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20 Masterpieces of French Cinema You Shouldn’t Miss

24 November 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Joao Braga

Le Samouraï

If your wish is to understand cinema, the first thing you should do is choose the right industry and learn its roots. French cinema is the perfect industry to start with, as it contains the right elements to make you understand and have a critical view of great cinema.

French movies have a certain magic and sparkle, with characteristics that make it the best cinema industry of all time, alongside two or three others. That certain panache and feeling mixed with emotion and seduction, crime and mystery, drama and comedy, transform French cinema into one of the most diverse industries of all time. Still today many filmmakers around the world were inspired by its masterpieces, performers, originality, diversity and innovation.

The contributions of French cinema are immense, mainly of its classics, leaving no one who likes to watch movies indifferent to its magic, innovation and creativity.

 

20. Plein Soleil

Purple Noon

“Plein Soleil” is a movie about betrayal and greed; it features Alain Delon in his first major role, playing Tom Ripley. Greatly directed by René Clement, it’s one of the unfairly positioned movies in this list, as it could be in a much higher place.

Tom Ripley is sent to Italy to convince Philippe Greenleaf, played by Maurice Ronet, to take over the family business. Although their relationship seems a bit strange, they still get along, despite Tom’s discreet feeling for Philippe’s girlfriend, Marge. While traveling in Philippe’s boat, Tom starts to feel left out by the couple, who wants to get rid of him at the next stop. Guided by this, but mainly by his thirst for money and feelings for Marge, he kills Philippe when both are alone on the boat.

After this, Tom Ripley tries to hide his tracks, stealing Philippe’s identity in order to steal his money. Later, after a series of ordeals, he’s about to win Marge’s heart by fooling her, when something happens.

 

19. Oscar

Oscar

Although quite underrated, and not often mentioned as one of the top movies from Louis de Funès, this one is really magical. Its creativity and originality with a very entangled, complex and sometimes confusing plot makes it a mandatory movie to be watched for comedy buffs.

Louis de Funès plays Bertrand Barnier, a married father of a daughter and an industrialist who owns a large company, which employs Christian Martin, played by Claude Rich, a simple accountant. One morning Martin goes to his boss’s house and asks for a raise, which is immediately refused by his boss. What his boss doesn’t know and is about to know is that, the simple and modest accountant has stolen millions of francs by falsifying the company records.

Barnier threatens him with the police, but his employee reminds him that submitting false records is a major and serious crime and, not only the company would go bankrupt but also Barnier would lose everything he has. Martin wins over his boss and is nominated the company’s Vice President and gets his raise. Martin then reveals that he wishes to marry Barnier’s daughter, making Barnier lose his mind.

Barnier then asks his future son-in-law to get the money, so he can give it to his daughter as a wedding present, but Martin reveals he has converted the money into jewelry and that the jewelry is in a bank. Barnier tells him to go get them. However, Martin will only do this if Barnier signs a document, which he accepts to sign.

The plot thickens and becomes even more confusing with a dance of the briefcase with the jewelry going from hand to hand; a confusion of identities; a daughter who falls in love with the chauffeur; an accountant who, after all, is not in love with his boss’s daughter; and a volatile and unstable wife. Barnier will have to deal with all this and much more in one morning.

 

18. Les tontons flingueurs

Les Tontons flingueurs

This is a movie starring Lino Ventura, who plays an ex-gangster, who has been out of the mafia business for over 15 years. He plays Fernand Naudin, an agriculturist who deals in agricultural machinery and is currently living in Montauban, a quiet village in the south of France.

It’s another one of those movies that, at the time of its release, didn’t get the expected reception, but later grew in the critics’ minds as a comedy classic. It’s a great comedy and one of the first of the genre with an entangled crime and mystery storyline and excellent comedy moments.

“The Mexican” is a mafia boss, who is dying and wishes to name a successor, never trusting his own associates and potential future enemies of the next boss. Fernand, “The Mexican”’s childhood friend, is called to his deathbed. Although not having seen each other for years, “The Mexican” names him his successor, asking him to take over the business and take care of his daughter, Patricia, who is a rebel and only wants to party.

Fernand has to face the ordeals of succession of former associates of the “The Mexican”, who want his place. Attempts to end his life are some of his biggest problems with the seed of betrayal always present, but the biggest problem may be having to deal with such a rebellious young girl.

 

17. Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire

Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire

This is one those movies that may be controversial when present on a list like this. It is very often overlooked, underrated and sometimes forgotten by the critic, although having won a Silver Bear award. This movie has a subtle but very interesting way of mixing mystery, crime and comedy. It’s mainly a comedy movie, mixing the twists and turns of an espionage story.

François Perrin is a violinist who plays in an orchestra. He gets caught in a plot to discredit Bernard Milan, the second-in-command of Frances’s counter-espionage department, who hopes to supplant his own boss, Louis Toulouse, as first in command. In a room full of hidden microphones, Toulouse sends his subordinate, Perrache, who knows that the room is bugged, to make Milan, who is listening, believe Perrache will go meet a spy.

Perrache chooses someone randomly from the crowd of an airport and the chosen one is Perrin, who as a result of a practical joke, stands out from the crowd because is wearing a black shoe on one foot and a red-brown one on the other. Milan takes the bait and starts investigating and pursuing this innocent man, who although not being aware of what is going on, still gets caught later in this quite funny and strange course of events.

 

16. La traversée de Paris

La traversée de Paris

This is Claude Autant-Lara’s best-known movie, which was well received and one of the most watched movies in French cinema industry. Claude Autant-Lara is well-known for his diversity of styles and versatility, directing comedies, dramas, action or crime movies. The plot takes place in Paris, 1942, during World War II.

It stars Bourvil as a black-marketer named Marcel Martin, whose job is to deliver parcels to certain clients, and the legendary Jean Gabin as Grandgil, a famous painter and a somewhat unexpected and unstable character. Marcel has to deliver parcels of meat to a client, and after knowing that his partner was arrested, he has to hire someone to replace him.

The hired person is Grandgil. After a series of ordeals and troubles started by Grandgil, such as provoking and “robbing” Jambier, a grocer who is Marcel’s boss played by Louis de Funès, and destroying a bar and hitting a policeman, they can’t deliver the parcels and are arrested by German patrols. Both are separated and only see each other many years later.

 

15. Le salaire de la peur

The Wages of Fear

Released in 1953, it’s one of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s few dramas, and perhaps his most realistic and dramatic production. There are very few main characters and the movie is centered, mainly, on only two of them, Mario and Jo. They portray two truck drivers with no jobs, grabbing all the opportunities they can in order to survive.

Alongside these two, there are yet more important characters, Bimba and Luigi. The four future recruited are stuck in Las Piedras, a small village in Mexico. The Southern Oil Company (SOC) is a company which operates nearby oil fields, and is suspected of exploiting workers with long hours and measly wages.

A fire erupts in one of the company’s oil fields, and the only way to extinguish the fire and cover the well is via a nitroglycerin explosion. The nitroglycerin must be transported to the oil field 300 miles away. No one in the company is willing to do this very dangerous job, so the company foreman, Billy O’Brien, recruits workers from the Mexican village.

The entire movie, or almost its entirety, occurs during the transportation of the nitroglycerin in large jerry cans placed in two large trucks, which due to the poor condition of the roads makes the dangerous and difficult job even more dangerous and difficult. Mario and Jo transport the nitroglycerin in one truck; Bimba and Luigi in another.

The movie recreates the difficulty of this “impossible mission” and how these individuals surpass the difficulties, not only of the job but also of themselves, mainly their personal differences and combative personalities. “Wages of Fear” is the perfect title for this movie. Fear is the most common emotion during the job they face, filled with ordeals and problems that must be surpassed, in order to win the deserved wage. Not everyone comes out alive from this terrible and enduring job.

 

 

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  • Jorge Pancolart

    Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution

  • Unkle Amon

    Ok, but where are the films from 80’s, 90’s and 00’s?

  • sol

    I think Lola Montes should be here, right?

  • Ted Wolf

    My personal favorite is Carne’s the Children of Paradise.

  • Xanian

    Excellent selection of films, but try to hold back some of the plot details. Write what you feel about the movie, rather than spoiling the ending. Like you did with Le Samourai, for example.

  • Maximo Cunillera

    Great list

  • Ronnie Genovese

    A Very Long Engagement (2004)

  • Esdras Castiliano

    Pierrot Le Fou, of course!

  • Carl Peter Yeh

    I… comme Icare. Le Vieux Fusil. Betty Blue. Borsalino. Les Diaboliques, or any other film with Simone Signoret, like La Vie Devant Soi.

  • Maximus Decimus

    damn i just saw ‘ playtime ‘ by Jacques Tati , thanks a lot T.O.S 🙂 ,what a movie ! ! its a sheer study on modern madness , how the hell someone can even write a script like this ? & i wonder why its never mentioned in any ‘ greatest films of all time ‘ ? the film is so complex yet very pleasing and easy to digest though i still need to decode some of the metaphors , the brain needs to work 2x times the normal to grasp every little thing Mr.Tati wants us to see , watch it on big screen if possible , in terms of perfection this film reached the heights of apocalypse now & 2001: a space odyssey , i’m digging for the complete uncut version which is of 2 h 30m the one i got is a 4k remaster from criterion collection which is of 2h 04 m , thanks a lot T.O.S for introducing me to this masterpiece 🙂

    • Lars Franssen

      Well, it better be perfect! It took Tati ages to finish and ruined him financially.

  • Gabriel Apetrei

    La Belle Noiseuse, La Regle du Jeu, La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, Au hasard Balthazar… etc.