You may not realize it, but without french filmmakers there would be no movie business. No Hollywood. No stars. No late nights on the couch watching Netflix. In fact, every movie ever made has french filmmakers to thank.
Why? Because in 1895 two french brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière, hosted a hugely successful public screening of ten short films. This event marked a breakthrough in the production of cinema, escalating film from a side show act to a legitimate technological and scientific form. Two years later, Georges Méliès had built one of the first ever film studios just outside of Paris. Unlike the Lumière brothers’ films of documented reality, real people going about their everyday lives, he created fiction films that helped establish film as an artistic form. His films drew from the theatre to create fantastic tales and utilized some of the first special effects. We attribute much of the origin of cinema to these french innovators.
Nowadays, the influence french filmmakers have had on Hollywood mostly creeps through unseen. That, however, does not mean it is not there.
Below we have listed ten essential french films to see in your lifetime. Almost all of them fall into what is called the French New Wave, an era of french cinema in the 50s and 60s in which filmmakers rejected common film techniques and topics. At the time, moviemakers were creating safe adaptations of classic novels and plays (what François Truffaut called “le cinéma de papa”). The French New Wave sought to challenge and experiment the stale conventions of the time, thus having enormous influence worldwide.
From a biography of Edith Piaf to a teenage gangster plot, from a musical about a woman who sells umbrellas to a surreal encounter in a haunting chateau, each of these ten movies will grab your attention in a unique way. Watch with an open mind and open heart.
Les Quatre Cents Coups | The 400 Blows (1959)
A young Parisian boy remains at odds with the adults in his life when he makes a mistake that sends his life spiraling out of control. As one of the quintessential films of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows has a significant place in history, along with its director François Truffaut, who based the film off of his own childhood.
Bande à Part | Band of Outsiders (1964)
Another pearl of the French New Wave, this time directed by Jean Luc Godard, Bande à Part reinterprets the classic gangster film. Two cinema lovers and their muse, who have a penchant for reenacting their favorite films, go one step too far in hatching a dangerous robbery.
La Vie en Rose (2007)
The most recent film on our list, La Vie en Rose follows the life of famed french singer Edith Piaf. Raised in a brothel by her grandmother, she was discovered singing on a street corner and soon after became a worldwide success. However, her life was entrenched in tragedy and ended with an untimely death.
In this comedic and fanciful french language film, a naive young woman aims to change the lives of those around her while at the same time facing her own loneliness. To date, Amélie is the highest grossing french film released in the United States.
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort | The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort is a musical film about two twin sisters who long to escape from their small town of Rochefort, France and find true love. They join a touring carnival troupe and meet an American musician, played by famous actor and director Gene Kelly.
Cléo de 5 à 7 | Cleo From 5 to 7 (1962)
In another highlight of the French New Wave, this time directed by famous Belgian director Agnès Varda, a hypochondriac singer named Cleo spends two hours waiting for the results of a biopsy to find out if she has cancer.
Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot | Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)
Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot is an uproarious comedy about a well-meaning man who inadvertently wreaks havoc on his trip to the seaside, bothering a variety of other vacationers along the way.
Les parapluies de Cherbourg | The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
This iconic musical film tells the story of a young couple whose brief relationship is interrupted by the Algerian war. Unusual and touching, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg is considered one of the best movie musicals of all time.
In this classic suspense film, the wife and mistress of a cruel school principal come together to hatch a daring murder plot, but things don’t go exactly according to plan. Predating and inspiring other thrillers of its kind, including Hitchcock’s greatest films, Diabolique is a benchmark of horror cinema.
L'Année dernière à Marienbad | Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
In L'Année dernière à Marienbad, two nameless aristocrats meet in an isolated baroque chateau and wonder if they have met before. Perhaps a ghost story, perhaps a dream, this surreal pillar of the French New Wave questions our ability to trust our own memory.