The first thing that usually comes to mind when someone mentions France is how synonymous it has become with romance.
Even Paris, its capital, is nicknamed the “City of Love”, receiving more than 30 million visitors each year at its pre-pandemic peak.
Couples in love from all around the world flock to the city to visit its iconic “romantic” landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, River Seine, Luxembourg Gardens and Wall of Love.
Likewise, over the years, French films have also garnered quite a reputation for their romantic nature. However, unlike what we have been accustomed to think, the French approach romance a little differently – instead of merely telling stories about relationships, love also encompasses one’s attitude towards life, or even the way humans interact with one another.
Be it new wave masterpieces like 1959’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) or contemporary favourites like 2001’s Amelie, there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi about French films that simply cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Richard Mowe, journalist and co-director of the French Film Festival UK, opines: “France has always been the cradle of cinema from the days of the pioneering Lumière Brothers. In fact, more people go to the cinema in France than any other country in Europe!”
In France, cinema is regarded as the “seventh art”, considered to be a new form of art combining the six previous arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry and dance.
As award-winning author Henry Porter puts it: “Cinema is one of the ways a nation entertains itself, but also contemplates its problems, peculiarities and changes. French cinema does this very well – its storytelling considers the disappointment of existence, indulges whimsy and eccentricity, embraces the drama of middle age and takes risks.
“French films are made for grown-ups and, because of the unabashed interest in their own society and their own stories, often have as much integrity as they do charm. The French accept that cinema is more than entertainment, a revenue earner and an employment generator: it is culture.”
Simultaneously thought-provoking, poignant and painful, somehow French films have an uncanny ability of transporting us into a different headspace.
Here’s a look at a few standout ones that you should be adding to your watchlist.
‘LES PASSAGERS DE LA NUIT’
It is Election Night, 1981. As the nation celebrates its new president, Elisabet (Charlotte Gainsbourg) finds her marriage coming to an unexpected end. Now alone with her two teenage children, she needs to find a way to support herself and her family.
She finds a job on a late-night radio show called Les Passagers De La Nuit, and along the way, meets a free-spirited young woman Talulah (Noee Abita).
Upon finding out that Talulah has no place to stay, Elisabet takes her in.
Directed and co-written by Mikhael Hers, even though Les Passagers De la Nuit (Passengers Of The Night) touches on topics like divorce, homelessness and substance abuse, the beautiful cinematography and stellar acting bring together a sense of low-key calmness to the film as the characters navigate their respective everyday lives in the carefree 1980s.
Part coming-of-age story, part historical fiction, Gagarine (2020) is Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh’s feature directorial debut.
Selected for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and nominated for “Best First Film” at the 2022 Cesar Awards, the film revolves around 16-year-old Yuri, who lives in Cite Gargarine, a vast housing project on the outskirts of Paris.
In real life, Cite Gargarine was built in the 1960s by the Community Party of France. The sprawling red-bricked complex was named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, showcasing the era of communism in France at that time.
Eventually, in 2019, no longer a shining symbol of power, Cite Gargarine was demolished over a period of 16 months, drawing both local and international media attention.
In the film Gagarine, like his namesake, Yuri dreams of becoming an astronaut.
When his home faces the threat of destruction, he embarks on a mission to save it. What ensues is a fantasy-like depiction of how he comes to terms with his own emotions, finding solace in the building’s basement.
Using contrasts of light and shadow, the directors describe a rebellion that also marks Yuri’s farewell to his youth. This underscores the undeniable truth that he will soon lose his community, and he comes to the painful realization that there is nothing he can do about it.
Somehow, the dreamy scenes become a rude awakening for the viewer as they gradually pave the way to Yuri’s powerlessness.
Based on the novel of the same name by Annie Ernaux, L'evenement (Happening) is a story about a young and talented student called Anne.
Set in the 1960s, Anne finds herself pregnant when her life is just beginning to take off. In order to complete her studies, she must decide whether to go forward with an abortion, even if it means risking prison.
During that time, abortion was illegal in France.
Earlier, during World War II, it was considered a capital crime, and the last woman to be executed for abortion was guillotined on 30 July 1943. After the war, the death penalty was abolished, but abortion continued to be prosecuted vigorously.
It wasn’t until 2016 that women had legal rights to abortions in France.
Faced with such a dilemma, Anne’s decisions will keep you on the edge of your seats. The camera pans across the extreme methods she has to resort to, shining a spotlight on how much freedom women were deprived of, even though this was just 60 years ago.
Peppered with sweaty close-ups and panicked gasping, the audience is drawn into the film, as though we are right beside Anne.
Unlike many other feminist films, L'evenement does not deliberately exaggerate women’s weaknesses to tell a tale of emancipation, but rather, raises a more important question that seems to have sparked many a heated discussion of late: the right for a woman to decide what is best for her body and gain access to safe, legally-performed abortions should be made available, not taken away.
Not to be confused with the musical, Les Miserables (2019) is inspired by the 2005 Paris riots and real-life occurrences of police violence.
The film follows police officer Stephane (Damien Bonnard), a new member of the anti-crime squad in the impoverished suburb of Montfermeil.
When an investigation about a stolen lion turns unexpectedly violent, it is inexplicably caught on a drone camera. Now, Stephane and his colleagues must navigate an increasingly angry neighbourhood and prevent it from spiraling out of control.
In the actual 2005 Paris riots, two youths died from electrocution after hiding from the police, igniting tensions about youth unemployment and police harassment in poorer areas, which in turn sparked three weeks of riots and forced the country to declare a state of emergency.
Directed by Ladj Ly in his first full-length feature debut, the film’s title is a reference to Victor Hugo’s historical novel, which was also set in Montfermeil and depicted abuse towards poor citizens.
We see Stephane struggle between carrying out his job and doing what’s morally right, surrounded by issues like poverty, racism and class differences.
Lifting a quote from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables novel, the film ultimately reminds us that “there are no such things as bad plants or bad men, only bad cultivators”.
Following the success of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019), acclaimed filmmaker Celine Sciamma returns with fantasy drama film Petite Maman, which premiered at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival in March of 2021.
After the death of her beloved maternal grandmother, eight year old Nelly (Josephine Sanz) and her parents head to her mother’s childhood home to tie up some loose ends.
Deeply upset, Nelly’s mother leaves during the night without saying goodbye. While playing in the woods, Nelly meets a strangely familiar girl, Marion (played by Josephine’s real life twin, Gabrielle), who is a spitting image of her likeness.
As she gets to know her new friend better, Nelly embarks on a fantastical journey of discovery, which helps her come to terms with this newfound loss.
The film won the “Audience Award” at the 2021 San Sebastian International Film Festival.
With a 97% score on Rotten Tomatoes, it has also touched the hearts of many.
Film critic Mark Kermode called Petite Maman his favourite film of 2021.
“Whether you are six or 60, this astonishingly insightful and heartbreakingly hopeful cinematic poem will pierce your heart, broaden your mind and gladden your soul, even as you wipe away tears,” he said.
Credit: Petit Maman / MUBI
Writer | Michelle Tan
Having spent the past decade turning her passion into profession, Michelle is a freelance writer/translator based in Malaysia. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.