French films have come a long way since inventing the cinema in the 1800s. Along the journey, there have been so many French films that managed to make their way into the list of the best films in history.
Besides inventing cinema, the French have also come up with several cinematic movements that resulted in the birth of numerous masterpieces, some of which were quite controversial! French cinema is one of the most influential worldwide in a vast range o genres, from touching melodramas to hard-hitting crime thrillers.
When someone says French films, people instantly think about modern hits like Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) (2001) or The Intouchables (2011). But these are only a few of the many great French films produced over the years. Great black-and-white classics, new wave highlights, modern cinema and timeless comedies, the French films cover them all! Coming up next, we list our picks of the best French films in history.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) by Carl Theodor Dreyer (1928)
The film recounts in concise form the trial of the legendary Joan of Arc, the French patron saint. The story follows the interrogation where she is tortured and asked to confess to witchcraft, but Joan of Arc is adamant, even in fear of public execution.
The silent film by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is still considered not only one of the best French films ever but also one of cinema’s greatest creations. The actors in the film were shot without any makeup, and the setting was in a real city. In doing so, the author tried to show close-ups as much as possible, and the emotions of actress René Falconetti have been called “perhaps the most striking work in the cinema of all time”!
L’Atalante/ Le Chaland qui passe (The Passing Barge) by Jean Vigo (1934)
L’Atalante tells the story of Jean (Jean Dasté), a young captain of a boat, called the Atalante, who marries Juliette and takes her to live with him on the boat. Juliette begins to get bored after a few months and is influenced by the stories of the old sailor Pere Jules. She decides to run away and flee to Paris. Dazed and disappointed by the city, she returns to the boat to discover that her jealous husband has abandoned her. That’s when the old sailor tries to fix things between them.
The film is the only feature film directed by Jean Vigo, whose work hugely impacted the cinematic movement of the French New Wave. L’Atalante was released in the year of his death (at 29), and it was immediately mutilated by producers who were disappointed by its unsuccessful box-office revenues.
It was not until 1947 that the movie was re-released and sailed on a course of eternal posterity. The film has been regarded by many as one of the greatest films ever. The brilliance of this French film relies on how Vigo masterfully transformed a simple story into a beautiful poem presenting characters that despise their quirkiness are real, and audiences can actually relate to it. L’Atalante is a film that is romantic, visionary, poetic, erotic, and always poised between dream and reality.
The Day Begins (Le jour se lève) by Marcel Carné (1939)
The Day Begins was the first of the French films made in the style of “poetic realism”, directed by Marcel Carné shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. It was banned from distribution in France during the occupation and gained popularity in 1945 when it was brought back to the screen.
The young key figure in French films’ history, Jean Gabin, plays the impulsive labourer, François, who is caught in an unusual love quadrangle between his young lover Françoise, a slightly swaggering actress played by the brilliant Arletty, and her ex-husband. The film begins with the final scene of the protagonist’s gunfight with the police, and all the events that precede it are presented as flashbacks.
La Règle du jeu (Rules of the game) by Jean Renoi (1939)
While World War I is about to break out, this satirical comedy follows the gathering of upper-class members and their servants. Their gathering comes after they all unexpectedly have their lives intertwined in a way they never imagined!
The film by Jean Renoir (son of the famous painter Auguste Renoir) was met with mixed reviews. The public could not pardon the irony of the high society in the film. However, the film’s reception has changed considerably over time.
Sadly, during the Second World War, the original film was destroyed, and for years there was only an 85-minute version. It wasn’t until 1959 that the film was fully restored after collecting the surviving negatives, working material with various takes and scenes cut out. Like several films in our list here, the film has been celebrated as one of the greatest French films in cinema history. Many critics and key figures in cinema have declared that the film inspired their work.
Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis) by Marcel Carné (1945)
Set at the beginning of the 20th century, Children of Paradise follows the adventurous story of a whimsical woman and her four lovers: an account, a criminal, an actor, and a mime. The lovers are all based on well-known historical characters.
Children of Paradise is the epitome of French poetic realism. The two-part film was based on the script of the famous poet Jacques Prévert during the German occupation and even featured members of the French resistance. The director of Children of Paradise has been criticised for not including war elements in the film. But perhaps it is for that exact reason the film’s themes have been relevant for all time.
Being regarded as one of the best French films in history, Children of Paradise has been praised by many critics and filmmakers over the years. In fact, it was named the best film ever by around 600 French film critics and advocates. The film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Screenplay, and it was mentioned in Time’s magazine All-Time 100 list in 2005.
The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) by François Truffaut (1959)
Young Antoine Duanel is left to himself most of the time. His mother is preoccupied with her private life, his stepfather is reluctant to share his opinions, and his teacher only punishes him. As a result, Antoine ends up finding his way into the dark world of crime.
The film bears a lot of similarities with the biography of its author, François Truffaut, for whom this was his feature film debut. In fact, he made Antoine Duanel his alter ego and went on to direct three more films about him.
In his time, Truffaut was praised for his innovative approach to this film by many household names in the industry. The film is one of the best examples of the French New Wave. 400 Blows received many nominations and awards, and it is considered one of the best French films in history and one of the best films ever! Nowadays, 400 Blows is studied in film schools as one of the excellent examples of the language of cinema.
Pierrot the Fool (Pierrot le Fourot) by Jean-Luc Godard (1965)
Ferdinand Griffon is married to a wealthy woman whom he does not love very much, and he is tired of his well-off but monotonous life. One day a young woman, Marianne, comes to their house to look after the children. Griffon recognises her as an old friend, and they decide to leave everything and run away somewhere. However, the girl turns out to have the mafia hot on her trail, and things take a dangerous turn!
The film was directed and written by the great Jean-Luc Godard, one of the founders of the French New Wave in cinema, which made this art form more daring and modern. Godard’s Pierrot le Fou takes the narrative and visual fragmentation of the director’s previous films to extremes, the dissolution of the plot into a series of gags, quotations, unconnected images, extemporaneous characters and video-clip situations.
Pierrot le Fou is a sunny French film, dense with highly saturated colours. Its pictorial character lies in the particular treatment of the screen, on which shapes and colours take on almost abstract compositions, a palette open to a thousand combinations.
Léon: The Professional by Luc Besson (1994)
Young Mathilde’s entire family was shot by the police. So, the girl goes to seek help from her neighbour, the unsociable hitman Leon. He took Matilda in his care and, for the first time in his life, experienced affection for someone. Meanwhile, the girl decides to take revenge on the killers. Together they embark on a journey that would change their lives forever!
This wasn’t the first collaboration between director Luc Besson and actor Jean Renault, but it was Léon: The Professional that took the actor’s career to a new level. The same goes for the young Natalie Portman as Matilda, the role that kickstarted her career.
Being one of the most popular French films, Léon: The Professional was showered with praise from critics and audiences, winning numerous nominations and awards. It has consistently ranked among the best films of all time and confidently holds itself in the top films list on IMDb.
Hatred/ Hate (La Haine) by Mathieu Kassovitz (1995)
Inspired by a real-life incident that left its mark on French law enforcement in the 1990s, this film tells the story of the revolt of a gang of suburban youths after a man in their clan was attacked by a police officer. It paints a poignant portrait of a neglected and bitter suburb.
The film was a massive hit winning numerous awards, including the Best Director Award for Mathieu Kassovitz at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival and the César for Best Film, among many others. It was this film that gained actor Vincent Cassel the recognition he deserved.
Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (2001)
Here we are with one of the most well-known French films and everybody’s favourite rom-com, Amélie. Since her childhood, Amélie has preferred to live in her own imaginary world and communicate with an imaginary friend – a crocodile. While growing up, she didn’t lose her optimism; Amelie likes to help people by arranging all sorts of small joys for them. However, the life of Amelie changes drastically when Nino comes on the scene!
The film was an instant success receiving rave reviews for the performance, especially that of Audrey Tautou, who played Amelie, also the cinematography of the film and writing, among many other things. Amélie was nominated for many prestigious awards, including five Oscars, and it went home, winning several awards like two BAFTAs and four César Awards, and many more.
A piece of interesting information about the film is that Audrey Tautou was not the first choice for the role. In fact, the story goes that director Jean-Pierre Jeunet worked on the project with Emily Watson in mind. Some suggest that this is probably where the name of the film came from. As fate would have it, the actress was busy and didn’t speak French, so the role went to Audrey Tautou, who became the ideal Amelie.
The Intouchables (Intouchables) by Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano (2011)
After a paragliding accident, wealthy aristocrat Philippe is paralysed. He hires Driss as his assistant, though he seems to be totally unsuited to the job. The two start up a unique friendship that helps Philippe to feel alive again.
The Intouchables is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest French films of the last decade, if not in the whole of history. The life-affirming and very emotional story is based on the life of the French businessman Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caregiver.
The film was an absolute hit at the box office and with the critics. It received a lot of nominations and awards. It was nominated for eight César Awards, with actor Omar Sy going home with one for his role ad the Driss.
The Artist by Michel Hazanavicius(2011)
In Hollywood, back in 1927, George Valentin was a well-known silent film actor. His adventurous and romantic films attracted audiences. One day, on his way out of a premiere, a young aspiring actress approached him and had her picture taken on the front page of Variety, hugging him. He soon found her on a film set as a dancer. It was the beginning of a career on the rise under the name of Peppy Miller. A career that would take a further turn when sound took over, making George Valentin become quickly forgotten.
Directed by French director Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist is a tender and delicate homage to the world of 1930s Hollywood cinema that also speaks to the present. It is a black-and-white, silent film full of references, capable of winning over audiences and critics alike! The film grossed six Césars, seven BAFTAs, three Golden Globes and five Oscars! The Artist is one of the most beautiful French films to watch in recent years.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La vita di Adele) by Abdellatif Kechiche (2013)
La Vita di Adele is based on the novel Blue Is the Warmest Colour by Julie Maroh. The story takes place in Lille, where Adele is a rather unrefined fifteen-year-old teenager with a real passion for food, which she bites into like a tomboy, and a desire to enter into her first love experiences. One of her schoolmates, Thomas, falls in love with her and woos her. She gets interested in him but without ever really becoming passionate.
Adele, on the other hand, becomes infatuated with a blue-haired girl, Emma, whom she meets first in the street and then in a gay club. Their encounter sets them off on a self-discovering journey of exploring what lies beyond adolescence.
The film brings an intense love story with the contradictions and problems of any romantic relationship forced to confront different cultures and worlds that come into contact, sending sparks of passion. The critically acclaimed film won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. It was the first film to receive the Palme d’Or for the actresses and the director at the same time. It was also nominated for the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and it was chosen by many critics as the best film of 2013!
The French films are much more than what is mentioned above; we have picked only a few of the many French films that truly deserve watching at least once in your life. The mother of all cinemas has birthed many fantastic gems that made it to every list, not only of the best French films in history but also the greatest films in cinema history!