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Top Ten Tuesday – The Best of the French

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The French film industry has always been among the worlds most important……at least to film studies professors.  Most French movies are either funded by the French government or made with the support of government-linked media companies. Filmmakers face little market pressure in the creative process. That helps explain why they’re so boring!

STARBUCK opens this weekend so we here at We Are Movie Geeks have decided to post this article about our favorite French films. Okay, so STARBUCK is technically a Canadian film shot in Quebec, but its French language so, in our eyes that makes it French! The Hollywood remake is already in the can. It stars Vince Vaughn. The remake was originally tilted DICKIE DONOR but they’ve changed it to DELIVERY MAN, so you just know they’ve screwed it up bad. This list may not line up with that of your typical French Cinema scholar. There’s nothing on it by Claude Chabrol, or Godard, or Louis Malle, or Jean Renoir. This is a list of French movies that are not only considered classics, but are actually fun to watch.

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10. CACHE’

It’s hard to believe that the director of this year’s Best Foreign Film, Amour, also directed the movie Caché (2006).  Austrian Michael Haneke is a truly masterful director in that he cannot be confined to a specific genre other than “excellent.” The word caché in French means hidden and applies to many aspects of this unique, mind-bending thriller.  Daniel Auteuil plays the popular host of a television book review show; his wife played by Juliette Binoche also works in the literary field as a publisher.  Along with their twelve-year old son, Pierrot,they enjoy a comfortable, upper middle-class, bourgeois, Parisian life. One day a videotape arrives at their doorstep. Another day, brings another videotape, and again another.  Clearly, someone is watching them, but who and why?  Each successive videotape increases the disharmy of their family life.  The tapes reveal secrets about each that have been hidden. Caché haunts the audience because it initially shows how something fundamentally benign can unravel us.” (from culturesnob.net) The audience becomes unraveled as well, as Haneke doesn’t end the movie with a clear explanation like Matlock would.  When this movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, Roger Ebert observed the same disturbed uneasiness among his fellow critics who were frustrated at the film’s intentionally ambigious ending.  Caché is a uniquely challenging thriller that has fortunately NOT been remade for American sensiblities. Just as in life, many things are hidden for which there are no clear answers.

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9. THE 400 BLOWS

There are perhaps better foreign films: ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and ’8 ½’ come to mind.  There are even better films by filmmaker Francois Truffuat (Jules et Jim and The Bride Wore Black would be my personal favorites), but the story of Antoine Doinel is one of the most poignant, heartfelt and sincere films ever made, especially by an avowed lover of Hollywood Product. For those that haven’t seen it, the desperate trials and tribulations of a young, 13 year –old French teenager who finds himself in and out of trouble with the authorities, is a film that will affect anyone with a pulse. The movie is supposedly based on the actual tumultuous adolescence of the director. Truffaut also used the character in many other films throughout the years, cinematically exploring the aging process and the conflicts that the character/actor encountered as he moved through life and film. For anyone who likes amazingly powerful motion pictures, this is a film that I sure wouldn’t miss.

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8. AMELIE

AMELIE (2001) could easily be regarded as a romantic comedy. It makes the endless succession of Hollywood romantic comedies look dull and ordinary by comparison, but what a curious pedigree! The director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, gave us bizarre nightmares and post-apocalyptic alienation in DELICATESSEN and CITY OF LOST CHILDREN although it must be said that both of those films include beautiful romantic moments. AMELIE retains some of the surreal elements of the two earlier films, but there is a lightness of spirit about AMELIE that sets it apart and makes it something truly special. Audrey Tautou gives a magnificent performance as the quirky, clever, but intensely shy Amelie. We believe that we truly understand her as she secretly makes changes in the lives of those around her, playing matchmaker for some, bringing unlooked-for happiness, punishing the wicked with impish glee, but when it comes to her own pleasure and happiness, we see her torment and feel her pain as she is unable to make that crucial final step. How the Academy failed to recognise the quality of this performance with a Best Actress nomination is frankly incomprehensible.

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7. BREATHLESS

Breathless (A Bout Du Souffle) captured a specific moment, the fledgling optimism emerging in post-war Paris. It is a classic film because it has retained its cutting edge for over fifty years. This abberant legacy perhaps explains why its director at the age of eighty renounced it,  according to Richard Brody, author of “Everything is Cinema: The Working Life Of Jean-Luc Godard.” Certainly the most accessible, and consequently successful of Godard’s films, its celebrated cinematic innovations were almost entirely accidental. There was no shooting script; Godard wrote some lines of dialogue the night before or the day they were to be shot.  Unsurprisingly, most of the dialogue was improvised on the spot; often Godard shouted lines from behind the camera. He could do that because the film he chose did not record sound.  In fact, it wasn’t movie film at all.  Godard wanted this movie to look like a documentary (reportage); the cameras were all hand-held and only available light was used.  The only film that could reproduce the look he wanted was not made for movies, only for cameras.  So Godard spliced the film strips into reels; all the dialogue was re-recorded after the movie was shot.  The shooting schedule was unplanned; it depended on Godard’s mood on that particular day.  A day’s shooting ranged from fifteen minutes to twelve hours. Breathless was the first movie to use “jump shots,” interrputions in dialogue and picture that were purposely inconsistent and confusing. While many film scholars wax luminous as to their inspiration, the real story is that producer Georges de Beauregard insisted Godard cut thirty minutes from the movie.  Godard refused to cut any single scene, so he cut a little bit from each scene, literally going after the celluloid with scissors. It has been said that he was intentionally trying to ruin the movie to spite the producer. Breathless’ greatest appeal lay in its two leads.  It launched the career of Jean-Paul Belmondo whose career continues to this day. It provided American actress Jean Seberg redemption from the disastrous receptions of her first two movies (Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse) and immortalized her as a fashion icon. She was the first actress to sport the pixie cut (long before Mia Farrow), and she sported formless, unconstrained clothes that evoked the spirit of Gabrielle Chanel, right down to the Breton (sailor) striped boatneck shirts and ballet flats. Sadly, Seberg never enjoyed the long, successful career as her co-star. Godard embraced the acclaim for his accidental innovations and has employed them with less sucess in his subsequent movies. The most enduring legacy of Breathless is Seberg’s legacy as a fashion icon.  Her mien in this movie has been an influence in fashion editorals and for designers since the movie’s release.

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6. EYES WITHOUT A FACE

Fantasy and horror movies have never been any classic French director’s forte but the haunting 1960 French horror film EYES WITHOUT A FACE manages to be both grotesque and beautiful in its imagery at the same time. It’s strangely poetic considering its plot; a mad doctor removes young girls’ faces in order to restore his daughter’s! People watching this in 1960 must’ve been startled by the bloody face transplant surgery scenes. The film is beautifully shot in the best haunting film noir/expressionistic style and it also delivers massive emotional impact. The haunting score, which sounds much like circus music, is a foreshadowing to the circus of horrors we witness the doctor perform. Furthermore, the gorgeous cinematography (thanks to Eugen Schüfftan) gives the movie a serene and melancholy feel but also gives the movie an eerie and creepy vibe. Black and white is used exceptionally well and complements the look of the film. Of course, Georges Franju should get a huge mention, as his direction is smooth, focused and flawless.

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5. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST  (1946)

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, fairy tale films was made literally under the noses of the German occupiers of France during World War Two.  Made in bits and pieces with very little money by an often exhausted cast and crew this movie is nothing less than a miracle.  A Middle Ages French family faces ruin when the Father’s shipping business is destroyed at sea.  He rides his horse through haunted woods from the seaport after learning of his business disaster.  During a storm he seeks refuge in the castle of The Beast, a man animal like no other, who demands the merchant’s death when he takes one rose from his garden, all that Beauty asked him to bring to her.  The merchant’s death or the death of one of his daughters.  Belle has two sisters who care for nothing but themselves, a brother who tries to look out for her but is basically useless.  Belle, without hesitation and thinking only of her Father willingly goes to the Beast and certain doom.  Not to be, this is a fairy tale after all. The Beast’s first words to Beauty is that she is in no danger. The Beast falls in love with Beauty, of course, as do we.  The scenes in the Beast’s castle are incredible, the special effects astonish after all these years and are breathtaking in their beauty after the cold, souless use of CGI these past years.  Human hands hold the candelabra, human heads are embedded in the walls like statuary,(or are they living statues?) the Beast’s claws smoke after he has made a fresh kill, Beauty glides through the castle as if her feet cannot touch the floor.  The black and white cinematography of Henri Alekan glows and sparkles, as few other films do. The Beast is truly magical, his glove, his roses and best of all his magnificent white horse all carry magic.  Yet the Beast is lonely and wants to marry Beauty.  Jean Marais endured hours of makeup to become the Beast.  Taking it off was such a chore that he sometimes slept in the Beast makeup, and would get up and go back to filming to try and get as much footage shot as possible while he had the makeup on.  And what a makeup!  This is no werewolf, The Beast resembles a big kitty cat, which makes him all the more loveable.  In some scenes his ears even lay back like a cat’s.  I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I defy anyone to see the last 15 minutes of Beauty and The Beast without crying.  Jean Cocteau suffered with a skin disease his entire life and was miserable all through the shooting of this film.  France had just suffered through another World War and  much of Europe lay in ruins. Out of the ashes Cocteau and his crew worked very real and poetic magic.  Beauty and The Beast is not just one of the greatest of Fairy Tale films, it is one of the greatest movies ever made, any where, any time.  Criterion did another first rate job with this precious work of art, the special features are extensive and give an accurate history of the making of this film.

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4. DIABOLIQUE

DIABOLIQUE is an elegant horror classic directed by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, and one that is still as terrifying  today as it was back when it was released in 1955. The plays like the best film Hitchcock never made – the French equivalent of PSYCHO. In fact, Hitch was inspired by this film to make his film. From the opening sequence with the creepy demonic chanting, you know you are in for a dazzling experience, and indeed, DIABOLIQU keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. Vera Clouzot gives a stunning performance as the fragile, abused wife of a headmaster, and Simone Signoret is cold as ice in the role of Clouzot’s partner in crime. For their performances and the script alone the film deserves its classic status. The twists serve as a suspenseful build-up to the mind blowing climax, that still ranks among the scariest scenes ever made. Overall, a definite must-see, even if you’re a fan of modern horror, you will certainly be surprised.

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3. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG

In the late 1940′s and early 1950′s MGM musicals, particularly those from producer Arthur Freed’s unit, dominated the US box office. Well it turns out that they were also pretty popular overseas . So much so that writer/director Jacques Demy created a French homage’ in 1964, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (the middle film in a trilogy he began with LOLA). Unlike its American movie inspirations, this film’s dialogue was sung not spoken similar to an opera (most of the MGM flicks had several big song numbers bookended by spoken word). The music was courtesy of film tunesmith Michel Legrand three years before winning his Best Song Oscar for “The Windmills of Your Mind” from THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. He contributed two songs that would become easy-listenng radio favorites “I Will Wait For You” and “Watch What Happens”. The film’s title refers to the shop where young Genevieve (played by a breathtakingly beautiful Catherine Deneuve) works for her stern mother. Guy (Nino Catlenuvo) is the auto mechanic smitten with her, but military service and forceful parents conspire to keep the two lovers apart. Besides the music, the film also emulates the eye-popping color Technicolor cinematography of those Hollywood classics. For the final film in the trilogy Demy worked again with Deneuve and teamed her with gorgeous older sister Francoise Dorleac for 1967′s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT along with WEST SIDE STORY Oscar winner George Chakiris and MGM song and dance superstar Gene Kelly (who would not dance again on-screen until 1976′s THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT II).

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2. IRREVERSIBLE

IRREVERSIBLE (2002) is a profoundly unique and disturbing film, a cinematic experience in the truest sense of the word. The cinematography alone is a jarring experience equivalent to a seizure or a “bad trip”, and the subject matter only increases the viewer’s discomfort. Monica Belluci’s fearless performance should be especially commended; her infamous 9-minute rape scene will never be cleansed from the viewer’s mind, and neither will the matter-of-fact murder of her rapist which opens the film, two of the most unflinchingly stomach-churning  scenes which have ever been filmed. These are not spoilers, because they are the beginning of the actual film, though the end, chronologically, of the story. And anyway, there is no way to “spoil” this film. It must be seen, but only by those with strong nerves and stronger stomachs, as evidenced by the many walkouts nationwide. The backwards temporal structure of MEMENTO was used to far more powerful effect in IRREVERSIBLE, though fewer people saw it.

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1. THE WAGES OF FEAR

One of the greatest suspense movies, a grueling exercise in drawn out anticipation was not made by Alfred Hitchcock.  His French counterpart, Henri Georges-Clouzot, director of the incredible Diabolique, has that distinction.  Rumor has it that Hitchcock was so impressed with the ending of Diabolique that he tried to better that ending for the rest of his career.  Wages of Fear is an even more impressive rendering of everything Hitchcock based his career on.  The Hitchcock style was to work set pieces of suspense into the narrative.  There was always humor in a Hitchcock film to lighten the tension for the viewing audience.  Not with Clouzot.  Wages of Fear is set in a South American shit hole of a town.  Sort of living there is a motley group of European expatriates, French, Spanish, English, German.   The town is owned and operated by an American oil company which led to the film being censored in America.  In the restored version are many comments about multinational corporations and their pursuit of profits at the cost of lives.  To the North oil well fires are burning, 4 men are hired to drive heavy duty trucks over 300 miles of primitive roads, mountain passes, rotted out bridges, all while carrying full loads of nitro glycerine, highly volitile and likely to blow up at any point if jostled too much.  Clouzot takes his time with the setup, introducing us to the characters and their world weary cynicism.  Once the two trucks get rolling it is edge of your seat tension until the final credits roll.  Especially impressive are all four of the drivers, all of them need the money badly but are honest enough to admit this may be their last job.  The stunt work and on location filming are incredible.  This is down and dirty film making, all the actors look exhausted in the heat and dirt.  Incredibly this is one classic film that had an excellent remake.  William Friedkin’s Sorceror bombed at the box office but is in some ways even better that Clouzot’s.  In addition to a worthy, authorized remake the basic set up of moving nitro over difficult roads was used in dozens of movies and television shows.  I recall an excellent episode of Bonanza that used the concept.  But for real thrills, accept no substitutes.  If anything Wages of Fear is more relevant today than ever before.  Worker safety takes a back seat to profits all over the world and petroleum remains one of the biggest issues facing humanity today, namely that we are running out of it and the continued use of it is apparently heating up the planet.  But that is another story.  Criterion’s dvd is excellent and has a second disc for all the extra features.

 

 

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