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The 100 best French films: 60-51


The King and Mister Bird (1980)

Director: Paul Grimault

The result of a long collaboration (and tortured production history) between animator Grimault and the respected screenwriter Jacques Prévert, this animated cartoon tells of the downfall of the king and kingdom of Tachycardia. Drawing upon ideas and images as different as Fritz Lang's Metropolis and the writings of Hans Christian Andersen, the film is distinguished by stylish graphics and an elegant visual and verbal humour that is guaranteed to appeal to all tastes and ages. 

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Delicatessen (1991)

Director: Marc Caro et Jean-Pierre Jeunet

The near future: taking a job and a bedsit at a shabby rooming-house above a butcher's shop, ex-clown Louison (Pinon) falls for the butcher's daughter. But her father, unhappy about the blossoming romance, deals in human flesh: will Louison fall victim, or will the Troglodistes, an underground group of vegetarian fanatics, come to his rescue? On to this slim story, writer-directors Jeunet and Caro pile a wealth of delicious comic detail. Each grotesquely larger-than-life inhabitant of the scrofulous tenement has his own little story; visually, the film evokes Gilliam, Lynch, the Coens and Carné, but the allusions never get in the way of the nightmarish humour.

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The Cheat (1936)

Director: Sacha Guitry

At age 12, our hero is sent to bed supper-less for stealing eight sous. When he wakes up his entire family is dead from food poisoning, leading him to conclude that dishonesty and survival are intimately linked. We follow his subsequent career as thief and card sharp (Guitry demonstrates a few tricks for us). The peculiarity of the narrative is that it forgoes dialogue in favour of a non-stop commentary by the author. This allows Guitry to pack the soundtrack with elegant witticisms, though rather leaving the actors stranded on occasion. But it's quite unique, with the hero's ruthlessness paralleled by Guitry's own in never letting anyone else get a look in. Borchard's tiresome score is the only really dated element.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Director: Jacques Demy

In the garage where he works, Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) plans a trip to the opera. His colleague is unimpressed: ‘All that singing’s a pain – I prefer movies.’ ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, it’s safe to say, would not be for him: every line of dialogue (including his own complaint) is sung to Michel Legrand’s melodious songbird score. That’s not to say Jacques Demy’s 1964 favourite is an exercise in whimsy: it might start in the key of blissful romance – between gorgeous Guy and Catherine Deneuve’s luminous Geneviève, daughter of the widowed proprietress of the titular shop – but it stealthily proceeds to such mundanities as teenage pregnancy, conscription and lives divergent. Like ‘Billy Liar’ – made around the same time – ‘Umbrellas’ makes escapist play with the stuff of kitchen-sink social realism. 

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Pickpocket (1959)

Director: Robert Bresson

Released in the same year as Godard’s ‘Breathless’ (1959) and filmed on the same sun-dappled Parisian streets, Bresson’s mid-career tale of the mysterious operation of grace and redemption on the fate of a young thief is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Newcomers to Bresson’s films may be surprised to hear that this is perhaps his most optimistic, open, sensuous and sexually charged film, given its dark Dostoyevskian subject matter. Even for those used to Kiarostami’s minimalism, this is a further step into essentialism. Bresson’s actors – ‘models’ – are non-professional and strictly coached; but there is no mistaking the orgasmic pleasure that sweeps the face of indolent, penurious student Michel (Martin LaSalle) as he succeeds on his first ‘dip’ at Longchamps racecourse; nor his despair as his world begins to fall apart. 

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Un chien andalou (1929)

Director: Luis Bunuel

Prelude: a young woman sits compliantly as Buñuel takes a razor and slices her eye open. What follows is a documentary rendering of the dream state, of dream logic; and/or a surrealist exposition involving, for example, a swarm of ants, underarm hair, a striped box, all addressing each other opaquely; and/or a Freudian sexual smorgasbord, with everything symbolising something else; and/or a contrivance by two ambitious young Spaniards to offer as much outrageousness as an artistic alibi can cover. And so on. Originally a silent, but three soundtrack versions are around, one containing the original (disc) accompaniment of Tristan and Isolde plus a tango, the others with specially composed scores by, respectively, Mauricio Kagel and Martin Matalon.

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The Red Circle (1970)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Melville's special achievement was to relocate the American gangster film in France, and to incorporate his own steely poetic and philosophical obsessions. He described this, his penultimate film, as a digest of the nineteen definitive underworld set-ups that could be found in John Huston's picture of doomed gangsters, The Asphalt Jungle. Darker, more abstract and desolate than his earlier work, this shows, set piece by set piece, the breakdown of the criminal codes under which Melville's characters had previously operated.

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Excellent list.