Beyond venturing to and from the movies in 2014, I’ve also stumbled upon a wonderful streaming website called Mubi that’s met many of my cinematic needs. The service provides one international film every day of the year. As you might imagine, that leads to an eclectic mix of features both old and new. Mubi is a fine starting point for anyone hoping to expand their cinematic knowledge and delve into the bottomless pit of world cinema.
Mubi’s last year has thrown up a whole host of French classics that fly beyond the predictable host of New Wave leading lights. Building from that collection, I made this list to serve as a helpful guide to some of the best French cinema has to offer. Many of these movies have been overlooked by the masses, so I decided to highlight them here.
1. Les Cousins || The Cousins (Claude Chabrol, 1959)
The general consensus is that Cahiers du Cinéma members Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut were the trailblazing pioneers of the Nouvelle Vague, or French New Wave. However, it’s forgotten man Claude Chabrol who can lay claim to being the first in the movement to release a feature-length film: Les Cousins.
Chabrol’s first great success was his second release. It was not only a financial success but also a critical one as it picked up the Golden Bear award at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival in 1959. The direct antithesis to his rural debut, Le Beau Serge, Les Cousins follows the fortunes of naïve country boy Charles (Gérard Blain) as he moves in with his decadent, vulgar socialite cousin Paul (Jean-Claude Brialy) in the city.
Les Cousins works on its own, but it becomes even more interesting in historical context. The enthralling character-driven culture clash at the film’s heart is certainly – in retrospect – an allegory for Chabrol and his peers blowing apart the mechanics of traditional French filmmaking.
There’s certainly a youthful joie de vivre typical of the Nouvelle Vague in Les Cousins, yet Chabrol’s film has a more classical Hollywood panache than was common to his Cahiers colleagues. Chabrol’s favourite director was Alfred Hitchcock, to whom he dedicated his 1957 book The First Forty-Four Films, and his hero’s influence looms large over Les Cousins. This is particularly evident in its psychological thrills and black humour.
Is Chabrol the French Hitchcock? No, he’s Claude Chabrol. And in some ways, that’s even better.
2. Ascenseur pour l’échafaud || Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1957)
Louis Malle’s crime thriller may precede the French New Wave by a couple of years, but it shares the movement’s penchant for protagonists who ooze effortless amounts of cool. The narrative focuses on the illicit lengths two couples will go to in order to cement their love, as well as their attempt to get away with their crimes.
The film’s suspense-filled story centres on the unflappable Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) who finds himself trapped in an office elevator after slyly murdering his boss, and lover’s husband. With everyone out of the building for the weekend he’s left in the ultimate catch-22; he is implicated in one murder, but framed for another as his car his stolen by a murderous couple believing they’re the Parisian Bonnie and Clyde. The film’s big question is whether Tavernier can escape his uniquely tricky predicament, a struggle depicted with a slick pacing and suave sophistication.
One of Elevator to the Gallows’ biggest triumphs is Miles Davis’ sultry jazz score that accompanies Florence Carala’s (Jeanne Moreau) lonely walks through a nocturnal Paris. Jazz critic Phil Johnson boldly labelled it as “the loneliest trumpet sound you will ever hear, and the model for sad-core music ever since. Hear it and weep.”
Though it didn’t make you [me?] cry, it beautifully fits the sultry Jeanne Moreau has she wanders the moonlit city streets.
3. Le Cercle Rouge || The Red Circle (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)
If America’s great cinematic antihero of the 60s and 70s was the rugged, handsome Clint Eastwood, then Alain Delon is surely the French equivalent. Take Eastwood’s Western persona, The Man with No Name, and replace the poncho for [with?] a trench coat. Then trade in the stubby beard for a sturdy moustache, the cigar for a petite cigarette and the horse for a classic sports car – but keep the ice cool demeanour – and you have Le Cercle Rouge’s protagonist, Corey (Delon).
Delon partners up with longterm collaborator Jean-Pierre Melville for this understated heist crime thriller. Silence is golden for Melville, so don’t expect Oceans Eleven-style fast-paced action and slick sequences. Instead, Melville, with the help of stone-faced Delon, crafts a tale of flawed men with unerring principles and rigid belief systems as they struggle with their own self-destructive natures.
Melville and Delon’s most famous production is Le Samouraï, but Le Cercle Rouge is a methodical and cerebral thriller well worth watching – at the very least for Delon’s enigmatic presence.
4. Orphée || Orpheus (Jean Cocteau, 1950)
The album artwork on The Smiths’ record “This Charming Man” is a frame lifted directly from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. It features none other than handsome devil Jean Marais in his role as the title character. The film is novelist/director/artist/playwright Cocteau’s contemporary take on Greek mythology. In it, the wondrous musician Orpheus ventures to the underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa), from death.
Despite its age, the film has a dreamy, magical aura that perfectly communicates Cocteau’s surreal reinvention of the traditional tale. The director uses different film tricks to achieve that ambiance. For example, he runs certain sequences backwards to illustrate the unique qualities of death to mesmerising effect. This technique is never more impressive than when Marais enters the underworld through a mirror made of mercury.
Orphée is worth admiring for the memorable and iconic nature of many of its scenes. Fun fact: leading man Marais was Cocteau’s lover at the time of shooting. Ironically, he worked alongside youthful co-star Jacques Cégeste who was Cocteau’s old flame from a prior collaboration on Les Enfants Terribles. Talk about awkward.
5. L’Année Dernière à Marienbad || Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
Last Year at Marienbad is undoubtedly the most polarising film on this list. The film comes from the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and is set in the opulent and claustrophobic Mariendbad Hotel. There, a man attempts to convince a woman that the duo had fallen madly in love the year before and had agreed to run away together. The only problem is that this woman has no recollection of ever meeting this man.
Last Year at Marienbad’s narrative dilemma is played out in a dreamy (verging on nightmarish) episode that’s as ambiguous as any film I’ve seen. The subjective nature of existence and unreliable power of memory anchor the fragmented story so that we, the audience, are never entirely sure what’s real and what isn’t. It’s the sort of film that likely populates as many top film polls as it does worst film polls, a testament to its foggy, surrealist nature.
Does the woman have a serious case of amnesia, or are these the love-driven fantasies of a depraved maniac? Is the film a visual representation of purgatory, or is the film all a dream? You’ll have to see Marienbad yourself and make your own mind up. You may never get the answers you’re looking for with Marienbad, but its a thought provoking ride, and those are few and far between in cinema.
6. Bande à Part || Band of Outsiders (Jean- Luc Godard, 1964)
You can’t compile a list of classic French cinema without mentioning Jean-Luc Godard at least once. The only problem I faced was finding a great film from his extensive catalogue that both isn’t well-known and doesn’t come from his dubious post-70s period (culminating in this year’s atrocity, Goodbye to Language). After ruling out 90-minute communist manifesto La Chinoise (1967) due to the fact it’s a hard sell to anyone besides Lenin and Stalin themselves, I choose the underrated Bande à Part.
Like Breathless (1960), the film is about as accessible as Godard gets. A charming and impulsive spirit surrounds his central trio of bored delinquents that makes them easy to watch. In true Godard fashion, there are paradoxes galore in the dialogue, homage to the nihilistic American gangster films, an amusing self-awareness and a starring role for his famous muse, Anna Karina.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with Bande à Part. The film’s leads obliviously act their way through the film, the narrative unfolding as if improvised on the spot. Its self-perpetuating style is never more evident than the moment where Karina and Co. break into an iconic impromptu dance routine, apropos of nothing. This wonderful little scene – which was part of the inspiration for Pulp Fiction‘s famous dance number – perfectly encapsulates the charming side of Godard in one of his most overlooked gems.
7. Pauline à la Plage || Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer, 1983)
It’s been said that Éric Rohmer is the great forgotten director of the French New Wave/Cahiers du Cinema. Despite his anonymity to many, the British Film Institute, as part of a thorough retrospective of his work, recently called Rohmer “one of film’s most consistently rewarding artists.” Isn’t it about time you found out why?
Removed from the flashy style of his peers, Rohmer finds power in simplicity by letting his characters do the talking, and Pauline at the Beach is a fine example of his style at work. The lighthearted narrative sees teenager Pauline (Amanda Langlet) on a summer holiday with her older cousin. True to form, the vacation quickly becomes a tangled mess of love triangles, squares and hexagons.
The rest of the film is a wordy battle of the sexes that communicates a basic message: adults are just as daft and confused, perhaps even more so, as their supposedly immature children. Much of the French New Wave errs on the wrong side of pretentious, but Rohmer reminds us this isn’t always the case. His approach is frank and entertaining, and his tales are rooted in the real world.
8. La Jetée || The Pier (Chris Marker, 1962)
Marker’s film La Jetée, almost entirely made up of photographic stills (does that still qualify as a movie?), is a landmark classic that, despite its critical and academic recognition, seems to continually fly under the radar. But make no mistake – it definitely deserves its reputation. Time travelling wasn’t pioneered by La Jetée, but it had never been imagined so frighteningly, so beautifully and so realistically as it is in Marker’s film.
For those watching La Jetée for the first or 50th time, it remains a startling piece of art that captivates the imagination like few short films can. Last time I watched the film I thought I suffered what I thought was an eery bout of déjà vu – but perhaps it was just the powerful yearning brought on by themes of loss, memory and time in La Jetée that had worked their magic on me.
No wonder it provided the basis for contemporary pieces like Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and Rian Johnson’s Looper. The former has been particularly influential in its own right; besides jumpstarting Brad Pitt’s career, it’s also getting the television treatment. The show launches on SyFy later this month.