France is one of the birthplaces of cinema as we know it today. Without the innovations of the Lumière brothers in the late 1800s, or the groundbreaking film storytelling of Georges Méliès with his Le Voyage dans la lune in 1902, we might be watching very different films today. To celebrate July 14, Bastille Day, one of the defining moments of French history, we are highlighting five absolute masterpieces of French film.
How did Jean Vigo create such magic? His short career only produced one feature-length film, the brief, delicate and sublimely sweet L’Atalante, which is regularly ranked among the best films ever made. The film begins with the wedding of Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo), their wedding party parading through the streets to where the barge that Jean captains, L’Atalante waits to take them to their new life on the river. There is a profound sense of poetry to the way this film captures the barge powering down the river and the confined spaces below decks where the crew live. Juliette pines for the Paris nightlife, but jealousy awakens a brute in Jean, The film evokes their love and their lives together so strongly that when they part the audience hurts just as sharply as the characters do.
Mon Oncle (1958)
Director, star and auteur Jacques Tati was like the French answer to Charles Chaplin, but somehow he managed to make Chaplin’s slapstick formula even bigger and brighter and more playful. Mon Oncle is the second film featuring his Monsieur Hulot character following M. Hulot’s Holiday and might just be his best work. M. Hulot is an old-fashioned character, bumbling through the decidedly modern spaces of post-war France in his signature trench coat, trilby and confused expression. In this instalment, he visits his brother, his sister-in-law and his beloved nephew in an ultra-modern new suburb of France where he runs into trouble with just about everything. In Tati’s films, the dialogue is barely audible and the humour and narrative almost entirely visual, save for the brilliantly deployed sound effects and jazzy musical score. You’ll never see sound, light, colour and slapstick humour deployed to such brilliant, laugh-out-loud effect anywhere else.
Army of Shadows (1969)
When Army of Shadows was initially released in France, the adaptation of Joseph Kessel's 1943 book of the same name was seen as completely out of touch with the current state of French politics, particularly following the civil unrest that took place in May 1968 and the Algerian War the previous decade. It was forty years later that Army of Shadows was finally released outside of France and re-appraised and recognised for the masterpiece that it is, along with the remainder of director Jean-Pierre Melville’s work. The film tells the story of the French Resistance in a striking manner. It is just as beautiful and violently poetic as the New American Cinema that came about in the 1970s. Perhaps part of the backlash that this film suffered was because it was so ahead of its time, forsaking the subversive playfulness of the French New Wave in favour of something groundbreaking in its sheer forcefulness.
Trois couleurs trilogy (1993 – 1994)
Trois couleurs is three films, yes, but Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski has such a distinctive and unique style that they may as well be one. The three films, Blue, White and Red are named for the three colours of the French flag and the values that they represent: Liberty, equality and fraternity, respectively. Each film stars some of France’s most respected actors, including Juliette Binoche (Blue), Julie Delpy (White) and Irene Jacob and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Red). The kind of nationalistic sentiment in these films could have been heavy-handed in another director’s hands, but Kieślowski has such a delicate touch and writes with enough complexity that these films are first-and-foremost personal and humanistic above nationalistic. For Kieślowski who had made France his home though much of the 90s, this was a fitting end to his career, and he left a wonderful legacy when he passed away in 1996.
Holy Motors (2012)
Surrealism has been a part of French cinema since Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí collaborated on their 1928 short Un Chien Andalou. Leos Carax continued the great tradition of French surrealism with this genius 2012 film. The strange film follows Oscar (Denis Lavant), who is picked up from his family home in a white limousine and then proceeds to his "appointments" for which he gets into complex costumes and plays a variety of characters. Holy Motors is a reminder that surrealism is not an intellectual exercise - try to find sense in this film and you will just be more baffled. It is shocking, gross, disturbing and above all funny, full of hysterical details and nuanced performances from its entire cast (which includes Kylie Minogue). Holy Motors is engaging and entertaining, but also thought-provoking, asking us to consider the roles that every one of us performs every day and how we relate to the people around us.