From François Truffaut to Leos Carax: 5 essential French films in one essential guide
It is no coincidence that film buffs and critics alike tend to gravitate towards the cinema of France.
Contentiously regarded as the birthplace of cinema through the groundbreaking projection innovations of Lumière brothers Auguste and Louis, the rich, trailblazing history of French film continues to dazzle in a globalised world full of captivating and original cinema scenes.
In this brief list, I’m going to give you just a few essentials.
They’re all absolute corkers, no doubt about it; If you love film, you need to see these.
1) L’Atalante – Directed by Jean Vigo, 1934
On the surface, Jean Vigo’s 1934 film about troubled newlyweds living on a barge sounds, well, pretty dull. It’s ok to admit that. As is often the case though, it’s all in the execution.
Vigo uses this simplistic set up as a jumping off point and crafts a poetic, lyrical film, feeling honest and impressionistic in equal measure. Don’t go into L’Atalante expecting a rollicking plot — this was never Vigo’s intention. Approach the film as an experience. Indeed, some of the greatest cinematic experiences out there are ones that narratively meander; they aren’t about what the story is, rather how it is told.
It’s in the telling that you’ll get lost in L’Atalante, a moment like the evocative shared dream sequence as Jean and Juliette ‘make love’ despite being miles apart physically. Their marital connection is painted with the language of cinema, a sequence that will stick with you long after the film ends. Again, it’s all in the telling, and there’s much to tell. Vigo’s masterful direction influenced a generation of filmmakers and is still regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. I can think of no worthier place to start with French film.
2) The 400 Blows – Directed by François Truffaut, 1959
The French New Wave is undoubtedly one of the defining moments not just for French art, but in the global art landscape.
The New Wave or ‘Nouvelle Vague’ was a reflexive movement shared between critics and film-makers — in fact, many of the original New Wave directors of France began as critics. So, it is no accident that for this list I’ve picked a film which happens to be directed by one of the principle Nouvelle Vague directors, François Truffaut. Truffaut wrote ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’ in 1953, a kind of vitriolic manifesto denouncing the conformity of French film. With this, Truffaut led a group of directors to reject the safety of French cinema and create something altogether more dangerous, more daring. Enter The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s directorial debut and a beautiful film about the difficulties of childhood. I cannot express in words the sweeping humanity of this film — in ninety minutes, Truffaut masterfully constructs the life of rebellious child Antoine Doinel and the reasons behind his troubling behaviour.
Complete with one of the most influential single-take scenes in all of cinema, there may be no better film on childhood out there.
3) Le Samouraï – Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967
Jean-Pierre Melville’s dialogue-light thriller Le Samouraï effortlessly demonstrates film’s ability to show rather than tell.
Expository dialogue be damned, Melville introduces the calculating killer Jef Costello with economic grace; in a matter of minutes, you’re sure to be swept up in the life of the stone-faced killer, brilliantly portrayed by Alain Delon. What’s so fascinating about Le Samouraï is the way the director both evokes the conventions of ’30s and’ 40s gangster films and throws them at the wall. Melville himself was a person defined by influences — he changed his name from Grumbach to Melville after reading Moby Dick — but also adamant in his original approach to cinema. As such, Le Samouraï straddles the line between recognisable and wholly original, taking the gangster iconography we all know and breathing new life into it.
Cinematographer Henri Decaë used a muted colour palette, giving every frame a coldness to it, reflecting the icy demeanour of Costello as he avoids capture from the law. Speaking of every frame, you could pause the film at any point and it would make a stunning piece of wall art; for all of its calculated frostiness, Melville’s masterpiece is beautiful to look at. One of the all-time great films.
4) La Haine – Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995
Shot in high-contrast black and white, Mathieu Kassovitz’s searing document of three racially diverse young men alienated by the sheen of middle-class Parisian life feels more essential than ever.
Inspired by numerous events of police brutality in the early ’90s, Vincent Cassel, Hubert Koundé and Saïd Taghmaoui meander from the poverty-stricken banlieues to the centre of Paris, the fear of the police shadowing their every move. The propensity to still shock audiences is partly why I had to include La Haine on this list — from the early scene where Vincent Cassel’s character Vinz impersonates that famous Travis Bickle moment from Taxi Driver(‘You lookin’ at me?’), you’re aware things aren’t going to go well for the trio. I mean, the title even translates to ‘hate’.
The senseless violence of contemporary life is only heightened by the striking cinematography, particularly haunting during the night-time scenes as long shadows are cast through the Parisian streets. This is also one of the most stylish films you’ll likely ever see — for a film depicting such serious themes, the French hip-hop soundtrack, snappy dialogue and explosive editing elevates this allegory to something that has a real bite to it.
5) Holy Motors – Leos Carax, 2012
A marmite film to end on.
Leos Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors takes the dreamlike evocations of our first film L’Atalante and builds a dizzying Molotov explosion of insanity, humour and poignance. Once described to me by a friend as “so arthouse it hurts,” on a first watch it can feel as if Carax is actually trying to alienate his audience; a man called Oscar travels around in a limousine through Paris, dressing up as different characters.
In on section, he’s an old homeless woman, at another he’s an emerald-suited goblin-creature, biting off a woman’s finger and carrying off a bemused Eva Mendes to his lair so he can get naked and show her his erection. Yeah. All of this weirdness has a point though, and it’s far simpler than it seems; during a conversation with an old friend, Oscar is asked why he continues to act when no-one is watching. He replies, ‘What made me start, the beauty of the act.’ The film portrays an actor dedicated to performance in a contemporary world where people might not really care anymore.
Through this presentation, Carax, if rather pessimistically, denounces the death of performance and cinema in an age of contemporary modernity. Though I might not agree with him, Holy Motors is a wild ride and his finest moment. And hey, let’s watch these films and prove him wrong. Cinema is alive and well, it’s not going anywhere.