27 January 2009

The Greatness of French Cinema, 15 Examples From 15 Different Directors

In my previous post I positively gushed about French cinema and promised the list that follows. I had a made a particular point about how French film is more about making the audience think and feel than making the producers a quick buck. Story, character development and exploration and avant garde cinema photography, style and editing are at the heart of French film making.

I can't add much to the title of this post except to say that I have intentionally left out a few of the better known French films, including some my favorites of all time. For examples I have omitted Renoirs's Grand Illusion (my favorite of all French films) and Melville's Army of Shadows (second favorite) as well as such films as Truffaut's 400 Blows, Carne's Children of Paradise and Godard's Breathless. In some cases its because I've already written about that film on this blog (such as Army of Shadows) or because I like the lesser known film better (such as Carne's Port of Shadows).

I restricted myself to one film per director partially to show the breadth of French cinema but also to help myself narrow it down. This could have been a very long list indeed. Anyway I offer these films, all available on DVD and hope that you discover or re-discover one. I've linked them all to IMDb, as per my custom. The order is chronological.

Le Million (1931) Rene Clair. What a fun movie! Comedy, romance, musical numbers, even a touch of intrigue. A struggling artist on the brink of eviction wins the lottery but can't find the ticket. Sacrebleu! The fun never stops. The songs and romance flow right along with the narrative. Absolutely delightful!

Boudo Saved From Drowning (1932) Jean Renoir. It took Hollywood until the late 1960's to make a film like this. Michael Simon is Boudo, a tramp who jumps into the Seine. He is rescued and taken in by a mild mannered book store owner. Boudo makes quite an impact on the family -- a leopard can't change its spots. It is great commentary on society and the human condition. Funny too.

Port of Shadows (1938) Marcel Carne. Jean Gabin was one of the greatest stars of all time. If you never seen him before or only in Grand Illusion check out this film. Gabin plays a military deserter who finds love and a rather odd company of protectors and rivals. The performances are matched by strong atmospheric cinematography. A noir ahead of its time.

Forbidden Games (1952) Rene Clement. Utterly heart breaking, sweet, sentimental and about a central truth of war. Two children are thrown together at the outset of the Nazi invasion of France. One an instant war orphan, the other part of a large farm family. In the wrong hands its the type of story that can go horribly wrong and be maudlin or too depressing. It's simply and honestly told here and not easily forgotten.

Madame De... (1953) Max Ophuls. Opulent. Gorgeous. A beautiful movie to watch. Best to see on the big screen but what are the odds of it coming soon to a theater near you? It's a costume tradition but that's selling the story short. There's real depth to the story and its characters.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) Agnes Varda. At last a female director and an outstanding one at that. It's Varda's tale of a woman who awaits word of medical tests that could bear the worst possible news by killing time in Paris. There's not an ounce of sentiment to the character of Cleo, a popular and vain singer. What she does with those two hours! Great character study.

Le Doulos (1962) Jean-Pierre Melville. Just out on DVD this is in my mind the best of Melville's many outstanding hard boiled crime films, which is saying a lot considering what preceded and followed it (Bob Le Flambeur, Le Samourai, etc.). There is double dealing aplenty as a recently released crook seeks the proverbial last big score. Jean Paul Belmondo is among the strong cast.

Band of Outsiders (1964) Jean-Luc Godard. How to see the Louvre in 15 minutes. One of a seemingly endless stream of films from New Wave directors that was supposed to be the trend setter and barrier breaker of them all. Never mind that, just enjoy the hi jinks of two young wannabe crooks and a the girl they enlist in their capers. There's a number of scenes not to be missed highlighted by the cafe dance (pictured above). Paris in a brooding, bleak, black and white was never lovelier.

Two of Us (1967) Claude Berri. A young Jewish boy is sent to live with an elderly family on a farm during World War II for his own protection. Fair enough, but what if the the man of the house is an anti semite? Fortunately this Petain-loving patriot doesn't know the young lad's true religion -- at first. The two form one of the more unlikely and extraordinary friendships in film. Michael Simon stars 35 years after playing Boudo. His gruff exterior hides the the real heart behind this heart warming story.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Luis Bunel. If you like surrealism, symbolism and riffs on decadence this is your film. By turns frustrating and hilarious it is ultimately a series of interesting statements of society, at least circa 1967 when everything was changing.

La Cage Aux Folles (1978) Edouard Molinaro. There was an adequate remake starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane but as is so often the case the original is superior. Two gay men who live together and own a nightclub where transvestites are featured must hide their true natures when one of their sons marries. A hilarious set up is fully realized.

The Last Metro (1980) Francois Truffaut. In occupied France a Jewish theater owner is being hid from the Nazis by his actress wife played by Catherine Deneuve. Inevitably further complications ensue as the show must go on -- that is, plays in the theater. Our man in hiding is trying to run the show from his hideout meanwhile his wife is falling for her co-star. A new DVD release is scheduled for March 24.

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) Louis Malle. A boarding school in the early 1940's seems happily secluded from the war that is ravaging Europe. Even to a the newly arrived Jewish student. Inevitably, the war intrudes. Meanwhile the Jewish boy befriends a fellow student. Malle based the story on his own war-time experiences. One of the great films of our time.

Read My Lips (2001) Jaques Audiard. One of the better thrillers ever made, period. The good citizen, a 35 year old hearing impaired woman, hires the bad citizen a 20 something ex con, at her company. A plot is hatched, trouble ensues, danger, romance and surprises. Vastly underrated.

I Loved You For So Long (2008) Philippe Claudel. The highlight is an extraordinary performance by Kristin Scott Thomas. We meet Thomas' character as she is being picked up at the airport by her younger sister. We slowly learn where the older sister has been for so long, then why, then the real reason. But mostly we learn about her and the people around her. Fascinating.


Shanerology said...

The Lives Of Others?
Shoot The Piano Player?
Bob Le Flambeur?

Richard Hourula said...

Read the intro?

R. D. Finch said...

Some really fine films here and a nice variety of styles and types, including a couple of my favorites of all time. I would add the following for consideration: "Pepe le Moko" (1937), Duvivier; "La Belle et la Bete"(1946), Cocteau/Clement; "Les Vacances de M. Hulot" (1953), Tati (or just about anything else by him--I'm planning to write a blog about him in the future); "Wild Reeds" (1994), Techine.

Of the films you named, I don't quite agree with the inclusion of "The Last Metro"--good, but not great Truffaut--although I understand that you seem to have a predilection for films set during wartime. For Malle, I preferred "Lacombe, Lucien" to "Au Revoir, les Enfants." Haven't seen "Quai des Brumes," but "Le Jour se Leve" (1939) was a great Carne/Prevert/Gabin film. As for "La Cage aux Folles," I won't say anything.

Also, thanks for reminding me how much I have to catch up on, like Melville. I've heard so much about him but have yet to see anything by him. Maybe this post will inspire me to get a move on.

Richard Hourula said...

R.D. Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I really should have made room for Pepe Le Moko. There's always one film I regret leaving off anytime I do a list. You're right about my predilection for WWII related films. I've been a life long student of the war so its a case of two passions meeting, plus war lends itself to compelling stories.

Anonymous said...

I love the you included Band of Outsiders instead of the better known Breathless. In my opinion it is a superior film, although I do recognize the profound effect breathless had on cinema.