10 Essential French Directors in Criterion Collection

The French film industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century was among the world’s most important,but Criterion skipped its first golden era and the earliest French film in the collection is Under the Roofs of Paris directed by René Clair in 1930,since then Criterion nearly included all the important French directors till the 1970s.In this list,I’m gonna introduce 10 essential French directors you must know as a cinephile,directors of French New Wave movement are not listed here,I have another special edition for them.

René Clair


René Clair’s Le million (1931)

Widely regarded as one of the most important masters in French cinema along with Rean Renoir and Marcel Carne in the 1930s, René Clair received international fame by his first four sound comedies,three of which were in Criterion Collection.Especially his second sound film,Le Million,was acclaimed to have huge influences on later American comedy icons like Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin,even the whole genre of American musicals.

Films in Criterion:

Under the Roofs of Paris (1930)

À nous la liberté (1931)

Le million (1931)


Jean Renoir


Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939)

One of the greatest French directors ever.In the 1930s,Jean Renoir made two of his best known pictures:The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, the latter is even regarded by many critics as one of the best films ever made.During the World War II,he fled to US and directed a couple of less well known films there,in 1949,he made his first color film – The River in India with the technicolor cinematography,then he made the famous musical comedy trilogy,the best known one being French Cancan.

Films in Criterion:

Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932)

The Lower Depths (1936)

The Grand Illusion (1937)

La bête humaine (1938)

The Rules of the Game (1939)

The River (1949)

The Golden Coach (1953)

French Cancan (1955)

Elena and Her Men (1956)


Marcel Carne


Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise (1945)

Marcel Carne can be remembered by Children of Paradise only and it’s still a marvelous achievement for a director, the film was one of the peaks of poetic realism movement and was voted “Best French Film of the Century” in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals,in order to honor this sensational film,Criterion upgraded this early release into Blu-Ray with the latest 4K restoration,and released another film in the 1940s called Les Visiteurs du Soir together as a double bill.

Films in Criterion:

Port of Shadows (1938)

Les Visiteurs du Soir (1942)

Children of Paradise (1945)


Jean Cocteau


Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950)

Not only a superb filmmaker,Jean Cocteau is also a poet, novelist, dramatist, designer, playwright and artist.Though his Orphic trilogy are full of surreal elements,especially the first one,Blood of a Poet,Cocteau denied being a Surrealist or being in any way attached to the movement.His 1946 visual marvel Beauty and Beast is considered one of the most beautiful film French cinema has ever had.

Films in Criterion:

The Blood of a Poet (1930)

Beauty and Beast (1946)

Orpheus (1950)

Testament of Orpheus (1959)


Henri-Georges Clouzot

the wages of fear

 Henri-Georges Clozout’s The Wages of Fear (1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot was the only director in cinema history whose best works can compete with Hitchcock’s Vertigo,Rear Window and Psycho,his Wages of Fear won both the Palm d’Or in Cannes and Golden Bear in Berlin and was the only film that won top awards in two major European film festivals in the same year,his Diabolique even inspired Hitch to make one of his best films – Psycho.If you have seen these two and are big fan of him,there are still two films remain for you to check out in the collection.

Films in Criterion:

Le Corbeau (1943)

Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

The Wages of Fear (1953)

Diabolique (1955)


Max Ophuls


Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

Max Ophuls shot some of the most beautiful black&white films in cinema history,including The Earrings of Madame de…,Le plaisir and La ronde,his most famous film The Earrings of Madame de… features a stunning performance of Italian Neo-realism master Victtorio De Sica,and one of the best introduction video in the collection by Paul Thomas Anderson.If you’d like to watch films with beautiful camera movement or study it,his films are your best choices.

Films in Criterion:

La ronde (1950)

Le plaisir (1952)

The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953)

Lola Montès (1955)


Jean-Pierre Melville

army of shadows

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969)

Remember the director who’s interviewed in Breathless? That’s Melville,the director who single handedly established the French crime genre and influenced the whole generation of French New Wave.His most watchable films are his color films in the late 1960s,his collaboration with French super star Alain Delon in Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge had profound impact on the Hong Kong crime genres,and he’s the hero of Hong Kong action directors like John Woo and Johnnie To.His 1969 film Army of Shadows is the best one to represent his style.

Films in Criterion:

Les enfants terribles (1950)

Bob le flambeur (1956)

Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

Le doulos (1962)

Le deuxième souffle (1966)

Le Samouraï (1967)

Army of Shadows (1969)

Le cercle rouge (1970)


Jacques Becker

le trou

Jacques Becker’s Le trou (1960)

Worked as the assistant for Jean Renoir in films like The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game,Jacques Becker himself became one of the French masters during the occupation time.His most famous work Le Trou is arguably one of the best prison escape film ever made,a tense,suspenseful film about humanity.Criterion also included his other brilliant works like period romance Casque d’or(Simone Signoret) and gangster film Touchez pas au grisbi(Jean Gabin).

Films in Criterion:

Casque d’or (1952)

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Le trou (1960)


Robert Bresson


Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959)

Considered to be one of the greatest film director ever,Robert Bresson was one of the few that qualifies François Truffaut’s concept of an auteur.The purity of his cinema,his use of sound,his  ‘actor-model’ technique have influenced tremendous amount of famous directors after him like Andrei Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke, Jim Jarmusch, the Dardenne brothers, Aki Kaurismäki, and Paul Schrader.Criterion did a great job to have some of his best films in the collection with plenty of extras,and films like A Man Escaped,Devil Probably,L’Argent are rumored to come out soon.

Films in Criterion:

Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Pickpocket (1959)

Au hasard Balthazar (1966)

Mouchette (1967)


Jacques Tati


Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967)

The “French Chaplin” was best known for his film character Monsieur Hulot,with his trademark raincoat, umbrella and pipe, Hulot is among the most memorable comic characters in cinema.The complete collection of 4 films featuring M. Hulot are all in Criterion Collection,including the Oscar winning film Mon Oncle and the 70mm spectacle Playtime.If you are adore Tati’s character from these two films,do make sure to check out the other two in the series.

Films in Criterion:

M. Hulot’s Holiday (1953)

Mon oncle (1958)

Playtime (1967)

Traffic (1971)


Special Mention: Jean Vigo


Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934)

I stupidly left his name out,and decided to add it to the list,this list wouldn’t be complete without this genius’ name,especially under the circumstances that Criterion released all three of his films in a fantastic box-set last year.His L’Atalante would alway remain as one of the greatest French film ever made,and his Zero De Counduite inspired so many important films including Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Lindsay Anderson’s If….Few directors can be remembered for 2 major films, Jean Vigo is definitely one of them.

Films in Criterion:

À Propos De Nice (1930)

Zero De Counduite (1933)

L’Atalante (1934)


Did you find your favorite French directors in the list? Did any of the films here make you feel the urge to watch them? Leave your comments below.BTW,the French New Wave edition of Essential French Directors will come out very soon,stay tuned.


Check out other Criterion lists on Taste of Cinema.