An Introduction to French Cinema
I've been a long time connoisseur of foreign films and I must say, my favorites usually come from France. It's unfortunate that because the film epicenter of the world is of course in Hollywood, many Americans don't feel the need to look outside of our own country for something to watch. Whether it be because they don't know that there are scores of excellent French films out there, or simply because they don't want to put up with subtitles, they are missing out on some of the best movies ever made. I've created this list to make it easy for the average person wanting to try something new and get into French Cinema. These are not necessarily the five best French films (although some might argue that they are), but rather excellent starting points for a newby to French cinema to delve into. There's something for everyone in this list, and perhaps you'll even find your new favorite movie.
You will rarely see a thriller/mystery as good as Tell No One. Years after Alexandre Beck's wife Margot is murdered by a serial killer, he does his best to go on living a normal life, that is until new evidence surfaces pointing to him as his wife's killer. He also receives a recently taken video showing his wife on a surveillance camera, still alive. From then on, it's completely edge of your seat. He must run from the law while simultaneously trying to figure out the truth about his wife. This film is so good, that the rights (of course) have been bought up by Miramax and Focus to be remade in English. Don't wait. See this now.
Here's one for the animation crowd. Almost every scene from The Illusionist is wonderful in one way or another. You will be smiling, but I can only imagine it will also leave you sad. Although this film is in French, there's narrowly a full sentence of intelligible dialogue. There are no subtitles in the English version because they aren't necessary. Every aspect of the story is told visually, and a fantastic job it does. After a down-on-his-luck magician meets a young lady at a remote village, they head out on a journey together to Edinburgh. She believes he has actual supernatural powers and he indulges her with lavish gifts, not having the courage to tell her he can't do "actual" magic. The animation is absolutely beautiful and even people who might not like animated features might find themselves in love.
I can't imagine a single serious horror fan who hasn't seen High Tension. Not only is it in my top five favorite horror films, but as Stephen Martin has mentioned before, the French are amazing at doing horror. One reason could be because of their brutality, and the other reason could be because of their realism. Whichever the reason, this film does them both, and well. While two college girls on vacation getting terrorized seems an unbearable cliché, I assure you, you've never seen one like this. This film combines the best aspects of both a gory slasher film, and an intense psychological thriller.
Unfortunately, Hollywood's monopoly on the cheesy, romantic comedy movie has all but ruined the genre, but here's proof that the French can even do those well. Alex, along with his sister and her husband, break up couples... professionally. Yes, he gets paid to get unhappy women to realize they've erred in the ways of love. The most surprising thing about this film is that it's really, truly hilarious. One of the few love stories you can watch that your wife/girlfriend will love while maintaining your veil of manliness. I'm sure you won't even care though because you'll be laughing so hard.
There are gangster films, and then there are gangster films. This one is the latter. Vincent Cassel has made a name for himself by playing iconically cool characters (see; François Toulour in Ocean's Twelve and Thomas Leroy in Black Swan) and his portrayal of Jacques Mesrine is no different. If you're unfamiliar with the name Mesrine, he may have been France's worst criminal, and by far its most notorious. Yes, Mesrine is a true story. A true story about a man so bad, it takes two films to catalogue his exploits. Mesrine: Killer Instinct and Mesrine: Public Enemey N°1 also happen to be extremely violent and have some of the best shootouts you're likely to see outside of Heat.
See ya Space Cowboys...