Friday 23 August 2019

Film: Crème de la crème of French cinema

Oh là là: Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in Valley of Love, showing at the IFI as part of its French film festival.
Oh là là: Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in Valley of Love, showing at the IFI as part of its French film festival.
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

When pioneering brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere invited a select audience to a Paris screening of their short film L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat on January 6, 1896, something special happened. It was short all right - it lasted less than a minute - but the sight of a train careering towards the camera thrilled the amazed spectators, some of whom were seen to duck. And in that moment, that first collision of audience and moving image, cinema was born.

So, of course, was French cinema, and in the century and a bit since, it has remained among the most consistently vibrant and distinctive national cinemas in the world.

The IFI's annual French Film Festival begins next Wednesday (see panel), and will include a selection of the best French releases of the last 12 months, as well as screenings of some enduring classics.

When I was growing up, those classic French films were easier to access as they were screened regularly on British stations like BBC2 and Channel 4, giving me the chance to watch the work of great actors like Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet, and directors like Jean Renoir and Henri-Georges Clouzot.

These days, you have to work a bit harder to find them but it's worth the effort because there are some real gems in the French canon that lovers of cinema ought not to miss.

So, here's my selection of 10 French films you should really seek out. They're available online at Amazon and elsewhere, and some, like my favourite film of all time, La Regle du Jeu, can be watched for free on YouTube. They'll all very different in terms of theme and style, but one quality unites them - excellence.

Napoleon (1927)

Originally intended as the first of six films exploring the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, Abel Gance's ambitious epic had a troubled opening. After being screened sporadically across Europe, it was bought by MGM studios, who drastically cut it and released it in America just as talkies were beginning to appear.

It bombed and was forgotten until a film historian called Kevin Brounlow spent 20 years lovingly restoring it to its full, 330-minute glory. The film covers Napoleon's childhood and early career and concludes with his triumphant invasion of northern Italy in 1797. Albert Dieudonné plays Bonaparte, and his haunting gaze speaks volumes.

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)

Not everyone was pleased when Carl Theodor Dreyer announced he intended to dramatise the life of one of France's most cherished icons, Joan of Arc. The Bishop of Paris found the silent movie sacrilegious, and the English banned it because it depicted their armies in such an unflattering light, but there was something very special about the finished film.

Dreyer shot in close-up and without make-up in order to let his actors' faces tell the story, and Maria Falconetti was mesmerising as the teenage martyr. Dreyer died thinking the film had been lost, but an almost complete print was later discovered in, of all places, a Norwegian mental hospital.

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir gets not one but two mentions in my list, which should give you some idea of how special a film-maker he was. The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean began making silent films in the 1920s and hit his stride in the 1930s with a series of breathtakingly accomplished dramas.

La Grande Illusion is among the best, and uses a First World War prison camp to explore the themes of class conflict, racism and war. Jean Gabin plays a working-class Parisian fighter pilot who ends up sharing a jail cell with a Jewish solider and a haughty aristocrat who he initially despises but ultimately learns to respect.

La Regle du Jeu (1939)

The greatest French film of them all, and possibly the greatest film of all, Jean Renoir's darkly comic drama painted a vivid picture of a jaded and iniquitous society just as it was about to collapse. In a grand château in the lush Loire countryside, the romantic complications of the gentry upstairs are mirrored by unhappiness below during a wild and hedonistic weekend.

Contemporary audiences were outraged by La Regle du Jeu, which hardly painted a heroic picture of French society. But it captured the doomed decadence of a country that was about to be overwhelmed by darkness, and its poetic visual style is best expressed in a hypnotic hunting scene.

Le Corbeau (1943)

A great stylist of the 1940s and 1950s, Henri-Georges Clouzot was a relentless perfectionist with a deeply pessimistic view of human nature. And he brilliantly summed up life under the German occupation with his noir-ish 1943 thriller Le Corbeau.

"Le Corbeau", or the crow, is the pen name of an anonymous scribe who causes chaos in a small country town by spreading falsehoods in a series of poison-pen letters. Le Corbeau's vitriolic view of the French went down as well as you might expect, and Clouzot was briefly banned from film-making. But his film is now recognised as a timeless classic.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

Made in war-time Vichy, Marcel Carné's epic period drama had to cope with non-stop adversity during its production, from collapsing finances and rationed film stock to the persistent interference of a pro-Nazi censor. Starving extras robbed food during a banquet scene, and other stand-ins were allegedly resistance fighters using the shoot as a cover.

Somehow, the film got made, and its three-hour, dream-like tale of a beautiful 19th-century courtesan and her warring admirers was hailed as a masterpiece. In the late 1990s, a panel of critics and film-makers voted it the best French movie ever.

La Belle et la Bete (1946)

Classic French films are often distinguished by their visual poetry, and they don't come much more poetic than Jean Cocteau's Belle et la Bete. The playwright was a film-making novice when he decided to adapt European fairytale Beauty and the Beast, and he used innovative effects and lighting to completely re-imagine the classic story.

To save her father, a young woman called Belle (Josette Day) agrees to become the prisoner of a hideous Beast (Jean Marais) in a castle full of enchanted furnishings and fabulous creatures. A feast for the senses.

Mon Oncle (1959)

A brilliant physical comedian and visionary film-maker, Jacques Tati was often called France's answer to Charlie Chaplin. His most famous movie is Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, but for me his best is Mon Oncle.

This beautifully photographed satire on the soullessness of modern life and the postwar obsession with labour-saving devices starred Tati as Monsieur Hulot, the dreamy and affectionate uncle of Gérard, a nine-year-old boy whose spirit is stifled by his soulless and materialistic parents.

Mon Oncle is full of priceless visual gags but is underpinned by melancholy.

Les 400 Coups (1959)

For me, the best of the nouvelle vague films, Les Quatre Cent Coups is comparable to James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist in its insightful depiction of the awakening of an artistic sensibility.

Having made his name as an acerbic critic on the influential film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Francois Truffaut based his debut feature on his own childhood difficulties.

Jean-Pierre Léaud played Antoine, a 12-year-old boy growing up in Paris in the early 1950s.

Misunderstood by his parents and tormented by a sadistic teacher, he plays truant and wanders the streets of Montmartre and Pigalle dreaming of s bright future.

Que la Bete Meure (1969)

Perhaps the finest revenge thriller ever to be made, Claude Chabrol's nightmarish drama The Beast Must Die stars Michel Duchaussoy as Charles Thenier, a father who becomes obsessed with finding the hit-and- run driver who killed his nine-year-old son.

After the police give up the case, Charles tracks down a female passenger in the car and manipulates her mercilessly in order to get closer and closer to the man who ran over his son and now expects to get away with it.

Chabrol's film builds its tension masterfully to show how an obsession with revenge can poison a good man's life, and has a uniquely woozy visual style.

IFI French Film Festival

The IFI's French Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday night, and opens with Standing Tall, a moving drama starring Catherine Deneuve as a judge who becomes mixed up in the life of a juvenile delinquent. I'm really looking forward to My Golden Days, Arnaud Desplechin's sweeping drama starring Mathieu Amalric as a mysterious and troubled anthropologist. The experience of Muslim immigrants is explored by Philippe Faucon's drama Fatima, while Thomas Bidegain's clever contemporary western The Cowboys has been compared to The Searchers.

Vincent Lindon won Best Actor at Cannes for his portrayal of a desperate father in The Measure of a Man, and veteran stars Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu play a divorced couple reunited by tragedy in Valley of Love. Jacques Audiard is one of the most talented and distinctive directors working in French cinema today, and a screening of his Palme d'Or-winning drama Dheepan is sure to be one of the festival highlights. There'll also be an Audiard retrospective including screenings of A Prophet, Rust and Bone and The BeatThat My Heart Skipped, and the director will attend the event for a public Q & A involving myself next Saturday.

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