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The 100 best French films: 20-11


Van Gogh (1991)

Dir Maurice Pialat (Jacques Dutronc, Alexandra London, Bernard Le Coq)

This stunningly photographed and skilfully acted film uses an accretion of naturalistic detail to present an emotionally restrained but utterly compelling account of the last three months of Van Gogh's life. Living in Auvers-sur-Oise with his sensitive and knowledgeable patron Gachet (Sety), Van Gogh (Dutronc) works quietly and steadily, meanwhile flirting with Gachet's precocious daughter Marguerite (London). However, his ill health, a brief return to the debauchery of brothels and drink, and his irrational resentment of his brother Theo's failure to sell his work, provoke erratic swings from brooding introspection to frustrated anger. Since Pialat has no desire to canonise the artist, there is no attempt to trace the origins and development of his 'creative genius'; nor, avoiding the hazards of biopic cliché, does he seek to illuminate these dark corners of his subject's troubled soul. In the leading role, Dutronc has exactly the right quality of physical frailty and stooped sadness to complement Pialat's beautiful, poignant images.

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The Green Ray (1983)

Dir Eric Rohmer (Marie Rivière, Vincent Gauthier, Rosette, Béatrice Romand)

It's July, and Delphine (Rivière), a young Parisian secretary, is suddenly at a loss regarding her holiday; a friend has just backed out of a trip to Greece, her other companions have boyfriends, and Delphine can't bear spending August in Paris. She also hopes to find a dream lover, but receives only the unwelcome attentions of pushy predators, until... There's a whiff of fairytale to this particular slice of realism à la Rohmer, but what's perhaps most remarkable is that the film was almost completely improvised; though not so as you'd know it. It's as flawlessly constructed, shot and performed as ever, with one of France's greatest directors effortlessly evoking the morose moods of holidaying alone among crowds, and revelling in the particulars of place, weather and time of day. Deceptively simple, the film oozes honesty and spontaneity; the word, quite bluntly, is masterpiece.

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Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Dir Robert Bresson (Anne Wiazemsky, Jean-Claude Guilbert, François Lafarge)

Animal as saint: Bresson's stark, enigmatic parable, a donkey (named after one of the Three Wise Men) is both a witness to and the victim of mankind's cruelty, stupidity - and love. Taking his lack of faith in theatrical acting to its logical limit, Bresson perversely places the mute beast centre-screen as he passes from owner to owner, giving rides, heaving agricultural machinery, and receiving beatings and caresses in a coolly observed landscape of poverty and folly. The effect could not be more different from that of other films (Disney's say, or Jaws) that centre around animals; Balthazar's death during a smuggling expedition, amidst a field of sheep, is both lyrical and entirely devoid of maudlin sentiment. Imbued with a dry, ironic sense of humour, the film is perhaps the director's most perfectly realised, and certainly his most moving.

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Les Valseuses (1974)

Dir Bertrand Blier (Gérard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere, Miou-Miou)

A huge hit in seventies France, this offbeat comedy follows two youths waving a finger at society. Their pursuits include car theft, robbery, three-way sex, and general impulsive offensiveness, while their development is limited to the degree of selectivity they start showing towards their compulsive fucking. Forsaking a girl who can't have an orgasm, they cultivate an older woman just out of prison, on the assumption that she must be dying for it (which she is, literally). With a couple of deaths sending them on the run, their rambling delinquency takes on rather more romantic fugitive connotations.

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Mon oncle (1958)

Dir Jacques Tati (Jacques Tati, Jean-Pierre Zola, Adrienne Servantie)

Tati's first film in colour. Yes, his contrast of the glorious awfulness of the Arpels' automated Modernistic house with Hulot's disordered Bohemianism is simplistic. Yes, Hulot as champion of the individual is oddly de-personalised. And one might even conclude that Tati is a closet misanthrope. Such text-book reservations come and go as this extraordinary film meanders like the Arpels' concrete garden path. But while some episodes are protracted, many are unforgettably funny, wonderfully observed, and always technically brilliant. Insane gadgets slam and roar, high heels click like metronomes, and even a depressed dachshund in a tartan overcoat obligingly submits to Tati's meticulous direction.

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La Grande Illusion (1937)

Dir: Jean Renoir (Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Eric von Stroheim

As relevant as ever, Jean Renoir’s 1937 masterpiece, ‘La Grande Illusion’, is a film about common values and decency – the ability in all of us to act with respect and warmth towards those with whom we share bonds stronger and deeper than national boundaries and political divisions. If all that sounds cosy – which, partly, it is, especially when bolstered by Renoir’s compassionate storytelling, gentle camerawork and the humour of his actors’ performances – it’s also a warning. Renoir’s film is as much about the rigidity of class and enduring social splits as it is about clubbing together in a crisis. It’s only when the credits roll on this gentle tale that its more pessimistic ideas begin to chill its warm glow. 

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The Wages of Fear (1953)

Dir Henri-Georges Clouzot (Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Folco Lulli)

Throughout his professional life, France's Henri-Georges Clouzot suffered comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock - the former's critical reputation languished for it, and he took it hard. Clouzot needn't have worried: On a good day, he was arguably better. Diabolique (1955) is the perfect psychosexual thriller, and this earlier effort is Hitch's bomb-under-the-table suspense formula burnished to an expert sheen. 

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Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

Director: Jacques Demy

From ‘Jour de Fête’ to ‘Céline and Julie Go Boating’, there’s an enchanting minor strain in French cinema devoted to visually reproducing the heady sensation of going to the cinema. And so it is with Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued masterpiece ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’, a luminous musical about dreams, romance and destiny which lovingly reworks the classic Hollywood ‘putting on a show’ template into an essay on the emotional rollercoaster ride that is movie-going.??Released here in a sparkling new print, the film centres on Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac as the ‘pair of twins, born in the sign of Gemini’ looking to escape the sleepy environs of Rochefort for life in the big city. When an all-singin’, all-dancin’ motorcycle roadshow rolls into town, the girls decide to give one last big performance before upping sticks and moving on. 

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Day for Night (1973)

Dir François Truffaut (Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont)

If we’re to learn anything from François Truffaut’s delicately cynical, New Hollywood-style satire from 1973 on the joys and pains of movie making, it’s that we must view directors as social and professional chameleons. They must tap in to the emotions of their cast and exploit real suffering for the good of their camera. They must stand their ground with money men, sometimes employing visual trickery and snap decisions to preserve their integrity. Most of all, they must suppress the cosmic fury that comes when a leading lady arrives on set drunk or a trained kitten refuses to hit a mark. It’s a hilarious and informative movie, and in the pantheon of films about filmmaking, it strikes a neat balance between the operatic neuroses of ‘8 1/2’ and the warm, pastel-hued nostalgia of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. Also of interest – and a devious nod back to his ’60s heyday – is the manner in which Truffaut captures these behind-the-scenes shenanigans, employing gliding crane shots and flashes of abrupt editing to make us fully aware of the majestically artificial way the world is depicted by filmmakers.

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L'Armée des ombres (1969)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Discretion is the better part of valour, they say. And you couldn’t imagine a more discreet tribute to the heroes of the wartime French Resistance than this terrific late-’60s thriller by the ex-Maquis member Melville, the director best known for his gangster masterpieces like ‘The Samourai’. Tracing the self-sacrificial exploits from October 1942 to February 1943 of a small group of field operatives – the acerbic Lino Ventura’s ex-engineer, Simone Signoret’s iron-nerved Mathilde among them – Melville’s film adopts a formal essentialism to outline the codes and manners of impassive-looking ‘warriors’ over whom the Damocles sword of discovery, torture and death is ever hovering. Of the themes with which the director deals so superbly – disguised emotion, organisation, trust, quiet courage, betrayal and grief – the most important is that of loyalty (and its price). 

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terrible list. terrible taste in movies.