By Naomi Dalton
A great way to start immersing yourself in French culture and language before visiting France is to watch a few French movies or movies set in France. The first French-language film I ever watched was Les Visiteurs with actor Jean Reno (of Leon fame). We were in French class at school and our teacher let us watch the film as it was the last double lesson before we finished for the holidays. Prior to that, I’d always been too lazy to watch foreign language films - reading the subtitles seemed like too much work!
But we all found Les Visiteurs very funny (and certainly preferable to doing French grammar exercises!). It was about a Gallic knight and his dim-witted servant who were transported from 12-Century medieval France to the year 1993 after a wizard’s spell goes wrong. Their endeavors to get to grips with their new reality, their interactions with modern life and the people around them, and their attempts to get back to where (and when) they came from is highly entertaining - and if it can impress a 15-year-old British kid, I’m sure you’ll love it!
That began my love affair with French cinema and anything to do with France in general. Other personal favorites of mine include Amélie, Midnight in Paris,Les Choristes and Intouchables.
Here is a list of films we’ve put together which we think will help bring France and the French language alive for you. We’ve included a range of comedies, historical movies, and English-language films set in France, to cater for a range of tastes. Enjoy!
Movie Trailer of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris (Sony Pictures Classics)
Old French Classics
Les Tontons Flingueurs (Monsieur Gangster) (1963)
This black and white French classic is really funny, especially the dialog. When former gangster Fernand (Lino Ventura) receives a call from a dying friend, a mob boss nicknamed "The Mexican", asking him to take care of some criminal business as well as his soon-to-be-married daughter, he reluctantly accepts. Some of the fellow mobsters aren’t too pleased about this outsider coming onto the scene, however, and come after him. Fernand is more than capable of defending himself against the onslaught of the mob, and this results in a series of comical killings.
La Grande Vadrouille (Don't Look Now - We're Being Shot at) (1966)
Not convinced by the direct translation of the original French title (‘The Great Stroll’), this movie was released in the US under the name ‘Don’t Look Now - We’re Being Shot At’, which gives a more direct references to the themes of the film.
Arguably one of the best French movies of all time, La Grand Vadrouille combines adventure, comedy and WWII, and held the box office sales record in French movie theaters until Titanic in 1997. In this movie, several ordinary Frenchmen help British WWII pilots avoid Nazi capture, and go on epic journey through occupied France until they reach the Swiss border.
Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman) (1966)
The definition of a French movie classic, Un Homme et une Femme is certainly one for those who enjoy an old-fashioned romantic black and white movie. In this film, a widow and a widower find their feelings for each other extend beyond friendship. However, they are both afraid to commit due to their past tragedies, so they decide to take things slowly.
La Fille de d’Artagnan (Revenge of the Musketeers) (1994)
In France in 1654, musketeer D'Artagnan's daughter is being raised in a convent. When the mother superior is murdered, Eloïse suspects a plot to murder the king. In an attempt to prevent the assassination and avenge the murder, she goes out in search of her father and the three musketeers. Starring French actress Sophie Marceau (also of ‘Braveheart’ fame).
Le Hussard sur le Toit (The Horseman on the Roof) (1995)
Based on a novel by Jean Giono and adapted by JP Rappeneau, this movie stars Juliette Binoche (also of Chocolat fame) and Olivier Martinez. It will take you back to the beginning of the 19th century in Provence during the plague epidemic. In a time of war and disease, a young officer bravely tries to help a young woman find her missing husband.
Movie trailer of La Grand Vadrouille (Don't Look Now - We're Being Shot At!) (Studio Canal UK, YouTube)
Very famous comedies
Humor from different countries doesn’t always translate well (hence the term ‘lost in translation’). But these movies make references to French people that everyone can somehow relate to.
Les Bronzés or Les Bronzés font du ski (French Fried Vacation 1 & 2) (1978-9)
This is a parody movie highlighting the flaws of the French middle class during the 70s. French vacationers arrive at a typical ‘Club Med’ tourist resort on the Ivory Coast in West Africa, determined to forget their everyday problems and emotional disappointments. Games, competitions, outings, sunbathing and sunburn are intertwined with a succession of casual affairs. In the second movie, the vacationers return, but this time to a skiing resort. Both movies are filmed in a ‘Mockumentary’ style.
Les Visiteurs (The Visitors) (1993)
A French knight (Jean Reno) and his dim-witted servant are transported from 12-Century medieval France to the year 1993 after a sorcerer’s magic spell goes wrong. They embark upon a hilarious journey as they try to understand the modern world and people around them, search for their descendants, and try to get back to where (and when) they came from.
Le Diner de Cons (The Dinner Game) (1998)
You might have heard of the American remake of this movie called Dinner for Schmucks in 2010 with Steve Carrel. The French original (which we prefer to the remake) was the top grossing French film at the French box office for 1998, in second place overall behind Titanic. Pierre Brochant, a Parisian publisher, attends a weekly "idiots' dinner", where guests, prominent Parisian businessmen, must bring along an "idiot" for the other guests to ridicule. At the end of the dinner, the evening's "champion idiot” is selected. But as Pierre’s life begins to fall apart during the film, it is his ‘idiot’ who stands by him.
Tanguy is a 28-year-old teenager who doesn’t want to leave his parents’ home, so they hatch a plan to get him out. Today in France, we call such a person a “Tanguy” because of this movie!
One of the biggest successes in French cinema. This is a very touching comedy about difference (disability, race etc). After he becomes a quadriplegic following a paragliding accident, Phillippe, an aristocrat, hires Driss, a young man from the projects, to be his caregiver.
Movie trailer of Intouchables (Movieclips Trailers, YouTube)
French Historical movies
The Longest Day (1962)
The Longest Day is a black-and-white film account of the D-Day events in 1944, told on a grand scale from both the Allied and German perspectives. To reflect this, the film had three directors: Ken Annakin for the British and French exteriors, Andrew Marton for the American exteriors, and Bernhard Wicki for the German scenes. It stars many well-known acting legends, including Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, John Wayne and Roddy McDowell. This will be a particularly interesting film if you’re planning to visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy on your trip to France.
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
An interesting film to watch if you plan to visit Rouen in Normandy, where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. This movie stars actors Milla Jovavich and John Malkovich, and tells the story of Joan of Arc, the 15th century French war heroine and religious martyr. The story begins with young Joan as she witnesses the atrocities of the English against her family. She subsequently has visions that inspire her to lead the French in battle against the occupying English forces. Her success against the English allows Charles VII to take the throne. Eventually, Joan is captured by the English, tried and executed for heresy.
A movie about the famous painter’s life. In Paris, you will be able to visit the famous Renoir museum.
Marie Antoinette (2005)
You may like to watch this film particularly if you’re planning a visit to the Palace of Versailles just outside of Paris. Marie Antoinette was directed by Sofia Coppola and starred actress Kirsten Dunst. It’s an account of the life of France's most iconic but ill-fated queen, Marie Antoinette. The film depicts her betrothal and marriage to Louis XVI at the age of 15, her reign as queen at age 19, the end of her reign, and ultimately the fall of Versailles.
The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, John Malkovich, Gérard Depardieu and Jeremy Irons, The Man in the Iron Mask is about the legend that King Louis XIV had a twin brother that was being imprisoned to keep him from governing the country. In fact, if you are visiting the French Riviera, we can arrange for you to visit the island and the former prison where the prisoner was held, just off the coast of Cannes.
Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) (2009)
Another French-language film starring French actress Audrey Tautou (who starred in the major film Amélie. This film gives an account of how Coco Chanel became one of the most famous haute couture designers of all time.
Movie trailer of Coco Before Chanel (Sony Pictures Classics)
French Ambiance Movies
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amélie) (2001)
Directed by well-known French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, starring Audrey Tautou. This film is a must if you are visiting Paris! It includes very nice scenes of Montmartre and a great romantic love story. Amélie is an innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice. She decides to help those around her and finds love along the way - but can she find the courage to let love into her life?
Paris, Je t’aime (Paris, I Love You) (2006)
Another lovely movie to watch if you’re visiting Paris. Through the neighborhoods of Paris, love is veiled, revealed, imitated, burned out, reinvented and awakened. In Paris, love is all around.
A Good Year (2006)
A movie by Ridley Scott starring Russel Crowe and Albert Finney. A lovely film to watch if you’ll be visiting Provence, as it includes some very pretty scenes of the region. A British investment banker inherits his uncle's chateau and vineyard in Provence, where he spent much of his childhood. He discovers a new laid-back lifestyle as he tries to renovate the estate to be sold.
Midnight in Paris (2011)
A gorgeous portrayal of Paris in this outstanding movie by Woody Allen with an all-star cast. featuring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams, and French actress Marion Cotillard and former First Lady of France Carla Bruni. The movie is full of nostalgia as a successful screenwriter, Gil, dreams of moving to Paris and becoming a novelist. By a touch of magic, he is astonished to find that he is able to travel back to 1920s Paris at the stroke of midnight each night to meet his literary idols.
Moulin Rouge (2001)
Starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge will allow you to feel the cabaret ambiance of the 19th and early 20th century in Paris.
8 Femmes (8 Women) (2002)
This French-language murder mystery film features some of the most famous French female artists. Set in the 1950s in an isolated mansion in the snowy French countryside, a family reunites for the holiday season. But there’s no time for celebration - their beloved patriarch has been murdered and the killer is one of the eight women closest to the man of the house. Funny situations arise as dark family secrets begin to be revealed. Eight women. Each a suspect. One of them is guilty. Who dunnit?
A nice animated movie about a rat who becomes a chef in a famous restaurant in Paris and befriends a young kitchen worker.
Directed by Gérard Pirès and starring Samy Naceri and Marion Cotillard, Taxi is a comedy about a taxi driver in Marseilles (Samy Naceri) who avoids a speeding ticket by agreeing to serve as the arresting officer's (Frédéric Diefenthal) personal chauffeur. A French action movie with some funny moments.
Julie & Julia (2009)
Starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, this is a great movie about French cooking - perfect if you’ll be doing a cooking class on your trip to France! Julia Child's story of her start in the cooking profession is intertwined with blogger Julie Powell's 2002 challenge to cook all the recipes in Child's first book.
Movie trailer of A Good Year (Fox International, YouTube)
We hope you enjoy watching some of these movies, and if you don’t have a trip to France planned - we hope these inspire you to visit!
All of these movies are available to buy from Amazon.com