1. “In the House” (Dans la maison)
Director François Ozon is often associated with “New French Extremism” and the cinéma du corps (cinema of the body), both of which commonly refer to films of an edgy, transgressive nature. However, Ozon and many of the other directors placed in this camp employ a wide range of artistic styles, and may be most notable for their willingness to experiment with new approaches that offer a vivid and quirky quality to their work.
This film of Ozon’s, which features French cinema favorites Fabrice Luchini and British-born Kristen Scott Thomas, presents mainstream subject matter in a fresh and unexpected manner. It loosely employs two common formulas: the teacher-meets-gifted-student drama and the classic family drama.
Due to the nature of the plot, which involves Luchini’s character teaching students French literature and helping one particular student, Claude, with his writing, there are several French lessons hidden within the film.
Keep your ears tuned to try to pinpoint when Claude’s narration switches from the past to the present.
2. “The French Minister” (Quai d’Orsay)
“The French Minister” follows Arthur Vlaminck, a new employee at the Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, as he tries to find his footing and comes into contact with a wide range of distinctive characters. A far-reaching political comedy, the story shoots off into several subplots and sometimes seems to have been conceived more as a sitcom than a movie. But this is great for learning! It brings you into contact with many different styles and modes of speech.
As there are plenty of quick vocal exchanges in “The French Minister,” it’sideal for advanced learners looking to up the stakes. Clocking in at almost two hours long with near-constant dialogue, it’s a whole lot of content.
3. “2 Autumns, 3 Winters” (2 automnes 3 hivers)
This isn’t your mom’s rom-com. Actually, it’s not a rom-com at all, despite having been described as such.
It’s more of a comic but sober meditation on life and love. It employs some artier film techniques in a playful manner, such as introducing the main characters by means of narration and having them speak directly to the camera. The movie is divided into chapitres (chapters), and includes one that announces to you from the get-go that it’s going to employ the passé simple.
The narrative follows not only Armand and Amélie (the featured couple, who get together at the middle rather than the end of the film), but also a close friend of Armand’s as they all deal with the unexpected surprises life has to offer. A smart, hip film that doesn’t talk down to you but appeals to your intelligence and wit, “2 Autumns, 3 Winters” not only teaches French but creates an ideal atmosphere for learning.
4. “With a Friend Like Harry” (Harry, un ami qui vous veut du bien)
Wanna learn French in your sleep?
A darkly comic take on a family vacation gone wrong, “With a Friend Like Harry” may conveniently haunt your dreams.
While on vacation with his family, Michel runs into an old classmate from lycée, Harry. Michel doesn’t even remember Harry at first, but invites him to have dinner at his family’s summer home. It turns out that Harry knows a lot about Michel, having even gone so far as to memorize a poem he wrote that appeared in a school publication years earlier. He becomes obsessed with Michel taking up writing again. Michel is both flattered and repelled, but can’t seem to rid himself of Harry’s presence.
Despite being thoroughly creepy, “With a Friend Like Harry” is not what you’d call a “scary” movie. As we watch Michel struggle with his past and present desires, both awakened by and obstructed by Harry, we find ourselves rooting for him up to a finale that could be considered weirdly inspirational.
The film maintains an even, relaxed pace throughout. The dialogue is well-paced, too, giving you time to process what’s being said. Bonus points if you can keep up with everything Michel’s kids yell in the background.
5. “Bicycling with Molière” (Alceste à bicyclette)
Back to Fabrice Luchini and natural dialogue interspersed with literature.
The plot of this film follows an actor trying to convince his retired former friend to take a part in a production of Molière’s “Le Misanthrope.“ His friend (Luchini) agrees to consider the offer, but only if they can rehearse together first. Tensions rise and egos suffer as they argue over who should play which part and revisit past resentments in the process.
This offering may come off a little precious at first, as it involves actors reciting dated verse at each other. But Luchini’s character’s comic disdain keeps the atmosphere of the film down-to-earth and thoroughly modern.
Despite what some reviews on Netflix say, you don’t have to have read the play to be able to follow this movie. It will, however, offer you a crash course in Molière, and leave it up to you where to take that knowledge next.
6. “The Painting” (Le tableau)
An animated film taking inspiration from artists such as Chagall, Matisse and Picasso, “The Painting” is meta eye-candy.
The main characters in the movie are figures in a painting, some of whom are considered inferior due to their apparent half-finished status. The questions of why some figures have visual attributes the others lack, who le peintre (the painter) is and why he chose to paint everyone the way he did sets up a space for social and philosophical commentary.
The ideas themselves are nothing new, but there’s an upside to that: You can focus more closely on the cool visuals and the dialogue, which tends to be clear but naturally spoken.
7. “Le Chef” (Comme un chef)
Brush up on your French food vocabulary and get ready for a light and highly watchable movie that will appeal to foodies and…oh, just about everyone else, too.
Alexandre LeGarde, played by Jean Reno, is a famous chef who has run into some problems. Money problems, boss problems, inspiration problems. Desperation leads him to accept help from Jacky, a self-taught chef and LeGarde admirer. Together, the two work to refashion old recipes for modern tastes.
“Le Chef” is primarily a comedy that works hard to entertain. It has great rewatch value, especially for a French learner. In addition to mouth-watering descriptions of dishes and the back-and-forth of casual kitchen banter, you’ll get a good mix of social scenarios between a wide cast of characters. This makes it a good practice film for all levels, and one that you’ll return to again and again.
8. “You Will Be My Son” (Tu seras mon fils)
By far the darkest movie on this list, “You Will Be My Son” is a captivating thriller.
Niles Arstrup gives a brilliant performance as a cruel, critical man obsessed with securing his winemaking legacy. Dissatisfied with his own son as a candidate to replace him, he becomes set on bequeathing his estate to the son of one of his employees, which sets off all the tensions and resentments you might imagine it would.
With notes of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a hint of “The Cask of Amontillado” and a finish all its own, “You Will Be My Son” contains that telltale je ne sais quoi that appeals to connoisseurs of creepy film. So pop open a bottle of Bordeaux and dive in (not literally, of course).
With its expressive acting, “You Will Be My Son” is a good opportunity for a French learner to observe the language being spoken with emotional emphasis and subtlety. The main difference between this film and some of the others on the list is that it deals with highly personal situations, opening up yet another angle of conversational possibilities. To be fair, most people will (hopefully) never experience the exact situations that take place in this movie, but expanding your range is always a good thing.
9. “Amélie” (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain)
I know, I know! This is, like, the most obvious example of an internationally-known French film. Plus, we’ve already included one movie that features a chick named Amélie.
Even if you’ve already seen this one, when was the last time you watched it? With its fun and whimsical approach to colorful visuals and a narrative that builds on itself with confidence and charm, it’s a great movie for beginning and intermediate French learners. Its optional subtitles on Netflix make it worth revisiting for anyone learning French. So don’t scoff until you’ve squeezed out every last drop of cinematic goodness!
10. “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (Le scaphandre et le papillon)
True story: In 1995, Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby was paralyzed by a stroke, reduced to communicating by blinking his left eyelid. An assistant would read off the alphabet to him, and he would blink to select a letter as it came up. He managed to write an entire book using this system.
This is the movie based on that book. Starring Mathieu Amalric (a well-known figure in French cinema who you may recognize as the villain from the Bond film “Quantum of Solace”), the film takes us through Bauby’s entire experience from the time he wakes up in the hospital, unable to move or talk.
If you think this sounds depressing, it’s not.
While many movies about discouraging medical situations force us to watch the unfortunate victims suffer before our eyes, a large part of this film is shot from Bauby’s point of view. Characters speak to him, but we can also hear his unspoken thoughts in the background. This perspective leads to many entertaining and humorous situations, and is interspersed with colorful flashbacks and rich, creative depictions of Bauby’s inner world.
Seeing the world from a first-person point of view (no matter how limited that point of view may be) is always a great opportunity to put yourself in the place of experiencing a conversation with French speakers.
This article was originally published on FluentU by Elizabeth Cook.
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