15 French Films to Get You in the Mood for Bastille Day (La Fête Nationale!)
We have a lot to thank the French for: photography, pasteurization, the automobile, the calculator, denim — the list goes on and on. In fact, without France, we wouldn’t have the New Hampshire Film Festival (NHFF)! As the home to Auguste and Louis Lumière, the inventors of the moving picture, France is the definitive birthplace of cinema.
In honor of Bastille Day — also known as a turning point of the French Revolution — and the contributions of French filmmakers, we’ve assembled a list of our favorite French films (including previous NHFF entries!) that capture the spirit of liberté, egalité et fraternité. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your very own private French film festival — but don’t forget to pick up a dozen rainbow-colored macarons from La Maison Navarre’s patisserie first!
Drama/Crime, French/English, 87 minutes, France
DIRECTOR: Jean-Luc Godard
PRODUCER: Georges de Beauregard
SCREENWRITER: Jean-Luc Godard
STARRING: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg
What would a list of the best French films be without an entry from Jean-Luc Godard? Loosely based on real-life events, Godard’s directorial debut tells the story of Michel, a small-time criminal on the lam, and his American lover, Patricia. After killing a policeman, Michel seeks shelter in Patricia’s Parisian apartment and the two plan their getaway to Italy — until Patricia starts to have second thoughts. With its experimental style and departure from traditional French filmmaking, “Breathless” is considered one the pillars of French New Wave cinema.
Romantic Comedy, French, 123 minutes, France/Germany
DIRECTOR: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
PRODUCERS: Jean-Marc Deschamps, Claudie Ossard
SCREENWRITER: Guillaume Laurant
STARRING: Audrey Tautou, Mathieu Kassovitz
“Amélie” follows the titular protagonist, Amélie Poulain, as she uses her overactive imagination to come up with creative and meaningful ways to improve the lives of her neighbors in Montmartre. In the process, Amélie finds herself stepping outside the whimsical but isolated world she’s constructed for herself, and into new friendships and into the arms of an equally eccentric yet charming young man.
“Amélie” showcases director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s signature bold and colorful style — a hallmark of the cinéma du look French film movement — and is to date the highest-grossing French-language film released in the United States.
Thirst Street (2017)
Drama/Comedy, English/French, 83 minutes, France/United States
DIRECTOR: Nathan Silver
PRODUCERS: Ruben Amar, Louise Bellicaud, Joshua Blum, Clair Charles-Gervais, Jordan Goldnadel, Elsa Leeb, Josh Mandel, David Solal, Katie Stern, C. Mason Wells
SCREENWRITERS: Nathan Silver, C. Mason Wells
STARRING: Lindsay Burdge, Damien Bonnard, Esther Garrel, Anjelica Huston
In “Thirst Street,” a 2017 NHFF entry, flight attendant Gina has a one-night stand with bartender Jérôme during a layover in Paris. Despite the brevity of their union — and Jérôme’s general disinterest in her — Gina begins to fixate on Jérôme, convinced that his affection is the only thing that can dull the aching loneliness she feels. What ensues is a technicolor tale of obsession — equal parts tragedy, comedy, and thriller — in which director Nathan Silver removes the rose-colored lenses that frame whirlwind romances and postcard perfect Parisian life.
La Belle et la Bête (1946)
Drama/Fantasy, French, 93 minutes, France
DIRECTOR: Jean Cocteau
PRODUCER: André Paulvé
SCREENWRITER: Jean Cocteau
STARRING: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Marcel André
Before there was Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” there was Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête.” The two films share much of the same DNA, with a few key differences: In “La Belle et la Bête,” Belle’s father is a wealthy merchant who has lost the family fortune; Belle has three conniving siblings who scheme to kill the beast and steal his riches; and the Beast was cursed by vengeful spirits rather than an enchantress punishing him for his callousness. If that sounds appealing to you, then you’re in for a treat. Cocteau draws upon his roots as a poet and artist, imbuing the film with an otherworldly sense of magical surrealism that will linger with you long after the credits roll.
Things to Come (2016)
Drama, French, 102 minutes, France
DIRECTOR: Mia Hansen-Løve
PRODUCER: Charles Gillibert
SCREENWRITER: Mia Hansen-Løve
STARRING: Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon, Roman Kolinka
When her husband announces that he’s leaving her for another woman, Nathalie Chazeaux, a middle-aged philosophy professor, is understandably shaken, but accepts that life must go on. As Nathalie processes the disintegration of her marriage, she embarks on a year-long journey to self-discovery, which includes caring for her ailing mother and befriending a young writer who lives in an anarchist collective.
In “Things to Come” — a 2016 NHFF entry — acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert (“Elle,” “The Piano Teacher”) delivers a moving performance as a woman coming to terms with the exciting yet terrifying idea that she must start life over again.
Horror, French, 94 minutes, France/Canada
DIRECTOR: Pascal Laugier
PRODUCERS: Richard Grandpierre
SCREENWRITER: Pascal Laugier
STARRING: Morjana Alaoui, Mylène Jampanoï
Hailed as “the greatest horror film of the 21st century” by The Telegraph, “Martyrs” isn’t for the faint of heart — but those who can stomach it will be justly rewarded. After a revenge plot goes awry, a young woman named Anna is captured by members of a secret philosophical society. The society’s leader, Mademoiselle, reveals to Anna that they torture young women, turning them into “martyrs” in an attempt to gain transcendental insight into the afterlife.
“Martyrs” deftly balances gore and philosophy to create an atmosphere that is equal parts disturbing and fascinating and is considered a seminal entry in the New French Extremity film movement.
La Vie en Rose (2007)
Biography/Drama, French/English, 140 minutes, France/United Kingdom/Czech Republic
DIRECTOR: Olivier Dahan
PRODUCER: Alain Goldman
SCREENWRITERS: Isabelle Sobelman, Olivier Dahan
STARRING: Marion Cotillard, Gérard Depardieu, Sylvie Testud
“La Vie en Rose” is a biographical musical about one of the most acclaimed singers in French history, Édith Piaf. The film documents Piaf’s tragic life, including her unusual childhood, her teenage years performing on the streets of Montmartre, her sudden rise to fame, struggles with addiction and, finally, her demise at the age of 47.
Marion Cotillard’s stirring performance as Piaf earned her the Oscar, César and BAFTA Awards for Best Actress, and makes “La Vie en Rose” an absolute must-see film.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)
Drama/Comedy, French, 137 minutes, France/Hungary
DIRECTOR: Jean-Paul Rappeneau
PRODUCERS: René Cleitman, Michel Seydoux, André Szots
SCREENWRITERS: Jean-Claude Carrière, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Edmond Rostand
STARRING: Gérard Depardieu, Anne Brochet, Vincent Pérez, Jacques Weber
Based on the play by Edmond Rostand, “Cyrano de Bergerac” stars Gerard Depardieu in the titular role as the Parisian soldier and poet with an exceptionally large nose. Desperately in love with the beautiful Roxane, Cyrano and fellow suitor, Christian, devise a plan to win her affections by combining Christian’s good looks with Cyrano’s soulful poetry. “Cyrano de Bergerac” was nominated for thirteen César Awards and received 10, including Best Actor for Depardieu and Best Director for Jean-Paul Rappeneau.
Les Enfants du Paradis (1945)
Drama, French, 190 minutes, France
DIRECTOR: Marcel Carné
PRODUCERS: Raymond Borderie, Fred Orain
SCREENWRITER: Jacques Prévert
STARRING: Arietty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Marcel Herrand, Pierre Renoir
With a three-hour-long runtime, “Les Enfants du Paradis” requires a serious time investment but is well worth the effort. Set in the Parisian theatre scene during the July Monarchy, “Les Enfants du Paradis” tells the story of the alluring courtesan, Garance, and her four suitors.
The film is remarkable not only for its epic tale of romance, its beautiful cinematography and its réalisme poétique, but also for the fact that it was made during the German occupation of France during World War II. Hailed as France’s equivalent to “Gone with the Wind,” “Les Enfants du Paradis” is a masterpiece and considered the most famous film in French history.
Jules et Jim (1962)
Drama/Romance, French/German, 105 minutes, France
DIRECTOR: François Truffaut
PRODUCERS: Marcel Berbert, François Truffaut
SCREENWRITERS: François Truffaut, Jean Gruault
STARRING: Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner, Henri Serre
In “Jules et Jim,” the two title characters — a shy Austrian writer and an extroverted Bohemian Frenchman, respectively — fall in love with Catherine, a free-spirited and fickle young woman. Shortly after Jules and Catherine are wed, both Jules and Jim are called to the frontlines of World War I to fight on opposing sides. Described as the “apotheosis of the French New Wave” by The Guardian, François Truffaut’s film is an epic story of friendship, love, war, and tragedy that takes place over the course of 20 years.
Although these films aren’t technically French films, they are set in France, and well worth viewing.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
Drama/Romance/Musical, English, 128 minutes, Australia/United States
DIRECTOR: Baz Luhrmann
PRODUCERS: Martin Brown, Baz Luhrmann, Fred Baron
SCREENWRITERS: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Leguizamo, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh
If you’re a fan of high camp, dazzling set pieces, and extravagant musical numbers, then “Moulin Rouge!” is the film for you. Set against the backdrop of Montmartre’s famous Moulin Rouge cabaret, the film tells the fated love story of Christian, a young English writer, and Satine, a beautiful courtesan with dreams of becoming an actress.
“Moulin Rouge!” features Baz Luhrmann’s signature over-the-top directorial flair and the musical stylings of David Bowie, Elton John, Nirvana, Madonna, and more.
Animated Comedy, English, 111 minutes, United States
DIRECTOR: Brad Bird
PRODUCER: Brad Lewis
SCREENWRITER: Brad Bird
STARRING: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Janeane Garofalo, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn
Pixar’s “Ratatouille” is the story of Remy, a rat who aspires to become a chef, and Linguini, a young garbage boy who dreams of a better life. When Linguini discovers Remy’s culinary talent, the two agree to work together to revitalize the once-acclaimed Parisian restaurant, Gusteau’s.
Comedic hijinks ensue as the two go toe-to-toe with Skinner, Gusteau’s devious head chef, and Anton Ego, an imperious restaurant critic. “Ratatouille” is a veritable visual feast and a must-see for audiences both young and old.
Force Majeure (2014)
Comedy/Drama, Swedish/French/English/Norwegian, 118 minutes, Sweden/France/Norway
DIRECTOR: Ruben Östlund
PRODUCERS: Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson
SCREENWRITER: Ruben Östlund
STARRING: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren
After a powder cloud from a controlled avalanche envelops the French Alpine resort where their family is staying, the fissures in Tomas and Ebba’s already fraught marriage deepen. An entry in the 2014 NHFF, director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” is an exploration of the complicated dynamics of gender, family, and marriage and how different perspectives can warp one’s perception of truth.
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)
Thriller, English, 147 minutes, Germany/France/Spain
DIRECTOR: Tom Tykwer
PRODUCER: Bernd Eichinger
SCREENWRITER: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger, Tom Tykwer
STARRING: Benjamin Whishaw, Dustin Hoffman, Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood
Based on the novel Das Parfum by German author Patrick Süskind, “Perfume” centers on Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a poor Frenchman with an extraordinary sense of smell.
Dedicated to creating the perfect perfume, Grenouille will stop at nothing to attain his goal — even if that means committing murder. From the squalid streets of 18th-century Paris to the lush, lavender-covered hills of Grasse, director Tom Tykwer does a masterful job of conveying scent through visual cues. Although it might not appeal to all audiences, “Perfume” is an unsettling yet intriguing exploration into the darkest parts of human nature.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Historical Drama, English/French, 123 minutes, United States/France/Japan
DIRECTOR: Sofia Coppola
PRODUCERS: Sofia Coppola, Ross Katz, Francis Ford Coppola
SCREENWRITER: Sofia Coppola
STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman, Judy Davis, Rip Torn, Asia Argento, Rose Byrne, Molly Shannon, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Steve Coogan
Though she never actually uttered the words “Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette’s lavish lifestyle and role as the last Queen of France has cemented her place as one of the most memorable figures in history. Actress Kirsten Dunst plays Marie Antoinette as a capricious youth rebelling against the stuffy traditions of Versailles court life in the only way she knows how — by surrounding herself with opulence.
Director Sofia Coppola approaches the doomed queen’s story with punk rock sensibility, filling the screen with color and decadence, all set to a soundtrack of 1980s new wave and post-punk.
Are there any other French films you’ll be watching to celebrate Bastille Day? Tell us on social media! And stay tuned to our blog for announcements on what films will be playing at this year’s film festival.