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The 100 best French films: 40-31

Our definitive countdown of the finest French films – as chosen by industry experts


La Môme / La vie en rose (2007)

2 out of 5 stars

Director: Olivier Dahan

IIt'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

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Les Diaboliques (1955)

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

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

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To Our Loves (À nos amours) (1983)

Director: Maurice Pialat

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

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Les Valseuses (1974)

Director: Bertrand Blier 

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

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La Règle du jeu (1939)

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 melancholic picture of a nation riven by petty class distinctions.  NF

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Les Tontons flingueurs (1963)

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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Le Boucher (1969)

Director: Claude Chabrol

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

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Breathless (À bout de souffle) (1960)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

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

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

Director: Jacques Rivette

Amateur illusionist Celine (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. Celine is Julie, Julie is Celine, distinct yet interchangeable: In their varying guises, they dismantle all real-world attachments (a pompous boyfriend and a burgeoning magic career are playfully, hilariously tossed to the wind) so that they can focus on a fantasy. Director and cowriter Jacques Rivette conceived Celine and Julie as a light-comic breather following the heavy experience of the epochal, politically charged Out 1 (1971). Don’t let the extended running time dissuade you: This is the rare breezy three-plus hours that manages to explore heady concepts—from the malleability of personality to the fine line separating voyeurism and participation — without once feeling laboured. KU

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La Haine (1995)

Director: Mathieu Kassovitz

Twenty-four hours in the Paris projects: an Arab boy is critically wounded in hospital, gut-shot, and a police revolver has found its way into the hands of a young Jewish skinhead, Vinz (Cassel), who vows to even the score if his pal dies. Vinz hangs out with Hubert (Koundé) and Saïd (Taghmaoui). They razz each other about films, cartoons, nothing in particular, but always the gun hovers over them like a death sentence, the black-and-white focal point for all the hatred they meet with, and all they can give back. Kassovitz has made only one film before (the droll race-comedy Métisse), but La Haineputs him right at the front of the field: this is virtuoso, 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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