Thursday, May 23, 2013

Top Ten French-Language Films

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One thing There Will Be Films is good at is making lists. On Thursdays a Top Ten list will be introduced. From broad topics to obscure, specific categories, you can expect an eclectic mix of ten movies to add to your queue, or bask along with the rest us.

Top Ten French-Language Films

The 400 Blows - Les quatre cents coups

François Truffaut - 1959

Truffaut was the master of the French New Wave. Though some may have come before him, he was the thickening agent that bound the whole movement together. His debut feature film is about a boy, Antoine (intensely played by then-amateur Jean-Pierre Léaud), whose buxom, easily angered mother might be a cheating slut, and whose father is a softhearted lazy-ass. Antoine isn't good at school, though he wants to be. He's not nice to his mother, though he wants to be. He's not good enough for his father, though he wants to be. And so, Truffaut follows him through all of his mistakes that ultimately lead him to failure--a home for insubordinate boys. The realism Truffaut conjures comes to a haunting climax towards the end of the film, a scene in which Antoine is giving answers to an unseen psychiatrist as the camera is directly fixed on him, as though we were watching him from a two-way mirror. His answers are off-the-cuff from the actor Léaud, and are emotionally crippling for any adult. Truffaut's final shot, however, has become the poster for French New Wave--and rightly so, as it shows raw human emotion rarely captured on-screen before.

Amour - Love

Michael Haneke - 2012

Michael Haneke's deliberate look into the lives of an aging couple is at once terrifying and touching. In typical cerebral Haneke fashion, we witness the downward spiraling health of Emmanuelle Riva's former piano teacher, Anne (a performance that is acting at its most precise), and her equally elderly husband Georges tending to her care. Their relationship is challenged in ways they'd only imagined with quiet complacency--it's a challenge Georges meets with great difficulty, and one that Haneke meets with a mortal horror and masterly finesse.

Au revoir les enfants - Goodbye Children

Louis Malle - 1987

Malle's Au revoir les enfants is about the breakdown of innocence during a time in which innocence couldn't survive, despite anyone's efforts to ensure otherwise. When new student Jean arrives at a WWII French Catholic boarding school, he finds himself at odds with his new roommate, Julien, the top of the class. However, when Julien discovers Jean is Jewish and being hidden from Nazis by the school's priests, they soon become good friends as Julien swears himself to secrecy. Their relationship unfolds into two dedicated brothers from entirely different worlds, united by their sense of abandonment. I would be loath to think you couldn't assume what happens in the end, so, for the sake of being direct, Malle's film is a tragic one--but he comes to his conclusion by building from the ground up a powerfully emotional experience as two innocents discover what a war-torn society is capable of: a mélange of ignorance, downward-cast eyes, empathy, and hope.

Contempt  - Le mépris

Jean-Luc Godard - 1963

Often people either love or hate Godard. I fall somewhere in the middle of the two camps--his films are both the genesis of stylized irony and the rubric by which many of our modern day's auteurs craft their art. In Contempt, the stunning Brigitte Bardot's Camille Javal plays the wife of screenwriter Paul Javal, whose film adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses is under the threat of commercialization from the producer. Javal seemingly offers Camille as a present to the producer to get him to cooperate more, and the couple's relationship slowly deteriorates under the weight of mistrust and betrayal. It is a beautiful film taking place on the Italian seaside and flaxen inland fields, while Bardot lazily swings her limbs, barefoot and in the sun. There's something loveable and sad about these whiny characters backdropped by an immaculate scenery. It's a film mostly about nothing, but one that only Godard could have crafted to be so engaging.

Diabolique - Diabolic

Henri-Georges Clouzot - 1955

With obvious touches of Hitchcock (the screenwriters were regular go-tos for the master of horror), Diabolique is one of those suspense thrillers that cineastes fawn over. Christina, the nice reticent wife of a cruel boarding school headmaster, conspires with the headmaster's mistress, Nicole, to murder him. Christina's doubts turn into fears, and once the dirty deed is done, her fears nearly drive her insane. Nicole is the rock. She is a voluptuous blonde, ready to get it over with and trying to keep Christina from spilling the beans--especially after she begins hearing and seeing things, eventually needing bed rest with heart problems. It's Hitchcock-gone-French, with a mystery that is as delightful as it is suspenseful. And, as always, the twist ending is to die for.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Le scaphandre et le papillon

Julian Schnabel - 2007

A strikingly beautiful film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is based on the true story of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique (or Jean-Do to his friends) who suffers a massive stroke and is completely paralyzed save for his left eye. His condition brings together his lover Inés, the mother of his children, and his father, whom he calls Papinou. A rag-tag family helps him convalesce and eventually develop a communication system using the one ocular group of muscles that still work. Schnabel's blue, overcast film is a visual feast, while the heroic story of a man who learns to go on, up, and out of his "locked-in" syndrome is an inspiring, emotional story that is spellbinding and heartrending.

Elevator to the Gallows - Ascenseur pour l'échafaud

Louis Malle - 1958

Fate plays the main force of movement in Malle's suspenseful, jazz-age thrill-ride Elevator to the Gallows. After a man murders his boss (also his lover's husband), a chain of events is set off that leads to one night spent in an elevator. Ironically a sly means of escape, the elevator becomes the man's trap. Elevator is a stylish, noir-esque film that exceeds at complex story-telling, but what stands out most is Miles Davis' improvised score--it gives the movie a bounce that Malle could not have achieved with directorial talent alone. Because of these magical, stylistic elements all coming together at once, Malle's film has a timeless feel--it is one of those old movies that everyone should see because everyone can enjoy it.

Eyes Without a Face - Les yeux sans visage

Georges Franju - 1960

During the late 1950's through the 1960's, France's New Wave was the cinema of choice, but parallel to the most hip film movement ran a renaissance in horror films in Europe. Eyes' gore and insane plot were a shock to the film community, especially given Franju's storied history with classic film in France. But this mad scientist narrative about a plastic surgeon whose daughter requires a face transplant after a horrific car accident was mad science at its most deranged. With a creepy assistant donning a pearl choker, a secluded labyrinth-of-a-mansion, and a mysterious garage lined with bandaged, yelping dogs, Franju's Frankenstein-like horror is one that knows not of time or age. It stands to this day as a shocking, demented archetype of the horror movie genre.

L'argent - Money

Robert Bresson - 1983

For those that aren't prepared for a minimalist commentary on the proverbial shackles of wealth and greed, L'argent might start off as a slow, seeming directionless and plotless film. However, to stick with it through to the end is an experience that echoes beyond the film's final moments. L'argent's genesis is a 500-franc bill. It is fatefully passed from stranger to stranger where it eventually falls into the hands of its pivotal destination: the innocent Yvon. The money sets into motion a series of events that destroy Yvon's life, turning him into something he--nor we the audience--could have predicted. A life of crime and hard-knocks consumes Yvon, and we helplessly watch as Bresson whispers not a single breath of style into what appears to be an emotionless lens--a typical perspective of minimalism. The audience is incapable of helping the young man, and from that stems a gloomy longing in the face of an escalating cycle of fate that only Bresson could have achieved.

A Man Escaped - Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (or A Man Sentenced to Death Has Escaped or the Wind Blows Where It Wants)

Robert Bresson - 1956

Bresson gets two entries on my list because--let's face it--he's simply the best. A Man Escaped is the sedate story of an anti-Nazi, French Resistence activist, Andre, who is convicted of terrorism and must serve jail time. Day in, day out Andre tells us what he has done to ensure his escape. Meticulously and patiently planned, he's gathered fabrics for ropes, chipped away at the panels of his wooden door, and gathered the wiring from the spring of his stained prison bed for hooks--all to help him get one step closer to freedom. When he is officially convicted, they sentence him to death and pair him with a new roommate, a wan teenage soldier. Bresson's signature use of repetition and unflinching, cerebral characters make for a slow, steady build-up to a frantically involved experience. The time you've spent with the main character has seemed pointless and mundane for most of the film--until the moment of truth, of failure or success, arrives. "The edge of your seat" isn't a go-to descriptor for film critics for no reason, my friends.

About the Author

Ian Tilman Nichols

Author & Editor

Has laoreet percipitur ad. Vide interesset in mei, no his legimus verterem. Et nostrum imperdiet appellantur usu, mnesarchum referrentur id vim.

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