The Best of 7 French Film Directors
France is known across the world for its delicious cheeses, culture, fashion and the arts. What’s included in the arts, you may be asking yourselves? That’s simple: architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, music, performance, and film. If you’re familiar with the Seven Arts, you already knew the answer to that question!
Today, I’ll be talking about film. More specifically, French film. Even more specifically, French film directors! There are so many to choose from, but I’ve narrowed it down to my personal favorites. There are 7 on my list, but I honestly could have written about over 20, there are so many talented French film directors out there!
That being said, I’ll keep this brief. Keep reading for the best of 7 French film directors!
1. François Truffaut
François Truffaut is probably my favorite director on my list. He is one of the founders of the film movement called the French New Wave, or La Nouvelle Vague in French. It’s a movement that began in the 1950s, and continued until the end of the 1960s. The films in the movement are known for their experimentation in shooting, style and editing. These films also usually include some kind of comment on the political and social movements at the time.
Truffaut is a giant in the French film industry, having worked on 25 films over the course his career. His film 400 Blows is considered one of the most important films of the New Wave movement. In 1973, Truffaut was awarded the BAFTA Award for Best Film and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for the movie Day for Night.
Truffaut continued to work throughout the 1970s as well, but one of his last films, The Last Metro, released in 1980, earned him international recognition once again. He was awarded the César Award for Best Director for the film, which starred Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu.
Day for Night
The Last Metro
2. Jean-Luc Godard
Jean-Luc Godard is another one of my personal favorites! He is also considered to be a founder of the New Wave movement, and he and Truffaut actually worked closely together on a few films. Godard was even more experimental than Truffaut, and he detested the traditional Hollywood films at the time. He credits these feelings as pushing him to make his own movies.
Godard was living in Paris in the 1950s, when ciné-clubs, or film societies in English, were becoming popular. Godard met future directors such as Truffaut at these clubs! The film industry in Paris was a small world at the time.
I love Godard’s films for their aesthetic. Much of his early work was filmed in the 1960s in the South of France, and I can’t get enough of the style, scenery and colors! If you’re interested in the same, I have to recommend Pierrot le Fou, in particular.
Godard continued to make films throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and up until today. His most recent film, Le Livre d’Image was released in 2018!
Pierrot le Fou
The Little Soldier
3. Luc Besson
Luc Besson is perhaps the most internationally known French film director, thanks to his English speaking movies like The Fifth Element, Lucy and Valerian. In France, he is perhaps most famous for his 1988 masterpiece Le Grand Bleu, (The Big Blue in English).
Critics credit Besson’s films as leading the film movement called the Cinéma du look. It is a branch of the New Wave movement, but in its own particular way. Directors in the Cinéma du look movement were more preoccupied with the visuals of their movies rather than the storylines. The movement occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, and Besson’s Le Grand Bleu is a great example of it in practice.
Besson is not only a director, he is also a producer! He produced the Taxi series, the Taken series, and The Transporter series. If you like action films, Besson is your guy.
The Big Blue
The Fifth Element
4. Agnès Varda
Agnès Varda was also involved in the New Wave movement. It may seem like most of my favorite directors had some sort of connection to this movement, so that should show you how important it is in French cinematography! She got her start in the arts through photography, a medium she remained passionate about throughout her career.
Varda has been celebrated by the feminist movement. Her films were considered to be feminist for their use of female main characters and plots that centered around women. Varda did not consider herself to be actively involved in the feminist movement, but she consistently worked on her own terms, never letting men influence how she directed her films. For this fact alone, she was inspirational to women everywhere, and in particular, women aspiring to be film directors.
Varda’s first feature length film, called La Pointe Courte, was shot in a town of the same name, and was released in 1954. The film pre-dates the New Wave movement, but contains much of the same thematic and stylistic elements that would appear in the movement years later in the 1960s. Varda was a woman ahead of her time!
La Pointe Courte
Cléo from 5 to 7
5. Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson is not only a renowned director in France, he is also considered to be one of the most important directors of all time. Jean-Luc Godard once said of Bresson, “He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.”
“He is the French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” – Jean-Luc Godard
Bresson was born in 1901, and was a prisoner of war during World War II. Although he directed movies for more than a 50 year period, he only made 13. Bresson was a perfectionist, and was known as being very meticulous with his work.
Bresson headed a technique called the “actor-model” method. It involved shooting a scene over and over, until the actors were able to stop “performing” overtly. Bresson was also known for working with only non-professional actors. He wanted the simplest, most raw results he could get, making his films quite minimalist in style.
Bresson also influenced the New Wave movement with his book on film theory and criticism, Notes on the Cinematographer. He is considered to be a founder as well as an influencer for his involvement with the movement.
A Man Escaped
6. Jean Renoir
I had to include Jean Renoir on my list because I am such a huge fan of his father’s work! That’s right, his father was the famous French painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir! That isn’t the only reason why he’s on my list, as his films are incredible as well, but how do you like that for a fun fact?!
Back to Jean Renoir! Born in 1894, Renoir served in the First World War until he was shot in the leg. Ironically, this brush with death would go on to introduce him to the film industry: when he was recovering from his injury he watched movies in bed.
Renoir’s first films were silent movies typical for the 1920s. Once the 1930s rolled around, he began to shoot films with sound. In 1939, Renoir made La Règle du Jeu, or The Rules of the Game in English. It was initially met with negative reviews, and it was actually banned at the onset of World War II!
After the war, although the original film reel had been destroyed, a pair of French directors (with Renoir’s permission), re-printed the film. They completed the project in the 1950s, and began to show the film in the 1960s. Since, it has been met with critical acclaim, appearing on many polls as one of the best films ever made!
The Rules of the Game
The Grand Illusion
7. Catherine Breillat
I couldn’t have a best of list without including a woman! Catherine Breillat is the most controversial film director on my list. She is known for her films on taboo subjects of sex, drugs and rebellion. Breillat also focuses on girls’ coming of age stories and women’s sexuality. Breillat is my type of film director!
Some of Breillat’s films can be hard to watch for their violence and graphic sex scenes. For example, her 1999 Romance includes scenes of unstimulated sex between the actors. She also directed the 2001 film À ma sœur! (Fat Girl in English), which tells the coming of age tale of a pair of sisters on vacation.
Breillat is an author herself, having published many successful novels. She tends to make films that are based on classic novels and stories, making them uniquely her own. She has made films based on the story of Sleeping Beauty, the pirate Bluebeard, and at least 3 based on her own novels.
You’ve probably all heard about French greats such as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse. But, did you know that there were so many talented French film directors, too?! Well, after reading this article…now you know!
I hope you have enjoyed this brief summary of some important French film directors. I say brief, as I could have mentioned so many more. A few that come to mind are Alain Resnais, Jean Cocteau, Éric Rohmer…I could go on!
I’ve just given you a TON of recommendations, so get watching.
If you want even more great French film recommendations, why not meet one of our local guides in Paris to see what they come up with? We have plenty of options for walking tours, I’m sure you’ll find one that catches your eye. Click here to learn more!