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The 100 best French films: 50-41


La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1927)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Dreyer's most universally acclaimed masterpiece remains one of the most staggeringly intense films ever made. It deals only with the final stages of Joan's trial and her execution, and is composed almost exclusively of close-ups: hands, robes, crosses, metal bars, and (most of all) faces. The face we see most is, naturally, Falconetti's as Joan, and it's hard to imagine a performer evincing physical anguish and spiritual exaltation more palpably. Dreyer encloses this stark, infinitely expressive face with other characters and sets that are equally devoid of decoration and equally direct in conveying both material and metaphysical essences. 

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Naked Childood (L'enfance nue) (1968)

Director: Maurice Pialat

Among the seismic innovations of the French New Wave, it’s easy to gloss over the unsentimental approach of a movie like Franois Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows. Youth itself seemed to be being discovered (onscreen, at least)—delinquent, lonely and ready for future filmmakers to idolize, like Wes Anderson did in Rushmore.Naked Childhood, which had its world premiere at 1968’s New York Film Festival, falls squarely in this category; Truffaut himself was a producer. 

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Série noire (1979)

Director: Alain Corneau

Although the setting is changed from Big City USA to the dismal, wintry Paris suburbs, this neo-noir retains the outline of Jim Thompson's source novel (A Hell of a Woman), following the trajectory of its door-to-door salesman until, with an almost audible 'Voilà!', he's deposited in an abyss of hopelessness - thief, triple murderer and not a sou to show for it. But the characterisations are turned on their heads. 'A hell of a woman' is here an engimatically passive 17-year-old (Trintignant), while the weary hero is rendered hyperactive in Dewaere's tornado-strength performance, hysterical rages, comical monologues and all.

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Plein soleil (1960)

Director: René Clément

René Clément and Chabrol's collaborator Paul Gégauff got hold of Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley decades before Wim Wenders laid hands on the novelist's psychopathic protagonist in The American Friend. In his third film appearance, 24-year-old Delon exudes icy charm as Ripley, the emissary sent by an American industrialist to rescue his son (Ronet, sublimely dissolute) from yachting decadence. Delon, though, has a killer scheme of his own - murder the guy, pocket the loot, and steal his girl (Laforêt). Easy. It just takes a thread of steel in the nerves - and a director with the stealth and patience to wind up the tension and avoid rushing the pay-off.

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The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

Director: Jacques Audiard

Remaking James Toback's 1978 Fingers, director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) has turned the story of Tom (Duris), a petty Parisian crook specializing in real-estate swindles and classical piano, into a melancholy study of alienation and reinvention. The suspense derives not so much from whether Tom will pass an audition and become a concert pianist, but from whether he'll succeed in leaving behind the legacy of small-time wheeling and dealing he inherited from his father (Arestrup). Duris is a handsome performer who achieved success in popular comedies; here, he pulls off his part's perilous balancing act beautifully.

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My Night with Maud (Ma nuit chez Maud) (1969)

Director: Eric Rohmer

Six months after the death of Eric Rohmer at the age of 89, the BFI is re-releasing a good-looking new print of ‘My Night with Maud’, the French filmmaker’s 1969 work which, a decade into his slow mutation from Cahiers critic to director, made his name outside of France and preceded such enduring works as ‘Pauline at the Beach’ and ‘The Green Ray’. The title suggests some sort of saucy nocturnal encounter, but the truth is more austere, if no less captivating. In an interview with long-time associate Barbet Schroeder not long before he died , Rohmer identified two traits in his films which he hoped he’d mastered: an easy naturalism and a willingness to present the discussion of ideas. ‘My Night with Maud’ offers both in spades, although those familiar with Rohmer’s breezier but no less inquiring 1980s films might be a little surprised by the rigour and bookishness of this wintry, black-and-white work (the crisp photography of Clermont-Ferrand at Christmas is especially striking). Talk was never cheap in Rohmer’s films; here, some knowledge of Pascal’s Wager and various tenets of Catholicism wouldn’t go amiss if you’re to gain the most from the characters’ intense chats about religion and atheism, chance and determinism, love and desire. But, as ever, Rohmer gives us a playful slice of life which has the effortless air of reality and challenges us to think about life afresh.

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Silken Skin (La peau douce) (1964)

Director: François Truffaut

Those whose knowledge of French nouvelle vague linchpin François Truffaut begins with ‘The 400 Blows’ and ends with ‘Jules and Jim’ should seek out this steely 1964 study in the cruel mechanics of illicit love. Like one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’ recast as a smouldering thriller, the film is marked by an intense, unromantic rigour absent in the director’s early work. It traces paunchy, middle-aged publisher and lecturer Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) as he heedlessly ditches his loving wife and child so he can romp around the countryside with a coquettish air hostess (Françoise Dorléac). It’s conservative, as Truffaut views Pierre’s actions as immoral. But it’s more concerned with the logistics of love, asking whether the time and energy one must exhaust for a little something on the side is worth it.

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Mouchette (1967)

Director: Robert Bresson

Adapted from a Georges Bernanos story, Mouchette describes the life and tribulations of a poor, barely mature peasant girl (played with sullen but affecting grace by non-professional Nadine Nortier), and remains a magnificent and deeply rewarding example of Bresson's stripped-down methods of cutting and framing, sound and dialogue, performance and movement. Mouchette's suffering has been read as religious parable, whereby her ostracism at school, the cruel neglect by her father, the insinuating glances of the villagers and her gruelling domestic duties stand for the Stations of the Cross. But whatever Bresson's spiritual intentions the film provides boundless examples of cinema at its most sublime. In his angry yet compassionate denunciation of a rural society corrupting and undoing an unorthodox angel by self-interest, immorality, alcoholism and spiritual bankruptcy, the director conducts you to the heart of life's paradox.

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