20 Great English-Language Films To Help You Discover France
Traveling is a wonderful habit of the human nature. People do it for different reasons. Some are interested in visiting as much as they can in order to gain culture and perspective, others just to get away from the rat race for a few days and just lay in the sun without a care in the world.
The term “the perfect destination” varies from person to person and can be described in many different ways. For some the perfect destination is a tropical island where the sun never shines and the sea is omnipresent. For others the destination of their dreams is embodied in a cultural city filled with stunning architecture and a bohemian street atmosphere. However, some destinations will never be dated and will always be sought after.
Exotic islands will always attract people looking for fun in the sun, cultural hot spots like Paris, London or Rome will forever enchant those thirsty for knowledge, New York will never cease to be the dream city of the party people etc. The world of cinema has not been indifferent to man’s pleasures. So many movies play the traveling card to their advantage.
There are lots of travel movies out there that make the landscapes or the beautiful settings, surrounding the story, an essential part of the plot. Very often directors use the landscape (urban or rural) to set the tone and develop the story in accordance to it. A country that will forever be a muse to film directors is France.
France is visually stunning and its bursting with cinematic opportunities anywhere you travel within its borders; from Provence to Normandy, from Paris to Marseille. But it’s not just the French directors who took advantage of their country’s beautiful rural and urban landscape; the English speaking filmmakers have been attracted to France for as long as cinema exists…and for good reason.
France’s natural splendor offers limitless possibilities to what a filmmaker can do. This list is an invitation to discover France with the help of 20 great English-language films.
1. An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951)
Minnelli’s wonderful musical is inspired by George Gershwin’s groundbreaking symphonic poem of the same name that came out in 1928. Needless to say the film is filled with Gershwin’s music; and not just his symphonic poem, but other popular compositions such as “I Got Rhythm” or “Our Love is here to Stay”. The cinematic climax however is the beautifully choreographed ballet set to Gerhswin’s “An American in Paris” that lasts approximately 16 minutes.
The film tells the story of American World War II veteran Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) who, after the war, has become a painter and is trying to make it in Paris. Jerry is an exuberant expatriate just like his friend and neighbor Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a struggling concert pianist. Adam is a longtime associate of French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary).
The three friends struggle to find work in Paris and to make matters worse Jerry and Henri fall in love with the same woman. The story of the film is interspersed with dance numbers choreographed by Gene Kelly and set to Gershwin’s music.
Another very important character in the film is Paris itself. After watching the film it is impossible not to daydream, even if for a little bit, about getting on a plain and flying to Paris to experience the high life. The movie takes you to all the places you know and love but it gives you a bonus that other movies do not provide. It provides a soundtrack to your two hour trip in Paris and soundtrack is, of course, George Gershwin and his magical music that suits the city like a glove. Love, dancing and Paris…what could be better?
2. To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
“To Catch a Thief” brings together two of Hitchcock’s favorite actors and puts them on the stunning French Riviera. Cary Grant stars as John Robie, a retired infamous cat burglar who has to save his reformed reputation by catching a new thief preying on the wealthy tourists on the Riviera. Grace Kelly – in her final film with Hitchcock – plays Robie’s love interest. Like all Hitchcock films were dealing with subjects like mistaken identity and mysterious happenings.
In this film confusion is created once a cat burglar that uses the same methods as the infamous John Robie, start operating the French Riviera. Although Robie is now “retired”, the police make him their prime suspect and make an issue out of arresting him at once. The only way for John Robie to prove his innocence is to catch this copy-cat thief.
While all of this is going on, the French Riviera shines on beautiful as always. If it weren’t for this particular predicament, the settings of this film would be ideal for anyone in this world. Who wouldn’t love the following: healthy, witty people with unlimited funds, sunshine, flowers, villas, and the sparkle of the Mediterranean.
The landscape in the background of this film would make a perfect silent documentary; just something to look at. Due to the beauty of the French Riviera, Hitchcock has paid a greater attention to details wowing the audience with both story and imagery.
3. Lust for Life (Vincente Minnelli, 1956)
All artists live interesting and complicated lives. That’s why people will always be fascinated by their stories – sometimes almost as much as the interest in their work. Vincent Van Gogh is one of those artists that will always draw fascination. His life has been the subject of numerous books and movies but probably the most famous is Irving Stone’s novel “Lust for Life” and Vincente Minnelli’s screen adaptation of it.
The film chronicles most of Van Gogh’s life and its bright and warm imagery shines a heartwarming light on the artist’s tragic destiny. The sunflower fields, that Van Gogh loved so much – are very much present in the film as well as the crows and the willows. Kirk Douglas does a very good job in bringing Van Gogh to life but the real acting gem of this film is Anthony Quinn’s stellar performance as another eccentric painter, Paul Gaguin.
The narration of this film is excellent as it tries to be as fluent as possible – as opposed to alternating different episodes of the painter’s life. A huge role in the fluency of the film is played by the stunning imagery of rural France in which Van Gogh created his masterpieces.
He wanted to live amongst the wind and the fields in order to be authentic and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings in full. His admiration for nature can easily be understood by the audience, as no one can remain indifferent in the face of such beauty.
4. Charade (Stanley Donen, 1963)
Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn), a Paris based American, has decided to divorce her Swiss husband after realizing that she no longer loves him. Before she can file for divorce, her husband is found dead, seemingly pushed off a train. It turns out that while Regina was on holiday, her husband sold all their possessions, making $250,000 in the process, and was on his way to the coast to leave the country for South America for good.
The money, however, was not among the possessions returned to Regina after his death. Regina further learns that, during World War II, her husband was a member of the Office of Strategic Services and absconded with a large amount of gold bars that were destined for the French Resistance. Now several men are after Regina to retrieve the fortune that she knew nothing about.
The film is notable for its screenplay, especially the fascinating humorous dialogs between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. It was also viewed as a very complex film having been noted to contain influences of genres such as whodunit, screwball comedy and spy thriller. Jokingly, it has named “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made”.
Another notable element of the film is the fact that it was filmed on location – pretty rare those days – on the streets of Paris, taking the audience throughout all the famous quarters of the city and more. “Charade” is a joy of a film. All the actors in it (Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy etc.) are great and the city of Paris looks its sophisticated best as the hunt for fortune takes us across its fascinating streets.
5. Two for the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967)
The second Stanley Donen film on this list; also made in the 60’s, also made with Audrey Hepburn in the lead female role, also shot in France. But this time, Donen expands his cinematic landscape to the whole south part of the country – getting out of the Paris comfort zone. “Two for the Road” is one of the first films to be told non-sequentially and also one of the first to use the road-movie genre to describe a crumbling marriage.
Drawing inspiration from Rossellini’s “Journey to Italy”, Donen’s film is an emotional tale-spin that combines episodes from a troubled marriage with breathtaking natural scenery. The film follows the troubled marriage of Mark (Albert Finney) and Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) who got married young and now must face the fact the time, old age and wisdom (though not necessarily) have passed over them and both parties see things different now.
Their road in life leads to an unwanted road of infidelity that just might lead to an imminent divorce. Their story goes back and forth – through the extensive use of flashbacks – between their troubled present day relationship and the happiness of their first years together. The contrast, between the two feelings generated by these episodes, is huge. While the past brings joy to the screen, the present brings nothing but bitterness and resentment.
The only thing that stays the same is that landscape of southern France; forever beautiful and fascinating. They were in France when their love was born and now they are in France again, trying to resolve their issues. Their feelings have changed over the years. France’s natural beauty has not.
6. The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977)
Ridley Scott’s directorial debut is a rare gem, terribly under-seen in comparison to his more well-known films such as “Alien”, “Blade Runner” or “Gladiator”. Set during the Napoleonic age of France, the film is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel”, which is said to be based on true events.
In Strasbourg in 1800, fervent Bonapartist and obsessive duellist Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), nearly kills the nephew of the city’s mayor in a sword duel. Under pressure from the mayor, the Brigadier-General sends a member of his staff, Lieutenant Armand D’Hubert (Keith Carradine), to put Feraud under house arrest.
As the arrest takes place in public, Feraud takes it as a personal insult from D’Hubert. Matters are made worse when Feraud asks d’Hubert if he would “let them spit on Napoleon” and D’Hubert doesn’t immediately reply. This prompts Feraud to challenge D’Hubert to a duel. The duel is inconclusive; D’Hubert slashes Feraud’s forearm but is unable to finish him off, because he is attacked by Feraud’s housemaid.
D’Hubert is more than happy to let the matter go but Feraud feels that his honor has not been yet avenged; and so the duel goes on…forever. Every time the two men meet (1801 in Augsburg, 1806 in Lubeck, during Napoleon’s exile, during the battle of Waterloo, during the reign of Louis XVIII) the duel reignites and the battle for honor and integrity rages on.
“The Duellists” sarcastically examines the foolish things men do in the name of honor. The film has a rather unusual subject but it works beautifully; especially against the spectacular background of France’s countryside. The beautiful landscapes of the Dordogne region – where most of the film was shot – interlock with the ugly absurdity of man, eventually blending together in a perfect irony. In the opening scenes, the audience sees a flock of white gees crossing a country road.
In the vicinity of the road, Feraud fights in an early morning duel. The imagery of pure white is juxtaposed with images in which red (coming from the blood of Feraud’s oponent) is predominant color. This far-fetched antagony between natural beauty and irrational human behavior is present throughout the whole film letting the audience chose the things that really matter.