Ten great French thrillers

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'Anything for Her' follows in a grand tradition of French thrillers, distinguished by the Gallic flair for dark humour, intelligent twists and, of course, a certain je ne sais quoi. We round up ten of our favourites

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Tell No One (2006)
Directed by Guillaume Canet
The highpoint of this satisfyingly old-fashioned romantic thriller is a daylight chase across Paris (over a motorway, through an antiques market) that leaves you gasping for air. The man on the run is a doctor, whose wife was murdered several years ago and who now believes she may be alive. On his tail are the police, who suspect him of the murder. Actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet's cocksure and confident transplanting Harlan Coben’s American bestseller to Paris (carrying on the fine tradition of French adaptation of US crime novels). At 33, he was the youngest filmmaker to be awarded a Cesar for best directing.

 

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Hidden (2005)
Directed by Michael Haneke
Haneke’s paranoid masterpiece chills to the bone. A liberal Parisian couple are receiving surveillance tapes of their own home in the post. Why are they being targeted? Is this some kind of sadist? The answers lies with the husband (Daniel Auteuil) and a hidden sin from his childhood committed against an Algerian boy. By the end the liberal viewer - and Haneke assumes we are - and France’s entire imperial history are all implicated. Keep watching for the final shot and one last creepy twist.

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The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)
Directed by Jacques Audiard
In a remake that succeeds in outclassing the original – James Toback's 1978 film ‘Fingers’ – Romain Duris takes over from Harvey Keitel as the young piano-playing scumbag. His jerky insecurity is skin crawling, even before you see him in action at as a vicious gangland thug (in a chilling scene he releases a sack writhing of rats in a block of flats to intimidate its poor immigrant residents). His late mother was a concert pianist and after chance meeting with her manager he decides to audition for the orchestra. Which sounds ludicrous, and it’s a testament to this blistering psychological thriller that we don’t doubt him for a second.


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Harry, He's Here to Help (2000)
Directed by Dominik Moll
A strange thriller this, infected with off-kilter black comedy. It begins with an embarrassed admission, when Michel (Laurent Lucas) can’t place Harry (Sergi Lopez), an old classmate he bumps into at a petrol station. He’s a harassed dad of two on his way to the family summerhouse. But Harry remembers Michel so well that he can recite Michel’s dire schoolboy poetry. Like a demented alter-ego or fantasy escaped into real life Harry sets about eliminating the obstacles that are keeping his old friend from literary greatness.

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L'Appartement (1996)
Directed by Gilles Mimouni
It pays tribute to Hitchcock, channels De Palma. But Mimouni’s stylish noir is most memorable for its evocation of the suave, unruffled 1990s. Vincent Cassel (a year after ‘La Haine’) plays a slick businessman putting aside his wayward youth to marry his boss’s sister. When he sees a woman who looks like an ex-lover (Monica Belluci) he flips. The plotting dazzles, flashbacks turning the themes of obsession and love inside out. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why its first time director Gilles Mimouni has yet to make another film.

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Cérémonie (1995)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
This latish Claude Chabrol, based on a Ruth Rendell novel, opens with an innocuous job interview. A woman is interviewing for a maid (her daughter would prefer the term housekeeper; her son uses skivvy). Sophie (Sandrine Bonaire) is pleasant, but a little switched-off and the scenario feels a little uneasy. Installed in her new position Sophie befriends an oddball post office worker (Chabrol favourite Isabelle Huppert) with a grudge against the family. Chabrol’s genius is that the pair’s strangeness falls entirely within the realms of reasonable behaviour, all the while inching towards an unholy finish, revenge and psychopathic class war.

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Monsieur Hire (1989)
Directed by Patrice Leconte
The story comes from a Georges Simenon novel, but it’s the spirit of Hitchcock and ‘Rear Window’ that infuses ‘Monsieur Hire’. The monsieur in question is a reclusive misanthrope who stands at his window night after night watching the young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) across the street. When she catches him, she is horrified but also finds it erotically thrilling. When a young woman is murdered suspicion falls on Hire. He might be a voyeur but is he a murderer? Brilliantly subtle.

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Army of Shadows (1969)
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
A French critic called Melville’s great resistance film a ‘sublime thriller’, which gives us licence to include it here. ‘Army of Shadows’ is every bit as gripping as his gangster noirs, which were so influential on the new wave directors (Melville appeared in ‘Breathless’), though it bombed on release. Melville had already made two films about the German occupation ‘Le Silence de la Mer’ (1947) and Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961). This bleak but very beautiful film wears its fatalism heavily – nothing but death is certain for these underground fighters. Adapted from Joseph Kessel, the director also used his own experiences in the resistance.

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The Wages of Fear (1953)
Directed by Henri Georges Clouzot
Four down-and-outs drive lorries of nitroglycerin across 300 bumpy miles to put out an oil well fire in a nameless Latin American country. If anyone was in any doubt about the lethalness of their load, Clouzot shows the explosive results of a single drop hitting the floor. In another director’s hands, plucky courage and hitherto untapped heroism would save the day. But this is nihilistic Clouzot; the men stay treacherous and greedy. Its portrait of a ruthless and exploitative American oil company was viewed as anti-American and several scenes were deleted from the original US print. White-knuckle watching.

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Le Jour Se Leve (1939)
Directed by Marcel Carné
More of an existential thriller this, since we know the identity of the killer from the outset, witness the murder in fact. Jean Gabin gives a deeply sympathetic performance as working class everyman Francois (the film is often considered a highpoint of 1930s poetic realism). Barricading himself inside a boarding house after shooting dead the Machiavellian Valentin (Jules Berry) a series of flashbacks lead us through a story of love and jealousy. Its pessimism summed up the French mood in 1939 anticipating the war (Carné was one of the few directors to stay and make films through the Occupation), and ‘Le Jour Se Leve’ was later banned by the Vichy government for being demoralising.

Author: Cath Clarke



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