The 10 Best French Films

1. L’Atalante (1934)

Capricious small-town girl Juliette (Dita Parlo) and barge captain Jean (Jean Dasté) marry after a whirlwind courtship, and she comes to live aboard his boat, L’Atalante. As they make their way down the Seine, Jean grows weary of Juliette’s flirtations with his all-male crew, and Juliette longs to escape the monotony of the boat and experience the excitement of a big city. When she steals away to Paris by herself, her husband begins to think their marriage was a mistake.

2. The Rules of the Game (1939)

In this melancholy French social satire, André (Roland Toutain) is having an affair with Christine (Nora Gregor), whose husband, Robert (Marcel Dalio), himself is hiding a mistress. Meanwhile Christine’s married maid, Lisette (Paulette Dubost), is romantically entangled with the local poacher. At a hunting party, trusted friend Octave (Jean Renoir) also confesses his feelings for Christine, as the passions of the servants and aristocrats dangerously collide.

3. Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)

In this expansive drama, the lovely and enigmatic Parisian actress Garance (Arletty) draws the attention of various men in her orbit, including the thoughtful mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the ambitious actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur). Though Garance and Baptiste have an undeniable connection, their fortunes shift considerably, pushing them apart as well as bringing them back together, even as they pursue other relationships and lead separate lives.

4. Orphée (1950)

At the Café des Poètes in Paris, a fight breaks out between the poet Orphée (Jean Marais) and a group of resentful upstarts. A rival poet, Cègeste (Edouard Dermit), is killed, and a mysterious princess (María Casares) insists on taking Orpheus and the body away in her Rolls-Royce. Orphée soon finds himself in the underworld, where the Princess announces that she is, in fact, Death. Orpheus escapes in the car back to the land of the living, only to become obsessed with the car radio.

5. Children of Paradise (1945)

In this expansive drama, the lovely and enigmatic Parisian actress Garance (Arletty) draws the attention of various men in her orbit, including the thoughtful mime Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) and the ambitious actor Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur). Though Garance and Baptiste have an undeniable connection, their fortunes shift considerably, pushing them apart as well as bringing them back together, even as they pursue other relationships and lead separate lives.

6. Olivia (1951)

A girl falls in love with her finishing school headmistress, who feels the same but tries to suppress her desires.

7. The Passion of Joan Arc (1928)

A classic of the silent age, this film tells the story of the doomed but ultimately canonized 15th-century teenage warrior. On trial for claiming she’d spoken to God, Jeanne d’Arc (Renee Falconetti) is subjected to inhumane treatment and scare tactics at the hands of church court officials (Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley). Initially bullied into changing her story, Jeanne eventually opts for what she sees as the truth. Her punishment, a famously brutal execution, earns her perpetual martyrdom.

8. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Paratrooper commander Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), a former French Resistance fighter during World War II, is sent to 1950s Algeria to reinforce efforts to squelch the uprisings of the Algerian War. There he faces Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a former petty criminal who, as the leader of the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale, directs terror strategies against the colonial French government occupation. As each side resorts to ever-increasing brutality, no violent act is too unthinkable.

9. Vivre Sa Vie (1962)

In director Jean-Luc Godard’s landmark drama, Nana (Anna Karina), a young Parisian woman who works in a record shop, finds herself disillusioned by poverty and a crumbling marriage. Hoping to become an actress and break into films, Nana is once again disappointed when nothing comes of her dreams, and soon she turns to a bleak life of prostitution. When she meets a man (Peter Kassowitz) who truly cares for her, Nana’s hope returns — but Raoul (Sady Rebbot), her pimp, may have the final word.

10. La Haine (1995)

When a young Arab is arrested and beaten unconscious by police, a riot erupts in the notoriously violent suburbs outside of Paris. Three of the victim’s peers, Vinz (Vincent Cassel), Said (Said Taghmaoui) and Hubert (Hubert Kounde), wander aimlessly about their home turf in the aftermath of the violence as they try to come to grips with their outrage over the brutal incident. After one of the men finds a police officer’s discarded weapon, their night seems poised to take a bleak turn.

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