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The 100 best French films: 100-81

100-81

Enter the Void (2009)

Director: Gaspar Noé

The French-Argentinian filmmaker Gaspar Noé doesn’t do subtlety. He’s experimental in some ways; in others, he has the refinement of Michael Bay. His 2002 backwards-told tale ‘Irréversible’, is remembered for its scenes of skull-crushing and rape. Which is a shame because it’s also worth recalling its technical daring – especially its illusion of long, whirling takes – and ability to hold a vice-like grip on you while telling a story of revenge gone wrong during one nasty night in Paris.‘Enter the Void’ is Noé’s third feature and his first since the storm of ‘Irréversible’. It’s a more ambitious, unwieldy project: an equally kinetic attempt, with added special effects, to capture the spirit of a city, Tokyo, and a dead young American, Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), whose ghost floats about in a vaguely Buddhist manner after being shot dead by cops soon after smoking the drug DMT.Death – and maybe the DMT – cause Oscar (and so us: this is first-person cinema) to revisit the events leading to his death. We see how he started selling drugs to pay for his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) to join him in Tokyo; how she became a stripper; how he was screwing a friend’s mum; how that friend grassed on him. The seedy is the everyday. We travel further too: to Oscar’s childhood and an accident that orphaned him and his sister.When ‘Enter the Void’ first showed at Cannes last year, it was more than three hours long. But Noé has reached for the scissors and cut about 45 minutes, reducing the length of scenes in which the screen breaks out into fractals, echoing the look of submarine life or human capillaries or, if you’re unkind, those posters which you stare at until an eagle appears.If you thought the camerawork in ‘Irréversible’ induced nausea, wait until you get a dose of ‘Enter the Void’. We swing in and out of buildings, tear through walls. Not only that, but we leap into the cabin of a plane and take a vagina’s eye view of a penis during sex. There’s nowhere Noé’s camera won’t go, and as his version of Tokyo is a pit of sex and drugs, we’re never far from a flash of flesh or a dose of dope.Much about ‘Enter the Void’ is rotten. The acting stinks. Noé drops facts like lead balloons (‘Hey, have you read “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”?’). Characterisation is weak. The use of Bach’s ‘Air on a G String’ is lazy and emotionally the film is as shallow as a declaration of love on E. But you have to admire Noé’s ballsy vision and loopy execution, and the way he sucks you into this world with such a bold fusion of sound and image. It’s not a massive leap from ‘Avatar’ to ‘Enter the Void’: both care more for style over story, both reflect their maker’s odd world view. Noé, though, has no desire to please. He’d rather repel you. See where it takes you.

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That Man from Rio (1964)

Director: Philippe de Broca

A delightfully preposterous thriller (the McGuffin is some stolen Amazonian treasure), wittier than any of the Bond spoofs that subsequently flooded the market and a good deal racier than 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. Handsomely shot on location in Brazil, with Belmondo as the cheerfully indestructible hero who cliffhangs, climbs buildings, imitates Tarzan, parachutes almost into the jaws of a crocodile and does his best to cope with the enchantingly unpredictable Françoise Dorléac (late lamented sister of Catherine Deneuve). The dubbing in the transatlantic version isn't too disastrous.

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Remorques (1939)

Director: Jean Grémillon

A number of cross-references apply: Reed's The Key, likewise a melancholy tale of doomed love set against a background of rough seas and salvage vessels; Le Quai des Brumes, the two stars' initial pairing, Gabin here reprising his blend of the tender and the explosive, and Morgan again entering the movie trailing clouds of sadness behind her; and Fassbinder's Querelle - though this one's set in the real Brest, grey and wind-lashed, but still, cinematically, one of the capital cities of desolation. Remorques was begun in summer '39, shut down when war was declared and finished during the Occupation. Sometimes, as when Morgan contemplates the dead starfish which Gabin has given her, it feels precisely like the last European movie of the 1930s.

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Le Trou (1960)

Director: Jean Becker

A secular response to Bresson's A Man Escaped. No question of grace here, simply of grind and grime as four prisoners - joined and eventually betrayed by a fifth - laboriously tunnel their way to a derisory glimpse of freedom. Telling a true story, Becker maintains a low-key approach, courting reality, avoiding music in favour of natural sound, constantly stressing the sheer physicality (warders' hands laconically slicing foodstuffs in search of hidden files, prisoners' hands feverishly hacking at the unrelenting stone). Yet there is more than a touch of Bresson (even more, however, of Becker's mentor Renoir) to the close-ups which punctuate the evolving relationship between the escapees and their final discovery of a sort of forgiveness for their betrayer. Classical in its intense simplicity, this is certainly Becker's most perfectly crafted film.

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Un air de famille (1996)

Director: Cédric Klapisch

In a French provincial town, Henri Menard (Bacri) runs the old family restaurant where the clan convenes every Friday night. This Friday, everyone's ego is in for a bruising. A subtle, breezy comedy of manners, Klapisch's follow-up to When the Cat's Away... may not have quite the novelty and charm of that work, but otherwise it's a fresh and unassuming treat. Based on Bacri and Jaoui's award-winning play, the film avoids staginess, less through studied adjustment, than by naturalistic observation, delicately turned characterisation and confident performances. Pity, however, about the 'silent' dreamy flashbacks.

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Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Director: Jacques Tati

Tati's most consistently enjoyable comedy, a gentle portrait of the clumsy, well-meaning Hulot on vacation in a provincial seaside resort. The quiet, delicately observed slapstick here works with far more hits than misses, although in comparison with, say, Keaton, Tati's cold detachment from his characters seems to result in a decided lack of insight into human behaviour. But at least in contrast to later works like Playtime and Traffic, there's enough dramatic structure to make it more than simply a series of one-off gags.

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Caché (2005)

Director: Michael Haneke

A smart marriage of the thriller genre with a compendium of strong ideas about guilt, racism, recent French history and cinema itself, Michael Haneke’s eighth feature is an unsettling, self-reflective masterpiece. It opens with a lingering, static shot of a bourgeois Parisian home. We watch as a woman leaves through the front door. Strangers stroll along the street. A car passes. Birdsong permeates the soundtrack. So far, so very normal; but what are we looking at – and why???The question is rudely answered when rows of static appear and the image blurs and then begins to fast-forward. It’s an illusion: we are, in fact, watching a video that’s been sent anonymously to the owners of this house, Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche), a wealthy, middle-class couple who are ostensibly paragons of the Parisian intelligentsia. Georges is a French version of Melvyn Bragg and hosts a literary discussion show on TV; Anne works for a high-brow publisher. Once this visual trickery is revealed, we watch as the pair agonise over this sinister intrusion into their ordered lives. Who’s been filming their house? And why???For the Laurents, it’s the start of a horrific upset that mirrors the disturbing breakdown of familial comfort that characterised Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’, ‘Time of the Wolf’ and ‘Benny’s Video’. Nor is it the first time that Haneke has confronted us with a discomfiting use of video within a film: the killers in ‘Funny Games’ alter their own narrative with a remote control while the murderous kid in ‘Benny’s Video’ is obsessed with the medium. This time, we’re immediately upset by and suspicious of Haneke’s opening video-volley. Can we trust him, we wonder, as the film continues? Are we always watching the main narrative, or further video recordings? Is there even a clear difference between the two? The introduction of these recordings – which crop up several times – makes this a multi-layered affair. Perception is all. Interpretations are plenty. ??The tapes continue to arrive at the Laurents’ home, the shelves of which are full of books, videos and a large TV that sits, suggestively, centre-stage. Some tapes arrive with childish drawings that hint at violence. Haneke also introduces vague, intermittent flashbacks of a young child that are increasingly revealing. The tapes and the flashbacks, we are led to believe, are linked and Georges becomes convinced that the videos are connected to an Algerian, Majid. He locates and confronts Majid and his son (allowing, in one scene, for a particularly jolting and unexpected coup de cinéma ).??All the while, Haneke crafts the fabric and routine of Georges and Anne’s lives with cold precision, only to upset their habits violently at regular intervals: witness a sudden knock at the door during a civilised dinner with friends, or a whisper in the ear from Georges’ producer at the end of his chat show. The effect is to plant unease and suspicion at every turn. Auteuil and Binoche support this sense of implosion with superb performances.??But who is sending these tapes? What do they mean, for Georges and us? The entire film could be read as an expression of Georges’ guilt and hidden turmoil relating to his own past. The tapes are expressions of Georges’ psychological state as his darkest memories are finally unearthed in middle-age. If anyone can be accused of sending the tapes, it’s Georges, at least metaphorically. To interpret ‘Hidden’ any more literally is to miss the point. This is largely a character study – the study of a repressed man and the chaos caused when the valve is finally opened.??Yet, at the same time, Haneke presents this parable within the framework of a thriller. As such, he asks us to accept his film on both a literal and a metaphorical level. The logic of the genre – the desire to ask ‘who did it?’ – is a trap. It makes us complicit in Georges’ wild accusations that the Algerian might be responsible for this terror. We are forced to share his accusation, one that that hints strongly at France’s continuing, uneasy relationship with its immigrant population. It’s here that Haneke’s film leaves the personal behind and becomes a reflection on an entire society – a society famed from the outside for its commitment to progression and ideas. Georges and Anne are, on the face of it, enlightened, educated liberals. Yet Georges and Anne look elsewhere for a scapegoat for their own, very personal problems. Georges and Anne are us.

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Le Feu follet (1963)

Director: Louis Malle

Arguably the finest of Malle's early films, this is a calmly objective but profoundly compassionate account of the last 24 hours in the life of a suicide. Ronet gives a remarkable, quietly assured performance as the alcoholic who, upon leaving a clinic, visits old friends in the hope that they will provide him with a reason to live. They don't, and Malle's achievement lies not only in his subtle but clear delineation of his protagonist's emotions but in his grasp of life's compromises; his portrait of Parisian society is astringent, never facile. A small gem, polished to perfection by an unassuming professional.

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The Tenant (1976)

Director: Roman Polanski

With Polanski becoming a naturalised Frenchman, it was logical that he should start tackling specifically French subjects, and this small-scale return to the territory of Repulsion seemed a promising beginning. But it's precisely because Polanski and urban paranoia were made for each other that The Tenant is so disappointing. The tenant (Polanski himself) takes over the lease of a gloomy Parisian apartment from a suicide victim, and soon finds himself at the centre of a real or imagined conspiracy that pushes him into assuming the identity of his predecessor. The twist is that the last tenant was a girl, and our nervous, virginal hero's exploration of his latent bisexuality hits the one new note in an otherwise formulary catalogue of bizarre coincidences, inexplicable appearances, and hints of the supernatural. Everything except the dubbing of the French supporting cast is a model of craftsmanship, but as the plot escalates into increasingly arbitrary excesses of fantasy and heads for the predictable pay-off, the movie looks more and more like a potboiler.

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Comments

11 comments
Richard W
Richard W

Amelie deserves to be on here as does Band of Outsiders

Tex S
Tex S

Great list, with a few omissions. There are many I have not seen, and I would put some of them higher up in the list that I have seen. I like that "Wages of Fear" was put so high. That is a great, standout film. PTxS

Zach
Zach

It's an interesting list, but where is A MAN AND A WOMAN?

Alice Young
Alice Young

This list looks like it was just thrown up randomly. Amelie and Betty Blue aren't here, but a lot of garbage is. It's a useless list that should not be quoted.

Quinn
Quinn

Jules et Jim?

Tex S
Tex S

@Quinn Most people would call that an omission. I call that wisdom. It's the most overrated film in French cinema. PTxS

Kealan O'ver
Kealan O'ver

No Amélie? Seriously? Even if you don't place it that highly its still better than City of Lost Children.

Tex S
Tex S

@Kealan O'ver City of Lost Children was cinematic and challenging. Amelie? It was simple and sickly sweet. But it could be on the list. No problem. PTxS

Luke
Luke

Am I right in thinking Amélie is not on the list?! It should be number 1!

Tex S
Tex S

@Luke Ha ha. Number one. You have a sense of humor. Why should a simple piece of pablum be #1? PTxS  It was cute and entertaining, little else. Fine, put it on the list. #1 one, I laugh in your general direction. To each their own... PTxS