The IFI's annual French Film Festival gets under way on Wednesday, and this year the event welcomes a couple of very special guests. Béatrice Dalle will be there to promote her new film, Bye Bye Blondie, and to introduce a screening of 1980s classic Betty Blue.
And Juliette Binoche will discuss her acclaimed performance in Sylvie Testud's comic drama La Vie d'une Autre. Having made her mark in Hollywood as well as France, Binoche now ranks as one of the truly great French screen actresses, and has appeared in some extraordinary films.
One or two of them, like Michael Haneke's thriller Caché and Krzysztof Kieslowski's heartbreaking drama Trois Couleurs: Bleu, regularly make lists of the hundred best French films. But they don't quite qualify as French films you should see before you die, and that's what we're discussing here.
Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, when I first became interested in French films, classics such as La Grande Illusion, Le Jour se Lève and Touchez Pas au Grisbi were regularly shown on British television, giving the casual viewer an introduction to one of the world's most distinctive national cinemas.
That doesn't happen any more, and nowadays fans of French cinema have to work a bit harder to keep up. It's worth the effort, though, because as you'd expect from the country that invented the art form, French cinema is a treasure trove of unforgettable films. There's always the IFI of course, which regularly screens new French films, but those in search of the classics will often have to shop online.
French classics are often ignored in the Anglophone world, but offer a completely separate narrative to the one pursued in Hollywood. And here are 10 French films you really should not miss.
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 all but forgotten until a film historian called Kevin Brownlow lovingly restored it to its full, 330-minute glory. The film covers Napoleon's childhood and early military career and ends at the height of his glorious invasion of Italy in 1797.
Albert Dieudonné plays Bonaparte, and his haunting gaze speaks volumes.
Available at amazon.com.
La Grande Illusion
The fact that Jean Renoir appears twice on this list should give you some idea of his importance in French cinema. The son of impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jean Renoir 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 of them, and uses a World War One prison camp to explore the themes of class conflict, race and war. A mesmerising anti-war classic.
Available online and at larger DVD outlets.
La RÈgle du Jeu
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 chateau in the lush Loire countryside, the romantic complications of the gentry upstairs are mirrored by unhappiness below.
Parisian audiences were outraged by La Règle du Jeu when it was first released -- it hardly painted a heroic picture of French society -- but it captured perfectly the doomed decadence of pre-war France, and its poetic visual style is best expressed in a hypnotic hunting scene.
Available online and at larger DVD outlets.
A great cinematic stylist of the 1940s, 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 creates chaos in a small town by spreading falsehoods and calumny in a series of poison-pen letters.
Not everyone was happy with Le Corbeau's vitriolic view of the French people, and Clouzot was briefly banned from film-making after the war. But Le Corbeau is now recognised as a timeless classic.
Available on Amazon.
Les Enfants du Paradis
Filmed in the most difficult circumstances in wartime Vichy, Marcel Carné's period drama had to cope with rationed film stock, collapsing finances and the persistent interference of a pro-Nazi censor.
Starving extras robbed food during a banquet scene, and other stand-ins were allegedly resistants using the film as a cover. Remarkably, the film got made and its three-hour, dream-like tale of a beautiful 19th-Century courtesan and her ardent, warring admirers was quickly recognised as a masterpiece.
In the late 1990s, a panel of critics and filmmakers voted it the best French film ever.
Available at HMV, Tower Records, and online.
La Belle et la BÊte (1946)
French films are often distinguished by their visual poetry, and they don't come much more poetic than Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête.
The poet and dramatist was relatively inexperienced in film-making when he decided to adapt the European fairytale Beauty and the Beast, and he used innovative effects, camera work and lighting to reimagine the classic story.
To save her father, a young woman called Belle agrees to become the prisoner of a hideous beast in a castle full of enchanted furnishings and fabulous creatures. A feast for the senses.
Available at amazon.com.
Jacques Tati was France's answer to Charlie Chaplin. His most famous and successful movie is Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, but for me his best film is Mon Oncle.
A beautifully photographed satire on the soullessness of modern life and the postwar obsession with labour-saving devices, Mon Oncle starred Tati as Monsieur Hulot, the dreamy and affectionate uncle of Gérard, a nine-year-old boy whose spirit is stifled by his materialistic parents. A biting critique of modern living.
For sale on Amazon, fnac.com
Les Quatre Cents Coups
For me the best of the nouvelle vague films, Les Quatre Cents Coups is comparable to James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in its insightful depiction of the awakening of an artistic sensibility.
Having made his name as an acerbic critic on the 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 at school by a sadistic teacher, he plays truant and wanders the streets of Montmartre and Pigalle dreaming of becoming an artist.
Available on Amazon and at fnac.com.
Que la BÊte Meure (1969)
Perhaps the finest revenge thriller ever made, Claude Chabrol's 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 search to find the killer, Charles tracks down a female passenger in the car and uses her 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. For sale on fnac.com