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The 100 best French films: 10-2


La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Director: Jean Cocteau

Cocteau's fairytale set standards in fantasy which few other film-makers have reached. Despite the Vermeer-like compositions, he has some trouble capturing the right tone for the 'realistic' scenes, but the sequences in the enchanted castle - wonderfully designed by Christian Bérard complete with fantastic living statuary, and dignified by a Beast at once ferocious, erotic and genuinely tragic - are pure magic. René Clément is credited as co-director, but had very little to do with the mise en scène.

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The 400 Blows (1959)

Director: François Truffaut

Write about what you know, they say. So in 1959 François Truffaut, neglected son, passionate reader, delinquent student and cinephile, wrote and filmed one of the first glistening droplets of the French New Wave: ‘The 400 Blows’, in which Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) demonstrates – unforgettably – that a good brain and bad parents don’t necessarily turn a boy into a talented film director, although they will, one way or another, turn him into a liar. Antoine is an inept thief who winds up incarcerated; somehow, Truffaut turned this saga into one of the most joyous experience you could ever have in the cinema. The beauty of monochrome ’50s Paris helps, but the magic is in observing the thrill even a maltreated child will snatch from a book, a film or a day truanting at a funfair, through the gaze of a former critic whose elation at getting his hands on a camera burbles through every shot. 

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L'Atalante (1934)

Director: Jean Vigo

Some filmmakers have a lifetime in which to develop their art, to explore their themes, to express their world view. Others do it in a single film. 1934’s ‘L’Atalante’ is the single feature from the then 29-year-old French master Jean Vigo and was made as its director died of TB. The result is not so much a film as an entire artistic vision crammed into 89 of the busiest and most beautiful minutes of celluloid ever shot. Dita Parlo plays Juliette, the smalltown girl married off to Jean (Jean Dasté, captain of L’Atalante, a grubby barge plying the waterways of rural France. Once on board, Juliette is caught between her uncertain love for Jean and her desire to see a world beyond the restrictive confines of the boat. The situation is complicated by the constant interruptions of Jean’s beloved but irascible first mate, salty sea-dog Pére Jules (Michel Simon). It’s a traditional set-up, and the film was intended by its producers as a straight romantic melodrama. But Vigo had other ideas: as his life slipped away, he stuffed the film with reference and resonance, fusing groundbreaking visual trickery with an almost tangible sense of ecstatic romance, startling eroticism and unexpected moments of harsh social truth. The film is far from flawless, and has no desire to be: Simon’s performance alone ensures a ragged, playful sense of spontaneity. The result is something utterly indescribable, partway between comedy and tragedy, romance and realism, film and dream. See it and swoon.

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Contempt (1963)

Director: Jean Luc Godard

If Godard could be reduced to a single genius idea — essential to his filmmaking if obviously not the whole story — it might go something like this: To love cinema is to love life. He is the original movie geek, swaddling his films in adoring reference, and embracing, pushing, reveling in the plasticity of pop. Even his politics work best when set against cool haircuts and jump cuts. So it's good to see Godard’s most gorgeously fabricated movie — his most movieish movie — coming so high in Time Out's list of best French films. Contempt, as magnificent as any melodrama produced by the studio system the director loved, is thought of as his square picture, his concession to narrative. Mind you, it’s a narrative about filmmaking: a rapacious Hollywood producer (Palance) trying to mount The Odyssey in Capri; an aging German director (Fritz Lang, playing himself) resisting the moneyman; and a sellout screenwriter (Piccoli) losing his soul and his alienated wife (Bardot) in the process. Still, that was enough for Godard to dismiss his own achievement over the years as “two-penny” and “normal.” Allow him to be mistaken. Contempt is the only one of Godard’s films in which his sequences have enough room to become spells, boosted on the achingly sad strains of Georges Delerue’s seesawing orchestral score. Piccoli’s screenwriter is Godard’s most honest indictment of his treasured fake world, a hired gun too blind to see his own ruination. And by film’s end — “Silencio!” — Godard has finally dared to get serious, achieving not mock pathos but a perfect tragedy.

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Playtime (1967)

Director: Jacques Tati

Tati's Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris, tangling intermittently with a troop of nice American matrons on a 24-hour trip. Not so much a saga of the individual against an increasingly dehumanised decor, it's more a semi-celebratory symphony to Tati's sensational city-set, all reflections and rectangles, steel, chrome, gleaming sheet metal and trompe l'oeil plate glass. Shot in colour that looks almost like monochrome, recorded in five-track stereo sound with scarcely a word of speech (the mysterious language of objects echoes louder than words), this jewel of Tati's career is a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction.

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Eyes Without a Face (1959)

Director: Georges Franju

An incredible amalgam of horror and fairytale in which scalpels thud into quivering flesh and the tremulous heroine (Scob) remains a prisoner of solitude in a waxen mask of eerie, frozen beauty. Having crashed the car which destroyed her face, her doctor father (Brasseur) feverishly experiments with skin grafts, each failure requiring his devoted assistant (Valli) to prowl the Latin Quarter in search of another suitable 'donor'. Finally, despair breeds madness and rebellion, erupting in an extraordinary sequence where the victim looses the dogs from the doctor's vivisection chambers to turn on their common torturer. Illuminated throughout by Franju's unique sense of poetry - nowhere more evident than in the final shot of Scob wandering free through the night, her mask discarded but her face seen only by the dogs at her feet and the dove on her shoulder - it's a marvellous movie in the fullest sense.

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Pierrot le fou (1965)

Jean-Paul Belmondo mooches up to Samuel Fuller at a cocktail party and, naturally, asks him his thoughts on cinema. Fuller replies: ‘Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word: Emotions.’ His succinct and, let’s be honest, utterly hip rejoinder fluently captures what we’re about to undergo with Godard’s mischievous, free-associative tenth film, ‘Pierrot le Fou’. The party ends and we’re launched into the lunatic orbit of Belmondo’s Ferdinand and Anna Karina’s Marianne: he a rakish, unemployed adman choking on consumerist jargon and bourgeois conformity, she a happy-clappy coquette with unspecified links to an underground military faction. Each is an impulsive, alienated, despairing soul who finds solace in the other’s desire for chaos and withdrawal. They flee Paris for the south of France in a hail of gunfire and Gauloises. They converse in disjointed, inhumanly droll patter, break  into song, duff up gas station attendants and eagerly concoct a new civilisation on a deserted beach. Then, as their relationship begins to fray, it all goes horribly wrong… Basing his film ever so loosely on Lionel White’s pulp crime novel ‘Obsession’, Godard inventively drapes genre pastiche, literary references, flash inserts and cheeky agitprop over a robust ‘Bonnie and Clyde’-like framework to deliver a film which, in spirit, feels like both the sum total of his past work and an exhilarating sign of things to come. It’s a wild-eyed, everything-in-the-pot cross-processing of artistic, cinematic, political and personal concerns, where the story stutters, splinters and infuriates its way to an explosive finale. Taken as a whole, we’re right back to that word again: emotions.

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Les Enfants du Paradis (1943)

In Marcel Carné’s rich, literary romance from 1945 ('France's answer to "Gone with the Wind'!"), four men tussle for the affections of one woman, the conflicted, sphinx-like Garence (Carné regular Arletty), an ice maiden in the league of Marlene Dietrich who, in nearly every shot, has her eyes masked by a beam of light. Such ethereal, delicately cinematic touches add to a film which is content to let a dazzling, witty script (by Jacques Prévert), sumptuous set design and exceptional performers lend the fiction its lifeblood.

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The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Three-and-a-half hours of people talking about sex sounds like a recipe for boredom; in Eustache's hands, it is anything but. There is no 'explicitness': the film is about attitudes to, and defences against, sex and the body. Using dialogue garnered entirely from real-life conversations and sticking entirely to a prepared script (no improvisation), Eustache has provided us with a ruthlessly sharp-eyed view of chic, supposedly liberated sexual relationships, revealing them to be no less a disaster area of tragic dimensions than their 'straighter' counterparts. Veronika (Lebrun) cripples herself by regarding herself entirely through male eyes; Alexandre (Léaud, playing a character eerily close to his standard screen persona) is revealed to be the victim of a greedy, self-regarding, and desperate chauvinism; Marie (the superb, strong Lafont) is a less fully delineated character, sadly allowed only two fierce rejoinders to Alexandre's blind demands. Each of the three holds part of the 'truth' about their situation; none can put the pieces together. The Mother and the Whore is an icy comment on the New Wave, informed throughout by Eustache's striking visual intelligence.

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La Règle du jeu (1939)

Director: Jean Renoir

Banned on its original release as 'too demoralising', and only made available again in its original form in 1956, Renoir's brilliant social comedy is epitomised by the phrase 'everyone has their reasons'. Centreing on a lavish country house party given by the Marquis de la Chesnaye and his wife (Dalio, Gregor), the film effects audacious slides from melodrama into farce, from realism into fantasy, and from comedy into tragedy. Romantic intrigues, social rivalries, and human foibles are all observed with an unblinking eye that nevertheless refuses to judge. The carnage of the rabbit shoot, the intimations of mortality introduced by the after-dinner entertainment, and Renoir's own performance are all unforgettable. Embracing every level of French society, from the aristocratic hosts to a poacher turned servant, the film presents a hilarious yet melancholic picture of a nation riven by petty class distinctions.

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No. 1


James Knox
James Knox

i haven't seen almost all of these