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The 100 best French films: 40-31


Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

Director: Alain Resnais

Hiroshima's mushroom cloud has probably inspired more glib statements and images than any other 20th century phenomenon. So it's particularly refreshing to find that it still has some meaning in Resnais' first feature, now almost thirty years old. Marguerite Duras' script - part nouveau roman, part Mills & Boon - centres on a Japanese man and a French woman coming together in Hiroshima, exploring each other and their past lives, both of which have been far from rosy. The woman was punished as a wartime collaborator after an affair with a German soldier; the man's whole life was shattered by the bomb. Duras and Riva revel masochistically in the woman's sad story (she had her head shaved in prison), but Resnais does his best to soft-pedal the novelettish touches, and presents a melancholy disquisition on the complex relationships between world calamities and personal histories, between the past, present and future.

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Les Diaboliques (1955)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Devilishly suspenseful, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller about two women who conspire to knock off a sadistic boarding-school headmaster (Paul Meurisse)  – one of the women is his wife, the other his mistress – has all the dark humour and clever tension of a Hitchcock. Simone Signoret (pictured) as the peroxide-blonde mistress is the harder of the two would-be killers, while Véra Clouzot is shivering and simpering as the wife. It’s a great yarn, with a delicious twist (don’t be ‘diabolique’ and ruin the end for your friends, warn the end credits), as Signoret and Clouzot dispose of their victim but then must deal with creepy signs that their plan might be coming unstuck. Charles Vanel steals the show late on as a shambling, pre-Columbo detective, but the real star is Clouzot as director who maintains a sense of dread and mystery until the end by taking his shaggy-dog story deadly seriously.

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To Our Loves (À nos amours) (1983)

Director: Maurice Pialat

15-year-old Suzanne (Bonnaire) seems unable to progress beyond a rather doleful promiscuity in her relations with boys. Alone of her family, her father (played by Pialat himself) understands her, but when he leaves home for another woman, family life erupts into a round of appalling, casual violence, until Suzanne escapes into a fast marriage, and finally to America. Pialat's methods of close, intimate filming may place him close in many ways to our own Ken Loach, but his interests are rooted in a very cinematic approach to personal inner life, rather than any schematic political theory. The message may be that happiness is as rare as a sunny day, and sorrow is forever, but a counterbalancing warmth is provided by Pialat's enormous care for his creations. The rapport between father and daughter is especially moving. Pialat once acted in a Chabrol film, and one French critic's verdict on his performance can stand equally well for this film: 'Massive, abrupt, and incredibly gentle'.

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Lola Montès (1955)

Director: Max Ophüls

A biography of the celebrated 19th century adventuress, but not a biography in the conventional sense: the lady's life is chronicled in a highly selective series of flashbacks, framed by scenes in a New Orleans circus where she allows herself to be put on show to a vulgar and impressionable public. The space between her memories and her circus appearance is the distance between romantic dreams and tawdry reality, or between love and the knowledge that love dies. Ophüls conjures that space into life - indeed, makes it the very subject of his film - by means of the most sumptuous stylistic effects imaginable: compositions unmatched in their fluidity, moving-camerawork that blurs the line between motion and emotion. If ever a director 'wrote' with his camera, it was Ophüls, and this still looks like his most sublime work. 

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Le Boucher (1969)

Director: Claude Chabrol

Classically simple but relentlessly probing thriller, set in a French village shadowed by the presence of a compulsive killer. Some lovely Hitchcockian games, like the strange ketchup that drips onto a picnic hamburger from a clifftop where the latest victim has been claimed. But also more secretive pointers to social circumstance and the 'exchange of guilt' as Audran's starchy schoolmistress finds herself irresistibly drawn to the ex-army butcher she suspects of being the killer: the fact, for instance, that alongside the killer as he keeps vigil outside the schoolhouse, a war memorial stands sentinel with its reminder of society's dead and maimed. With this film Chabrol came full circle back to his first, echoing not only the minutely detailed provincial landscape of Le Beau Serge but its theme of redemption. 

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Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard's first feature, adapted from an existing scenario written by François Truffaut, spins a pastiche with pathos as joyrider Belmondo shoots a cop, chases friends and debts across a night-time Paris, and falls in love with a literary lady. Seberg quotes books and ideas and names; Belmondo measures his profile against Bogart's, pawns a stolen car, and talks his girlfriend into a cash loan 'just till midday'. The camera lavishes black-and-white love on Paris, strolling up the Champs-Elysées, edging across café terraces, sweeping over the rooftop skyline, Mozart mixing with cool jazz riffs in the night air. The ultimate night-time film noir noir noir... until Belmondo pulls his own eyelids shut when he dies. More than any other, this was the film which epitomised the iconoclasm of the early Nouvelle Vague, not least in its insolent use of the jump-cut.

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La Jetée (1962)

Director: Chris Marker

“This is the story of a man marked by an image of his childhood.” So begins Chris Marker’s 1962 elliptical 27-minute time-travel adventure, “La Jetée,” a narrated montage of black-and-white still photographs about a man who leaves his irradiated, post–World War III present and leaps into the past and future, hoping to bring back food and energy that will allow humankind to survive the dark years. He was picked because successful time travel depends on the traveler’s ability to focus on emotionally resonant images—our hero obsesses over memories of a beautiful young woman he glimpsed at an airport on the day that an unidentified stranger was shot dead there by police. When the hero travels into the past, he falls in love with his dream woman; complications, as they say, ensue. If you’ve seen “La Jetée” or Terry Gilliam’s 1996 remake, Twelve Monkeys, you know the film’s final, devastating twist. If not, I won’t spoil it here, except to say that the story ends where it begins and that its plot is a pretext for Marker to examine the impermanence of experience and the fragility—sometimes falsity—of remembered images, the shards we cling to as we journey from abyss to abyss.  “La Jetée” coheadlines a new DVD from the Criterion Collection that’s an early candidate for disc of the year. Marker’s film has never been available on DVD in North America, and the thematically related 1982 feature with which it has been paired, Sans Soleil, has never been on DVD at all. If Criterion had just released the films with a couple of commentary tracks and called it a day, the package would still be worth owning. Every philosophically inclined Möbius-strip narrative that came after “La Jetée”—from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five to the Terminator trilogy, Somewhere in Time and Lost Highway—is in its debt. Delightfully, the “La Jetée”/Sans Soleil disc is an imaginative tribute to a great filmmaker, conceived in the spirit of his work. For instance, rather than simply interviewing French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, a contemporary of Marker, and then editing his remarks into a linear documentary, Criterion has laid out the best bits on a full-page menu of onscreen windows that overlap in a more fragmented, free-associative way. (“Cinema is thought,” Gorin says.) The disc also includes two segments from Court-circuit (le magazine), a French TV series about movies. One of them analyzes David Bowie’s 1993 music video “Jump They Say”—a sci-fi trip that borrows many compositions from “La Jetée”–and playfully suggests that Bowie, a musical, sexual and technological pioneer, might be a time traveler himself. The other Court-circuit segment insists that “La Jetée” is about Marker’s love of cinema—specifically of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a tortured thriller about a detective trying to relive and then remake the past. Marker saw Vertigo 19 times and packed “La Jetée” with scenes and images that echo Hitchcock’s film, including one in which a man and woman inspect the rings in a chopped-down tree, and a profile close-up of the dream woman that mimics a shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo. These observations are echoed in Sans Soleil, a fiction-nonfiction hybrid in which an unnamed woman reads letters from a fictional cameraman named Sandor Krasna over footage from Marker’s international travels. From a film buff’s standpoint, the most revealing sequence is Krasna’s trip to San Francisco, where he visits locations from Vertigo. Marker was haunted by the image of Novak in that film; “La Jetée” can therefore be read as Marker’s clever means of jumping into Hitchcock’s film and uniting with his great love. “If an image has the power to make us fall in love with it,” the Court-circuit filmmakers ask, “[and] if an image can work its way into our daily life, why couldn’t we do the same and take a trip in the other direction?” Indeed, why not? In an interview with Marker included in the disc’s liner notes, the reclusive director describes “La Jetée” as a instinctive work, rather than a premeditated attempt to confront his obsessions. “Since it was made like a piece of automatic writing, I’d have a hard time taking credit for it,” he says. “It just happened, that’s all.” An image marks a man, and the man must tell a story.

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Celine and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau) (1974)

Director: Jacques Rivette

They meet, like Alice and the White Rabbit, in a sun-dappled French park, amateur illusionist Celine (Juliet Berto) bounding heedlessly past studious librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier). One dropped scarf and a lengthy foot-chase later, these two effusive ladies with catlike curiosity are practically inseparable - so much so that they can try on each other’s identities like best friends swapping favorite apparel. Celine is Julie, Julie is Celine, distinct yet interchangeable: In their varying guises, they dismantle all real-world attachments (a pompous boyfriend and a burgeoning magic career are playfully, hilariously tossed to the wind) so that they can focus on a fantasy. Director and cowriter Jacques Rivette conceived Celine and Julie as a light-comic breather following the heavy experience of the epochal, politically charged Out 1 (1971). Don’t let the extended running time dissuade you: This is the rare breezy three-plus hours that manages to explore heady concepts without once feeling labored. 

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La Haine (1995)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Twenty-four hours in the Paris projects: an Arab boy is critically wounded in hospital, gut-shot, and a police revolver has found its way into the hands of a young Jewish skinhead, Vinz (Cassel), who vows to even the score if his pal dies. Vinz hangs out with Hubert (Koundé) and Saïd (Taghmaoui). They razz each other about films, cartoons, nothing in particular, but always the gun hovers over them like a death sentence, the black-and-white focal point for all the hatred they meet with, and all they can give back. This was only Kassovitz's second film (after the droll race-comedy Métisse), but La Haine put him right at the front of the field: it was virtuoso, on-the-edge stuff, as exciting as anything we'd seen from the States in ages, and more thoroughly engaged with the reality it describes. 

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