with Romain Duris (the most outstanding young French actor IMO, and quite the chameleon).

The 1997 two-part tv movie of Stendahl's Le rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black, directed by Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe) is not a great movie, but for eye candy, Kim Rossi Stuart is in there with Perez and Martinez! (I'm going to get around to watching the 1954 version with Gérard Philipe as Julien Sorel and Danielle Darrieux as Mme. de Rénal one of these millennia...)

Finally, going less far back to rural Provençe, two pairs of films showing off the Provencal countryside: "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des sources" (Manon of the Spring), a two-part 1986 adaptation by Claude Berri of Marcel Pagnol (also author of the Fanny trilogy, from interwar Marseilles) with Emmanuelle Béart sensational as Manon and Gerard Depardieu heartbreaking as her father, whose back is broken in the first movie by the conniving Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil. Less heartbreaking are the 1990 pair: "La gloire de mon père" (My Father's Glory) and "Le hâteau de ma mère" (My Mother's Castle) directed by Yves Robert, recalling Pagnol's youth.

And one last sentimental favorite from the end of Simone Signoret's great career, with her playing the crotchety "Madame Rosa" (a retired prostitute and Auschwitz survivor) in a 1977 adaptation of a Romain Gary novel by Moshé Mizrahi (who never appeared in another movie). She is raising Momo (Samy Ben-Youb) an Algerian orphan, and raising him Muslim. (She is also the foster mother of some children of French prostitutes, but Momo is special and feels specially obligated to her in her decline.) (More recently, Omar Sharif played "Monsieur Ibrahim" in another touching movie about a relationship skipping a generation, but not crossing the ethnic chasm "Madame Rosa" did.)

(Also see my posting on the best French organized crime movies and my favorite films.)

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