When I saw that Lady Eve’s Reel Life and Silver Screen Modes were hosting a blogathon about French cinema, I just knew that I had to sign up and take part. Make sure you visit their sites to read all of the entries, I can’t wait to read them all myself.
I love French cinema. I especially love classic era French films. I think that what I love most about the films from this particular era, is the fact that they often tended to be far more realistic and gritty in comparison with the glamour of many of the classic era Hollywood films. I also adore the incredible cinematography and atmosphere found in the French films from this era.
Here are five classic era French films that I think every film fan should see at least once in their life. The films are listed here in order of the year in which they were released. Not only do I consider these five films to be among some of the finest films ever made in France, but I also picked these because they represent different decades and styles of French cinema.
This Silent avant-garde film is one of the most moving and visually interesting films I’ve ever seen. Clocking in at just under 38 minutes long, this is a film which packs quite the emotional punch. It’s hard to forget this one once you’ve seen it. Right from its very first shot- depicting the brutal and frenzied axe murder of a couple – this film dares to be different. The film is directed by experimental filmmaker Dimitri Kirsanoff. The film has no subtitles, and while some viewers may find that to be an issue, I personally don’t because you can follow what’s going on and who the characters are and what they’re doing.
The film follows two sisters who are the children of the murdered couple. The rest of the film focuses on their plight. This is a film which draws you in and makes you connect emotionally with the characters. It has a documentary look about it and was filmed on location in Menilmontant. Best remembered for the very moving scene where an old man shares his bread with one of the sisters(played by Kirsanoff’s wife Nadia Sibirskaia) who is starving. This scene could all too easily have become sentimental or cliched, but it is a testament to all involved that it doesn’t play like that and manages to be both realistic and touching.
Le Jour Se Leve (1939)
This gripping film focuses on a working class man who is barricaded in an apartment surrounded by police. He has killed someone and the police are trying to move in to arrest him. As he waits for the police to make their move, we begin to see in flashback the events which led him to be in this predicament.
This early Noir film was famously banned by the Vichy government in 1940. The film stands as a powerful allegory for the individual and the few standing up to the many. Not hard to see why the scum in charge during the war took issue with it. Jean Gabin delivers one of his finest performances as Francois. Arletty and Jacqueline Laurent provide solid support as the two very different women who Francois becomes romantically involved with. Featuring some stunning cinematography and wonderful use of shadow and light. Many people consider director Marcel Carne’s later film Children Of Paradise to be his best, but I think there is a strong case to be made for Le Jour Se Leve to hold that title. This is an absolutely cracking flick.
La Belle Et La Bete(1946)
Watching this film is like stepping into a vivid dream. In my opinion no other screen adaptation of the novel Beauty And The Beast even comes remotely close to this one. Director Jean Cocteau’s second film is poetic, haunting, romantic, and truly stunning to behold. Who can forget the living candelabra on the walls of the beast’s enchanted castle? Who can forget the magic mirror? Who can forget the beast carrying Belle to her bed?
This beautiful film is perhaps the ultimate love story. The enchanted, cruel beast undergoes a personality change as he falls for the gentle and kind Belle. In this film love is so strong that it can destroy curses and darkness. Josette Day is excellent as Belle and gives the character great strength and heart, but she and everyone else in the film are eclipsed by Jean Maris as the Beast. Despite being hidden beneath great amounts of makeup, Jean manages to convey so much emotion to us and steals every scene he is in. Truly one of all time great film performances. This is a film that every film fan and film student should watch. It makes for truly magical viewing.
Forbidden Games is one of the best coming of age films ever made. The film depicts the horrors of war and a loss of innocence seen through the eyes of two young children. Director Rene Clement’s haunting, beautiful, and deeply moving coming of age story captures the period of idyllic childhood innocence perfectly.
This film captures this time of childhood innocence being shattered. It does a good job of depicting a moment – one which unfortunately must come to us all at some point – in which children lose their innocence and finally become aware of and enter into the adult world. The film reminds me quite a bit of Whistle Down The Wind, and I think that if you enjoyed that film, then you’ll enjoy this one too. Forbidden Games memorably features two of the most natural and remarkable child performances in film history. You can read my review of this moving and powerful film here.
Few films shock as much as this one does. Famous for misleading audiences right up to its truly shocking and unexpected twist ending. This one is a perfect mix of horror and psychological suspense. The film was a big influence on Hitchcock when he made Psycho, and I also believe Les Diaboliques must surely have influenced the makers of the Hammer classic Scream Of Fear too.
Based upon a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, Les Diaboliques tells the story of the wife and the mistress of a sadistic headmaster. The two women plot to murder this cruel man and dump his body in a swimming pool, but when the pool is drained the body is not there. The film features three superb performances from Vera Clouzot, Simone Signoret and Paul Meurisse. Who can forget that eerie and shocking bathtub scene? One of the best films ever made in this genre. In my view this is director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece.
I’d love to know what you think of these films if you’ve seen them. I highly recommend them all if you’ve yet to see them.