A Brief Guide To French Cinema

Elles is a new drama from Polish director Malgorzata Szumowska, which follows French Elle Magazine journalist Juliette Binoche as she investigates student prostitution in the underbelly of modern-day Paris. It’s out on April 20th, so we’d thought we’d give you a crash course in French cinema before you see it for yourself.

Wages of Fear (1953)

Men delivering nitroglycerine from one place to another may not sound like a recipe for a classic film, but when you hear it was under the direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man who was regularly labelled “the French Hitchcock”, you’ll hopefully change your mind.

This tense thriller is almost a film of two halves. The first half is the set-up, which slowly introduces each of the characters and their motivations behind taking on the risky, life-threatening task and the second half, is the drive itself; a 300 mile trip across treacherous mountain territory. With the four men having to deal with dangerous turns and avoid falling rocks, it’s a relentless assault on the senses; one good jolt or knock to the vehicle and they will vaporise, like a portable Krakatoa.

Most memorable moment – The two trucks attempt to cross a rope-bridge across a raging river. White-knuckle stuff!

Here’s Jonathan Ross introducing the film

Rififi (1955)

The much imitated but never bettered Rififi, is the mother of all heist movies. Directed by Jules Dassin, this hard-boiled French Noir revolves around the planning, execution and aftermath of a jewellery robbery in 1950s Paris. Honour (or lack of) amongst criminals is the theme of the day, as the hard-bitten Tony le Stéphanois, fresh out of jail, discovers it’s not just the police he has to watch out for, when rival gangster Pierre Gruuter decides he wants a cut of the takings. From here on out, things start to go wrong….

Meticulously directed and acted this movie has a lot of heart and human elements, despite the cold, calculating characters, whilst staying well clear of the melodrama so often seen in its American counterparts.

Most memorable moment – The 30 minute scene of the actual jewellery robbery itself is without any extraneous sound or dialogue, yet it’s one of the most tense and greatest scenes ever committed to celluloid. Perfection.

Diva (1981)

Revolving around an opera singer who refuses to commit anything to tape and the young mail courier who idolises her, Diva is a hyper-realistic, impressively stylish film, helping to bring about a resurgence of popularity in foreign cinema.

When the young mail carrier, Jules, secretly records the opera singer’s performance, a series of communication mishaps, kicks starts a chain of events that he could never possible have foreseen. The heroes and villains are readily interchangeable and it’s a pleasure to see that it has aged incredibly well, a sure-fire sign for any classic movie. This is the original 80s New Wave movie.

Most memorable moment – The motorcycle chase through Paris’ subway tunnels.

Delicatessen (1991)

This pitch black comedy is set in a post-apocalyptic future with the majority of its plot taking place in an apartment building built on top of a butcher’s shop.

You don’t you need to be a genius to figure out what happens next… Yes, the new tenant discovers the true source of the butcher’s meat supply and then begins to suspect that he may be next on the menu. All set in a surreal and rather grotesque alternative world, where the visuals are extravagant and its inhabitants are caricatures, it’s like a Grimm fairy tale crossed with a Terry Gilliam movie. This is fantastique at its best.

Most memorable moment – Forget the copycat Budweiser advert check this movie out for the original rhythmic scene involving the tenants of the apartment complex, which reaches a staggering crescendo.

La Haine – (1995)

Set in the Paris riots of the 1990s, La Haine shows the street children of Paris as they clash with the police on the streets.

While to tourists, Paris may seem like the very picture of romance and beauty, the immigration riots presented a very real threat of violence to its citizens. Director Mathieu Kassovitz, in stunning black and white photography, presents an unblinking look at this piece of Parisian history, showcasing the authority’s seemingly blatant intolerance for any outsider.

Set over the course of 24 hours, La Haine is a brutal, honest and most of all, compelling piece of film-making. Vincent Cassel is superb as the young French Jew, Vinz, his intensity regularly burns up the screen and over 15 years later, can still hold its own amongst the best.

Most memorable moment – Its climax. Need I say more?