France is obviously heavy in the news this week with the horrific terror attacks in Paris, along with bombings in Beirut and threats in Germany. I can’t claim to be well informed about these events, but I do know that in the wake of tragedy abroad, the world has turned its sympathy and support toward France as it struggles to put things right. As we think of France, we might take some time to indulge in some cultural and cinematic immersion into the culture, getting to know France through its long and prestigious and very, very French film history. Here are just a few places to start, some of my own favorite movies from just a few of the great French directors.
La Grande Illusion (The Grand Illusion) – 1937
Director Jean Renoir, son of the famous Impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, is known among film scholars and modern filmmakers as one of the greatest directors of all time. His film La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939) is often called the greatest movie of all time. The plot of La Grande Illusion might seem familiar because it is the movie that inspired The Great Escape (1963). Renoir’s films are filled with social commentary that often examines the separation of classes in France, and while La Grande Illusion is very much a wartime adventure movie, there is no mistaking the message conveyed through the restrained friendship between one working class soldier and his aristocratic commander, or the more comfortable friendship between the French commander and his aristocratic German captor. Renoir’s films are also filled with fun and poignancy, and a sort of empathy – an ability for revealing to us our behaviors and emotions and their inherent universality.
A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) – 1960
Jean-Luc Godard was one of the leading directors in a cinematic movement called the French New Wave. While the films in this movement varied widely in both style and subject, the members of this group of filmmakers were all highly philosophical and academic about film – admiring, analyzing, and critiquing much of classic Hollywood cinema while ushering in a golden age of French cinema. Breathless is one of the leading examples of French New Wave cinema. It follows the relationship between a small time thief and an American student. As they spend time together the camera lingers on moments of interaction and highlights the personal quirks of their relationship. Godard popularized the jump-cut in this film and it perfectly conveys the fleeting feeling of a life made up of moments – expressions, words, gestures, or feelings all strung together to create an impression and not so much a line of continuous experience. What happens between these moments is unknown and perhaps unimportant – the perception of the viewer and his memory of events being what defines the experience.
Chronique d’une Été (Chronicle of a Summer) – 1961
The documentary style cinema verite also came out of the French New Wave, a style very like the American direct cinema but with a touch more manipulation and finesse. In cinema verite the director can ask questions and guide a conversation but ultimately wants the subjects of the film to behave as naturally as possible while on camera. Direct cinema is more hands off and strictly observational. The great innovator of cinema verite was the anthropologist Jean Rouch, who made this film with sociologist Edgar Morin. Rouch was extremely interested in the transition and relationship between colonialism and post-colonialism, focusing much of his life and work in Nigeria. In this film Rouch chronicles a summer in Paris, focusing on topics of French society and happiness in the working classes, as well as the rocky integration of French Algerians into the country. While the film captures a time in French history, it also examines the nature of cinema and the inherent disruptiveness of the camera in the impartial documentation of events.
Jules and Jim – 1962
Jules and Jim is one of my favorite movies, a beautiful, entertaining, strange, and tragic story about two friends (one Austrian, one French) and the mercurial woman they both love. It is, first and foremost, about the unconditional love of the two men for each other – that no matter what they would always be friends. The first part of the movie is a whimsical romp in which the trio have silly adventures and magical days together. The second half of the movie turns dark as WWI begins and the friends are separated by their countries of allegiance. They reunite after the war, still dedicated to each other despite the woman’s turn of affections from one man to the other. Director Francois Truffaut has a penchant for the whimsical, dark, and strange and makes wonderful, magical, thoughtful movies filled with delight and perversion. If you want more Truffaut, I also highly recommend Shoot the Piano Player (1960).
La Jetée – 1962
I’ve written about this one before, partly as a note about the origins of Twelve Monkeys but also just because it’s so cool. This film is a 28 minute short by writer/director Chris Marker and as previously mentioned is the story on which Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1996) is based. The film is made up of still photos as the story is told by a French narrator. After World War III Paris is left uninhabitable and a lone traveler is sent back and forth in time to find a solution to humanity’s dilemma. Throughout his travels there is a pervasive image of a woman, a memory from the past or future of someone he has yet to meet. It is a super cool movie, made all the more poignant and striking by the still photography and the poetry of the French narration.
8 Femmes – 2002
I was going to talk about Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, which is a beautiful and intense film about the bombing of Hiroshima many years later. It is one of those transcendent films that you have to see before you die, so I have to at least mention it. Instead of Hiroshima Mon Amour, though, I’m going with the batshit crazy Francois Ozon film about eight women and a murdered man. I saw this on a whim with a friend in Seattle without knowing anything about it. We were both surprised by this campy mish-mash of genres, this mystery-turned musical-turned lesbian love story and were delighted by every bizarre twist and baffling turn. As affecting and artistic and deep as Hiroshima Mon Amour is – and it definitely fits in with the rest of this list better than this – sometimes you can’t beat a fun night out with a friend at a crazy movie.