10 legendary French films you need to see to understand French people
French cinema is often what French people are the most proud of (besides revolution and cheese).
Our country’s directors and actors are somewhat legendary all around the world, and establishing a top 10 of the must-see French movies is nothing like an easy task. I have picked up my 10 favorite French films amongst a list of hundreds of cult movies.
The following list hence does not strive at being exhaustive (I would need a top 100, not a top 10), but rather to give you a taste of what is, in my mind, the most beautiful and accessible French cinema has done in the last decades.
Every movie mentioned in this list is a cult classic, but some of them are less frequently cited in top 10 best French films: I am listing them because they are some of my favorite movies ever made, to give you an original and enlightened overview of French Cinema.
1. Amélie (Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain) – JP. Jeunet, 2001.
If you had to see only one classic French movie before coming to Paris, Amélie would be it. It depicts the often idealized Parisian life of a charming waitress, Amélie played by Audrey Tautou. Amélie is a movie about loneliness and trying to find beauty in the little things.
It is an almost cliché movie for French people – almost everybody has seen Amélie. Some people criticize it because they find it depicts a postcard-like life in Montmartre. While I think it is true, it does not take away from the touching aspect of the movie’s fairytale atmosphere.
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain is also the highest-grossing French speaking movie in America. Its piano musical theme is utterly famous; if you have never heard it, I advise you to click here and discover it.
2. La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the warmest color) – A. Kechiche, 2013.
La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the warmest color) is the movie of 2013’s unleashed passions. Directed by Abdelatif Kechiche, the movie depicts the relationship between Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux).
The movie became a classic in France and earned the prestigious Palme D’Or in Cannes (French Academy Awards) even though it stirred up major controversies about the rawness of its sex scenes and the poor working conditions of the two lead actresses.
The movie is a loose adaptation of the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. What I like most about it is that the second half of the movie, depicting the relationship between Adèle and Emma, is an accurate portrayal of how lurking insecurities in an otherwise healthy couple can set everything to flames.
3. La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast) – J. Cocteau, 1946.
Jean Cocteau is a famous French writer, author of the beautiful novel Les Enfants Terribles. Not only is he one of my favorite French authors of the 20th century, but I think his movie La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast), released in 1946, is a masterpiece.
It tells the same story as the classical tale of Beauty and the Beast, but the way it is filmed is radically different. It does not insist as much on candor and marvel than on an unsettling and persistent fairy that is inseparable from a darker, gloomier side.
It is fairytale is as much for adults than children – gloomy, marvelous, poetic and incredibly inventive. It will give you an idea of the best of post-World War 2 French cinema productions. Another all-time favorite of mine.
4. Le Mépris (Contempt) – JL. Godard, 1963.
If I have to be absolutely honest, Jean Luc Godard’s movies are not my favorite. But he in himself is a cult French director of the new wave, so not mentioning one of his most famous and cult movies would almost be a treason in a top 10 must-see French movies.
Contempt is an iconic French-Italian production starring Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli. It tells the story of the unravelling of a couple triggered by a single remark, with enchanting Italian islands as a background.
5. Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s) – E. Rohmer, 1969.
Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s) might be on the top 3 of my favorite French new wave movies (alongside two other movies featured in this list below). It was released in 1969 and directed by E. Rohmer (another classic French director).
Ma nuit chez Maud is a movie about chance encounters and good conversations between almost strangers. It is a movie where you see people talk more than people act, and stars incredibly subtle performances by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Françoise Fabian.
This movie is set in France under the snow, and I have to confess it is my favorite movie to watch during the Christmas period. It is not exactly a Christmas movie, but rather a movie set in the melancholic and in-between period set after Christmas and before New Year’s Eve.
6. La Jetée (The Jetty) – C. Marker, 1962
La Jetée (The Jetty) is a short film of 28 minutes directed by C. Marker and released in 1962. It is my favorite movie of the new wave and absolutely one of my all-time favorite movies. Everything about this short film to me is a masterpiece.
La Jetée is composed almost exclusively of still images in black and white, with a narrator off voice telling the story of a post-apocalyptic where the only hope of mankind is the ability for a man to remember his child memories.
The movie is unsettling and incredibly poetic, and the first time I saw it, I was blown away by its beauty. To anyone willing to understand why the French new wave is considered so creative and a milestone in the history of cinema, I would recommend seeing La Jetée.
7. Les Quatre-Cents Coups (The Four Hundred blows) – F. Truffaut
Les Quatre-Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows) is yet another iconic French movie. It is not a personal favorite, but absolutely worth the watch. The movie was directed by François Truffaut and released in 1959, earning several of the most prestigious cinema awards in France, including Cannes Film Festival award for best director.
The movie tells the story of a misunderstood male teenager, Antoine Doisnel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his peregrinations in a world that is way too adult for him.
8. Les demoiselles de Rochefort (The Young girls of Rochefort) – J. Demy, 1967.
Quintessential French experience ahead if you have not seen it! Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is the most famous French musical (music composed by famous Michel Legrand who died a few days ago, on January 26th, 2019).
The movie’s cast features the iconic actress Catherine Deneuve and her sister Françoise Dorleac. The movie is set on a seaside town, and tells the story of two bubbly and seductive twins, Delphine and Solange.
The movie is most famous for its Twin Song (La chanson des jumelles), that you can hear there. Catherine Deneuve is maybe one of the most French mythical actress alive, and is a true icon in France, embodying the timeless chic Parisian woman.
9. L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) – A. Resnais, 1961.
L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad) is one of my favorite French movies of all time. Released in 1961 and directed by Alain Resnais, the screen play of the movie was written by famous French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
The film is in black and white and is set in a magnificent, gloomy and decadent palace. It tells the story of a man and a woman meeting – the man pretends they have already been lovers before, the woman denies, and the movie plays out this confusion in a masterly way.
The movie opens up on a long and monotonous description of the palace, almost like an incantation, and the anguish goes crescendo from there. If you are somewhat of a film buff and willing to discover what I consider a masterpiece of French cinema, look no further, Last Year at Marienbad is it.
10. Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird) – P. Grimault, 1980.
Le Roi et l’Oiseau (The King and the Mockingbird) is the cult childhood movie of many bourgeois boheme Parisians. This animated feature is also one of my all-time favorite French Movies. Released in 1980 and directed by Paul Grimault, what makes the movie distinctive is its dialogues, written by famous French poet Jacques Prévert.
This almost dystopian movie is as much for adults as it is for children (much like Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, cited above).
The story is one of a tiny tyrant with a cross-eyes. Very unsettled by his squint, he forces all painters of his kingdom to paint him with straight eyes, and kills them if they refuse. Until one day, he is killed and replaced by the straight-eyed king in one of his painting, even more tyrannical and cruel.
From there follows a series of adventures set in an unsettling city where the rules are not the same as in our world. One thing I love most about this tale (besides its depth of philosophical implications) is its stunning and melancholic soundtrack, and especially its famous piano theme. If you want to discover it, there you go! Thank me later.
Bonus 1: Intouchables (The Untouchable) – O. Nakashe and E. Toledano, 2011.
It is difficult to close this top without mentioning Intouchables (Untouchable). The movie was a mediatic tornado in 2011, breaking all records with its unprecedented popular success.
I would not say that Intouchables is a masterpiece, but it the quintessence of the French feel good movie, and the popular success it earned (most viewed movie in the European Union in 2011, outscoring Harry Potter and the Deadly Hollows) make it legitimate to be in this top.
The movie, directed by O. Nakashe and E. Toledano, tells the friendship between two men of radically different social classes: a tetraplegic rich and blasé man (François Cluzet), and his carefree caretaker (Omar Sy). Omar Sy earned a Cesar for his performance, and to this day, the movie is considered a classic by many French.
Bonus 2: La Boum (The Party) – C. Pinoteau, 1980.
The last movie I will try to squeeze in the top is another popular success (or should I say triumph), La Boum. Directed by C. Pinoteau and released in 1980, it is considered the movie of a whole French generation.
The movie feature lovely and iconic French actress Sophie Marceau, and tells the story of a teenager and her struggles in a world in which she feels misunderstood.
The movie is once again not a masterpiece of cinematography – just a sweet and lovely French comedy that grew into a social phenomenon for a whole generation of French.
I could go on and on for hours, so I better close down this top – there you have them, the 10 French films you need to see! Some of these movies have inspired countless other directors all around the world (as it was the case for the new wave).
This top features only cult classics, but some of them are less frequently quoted – I intentionally chose to cite them because they represent in my mind what French cinema has done best.
If you are willing to explore more of French cinema, you can also read this article .
Do not hesitate to get in touch, or simply to watch other movies by the directors I mentionned here: most of them are iconic in France!