France; It’s a land of funky hair, cigarettes and the DGAF attitude that all of us need more of in our lives. French cinema showcases some of the finest examples of this unique culture. With the recent win of Elle at the Golden Globes, we were super pumped to revel in some francophile representation at our all-too-American awards show. In case you needed a quick catchup, Popdust‘s resident Franco-cinephiles Kaila Allison and E.R. Pulgar have compiled some of their favorite films français.
1. La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 (2013)
American audiences know this one as Blue is the Warmest Colour. As problematic as it was behind-the-scenes, with allegations of abuse emerging against director Abdellatif Kechiche and lesbian love scenes that bordered on the pornographic, this sprawling three-hour epic will leave you in tears. Telling the touching story of a young girl’s (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) sexual and emotional coming-of-age as she falls for blue-haired beauty Emma (the incomparable Léa Seydoux) while staying loyal to the blossoming and dissolution of a relationship, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an on-screen relationship that’s this complexly fleshed out, or this luscious to watch unfold.
2. L’Auberge Espagnol (2002)
France’s art-deco sweetheart Audrey Tatou returns from her famous role as Amélie (see below) to play Xavier’s girlfriend, Martine. Xavier (Romain Duris) ventures to Barcelona to finish his graduate economics degree and leaves her (and their 4-year relationship) behind. Sounds boring (economics), but once in the vibrant city, the straight-laced Xavier has to contend with his new living arrangements: a crazy apartment filled with a cast of debaucherous international roommates. Quel bordel! There’s drunkenness, there’s tears, and some more than oh-là-là moments. Duris is adorably awkward and entrancing at the same time; we’re kind of obsessed with him.
3. Bande à part (1964)
This French New Wave classic by the legendary Jean-Luc Godard was envisioned as “Alice in Wonderland meets Franz Kafka.” This pulp-y piece of cinéma classique will leave you on the edge of your seat as the main characters fight over money, each other, and where to hide the bodies of their murder victims. This classic is worth watching for the famous Louvre scene alone; lie to our faces and say you’ve never wanted to run through a museum with your best friends, careless and free in the face of repercussion.
4. Casse-tête Chinois (2013)
This is the third installment of the Spanish Apartment trilogy spearheaded by the lovable Romain Duris. The film takes place when Xavier is now forty and divorced from one of his former British roommates in the auberge. And what do all divorced people do? They follow their newly liberated/less-pathetic spouses to New York City, of course! Xavier, who’s now a kind of legit writer, is trying to mend their relationship (they have two kids…yikes), but has to get married to a cab driver’s daughter to get a green card, and lives in a barely-livable apartment in Chinatown. But all ends well, sort of, and a lot of tear-inducing lessons are learned about life’s in-between moments.
5. J’ai tué ma mère (2009)
You’ve most likely heard of French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. The young auteur is one of the most vocal voices of queer cinema today, and his first film—completed before his twenty-first birthday—weaves together a gay teenager’s coming-of-age with his complex relationship to the most important woman in his life: his mother. Dolan himself has said the film is flawed, but take that with a grain of salt. Watching what he produces now, his first film is all the more incredible for the little things that the notoriously nit-picky director would consider wrinkles on an otherwise glistening canvas of a film.
6. Être et Avoir (2002)
Être et avoir, means “to be and to have.” It’s a moving documentary by Nicolas Philibert, which shows daily life at a one-room schoolhouse in la France profonde (or, simply, the middle of nowhere, France, pop. 200). Mr. Lopez is the French equivalent of Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating: a larger-than-life force who teaches children about le goût de l’effort, giving them army-level discipline even at 5 years old. Mr. Lopez is more than just a teacher; he devotes himself to dealing with the less glamorous psychological issues lurking behind every age group. Also of note, there was a famous (yet unsuccessful) lawsuit in which Mr. Lopez tried to sue the production company for widely releasing the film when he had expected it to be used for educational distribution only. Talk about fighting for your cause!
7. Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2001)
The film that launched Audrey Tatou into the international spotlight features bright colors, a heart-wrenching story of emotional empathy, and a globe-trotting lawn gnome. Tatou plays the titular character with a finesse and sensitivity that leaves you rooting for her until the very end, even if you’re not exactly sure how to feel about her humorous manipulation of everyone around her. Watching Amelié fix everyone else’s life—and, in the process, her own—is a cinematic delight unlike any other that will have you watching and re-watching this film for years. Few times has a piece of cinema, French or otherwise, had so much heart.
8. La Haine (1995)
The title of this film, of course, sounds better in French, but it means “Hate.” A little-shown side of France is life in the banlieues, or suburbs. Largely populated by people of North African descent, they are often alienated, if not neglected, by the police. The film recounts a near-day in the lives of three young men from different immigrant families. When their friend Abdel (played by Abdel Ahmed Ghili) is beaten up by police and in a coma, they are on a mission for vengeance. The stark black-and-white cinematography adds to the heart-gripping drama that ensues.
9. Intouchables (2011)
On the surface, this film is a modern Cinderella story of a lowly servant taking care of a rich man, but look deeper, and you’ll find a story of how two men from other sides of the world can learn to be friends. And not just friends, but companions. The unmotivated Driss (Omar Sy) goes from life in the projects to working in a mansion owned by an at-first curmudgeonly, classical-music loving quadriplegic (François Cluzet). However, through their differences, the two share a not-at-all-corny bond. If you have a dry eye at the end of this film, we will make it our personal mission to slap you.
10. Elle (2016)
Isabelle Huppert didn’t take home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for nothing. Elle tells the story of Michèle, a woman who is raped one night by a masked assailant and has to resume her life, carrying the weight of what happened to her. This thriller delves into the complexities and insecurities that haunt Michèle, and the psychological shift such a traumatic incident can bring about in its most extreme form. You’ll see glimmers of Gone Girl in this incredible film, and Huppert in her prime is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Bonus: The Dreamers (2003)
So this one’s not 100% in French, but to not include it would be sacrilege. Eva Green’s first turn on the silver screen sees her paired with devilishly handsome talent Louis Garrel, who plays her twin brother. In a movie so full of love for Paris, French cinema—the recreation of the Bande à part Louvre scene is as accurate as it is effervescent—and French culture in general, this is a gracious 101 for those who want to dive into the smoky, sensual, romantic world of French cinema.