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Jules et Jim

The 100 best French movies of all time

Got a few months to spare? These are the 100 best French movies ever released – ranked by our global critics

By Time Out Film
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Drumroll, please... This is your go-to guide to the 100 best French movies of all time. Perhaps you already know your Malle from your Melville, and are fluent in the language of the Nouvelle Vague. Or maybe your knowledge of French cinema is pretty much limited to ‘Amélie’ – or ‘Untouchable’ at a stretch. Either way, you’ll find plenty to tickle your Francophile fancy in this countdown of the best French films released between 1902 and 2019.

The French, particularly Parisians, are big into cinema, so if you’ve got longer than a weekend in the City of Light, grab a drink at one of the city's cinema bars, before getting comfy at an indie cinema. And if you want to do some real-life location scouting during your trip, check out the 50 best films shot in Paris.

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Paris

Best French movies

1. Les Enfants du Paradis (1943)

Film Drama

Director: Marcel Carné

In Marcel Carné’s rich, literary romance from 1945 (‘France’s answer to “Gone with the Wind”!’), four men tussle for the affections of one woman, the conflicted, sphinx-like Garence (Carné regular Arletty), an ice maiden in the league of Marlene Dietrich who, in nearly every shot, has her eyes masked by a beam of light. Such ethereal, delicately cinematic touches add to a film which is content to let a dazzling, witty script (by Jacques Prévert), sumptuous set design and exceptional performers lend the fiction its lifeblood. DJ

2. La Règle du Jeu (1939)

Film Comedy

Director: Jean Renoir

Banned on its original release as ‘too demoralising’, and only made available again in its original form in 1956, Renoir’s brilliant social comedy is epitomised by the phrase ‘everyone has their reasons’. Centreing on a lavish country house party given by the Marquis de la Chesnaye and his wife (Dalio, Gregor), the film effects audacious slides from melodrama into farce, from realism into fantasy, and from comedy into tragedy. Romantic intrigues, social rivalries, and human foibles are all observed with an unblinking eye that nevertheless refuses to judge. The carnage of the rabbit shoot, the intimations of mortality introduced by the after-dinner entertainment, and Renoir’s own performance are all unforgettable. Embracing every level of French society, from the aristocratic hosts to a poacher-turned-servant, the film presents a hilarious yet melancholy picture of a nation riven by petty class distinctions. NF 

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3. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)

Film Drama

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. The entire film is less moulded in light than carved in stone: it’s magisterial cinema, and almost unbearably moving. TR

4. Playtime (1967)

Film Comedy

Director: Jacques Tati

Tati’s Hulot on the loose in a surreal, scarcely recognisable Paris, tangling intermittently with a troop of friendly American matrons on a 24-hour trip. Not so much a saga of the individual against an increasingly dehumanised décor, it’s more a semi-celebratory symphony to Tati’s sensational city set, all reflections and rectangles, steel, chrome, gleaming sheet metal and trompe-l’oeil plate glass. Shot in colour that looks almost like monochrome, recorded in five-track stereo sound with scarcely a word of speech (the mysterious language of objects echoes louder than words), this jewel of Tati’s career is a hallucinatory comic vision on the verge of abstraction. SJO

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5. Le Mépris (1967)

Film Drama

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Le mépris. That’s ‘contempt’ in French, and that’s the feeling Camille (Brigitte Bardot) increasingly has for her writer boyfriend Paul (Michel Piccoli) during the time he’s summoned to Rome’s Cinecittà film studios and the stunning island of Capri to help Austrian-born Hollywood director Fritz Lang (playing himself) and coarse American producer Prokosch (Jack Palance) improve their movie version of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’. Much of the film gives us Camille and Paul’s disintegrating relationship as he’s simultaneously seduced and repelled by the world of filmmaking. It shows Godard and his collaborators – especially cinematographer Raoul Coutard, composer Georges Delerue and editor Agnès Guillemot – at the height of their powers, creating scenes and moments of extraordinary visual power, suggestion and beauty. Like Camille and Paul’s love-hate relationship, it’s the ultimate testament to Godard’s complicated relationship with his art. DC

6. Amélie (2001)

Film Fantasy

Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Arguably the quintessential subtitled film for people who don’t like subtitled films (it’d be a dust-up between this and ‘Cinema Paradiso’), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s rose-tinted Parisian romance is likely to be the role for which actress Audrey Tautou will be remembered until her dying day. The film is all the more interesting for remaining an eccentric one-of-a-kind that feels every bit the product of its writer-director’s unique sensibility and worldview. Revisiting it now, it still has the same strengths: the experience of watching is like being swept along on a tidal wave of cheeky jokes and oddball observations. DJ

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7. L’Atalante (1934)

Film Comedy

Director: Jean Vigo

1934’s ‘L’Atalante’ is the single feature from the then 29-year-old French master Jean Vigo and was made as its director died of TB. The result is not so much a film as an entire artistic vision crammed into 89 of the busiest and most beautiful minutes of celluloid ever shot. Dita Parlo plays Juliette, the smalltown girl married off to Jean (Jean Dasté), captain of L’Atalante, a grubby barge plying the waterways of rural France. Once on board, Juliette is caught between her uncertain love for Jean and her desire to see a world beyond the restrictive confines of the boat. The situation is complicated by the constant interruptions of Jean’s beloved but irascible first mate Pére Jules (Michel Simon). The result is something utterly indescribable, partway between comedy and tragedy, romance and realism, film and dream. TH

8. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Film Drama

Director: Agnès Varda

‘Cléo from 5 to 7’ (1962) was French new waver Agnès Varda’s second feature and is filled with the beauty of Paris’s natural light. ‘Hold on, pretty butterfly!’ says Cléo (Corinne Marchand), a fretful and fame-occupied singer, to herself as she prepares to roam the city for two hours while awaiting a possibly momentous doctor’s verdict. It’s experimental and free-wheeling in design – Varda gives us overlapping dialogue, parodic inserts, a documentarist’s eye mixed with a painter’s, found sound and Michel Legrand’s songs, and juxtaposes frippery with political reality. Quietly touching and profound, it epitomises the youthful delight Varda always shows for the tools at her disposal and her sensitive and easeful way of expressing the sways and shifts of life, love and desire. WH

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9. The 400 Blows (1959)

Film Drama

Director: François Truffaut

In 1959 François Truffaut, neglected son, passionate reader, delinquent student and cinephile, wrote and filmed one of the first glistening droplets of the French New Wave, ‘The 400 Blows’, in which Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) demonstrates – unforgettably – that a good brain and bad parents don’t necessarily turn a boy into a talented film director, although they will, one way or another, turn him into a liar. Antoine is an inept thief who winds up incarcerated; somehow, Truffaut turned this saga into one of the most joyous experiences you could ever have in the cinema. The beauty of monochrome ’50s Paris helps, but the magic is in observing the thrill even a maltreated child will snatch from a book, a film or a day truanting at a funfair, through the gaze of a former critic whose elation at getting his hands on a camera burbles through every shot. NC

10. La Belle et la Bête (1946)

Film Fantasy

Director: Jean Cocteau

A gorgeous, pin-sharp remaster for poet-dramatist-artist-director Jean Cocteau’s giddy, sumptuous 1946 retelling of the Freudian fairytale about a helpless girl and a kindhearted monster. Slightly pompous preamble aside, this ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is pure joy, a self-conscious but never precious attempt to revisit childhood fantasies and half-remembered dreams. The Beast’s ornate, decaying castle – ringed with thorns and filled with grasping hands – is a place of terror, wonder and mourning, the perfect reflection of its tragic, noble occupant. The tug of love between the monster and the maiden is never overplayed, but neither does the film shackle this beast – he remains unpredictable and threatening throughout. It has been accused of valuing style over substance, but place the film in its historical context and its true intent is revealed: in the wake of unimaginable horror, this kind of fantasy is still achievable, and perhaps more important than ever. TH

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11. L’Armée des Ombres (1969)

Film Drama

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

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. The film boasts a startling visual quality, too – the suspenseful twilight escapades are shot with a beautifully muted, steely-grey colour palette by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme – and it is laced with moments of dry, sardonic wit that serve only to emphasise its devastating emotional core even more. Superb. WH

12. Day for Night (1973)

Film Comedy

Director: François Truffaut

‘Day for Night’ is hilarious and informative, 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’. Truffaut stars as indefatigable director Ferrand, shooting a fusty melodrama called ‘Meet Pamela’ and wearing the same sports jacket, shirt and tie combo as he would in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. He delivers the same coolly detached performance, too, though it works better in this context. The fact that his childish lead (Jean-Pierre Léaud, of course) is too often in a strop to concentrate on the part, or that his star (Jacqueline Bisset) is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown are accepted as part and parcel of the business. DJ

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13. Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)

Film Drama

Director: Jacques Demy

Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued masterpiece ‘Les Demoiselles de Rochefort’ is 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. Most will be swept off their feet by Michel Legrand’s scintillating jazz-pop score, charismatic supporting turns from Gene Kelly, Danielle Darrieux and Michel Piccoli, and – predominantly – Demy’s own infectious joie de vivre. DJ

14. The Wages of Fear (1953)

Film Action and adventure

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

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. ‘Les Diaboliques’ (1955) is the perfect psychosexual thriller, and this earlier effort is Hitch’s bomb-under-the-table suspense formula burnished to an expert sheen. Literally explosive, the plot concerns a South American oil fire raging out of control, with only the possibility of a nitroglycerine blast to snuff it out. But which poor schmucks will transport the combustible jerricans over miles of bumpy road to the site? Clouzot’s entire body of work deserves to be revisited, but ‘The Wages of Fear’ is ground zero and undoubtedly the place to start. JR

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15. Mon Oncle (1958)

Film Comedy

Director: Jacques Tati

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. TS

16. Breathless (1960)

Film Thrillers

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. CA

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17. Jules and Jim (1962)

Film

Director: François Truffaut

In 1962, Trauffaut released an adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel ‘Jules et Jim’. It was François Truffaut’s third feature film, but this one was special: the young tyro director and the art collector from another era (Roché had died in 1959, aged 80) came together like, well, Jules and Jim. Roche’s autobiographical story of a Frenchman, Jim (Henri Serre) and a German, Jules (Oskar Werner) whose friendship survives the First World War and their adoration of the same woman, Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) becomes, in Truffaut’s hands, a paean to passion and an ineffably elegant classic. The filmmaking is wildly inventive, but not in a clever-clogs manner. Instead, Truffaut and his cinematographer, the great Raoul Coutard, use handheld camera, freeze-frames, newsreel footage and song in the same way the characters use races, bicycle trips or impromptu jumps into the Seine: to keep life (and cinema) crazy and beautiful at all times. NC

18. Amour (2012)

Film Drama

Director: Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ is a devastatingly original and unflinching look at the effect of love on death, and vice versa. It’s a staggering, intensely moving reflection on old age and life’s end, which at its heart offers two performances of incredible skill and wisdom from French veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The director of ‘Hidden’ and ‘The White Ribbon’ offers an intimate and brave portrait of an elderly Parisian couple, Anne (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant), facing up to a sudden turning point in their lives. Haneke erects four walls to keep out the rest of the world, contained almost entirely within one apartment over a period of some weeks and months. He asks hard questions and creates a highly intelligent and astonishingly performed work. DC

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19. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

Film Drama

Director: Robert Bresson

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, amid 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. GA

20. A Prophet (2009)

Film

Director: Jacques Audiard

For Jacques Audiard (‘A Self-Made Hero’, ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’), a master of the old-school French thriller, his fifth film offers the chance to pull off both a state-of-the-nation primal scream and a terrific crime flick. He gives us Malik (Tahar Rahim), a French-Arab convict who enters a concrete-and-steel hell to serve a six-year sentence. Corsican inmates rule the roost, led by ageing but vicious César (Niels Arestrup), who forces Malik to kill another inmate in an exceedingly disturbing episode. Malik is now César’s vassal, working for him on the inside and, later, using a series of day-release excursions to represent his criminal interests on the outside. But Malik is a clever individualist and he learns to read and write, and exploits a friendship with another (released) French-Arab prisoner to pursue his own drug deals and invest in a power base within the jail. It bullies and persuades you to love Audiard’s filmmaking style. DC

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21. Caché (2005)

Film Drama

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. Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are a wealthy middle-class couple who are ostensibly paragons of the Parisian intelligentsia. We watch as the pair agonise over sinister CCTV sent anonymously to their apartment. 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’. 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. Haneke crafts the fabric and routine of the couple’s life with cold precision, only to upset their habits violently at regular intervals.

22. La Grande Illusion (1937)

Film Drama

Director: Jean Renoir

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. This is an anti-war film, too, of course, made on the eve of one conflict and looking back at another. It concerns three French officers held as prisoners during the First World War by the Germans: aristocratic De Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and wealthy Jew Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio). The shared purpose of the French is to the fore (one of the film’s many illusions: we can’t be sure such unity would persist in peace). DC

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Les Misérables
Les Misérables
Photograph: SRAB Films / Rectangle Productions / Lyly Films

23. Les Misérables (2019)

Director: Ladj Ly

On the one hand, that French-Malian director Ladj Ly’s crunching cops-and-criminals drama feels like a spiritual successor to ‘La Haine’ shows, worryingly, how little has changed in Paris’s simmering banlieues in 25 years. On the other… well, it’s not a bad film to be compared with. Like Mathieu Kassovitz’s visceral 1995 drama, Ly offers unsettling social commentary in his fully sketched ensemble of strivers, schemers and seething migrants. But he adds genre thrills to excellent effect, too, as well as the odd semi-surreal touch (the plot revolves around a missing lion cub). Don’t be surprised if we’re still referencing this one in 25 years. PDS

Lift to the Scaffold
Lift to the Scaffold
Photograph: Optimum Home Entertainment

24. Lift to the Scaffold (1958)

Director: Louis Malle

The great Louis Malle shepherds all the elements of a great thriller into an endlessly entertaining, quickfire 88 minutes in this juicy Parisian noir. It’s satisfying on just about every level: from its grasping, murderous schemers (played by Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet) to its plot that twists and turns in all sorts of deliriously tricksy ways. Then, there’s that classic Miles Davis score, recorded in only two days while the musician was visiting Paris. It brings the film’s existential, melancholy mood to life like few thrillers before or since, and makes Malle’s gem of a film a must-hear as well as a must-see. PDS

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25. The Artist (2011)

Film Comedy

Director: Michel Hazanavicius

Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin are well known in France for their James Bond spoofs, the ‘OSS 117’ films. Now they hop across the pond to 1920s California for a loving – and silent – recreation of Hollywood on the verge of sound. ‘The Artist’ is shot in exactly the same speechless, monochrome style as the movies in which our tragic hero, actor George Valentin (Dujardin), employs a canny arched eyebrow or breaks out into a rip-roaring tap-dancing routine to woo his adoring audience. The real pleasure of ‘The Artist’ is that Hazanavicius employs all the tricks and tics of silent cinema with wisdom, care and all the emotional and musical rhythm of the best of the films he emulates. It’s a movie about cinema that has a heart: it moves between funny and sad and turns the dawn of the sound age into a personal tragedy, expressed as silent melodrama. It’s a gentle call to arms aimed at modern cinema. DC

Wooden Crosses
Wooden Crosses
Photograph: Mubi

26. Wooden Crosses (1932)

Director: Raymond Bernard

If you associate Champagne with fizzy wines and grand châteaux, this underseen and seriously underrated First World War drama will add a new dimension to the region. Here, it’s the setting for endless struggle in the trenches in a film that brings the French soldiers to salty, stoical life. The battle scenes – including one lengthy nocturnal skirmish in a French town – rival anything from more heralded war movies like ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘The Big Parade’, yet this film is an emotional as well as technical triumph. One of France’s lesser-known greats, director Raymond Bernard would go on to make an acclaimed five-hour version of ‘Les Misérables’, but this is his masterpiece. PDS

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27. The Chorus (2004)

Film

Director: Christophe Barratier

Mild-mannered, unemployed music teacher Clement Mathieu is hired as a house master at the Fond de l’Etang boarding school for troubled children. From the moment Clement walks through the school gates, he can sense trouble, much of it perpetrated by the repressive headmaster Rachin, who believes that physical punishment is the only way to keep the boys in line. Clement prefers a much more caring approach to schooling and he introduces his pint-sized pupils to the magic of singing.

28. Van Gogh (1991)

Film Drama

Director: Maurice Pialat

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. There’s no attempt to trace the origins and development of his ‘creative genius’; nor, avoiding the hazards of biopic cliché, does it seek to illuminate these dark corners of his subject’s troubled soul. In the leading role, Dutronc displays a physical frailty and stooped sadness that complements Pialat’s beautiful, poignant images. NF

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Photograph: Ciné Classic

29. Pierrot le Fou (1965)

Film Drama

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Jean-Paul Belmondo mooches up to Samuel Fuller at a party and, naturally, asks him his thoughts on cinema. Fuller replies: ‘Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word: Emotions.’ His succinct and, let’s be honest, utterly hip rejoinder fluently captures what we’re about to undergo with Godard’s mischievous tenth film, ‘Pierrot le Fou’. We’re launched into the lunatic orbit of Belmondo’s Ferdinand and Anna Karina’s Marianne: Each is an impulsive, alienated, despairing soul who finds solace in the other’s desire for chaos and withdrawal. They head to the south of France in a hail of gunfire and Gauloises. They converse in disjointed, inhumanly droll patter, duff up gas station attendants and eagerly concoct a new civilisation on a deserted beach. As their relationship begins to fray, it all goes horribly wrong. This is a wild-eyed cross-processing of artistic, political and personal concerns, with a story that stutters, splinters and infuriates its way to an explosive finale. DJ

120 Beats Per Minute
120 Beats Per Minute
Photograph: Curzon Artificial Eye

30. 120 Beats per Minute (2017)

Director: Robin Campillo

Have we talked about this film enough? In a time of intolerance, protest and fevered passions, Robin Campillo’s glorious, moving memoir of his time in Aids activism group Act Up in ’90s Paris captures a sense of recurring zeitgeist: just swap in Extinction Rebellion to see how its story of politically engaged young people fearing for their futures still resonates. But there’s a specificity to these characters and this story, too: its incensed, impassioned and hedonistic ensemble feel real; their fears are scary and relatable. But as the title implies, Campillo’s film takes to the dance floor to shake them loose in a flurry of loose limbs and free spirits. A film about the threat of death has never felt so alive. PDS

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31. Buffet Froid (1979)

Film Drama

Director: Bertrand Blier

Rigorously absurd contemporary film noir which presents every character, incident and situation known to the genre, but none of the customary explanations, motivations or consequences. A blackly surreal procession of amoral and/or illegal acts proceed haphazardly from Depardieu’s discovery of his lost penknife embedded in a dying metro traveller, and his subsequent alliance with his wife’s murderer and a police inspector, producing a cherishably Buñuelian depiction of the far-from-discreet crimes of the bourgeoisie. PT

32. Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Film Drama

Director: Alain Resnais

Something of a key film in the development of concepts of cinematic modernism, simply because – with a script by nouveau roman iconoclast Alain Robbe-Grillet – it sets up a puzzle that is never resolved: a man meets a woman in a rambling hotel and believes he may have had an affair with her the previous year at Marienbad... or did he? Or was it somewhere else? Deliberately scrambling chronology to the point where past, present and future become meaningless, Resnais creates a vaguely unsettling mood by means of stylish composition, long, smooth tracking shots along the hotel’s deserted corridors, and strangely detached performances. GA

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33. Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013)

Film Drama

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ is a minutely detailed, searingly erotic three-hour study of first lesbian love. Written and directed by the French-Tunisian Abdellatif Kechiche, it is the richest film of his career. Nothing about the film’s coming-of-age narrative, nor the rise and fall of its core romance, is intrinsically new or daring, yet Kechiche’s freewheeling perspective on young desire is uncommon in its emotional maturity. Our heroine, Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, astonishing), begins the film as a precocious high-schooler and ends as a grown woman still with plenty to learn about herself. Unlike so many same-sex-themed films that focus on coming out as the defining gay experience, ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ glides past that stage of Adèle’s life in a bold chronological leap, finding more nuanced drama in the evolving challenges of maintaining an unfixed sexuality. GL

34. Le Samouraï (1967)

Film Drama

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Melville’s hombres don’t talk a lot, they just move in and out of the shadows, their trenchcoats lined with guilt and their hats hiding their eyes. This is a great movie, an austere masterpiece, with Delon as a cold, enigmatic contract killer who lives by a personal code of bushido. Essentially, the plot is about an alibi, yet Melville turns this into a mythical revenge story, with Cathy Rosier as Delon’s black, piano-playing nemesis who might just as easily have stepped from the pages of Cocteau or Sophocles as Vogue. Similarly, if Delon is Death, Périer’s cop is a date with Destiny. Melville’s film had a major influence in Hollywood: Delon lying on his bed is echoed in ‘Taxi Driver’, and Paul Schrader might have remade ‘Le Samouraï’ as ‘American Gigolo’. Another remake is ‘The Driver’, despite Walter Hill’s insistence that he’d never seen it: someone on that movie had to have seen it. ATU

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35. A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Film Action and adventure

Director: Georges Méliès

A former magician, Georges Méliès created his silent film ‘A Trip to the Moon’ in 1902, just six years after the Lumière Brothers’ legendary first projection. ‘A Trip to the Moon’ is a cinematic legend in its own right. The earliest example of sci-fi and fantasy genres on film, it tells the story of a group of astronomers who voyage to the moon and do battle with giant insectoid aliens. Presumed lost, the film’s original print, hand-coloured by Méliès himself, was rediscovered in 1993 and restored in 2011. CC

36. Pot Luck (2002)

Film

Director: Cédric Klapisch

Young French economics student Xavier takes part in a European exchange programme in order to land his dream job. He is sent to Barcelona, where he shares an apartment with a melting pot of nationalities including English rose Wendy, Italian stud Alessandro, kind-hearted Dane Lars and Belgian girl Martine. The strangers quickly bond and embark on a series of misadventures, some of them drawn together by the heady scent of romance.

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I Lost My Body
I Lost My Body
Photograph: Netflix

37. I Lost My Body (2019)

Director: Jérémy Clapin

In the spirit of grown-up animations like ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’, this odyssey through Paris’s suburbs marries escapism with a philosophical side that’s profound and very moving. Its two-threaded story follows a lovelorn pizza delivery boy – voiced in French by Hakim Faris and in English by Dev Patel – and a disembodied hand with shades of Thing in ‘The Addams Family’ as they overcome obstacles (a lack of meaning and inquisitive pigeons) in the search for something ineluctable but elusive. Full of tough truths yet open-hearted, it’s a rare but winning blend of magical and social realism. PDS

38. Le Corbeau (1943)

Film Drama

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

David Thomson calls Clouzot’s a ‘cinema of total disenchantment’. This exposé of a malicious small town in France must be one of the most depressed films to emerge from the period of the German Occupation: everyone speaks badly of everyone else, rumours of abortion and drug addiction are rife, and a flood of poison-pen letters raises the spiteful hysteria to epidemic level. Clouzot’s misanthropy concludes in total defeat; his naggingly over-insistent style occasionally achieves a great blackness. CPE

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39. Belle de Jour (1966)

Film Comedy

Director: Luis Buñuel

A perverse valentine to this coolest of Gallic beauties, Belle de jour stars Catherine Deneuve as Séverine, a Parisian housewife dressed in Yves Saint Laurent, who is married to Pierre (Sorel), a handsome, dull doctor. Séverine makes fervent protestations of love but cannot, alas, consummate; instead she succumbs to theatrically erotic reveries — of being whipped by two burly coachmen, pelted with shit while wearing a diaphanous white gown, elaborately bound to a tree. When she hears of a high-class madam (Page) who operates a brothel out of her apartment, Séverine takes a day job as a classy whore servicing middle-aged businessmen. In the age of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and S&M porn, there’s little in ‘Belle de Jour’ that shocks — but that seems beside the point. The film is an act of pure fetishism, and Deneuve its willing object. TB

40. La Haine (1995)

Film Comedy

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. Kassovitz has made only one film before (the droll race-comedy ‘Métisse’), but ‘La Haine’ puts him right at the front of the field: this is virtuosic, on-the-edge stuff, as exciting as anything we’ve seen from the States in ages, and more thoroughly engaged with the reality it describes. He combats the inertia and boredom of his frustrated antagonists with a thrusting, jiving camera style which harries and punctuates their rambling, often very funny dialogue. The politics of the piece are confrontational, to say the least, but there is a maturity and depth to the characterisation which goes beyond mere agitprop: society may be on the point of self-combustion, but this film betrays no appetite for the explosion. A vital, scalding piece of work. TCH

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41. Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Film

Director: Jacques Rivette

Amateur illusionist Céline (Juliet Berto) and studious librarian Julie (Dominique Labourier) meet in a park and become practically inseparable — so much so that they can try on each other’s identities like best friends swapping favourite apparel. Céline is Julie, Julie is Céline, distinct yet interchangeable: un 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 co-writer Jacques Rivette conceived Céline 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 – from the malleability of personality to the fine line separating voyeurism and participation – without once feeling laboured. KU

42. Le Boucher (1969)

Film Drama

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. TM

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43. Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Film Drama

Director: Luis Buñuel

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. BBA

44. Les Tontons Flingueurs (1963)

Film Comedy

Director: Georges Lautner

Homicides provide the punch lines in this classic gangster comedy. The trouble starts when dying mob boss ‘The Mexican’ (Jacques Dumesnil) summons ex-gangster Fernand (Lino Ventura) to take care of some of his business, and as can only be expected, Fernand finds himself overwhelmed as the death count gets higher and higher. Adapted from the novel ‘Grisby or Not Grisby’ by writer Albert Simonin himself, this film’s reputation has grown since its mediocre reception in the ’60s and is now a staple of French-speaking television. BR

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45. To Our Loves (1983)

Film Comedy

Director: Maurice Pialat

Fifteen-year-old Suzanne (Bonnaire) seems unable to progress beyond a rather doleful promiscuity in her relations with boys. 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 for ever, but a counterbalancing warmth is provided by Pialat’s enormous care for his creations. The rapport between father and daughter is especially moving. CPEA

46. Les Diaboliques (1955)

Film Drama

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 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 must then 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. DC 

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47. Mouchette (1967)

Film

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. WH

48. Silken Skin (1964)

Film Drama

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. DJ

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49. My Night with Maud (1969)

Film Drama

Director: Eric Rohmer

Eric Rohmer’s 1969 work made his name outside of France and preceded enduring works like ‘Pauline at the Beach’ and ‘The Green Ray’. The film gives us Jean-Louis (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a dapper 34-year-old engineer with a good line in wry, toothy smiles who works for Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand. He’s lived in Canada and Chile, enjoyed a few girlfriends, but now he’s single, serious and more committed to his religion and future. He spies a young blonde, Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault), at church, who he determines to marry. He follows her in his car, but she soon disappears and he bumps into Vidal (Antoine Vitez), an old friend and teacher at the local university. Vidal is an atheist and Marxist who has less rigid ideas about love and marriage, and their chat allows Rohmer to explore various ideas relating to life, relationships and our place in the world before (or perhaps in the absence of) God. DC

50. Maine Océan (1986)

Film Comedy

Director: Jacques Rozier

In Jacques Rozier’s iconic 1986 film, ‘Maine Océan’ is the name of the coral-hued train that runs along the coast from Paris to Saint-Nazaire, with Bernard Menez and Luis Rego at the controls. When a beautiful Brazilian dancer (Rosa-Maria Gomes) boards the train, speaking not a word of French, a discombobulated lawyer (also beautiful, played by Lydia Feld) offers her services as translator. One thing leads to another and the four find themselves on holiday together on the Île d’Yeu, an island off the Vendée coast, where desire gets mixed up with criminal doings and a few litres of alcohol. Reminiscent of Rozier’s earlier, career-making film ‘Du Côté d’Orouët’, ‘Maine Océan’ occupies an equal, if not larger, place in Rozier’s oeuvre. It is the film in which his signature digressiveness proves the funniest, freest and most touching. CC

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51. The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005)

Film Drama

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 specialising 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 smalltime 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. EV

52. Plein Soleil (1960)

Film Drama

Director: René Clément

In 1960 French filmmaker René Clément was first to adapt Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ – Anthony Minghella returned to it 40 years later with Matt Damon and Jude Law in the roles of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf, played here by Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. Set in Italy, this sun-bleached, louche thriller, infused with a lively documentary style, tells how Ripley arrives from the US as an envoy of Greenleaf’s father, charged with bringing the rich, dissolute son back home. But Ripley’s growing infatuation with his wealthy friend turns murderous, and Greenleaf’s girlfriend, Marge (Marie Laforêt), is one of many caught up in a tale of deceit and desperation. Delon – impossibly beautiful, impossible to read, cold, cool – steals the film here, and the most powerful scenes are on Ripley’s yacht, when Clément allows himself most freely to indulge the story’s otherwise muted homoerotic edge. DC

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53. La Vie En Rose (2007)

Film

Director: Olivier Dahan

It’s almost as if we don’t need a biopic of Edith Piaf; her life was a movie already. Born into poverty, she was discovered on the streets of ’30s Paris, singing for her supper, precipitating a remarkable rise to fame and fortune. All that was missing in her life was love, yet her romance with French boxing champion Marcel Cerdan was to be tragically short-lived. It was the making and the undoing of her: the pain somehow lent her singing an even greater emotional intensity, at the price of a punishing intake of drink and pills. She died in 1963 a mere husk of a woman, old beyond her 47 years. String that lot together and you’ve got a showbiz story to rank with ‘A Star Is Born’ for sheer all-out melodrama. In ‘La Vie en Rose’, much creative energy seems to have been expended on figuring out how to tell the story in as flash a manner as possible, without quite marking out Piaf’s troubled essential self. TJ

54. Naked Childhood (1968)

Film

Director: Maurice Pialat

Pialat’s first feature is a wonderfully delicate study of a 10-year-old boy and his decline into delinquency when boarded out with foster parents after being abandoned by his mother. With Truffaut as co-producer, comparisons with ‘The 400 Blows’ are inevitable, but there’s very little resemblance between the two films except in theme and refusal to sentimentalise. Instead of focusing on the child, Pialat concentrates on the adults: the foster parents puzzled by the boy’s delinquency since he so clearly responds to their affection; the ancient grandmother with whom he breaks through to a special relationship (very warm and funny); the welfare and adoption officers, carrying out their jobs with weary patience, but tending to treat the children as pets rather than as human beings. It’s a film in which nuance is everything; amazingly, given Pialat was working exclusively with non-professionals, the performances are stunning. TM

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The Class
The Class
Photograph: Artificial Eye

55. The Class (2008)

Director: Laurent Cantet

There are high-school movies and then there are movies about high school. Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winning realist drama falls firmly into the latter category. It’s a depiction of a French language teacher, François Marin, in a secondary school in Paris’s hard-scrabble 20th arrondissement that’s told with sympathy and compassion for adults and students alike. Cantet (who parents were both teachers) has the actual teacher on whose book ‘The Class’ is adapted from, François Bégaudeau, playing Marin. It’s a casting coup that pays off as the drama moves towards its quietly heartbreaking final moments. PDS

56. Série Noire (1979)

Film Drama

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 enigmatically passive 17-year-old (Trintignant), while the weary hero is rendered hyperactive in Dewaere’s tornado-strength performance, hysterical rages, comic monologues and all. BBA

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57. Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1998)

Film Documentaries

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard’s ambitious, sweeping eight-part video project exploring, as per the pun in the film’s title, the ‘history’, ‘histories’, ‘story’ and ‘stories’ of cinema, is often considered the most important work of his late career. Examining the history of the concept of cinema and its relationship to time over the course of a 266-minute run time, this film took the French master more than a decade to make and isn’t recommended for the casual viewer. BR

58. The Red Circle (1970)

Film Thrillers

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Melville’s special achievement was to relocate the American gangster film to France, and to incorporate his own steely poetic and philosophical obsessions. He described this, his penultimate film, as a digest of the 19 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. Even in the butchered version distributed in Britain (dubbed and cut to 102 minutes) it’s worth seeing: the mood remains, as does the film’s central sequence, a superbly executed silent jewel robbery in the Place Vendôme. CPE

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59. Pickpocket (1959)

Film Comedy

Director: Robert Bresson

Released 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. 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. Bresson’s goals were deep – to sweep away the dross of expectation and viewing conventions by means of a purified cinema. CA

60. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

Film

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. BW

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61. La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Film Comedy

Director: Gérard Oury

Gerard Oury is the uncontested king of French popular comedy and, with 17 million tickets sold its opening weekend (a record that was only broken by ‘Titanic’ in 1998), ‘La Grande Vadrouille’ is, without doubt, his greatest and most enduring work. Chock-full of now-classic scenes (Bourvil and Louis de Funès whistling in a Turkish bathhouse or disguised as Nazis, moseying about the French countryside), the film is now such a fixture in France’s cultural imagination that it’s hard to remember the audacity of the original project: to make a comedy set during (and in) the Second World War, in 1966, when the war itself was still something of an open wound in the national consciousness. Most astonishingly, Oury’s expansive, multi-genre comedy (by turns witty, situational, absurdist and burlesque) refuses to take the more obvious, patriotic line, lampooning Nazis and the French Resistance alike.

62. My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument (1996)

Film Drama

Director: Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin’s comedy about a doctoral student (Mathieu Amalric) approaching 30, plagued with self-doubt, is a hallmark of ’90s French cinema. Paul Dédalus is slowly realising that, as Gainsbourg wrote, ‘physical love is a dead end’. But beyond the film’s titular concerns (My Sex Life), its strength is in its surprising progression. Paul’s self-absorbed narrative branches out into a network of polyphonic plot lines, introducing a cast of neurotic and touching characters – all seeking, finding or avoiding each other in ’90s Paris.    

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63. Delicatessen (1991)

Film Fantasy

Director: Marc Caro and 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. The sets, special effects, photography, pace and performances all contribute to the brash comic-strip vivacity, and even the fairytale romance avoids sentimentality. Increasingly inventive as it progresses, Jeunet and Caro’s fast, funny feature debut entertains from sinister start to frantic finish. GA

64. The King and the Mockingbird (1980)

Film Animation

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. The characterisations are a delight, and if the pace is occasionally as stately as the Tachycardian royal title (King Charles V-and-III-makes-VIII-and-VIII-makes-XVI), it merely allows more time to gape at the architecture of Tachycardia, a cool collage of Venetian canals, Bavarian castles and New York tower blocks that is vast, monolithic and truly vertiginous. FD

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65. Napoléon (1927)

Film

Director: Abel Gance

Bambi Ballard’s 2000 restoration of cinema’s supreme, grandiloquent epic (63 mins longer than the version premiered by Kevin Brownlow in 1979, tinted and with an extended three-screen climax) is the closest we’re ever likely to get to Gance’s original. Despite its simplistic view of Napoleon himself – seen from childhood to the fascistic start of his empire-building as a ‘man of destiny’, guided through hardships and loneliness by his ‘inner eagle’ – the film is completely vindicated by Gance’s raving enthusiasm for his medium. All of the brilliant experiments with film language remain potent, from the montages of flash-frames to the bombastic poetry of the triptych finale; even the gags are still funny. To see this with Carl Davis’s score (lashings of Beethoven) played live is an almost unimaginably thrilling experience. TR

66. La Beauté du Diable (1950)

Film Fantasy

Director: René Clair

In spite/because of what must have seemed impeccable credentials – Clair, the two leads, a screenplay by dramatist Armand Salacrou, and nostalgic, Méliès-inspired sets by Barsacq – this version of the Faust legend is a turgidly literary cocktail of escapist fantasy and Sartrean engagement which could not even plead the excuse of Carné’s comparable ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ of having been filmed during the Occupation. (A colour and detail-enhanced Imax version restores a previously omitted 11-minute song-and-dance number.) GAD

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67. Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

Film Drama

Director: Jacques Demy

Although one of Jacques Demy’s final films, ‘Une Chambre en Ville’ had been in the works for several decades before it was finally produced in 1982. The action unfolds in Nantes (where Demy spent much of his childhood and adolescence), against the backdrop of the historic 1953 workers’ strike; and yet, the film is essentially a love story between a steelworker (Richard Berry) and an aristocrat (Dominique Sanda). Demy’s second musical film after ‘The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’, ‘Une Chambre en Ville’ once again demonstrates the director’s ability to whip even the most banal and formulaic story into a sublime frenzy of kitschy songs and dialogue, luscious costumes and scenery. This improbable film – set during one of France’s greatest workers’ uprisings – is pure excess, an explosion of colour, sound and feeling. CC

68. Je t’aime, je t’aime (1969)

Film Fantasy

Director: Alain Resnais

After a failed suicide, Claude Ridder (Rich) is visited by two men who invite him to take part in an experiment (already tried with a mouse) to project him into the past to see if he can recapture a moment of his life (since he has no wish to live, and therefore has no future, he is the perfect subject). Indifferently, he agrees, is whisked through a suburban no man’s land to a laboratory, and – accompanied by the mouse as an experienced travelling companion – sets off on his weird, fairytale trip through time, only to become hopelessly lost. As the scientists frantically try to trace their missing guinea pig, fragments of his past surface momentarily, recurringly. Beautiful, tranquil, but increasingly menacing clues to a love affair with a girl he may or may not have killed. One of Resnais’s most underrated explorations of the tone of time and memory. TM

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69. Le Goût des Autres (2000)

Film Comedy

Director: Agnès Jaoui

Castella (Bacri) is an industrialist, married, who in his own world, is king. A dutiful trip to the theatre is a revelation. It’s not the play that moves him, but the lead actress, Clara (Alvaro). Neither young nor especially glamorous – she’s stuck in subsidised theatre – Clara touches him so deeply, she opens up horizons he’s never dreamed of: a world of art, literature, philosophy and beauty. A critical and popular hit in France, ‘Le Goût des autres’ (literally, ‘Other People’s Taste’) is a culture-clash comedy with the emphasis on ‘culture’. Agnès Jaoui aims for the droll slow burn, subtle ironies and wry observation. The film works as a one-sided love story, yet finds time to flesh out half a dozen peripheral characters, each in his or her own way as lovelorn and alone as the industrialist. TCH

70. La Chienne (1931)

Film Drama

Director: Jean Renoir

Mr Legrand (Simon), a mild-mannered, middle-aged cashier, paints as a means of expression, of escape from his shrewdish wife and the tedium of his job. After an accidental encounter with femme fatale Lulu (Marèze), he falls madly in love, setting her up in a flat which he fills with his paintings. Lulu, who loves only her pimp Dédé (Flamant), uses Legrand as a milch-cow, and when his money runs short, starts selling his paintings as her own (with the Sunday painter ironically unaware that his work is now much sought after). Freeing himself finally from his wife, Legrand arrives at the flat, only to realise that Lulu is still bedding Dédé... This is a glorious experiment in, and exploration of, the nature of cinema. Wonderfully moving, with great performances. WH

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71. Loulou (1980)

Film Comedy

Director: Maurice Pialat

‘Loulou’ is a challenging, absorbing example of the awkward beauty of the late Maurice Pialat. It’s a keenly observed, naturalist, semi-improvised ‘slice of life’, set in the post-Women’s Lib Paris of the late ’70s, depicting class- and culture-clashing passion. A young accountant (a still-flushed-cheeked Isabelle Huppert, in one of her most sensual and mysteriously protean performances) leaves her incredulous, angered bourgeois husband for an earthy, unemployed petty ex-con (a superbly equine and cocksure Gérard Depardieu). It seems dated, but on a deeper level, it’s part of the influential Pialat’s audacious, experimental attempt to intersect the too-often parallel lines of inquiry of realist and ‘spiritual’ cinema – imagine an unholy marriage of, say, Cassavetes and Bresson. ‘Loulou’s non-judgmental insights into such universal concerns as happiness or love for others may seem initially too voyeuristic – but, beware, they have a tricky habit of haunting you long after it’s ended. WH

72. Du Côté d’Orouët (1973)

Film Comedy

Director: Jacques Rozier

In September, as their classmates prepare for the school rentrée, three teenage girls set off for a sea village on the Vendée coast, determined to make the most of their remaining weeks of freedom. There they meet a local man, Gilbert (Bernard Menez in his first role), who they tease and tantalise mercilessly. With its trio of teenage sirens – who spend most of the film sauntering about the coastal town in their underwear, listening to psychedelic pop or engaged in trivial banter – the film evokes Rohmer’s moral tales, although it is appreciably less austere. Produced by channel FR3 and filmed in 1969 as a TV movie, ‘Du Côté d’Orouët’ is a small masterpiece of levity and improvisation, a sweet, sensual gem of a film.

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73. A Christmas Tale (2008)

Film Drama

Director: Arnaud Desplechin

It may be Christmas for the troubled Vuillard clan in the north-west French town of Roubaix but it’s not shared seasonal goodwill that’s bringing this extended brood back together in the family home. The instigator is mother and grandmother Junon (Catherine Deneuve), who’s treating family ties as a business arrangement and calling in a genetic favour: this distant matriarch has the same disease that years ago killed her first son by her older, softer husband Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon) and now she wants one of her three adult kids, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), Henri (Mathieu Amalric) or Ivan (Melvil Poupaud) to donate blood marrow to increase her chances of survival. For Desplechin, Junon’s crisis is an excuse to explore endless family rifts, hidden desires, past traumas and emotional diversions. The effect flits between the wearying and engrossing, as some storylines and characters work far more than others. DC

74. Fill ’er Up With Super (1976)

Film Comedy

Director: Alain Cavalier

Made in 1976, Alain Cavalier’s ‘Fill ’er Up With Super’ is a well-kept secret among French cinephiles. A road movie set in the South of France, it chronicles – through a series of comic and touching vignettes – the burgeoning friendship among four men forced to share a station wagon. Even in its more surreal or cinematic moments, ‘Fill ’er Up With Super’ feels incredibly fresh, authentic and uncensored; made like a shoestring documentary (with the director, camera and sound guys squeezed into the car’s backseat), it’s a heady, poignant artefact of ’70s filmmaking. CC

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75. Sauve Qui Peut (la Vie) (1979)

Film Comedy

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Godard’s return to celluloid after a decade of video is in one sense forced: his finances were drying up, and he himself admits that the film was made as a passport back into the business. But in another, this is his most personal work in years, less important for its return to narrative (the story of two women and a man joined in almost arbitrary ways) than for its chilled sense of autobiography – Dutronc plays an egotistical, washed-out video film-maker called ‘Godard’. This is a confessional fantasy about a generation of men now in middle age, alienated from their sexuality, dissatisfied with their ‘commerce’, and unwilling to cope with a new sexual/political order. It would be hard to imagine a more courageous project; harder still to find one executed with the kind of wit and haunting elegance that have made Godard so revered. CA

76. L’Âge d’Or (1930)

Film Comedy

Director: Luis Buñuel

‘Our sexual desire has to be seen as the product of centuries of repressive and emasculating Catholicism... it is always coloured by the sweet secret sense of sin,’ mused Buñuel in his autobiography ‘My Last Breath’. One might describe ‘L’Âge d’Or’ as 63 minutes of coitus interruptus, a scabrous essay on Eros and civilisation, wherein a couple is constantly prised apart from furious love-making by the police, high society and, above all, the Church. Financed by the Vicomte de Noailles, a dream patron who loyally pronounced the film exquisite and delicious, even as Right-wing extremists were pelting it with ink and stink bombs, this is a jagged memento of that Golden Age before directors forgot the art of filming erotica (the celebrated toe-sucking is sexier by far than almost anything since), the revolutionary avant-garde lost its sense of humour, and surrealism itself fell prey to advertising-agency chic. SJO

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77. Le Doulos (1962)

Film Thrillers

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Darker than ‘Bob le Flambeur’, Melville’s second foray into the Parisian underworld borrows its epigraph from Céline: ‘One must choose: die... or lie?’ Appropriately, in a film devoted to the principle of duplicity, Melville teases the spectator by reproducing the police station from Mamoulian’s ‘City Streets’, while his Paris features American lampposts, call-boxes and subway entrances. At the heart of this ambiguous world is Silien (Belmondo), by repute a professional informer, who juggles twin friendships with a police inspector (Crohem) and a burglar (Reggiani). Just out of jail, afraid he can’t cut it in the underworld anymore, involved in an act of revenge that leaves him with a nasty taste in his mouth, Reggiani finds Crohem lurking in ambush when he takes on his next job. Terrific performances, and equally terrific camerawork from Nicolas Hayer – more gris than noir – conjure a rivetingly treacherous, twilit world. TM

78. Clean Slate (1981)

Film Comedy

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

Purists may object to Tavernier’s treatment of Jim Thompson’s excellent if sordid and sadistic thriller, ‘Pop. 1280’, but this eccentric, darkly comic look at a series of bizarre murders is stylishly crafted and thoroughly entertaining. Transferring the action from the American Deep South to French West Africa in the late ’30s, Tavernier elicits a characteristically colourful performance from Noiret as the manic but outwardly easy-going slob of a cop who initiates a private vendetta against the town’s more obnoxious citizens by resorting to murder. Strange insights into the effects of racism and the complicity of its victims, embellished with black wit and an elegant visual sense. GA

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79. La Piscine (1968)

Film Drama

Director: Jacques Deray

Four characters. A Mediterranean villa. Sun, sex and… suspicion. The ingredients are fairly simple in this star-powered psychological thriller which has remained underexposed outside of France. This is a deliciously languid, slinkily unsettling affair. Romy Schneider is all feline elegance and sphinx-like intelligence as the girlfriend of brooding wastrel Alain Delon. Their erotically charged St. Tropez sojourn is interrupted by the arrival of flamboyantly smug Maurice Ronet with teenage jail-bait daughter Jane Birkin in tow. Little is said, but past indiscretions hang in the air. The ’60s trappings and jazz-meets-psychedelia score are treasure enough in themselves, but it’s Deray’s beady concentration on the pointed silences and angled looks which really turn the screw. Bourgeois-scum Claude Chabrol territory, essentially, but done with a more commercial eye for showing off Schneider and Delon’s bronzed curves. TJ

80. The City of Lost Children (1995)

Film Fantasy

Director: Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet

A child smiles in his toy-filled room as Santa emerges from the chimney piece, but joy turns to terror as the bearded visitor is followed by more of the same; cut to a man screaming in a laboratory where, unable to dream himself, he has stolen the nightmare of a kidnapped orphan. The opening of another of Jeunet and Caro’s forays into the fantastique is the perfect introduction to what’s essentially a hugely inventive blend of dream, fairytale and myth, and to a strange, sinister sea-girt world that functions according to its own crazy logic. After his infant brother is abducted by a gang of semi-robotic Cyclops, strong-man One (Perlman) journeys to unite with feisty nine-year-old orphan Miette (Vittet) and go to the sea-rig laboratory inhabited by the evil Krank (Emilfork), his six cloned brothers (Pinon), their diminutive ‘mother’, and Uncle Irvin, a sardonic brain floating in a fish tank. Extraordinary. GA

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81. Le Grand Détournement / La Classe Américaine (1993)

Film Action and adventure

Directors: Michel Hazanavicius and Dominique Mézerette

In 1993, Warner Bros. authorised Canal+ to use clips from WB’s back catalogue, resulting in Canal+'s ‘Le Grand Détournement’, one of the weirdest, most hallucinatory films of all time. An absurd montage, combining hundreds of clips from a dozen American movies (including ‘Jeremiah Johnson’, ‘All the President’s Men’ and ‘Rio Bravo’), this surreal film is surprisingly entertaining, mostly because writer-directors Michel Hazanavicius and Dominique Mézerette really push the idea to extremes: all dialogue has been absurdly rewritten and dubbed back into French. The nonsensical plot follows three reporters (Newman, Hoffman and Redford), all investigating the death of George Abitbol (John Wayne), described as ‘the classiest man in the world’. Silly and meandering, the film is a loose parody of ‘Citizen Kane’ and although for legal reasons it has never been sold on VHS or DVD, ‘Le Grand Détournement’ has slowly gathered a following, achieving cult-comedy status in France. CC

82. La Collectionneuse (1967)

Film Comedy

Director: Eric Rohmer

The third of Rohmer’s six moral tales, and the first of his films to achieve wide recognition. The collector of the title is a delectable nymphet, footloose in St. Tropez, who makes a principle of sleeping with a different man every night until two friends, declining to become specimens, decide to take her moral well-being in hand. In the 18th century game which Rohmer transposes to a contemporary setting, this pair can be seen as intellect trying to dominate instinct, but only succeeding in rousing unwanted passions. Wryly and delightfully witty. TM

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83. India Song (1975)

Film Drama

Director: Marguerite Duras

Duras’s main protagonist is Anne-Marie Stretter (Seyrig), a bored consular wife in ’30s India, and the film details the languorous desperation that drives her to suicide. But the formal approach to this subject is like nothing before in film history: the ‘drama’ is entirely aural (a play of off-screen voices blending with Carlos d’Alessio’s utterly compulsive score), and the elegant visuals counterpoint it by creating an atmosphere of sumptuous enervation. Many will find it fascinating, not least because its sense of stifled anguish emerges without the least hint of aggression in the style. TR

84. The Unfaithful Wife (1968)

Film Comedy

Director: Claude Chabrol

One of Chabrol’s mid-period masterpieces, a brilliantly ambivalent scrutiny of bourgeois marriage and murder that juggles compassion and cynicism in a way that makes Hitchcock look obvious. The obligatory cross-references are still there (blood in the sink; the exactly appropriate final use of simultaneous backtrack and forward zoom adapted from Vertigo), but they’re no longer there to legitimise a vision now mature. Audran and Bouquet, as the first of Chabrol’s recurring Charles/Hélène couples, are superb in discovering ‘secret’ parts of each other denied as much by complacency as convention. PT

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85. Games of Love and Chance (2004)

Film Comedy

Director: Abdellatif Kechiche

At first, Kechiche’s follow-up to the admirable ‘La Faute à Voltaire’ looks set to be a fairly routine account of life in the Maghrebi ’hood, with 15-year-old Krimo mooning over Lydia while his ex insists to any kid who’ll listen that they haven’t in fact split up. But what makes it all so interesting is that Lydia’s practising a Marivaux play, so Krimo – against all expectations, including his own – takes up acting opposite her and gradually the whole movie begins to resemble a transplanted Marivaux play, which throws a fascinating light on the kids’ somewhat primitive sexual politics. Strong but subtle stuff. GA

86. Les Vampires (1915)

Film Action and adventure

Director: Louis Feuillade

1915: Slaughter at Gallipoli; first use of gas on the Western Front; Lusitania sunk. This serial saga (in 10 episodes) follows a band of robbers whose principals include Satanas, who keeps a howitzer behind the fireplace and a bomb under his top hat, and Irma Vep, the notorious anagram, to whom Olivier Assayas rendered homage 80 years later. There’s a hero (a resolute reporter), but all the interest goes to Irma and Co – their heists, their feuds with a rival gang and with the agents of law and order, all conducted by means of slaughter, gassing and sinking. There’s a comic-strip aspect, a roundelay of disguises, kidnappings, secret codes and acrobatic getaways. It’s possible to overstate the extent to which all this is a bunch of fun: if shown, as it often is, in one great unnatural marathon, it can be sheer torture. Best viewed on tape. BBA

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87. Les Baisers de Secours (1989)

Film Drama

Director: Philippe Garrel

In Philippe Garrel’s delightfully meta film, a successful director (played by Garrel) offers the lead role in his next project – an autobiographical film – to the celebrated actress Minouchette (Anémone), but his wife Jeanne, also an actress (played by Brigitte Sy, Garrel’s actual partner), feels the role should have been hers. She exacts revenge by bedding a stranger and the couple separate. The director seeks advice from his father (played by Garrel’s actual father) and eventually reconciles with Jeanne for the sake of their child (seven-year-old Louis Garrel). In a work of cinematic autofiction, Garrel provides a voluminous inventory of human feelings, while managing to avoid navel-gazing or excessive pathos. With dialogues by writer Marc Cholodenko and a jazzy saxophone score by Barney Wilen, the ‘Les Baisers de Secours’ has all the spontaneity and cool sensibility of a Cassavetes flick.

88. Le Plaisir (1952)

Film Comedy

Director: Max Ophüls

Ophüls’s second French film following his return from the USA was adapted from three stories by Maupassant. ‘Le Masque’ describes how an old man wears a mask of youth at a dance hall to extend his youthful memories. ‘La Maison Tellier’, the longest episode, deals with a day’s outing for the ladies from a brothel, and a brief romance. In ‘Le Modéle’, the model in question jumps from a window for love of an artist, who then marries her. Although Ophüls had to drop a fourth story intended to contrast pleasure and death, these three on old age, purity and marriage are shot with a supreme elegance and sympathy, and the central tale in particular luxuriates in the Normandy countryside. The whole is summed up by the concluding line ‘happiness is no lark’. DT

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89. La Vie de Jésus (1997)

Film Drama

Director: Bruno Dumont

Making use of locals instead of professional actors lends authenticity to this impressive look at a group of otherwise innocuous teenage lads in a boring northern French town (Bailleul in Flanders), driven to violence by a mixture of boredom, jealousy, macho pride and ingrained racism. Essentially it’s a work of low-key ‘realism’ in the Bressonian tradition (albeit less obviously ‘spiritual’), though it includes odd touches, such as the local marching band’s unexpectedly dissonant music, and a couple of brief sequences (involving body doubles) so sexually frank they look like out-takes from ‘Ai No Corrida’. Perhaps strangest of all is that the protagonist’s girlfriend seems for most of the film to be the only young female in town, but that’s a very minor criticism when compared to writer/director Dumont’s tough, confident handling of mood, milieu, pace, performance and theme. GA

90. Panique (1946)

Film Drama

Director: Julien Duvivier

‘Panique’ is Julien Duvivier’s most personal and fully realised film. Adapted from a Georges Simenon novel, it more than lives up to its name: an icy nihilistic fable about a solitary eccentric whose strange habits draw increasing suspicion from his paranoid neighbours. Michel Simon’s mesmerising performance and the film’s expressionistic visual style create an atmosphere of mounting anxiety, culminating in a frenetic lynching scene reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s ‘Fury’. Duvivier paints a bleak picture of human nature at its vilest and most cruel.

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91. The Night is Young (1986)

Film

Director: Leos Carax

In his second feature (following ‘Boy Meets Girl’), Carax combines his personal concerns – young love, solitude – with the stylised conventions of the vaguely futuristic romantic thriller. Loner street-punk Alex (Lavant) joins a gang of elderly Parisian hoods whose plan to steal a serum that will cure an Aids-like disease is