A wise man once said, “French films are… too French.” American audiences often have preconceived notions about foreign films… that they’re boring, nonsensical, and hoity-toity(a technical term, you can google it), but French films in particular may come across as more pretentious than a lifetime subscription to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. So how do we at Film School Rejects combat this misguided attitude? First, we acknowledge that for the most part it’s true. It is. Second, we concentrate on finding the exceptions to the rule, the films that break that smoky French mold and just appeal to fans of good movies.
You won’t find any critically lauded classics from the likes of Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut here. Their films, some of which are pretty good (Breathless and Day for Night for example), can be tough sells to audiences unmoved by existential examinations of one’s nicotine-addicted inner soul. The eleven titles below are great movies first, French movies second. So if you love movies, but have been hesitant about dipping your wick into France’s cinematic smarm, add a few of these to your Netflix queue (that’s a French word) and soon you’ll be saying ‘va te faire foutre!’ to your xenophobic ways. (I’ve included the French titles where necessary in cases where they’re noticeably difference from the English.)
Americans love revenge and mistaken identity hijinks! Of all the films on this list, Irreversible should be the most challenging to the viewer in both content and structure. Gasper Noe‘s 2002 shocker stars Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassell, and is told in reverse chronological order. We watch an amazingly graphic and violent act of revenge, an unflinchingly brutal and seemingly endless rape, and finally a tender couple so obviously happy and in love that our knowledge of what lies ahead for them is heartbreaking. Noe’s argument against violence is difficult and painful to watch, but it’s also brave, ballsy, and captivating film making.
Americans love abortion and seafood! This is a bit of a cheat because Maelstrom is a French/Canadian movie instead of a purely French one. But it’s in French and it’s beautiful so it’s staying on the list. A talking fish narrates (from the butcher’s block) the tale of one woman’s downward spiral and hopeful salvation. Sex, suicide, revenge, and redemption are all on display (along with the stunning star Marie-Josee Croze) in this sumptuous and oddball exploration of destiny and purpose.
#9. Tell No One (Ne le dis a personne)
Americans love suspense and nudity! A doctor’s wife is kidnapped and killed, but several years later she returns in this twisty thriller based on the novel by American author Harlan Coben. My full review is here, but for now just know that Tell No One could easily hold its own against any big Hollywood suspense film. Great mystery, intense action, surprising humor, and a believable love story… and the still-stunning Marie-Josee Croze!
#8. 8 Women (8 femmes)
Americans love musicals and murder! Eight women and one dead man provide plenty of fodder for bickering, fighting, and singing. Staged like a play with limited settings, the film is colored with a bright and bold palette that starkly contrasts the blizzard raging outside. Strong characters and even stronger performances from the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, and Ludivine Sagnier hold your attention as the musical mystery unfolds.
#7. High Tension (Haute Tension)
Americans love gore and masturbation! If it weren’t for an absolutely terrible and tacked-on “twist” ending, High Tension would be considered a classic of its genre. As it stands it’s an excellent, dark, violent, surprising, and brutally tenacious debut from Alexandre Aja that only goes ass up in its final twenty minutes. The late night attack that gets the ball rolling (or head rolling more accurately) is an in-your-face assault on the senses. Great gore, suspense, a twisted sense of humor, and an innovative use of power tools rounds out this grim and bloody thriller.
#6. That Obscure Object of Desire
Americans love… well okay, this one may be too French. Luis Bunuel‘s final film is black comedy of a love that doesn’t truly exist. A couple goes to great lengths to stay together, each purportedly in need of the other, when it’s abundantly clear to everyone else that the only feelings they share are hatred and obsession. Mathiu is an ass and Conchita is a tease, and they both try to manipulate the other in grand succession. Bunuel’s surreal nature creeps in to the film in several ways, most notably in casting two obviously different women to play Conchita and having the two swap out throughout the film, sometimes mid-scene. Oh, and there are terrorist bombings as well. Trust me, it’s strange and funny film that targets hypocrisy and the politics of the bedroom with surprising accuracy.
Americans love hitmen and Danny Aiello! Luc Besson‘s Leon is another slight cheat since it takes place in NYC and everyone speaks English, but this is the French cut of Besson’s The Professional so it stays. Jean Reno and Natalie Portman star, but Gary Oldman steals the show as a pill-popping, classical music loving, rageaholic who happens to also be a cop. The additional footage deemed too dangerous for Americans focuses mainly on Mathilda’s (Portman) growing infatuation with the mysterious and monosyllabic Leon. It makes a great movie even greater, albeit slightly more perverted.
#4. Them (ils)
Americans love having la merde scared out of them! This past spring’s home invasion thriller The Strangers managed to maintain feelings of tension and unease fairly well, but Them does it even better. No surprise really as The Strangers is an almost scene for scene ripoff of Them…The three weak aspects to the American film which include an unnecessarily brutal finale, stupidly cliched behavior on the part of the distressed couple, and the antagonists’ preternatural awareness are happily absent from the superior French film. Watch this at night with the lights off… and wear your rubber undies.
#3. Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacts des loups)
Americans love the Iron Chef! This film just kicks ass all over the place. It’s got a cool monster tearing folks to shreds, beautiful martial arts action courtesy of the Chairman Mark Dacascos, hot chicks milling about naked, French history that may or may not be legit but sure sounds interesting, and Monica Bellucci not getting raped. What more could you ask for? How about an engaging story, strong characters, and at least two deaths that’ll make you sad? Brotherhood of the Wolf is one seriously entertaining genre-bender.
#2. Hate (La Haine)
Americans love Yoo-Hoo and racial profiling! So in addition to being in French it’s also in black and white. I realize this makes it twice as hard of a sell to foreign film haters, but damn if this isn’t a solidly entertaining movie. Mathieu Kassovitz directs his second feature with energy and a driving force that propels the viewer towards a seemingly inevitable climax. It follows three friends through the suburbs outside Paris as they deal with police, family, friends, and a loaded gun. Sounds like it should be boring as hell, but the conversations and experiences shared between the three are fascinating and funny. Kassovitz keeps you guessing and waiting as to how the trio’s day will end, and then surprises when it finally does.
#1. Amelie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain)
Americans love romantic comedies and CGI! Amelie is a litmus test for imagination and love, and yes I know how lame that sounds, but it’s true. If you’ve watched Amelie and aren’t moved in even the slightest way by its enormous heart, its incredible love for life, its enduring belief in romance, its inventive and colorful use of CGI, the dark and blackly comic humor, its charm and wit, the “how many people are having orgasms right now?” scene, the perfect score by Yann Tiersen, the emotional payoff in the end, and/or the beguiling beauty of Audrey Tautou… then you are most likely dead inside.
Honorable Mentions – Delicatessen, Baxter, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, La Femme Nikita, The City of Lost Children, Swimming Pool, Jean de Florette/Manon of the Spring