French films: the highlights
May 26 2014

The French take their filmmaking quite seriously, which makes sense given the first motion picture ever made was filmed in Lyon, France. What better way to absorb French culture than through the craft they've mastered all these years?

Below is an ongoing log of my exploration of French films, including my knee-jerk reactions. Entries are sorted by the order in which I've viewed them (most recent at top).

Après Vous
My rating: 8.5/10

Summary: In the process of saving a man's life, Antoine gets caught in a romantic triangle.

My reaction: Finally, a movie with Daniel Auteuil that I really liked! Sandrine Kiberlain is now 3 for 3 on my list (plus I dig her accent), she did well despite the confines of this hard-luck role. José Garcia was convincing as a basket case but I admit his character was a bit irritating, at least initially. There was enough humor to compensate and the brisk storyline kept me guessing throughout.

Bicycling with Molière (Alceste à bicyclette)
My rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Egos collide when two successful actors attempt to rehearse a Molière play.

My reaction: The supremely talented Fabrice Luchini carries this film as far as it'll go. I liked it but I can understand why many wouldn't. I'd say this is a "very French" movie, and by that I mean lots (and I mean lots!) of dialogue, loose ends that never get tidied up, and an ending that provides little or no catharsis.

The Visitors (Les visiteurs)
My rating: 8.5/10

IMDb Summary: A medieval nobleman and his squire are transported to contemporary times by a senile sorcerer.

My reaction: Maybe it hit me at just the right time/mood but I really enjoyed this old-school comedy. It's mostly physical humor but there are highbrow elements scattered throughout. Several scenes had me clutching my stomach from laughing so hard, particularly one where Jacquouille frantically searches for a torch.

The City of Lost Children (La cité des enfants perdus)
My rating: 7/10

IMDb Summary: A scientist in a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they slow his aging process.

My reaction: I'm still not sure what to think, and that's probably what Jean-Pierre Jeunet wants to hear. Cinematically it's a spellbinding experience, you can't help but get completely absorbed in this dark, watery dystopia. But Jeunet has a habit of stretching the quirky/artistic into the realm of the absurd, and this is a prime example. Rating subject to change after another viewing.

Under the Sand (Sous le sable)
My rating: 7.5/10

Summary: Marie struggles to maintain her sanity after her husband goes missing at the beach.

My reaction: I liked it. What can I say, it's hard to "love" a film about something so depressing, but Charlotte Rampling nailed a very demanding performance and the story kept me guessing until the ambiguous end.

Clara et moi
My rating: 6.5/10

Summary: A chance encounter between the ambitious Antoine and lovely Clara sparks an intense relationship.

My reaction: Almost a great film. I'd watch Julie Gayet do anything for 80 minutes, but it's tough to endure a romance when you detest the male lead. Even if I ignored Boisselier's peculiar mannerisms, his character (Antoine) is absurdly self-absorbed. With a different male lead and some tweaks to the script (i.e. not waiting 30 minutes to make something happen), this would be an 8/10.

Changing Times (Les temps qui changent)
My rating: 5.5/10

IMDb Summary: A man looks to reunite with his former love, though their romance ended some 30 years earlier.

My reaction: I'm not afraid of sentimental films and I'm not even afraid to shed a tear, but I'm sorry to say this film is just plain schmaltzy. It's impossible to connect with the lead characters when the story constantly detours into the drama of secondary characters, none of whom are very likable or relevant. Some interesting cinematography, that's about all this film has going for it.

My rating: 4/10

Summary: A married couple's bond is severely tested following a debilitating stroke.

My reaction: The summary should tell you this isn't a feel-good movie, and it certainly captures the inevitable decline and agony we all face. But it's slow, dull, painful to endure. Predictably, some call this a masterpiece; I consider it proof that Michael Haneke is an awful director. I thought perhaps Caché was an aberration, but no, it's settled. Haneke is just plain awful.

My rating: 7.5/10

IMDb Summary: A beautiful woman helps an inept scam artist get his game together.

My reaction: If you don't take Angel-A too seriously you'll find it's a fun film with some interesting food for thought. If nothing else it's a beautiful tour of Paris, and oddly enough, shooting in black and white was the right call. You wouldn't think Jamel Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen would make a convincing couple, but alas, there's some decent on-screen chemistry there.

Let It Rain (Parlez-moi de la pluie)
My rating: 4/10

Summary: A political candidate returns to her childhood home to help her sister work through personal issues.

My reaction: Since Agnès Jaoui tends to use 90 minutes to say absolutely nothing, I'll use six lines of text to say this movie was an incredibly dull exhibition of self-indulgence. A few amusing lines and some decent acting weren't enough to stop me from counting down the minutes to the closing credits. I think I'll steer clear of Agnès Jaoui from this point on.

Look at me (Comme une image)
My rating: 6/10

IMDb Summary: A french girl gifted with a great voice, has a complex about her weight and her appearance.

My reaction: I appreciate a good character study as much as the next person, but Look At Me indulges a bit too much in quirky and/or dysfunctional characters. The writing was clever at times with some witty one-liners sprinkled throughout, but the story meandered until it overstayed its welcome.

La vie en rose (La môme)
My rating: 9/10

Summary: The life story of Édith Piaf.

My reaction: This film is very well-made and captures the essence of Paris, NYC, and of course, Édith Piaf. You'll get whiplash from all the time-jumping, but it's worth it for one main reason: Marion Cotillard. She became Édith Piaf, and as such, I don't think a better tribute could've been made. Frankly I was stunned by Cotillard's performance. It's perhaps the best I've ever seen.

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)
My rating: 7/10

Summary: A kickboxer develops a bond with Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer who suffers a horrible accident.

My reaction: Pretty incredible CGI and a top-notch performance by Cotillard. Unpredictable storytelling, a good example of how French films tend to fearlessly stray from the traditional three-act, happily-ever-after paradigm. That said, I didn't find either lead character likable, so it all rang hollow to me. It's a pity, too. I had my hopes up for a classic.

The Chorus (Les choristes)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: The new teacher at a boys' boarding school works to positively effect the students' lives through music.

My reaction: We've seen this formula many times before: an adult uses unconventional methods to tame and reform rebellious children. But this film has a few tricks up its sleeve, and before you know it, you're completely engrossed. Gérard Jugnot delivers a superb performance and he clearly understands that sometimes less is more.

A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles)
My rating: 7/10

IMDb Summary: A young woman relentless searches for her fiancé, who has disappeared from the trenches of the Somme during WWI.

My reaction: Impeccable visuals and deep, quirky characters as you'd expect from Jeunet. Add the fairly significant roles for Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster and this movie should be a masterpiece. And yet, I can't help but feel they tried a little too hard. It's a war movie, mystery, and romance novel all wrapped into one, which was a bit exhausting after two hours.

Ernest & Célestine
My rating: 9.5/10

IMDb Summary: The story of an unlikely friendship between a bear named Ernest and a young mouse named Celestine.

My reaction: A work of art and an absolutely charming film. This isn't your standard cartoon or CGI, this is watercolor artwork set into motion and it's mesmerizing. The story is brimming with lovable characters and clever moments. I laughed hard at times, particularly at one scene involving the opening of a safe. Bonus points for the thorough making-of featurette on the DVD.

The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo)
My rating: 8.5/10

IMDb Summary: Abandoned by his father, a young boy is left in a state-run youth farm. The town hairdresser agrees to foster him on weekends.

My reaction: Make an effort to truly put yourself in Cyril's shoes and you'll likely experience a genuine mixture of sorrow and anger. This is a well-directed film with great atmosphere at times, notably the scenes which meander through the streets at night. Acting is very respectable and the story is simple yet substantive.

The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)
My rating: 7/10

IMDb Summary: A young, extroverted left-wing activist who sleeps with her political opponents to convert them to her cause is successful until she meets her match.

My reaction: The characters are interesting and dynamic, the acting is above average, and the overall film is quite polished. But shock value is simultaneously the film's greatest strength and weakness; prepare yourself for (borderline excessive) nudity and fearless ethnic and political discourse.

Le Havre
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: When an African boy arrives by cargo ship in the port city of Le Havre, an aging shoe shiner takes pity on the child and welcomes him into his home.

My reaction: The story is simple, the dialogue is deliberate, and the cinematography is spellbinding. I love the way this film is shot. Every scene is gritty, unflattering, full of anachronisms. The result is a strangely compelling comedy. You won't bust a gut laughing but subtle humor is woven throughout.

Change of Plans (Le code a changé)
My rating: 6.5/10

IMDb Summary: So-called friends at a dinner party end up acting like a dysfunctional family.

My reaction: A strange film that's fine for one viewing yet instantly forgotten. I was prepared for a salacious and sophomoric film, but it turned out to have a few redeeming moments and a few clever twists. My overall impression is that it spread itself too thin, trying to drive home a point that I'm not even sure the writers had fully defined themselves — in which case the film is aptly named.

The Other Son (Le fils de l'autre)
My rating: 7/10

IMDb Summary: Two young men, one Israeli and one Palestinian, discover they were accidentally switched at birth.

My reaction: There's quite a tapestry of languages and cultures on display here, including French to some extent. The story's a shade unrealistic, but I've got to applaud the courage of the writers to tackle the ever-toxic dynamic between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Tous les matins du monde
My rating: 6.5/10

Summary: A grieving man isolates himself and escapes into his music, but soon becomes the mentor of young Marin Marais.

My reaction: I'd love to say I'm cultured enough to share the adoration so many others apparently have for this movie, but I was happy just to get through it. The premise was interesting enough, the music was a treat. The acting was melodramatic, some scenes a bit slow. Case in point: the opening scene is a full 5+ minutes focused on Depardieu's face.

My Best Friend (Mon meilleur ami)
My rating: 7/10

Summary: After accepting a challenge to prove he's got true friends, François enlists a taxi driver to help his cause.

My reaction: A serviceable movie, good for a few laughs. Dany Boon shows impressive range in his portrayal of Bruno, but the character is poorly written. In one scene he's confident and cerebral, the next he's a schizophrenic Mama's boy. I continue to be lukewarm to Daniel Auteuil, but I have no complaints about his role this time around.

The Women on the 6th Floor (Les femmes du 6ème étage)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: In 1960s Paris, a conservative couple's lives are turned upside down by two Spanish maids.

My reaction: Of the Luchini films I've seen so far, this one's my favorite. It's quite entertaining to witness a Frenchman's awkward exploration of (and infatuation with) Spanish culture. The age difference between Jean-Louis (Luchini) and Maria (Natalia Verbeke) stretches credibility for sure, but not so much that it spoils anything.

Priceless (Hors de prix)
My rating: 6.5/10

IMDb Summary: A young gold digger mistakenly woos a mild-mannered bartender thinking he's a wealthy suitor.

My reaction: I adore Audrey Tautou as much as the next person, but I consider Priceless a fairly pedestrian rom-com. It was certainly well-acted and had its share of laughs, but the protagonists are about as shallow and manipulative as you can get. I admit I'm drawn to movies where at least one character has redeeming qualities of some sort, but I didn't find one here.

I've Loved You So Long (Il y a longtemps que je t'aime)
My rating: 8.5/10

IMDb Summary: A woman struggles to interact with her family and find her place in society after spending fifteen years in prison.

My reaction: This spellbinding film deserves your undivided attention. From the opening scene you'll be uncomfortable and asking questions, and before long you're hooked. Behold the brilliant performances of Kristin Scott Thomas and Elsa Zylberstein, whose on-screen chemistry is so convincing you'd swear they were actual sisters. Impressive movie in every way.

The Class (Entre les murs)
My rating: 8.5/10

IMDb Summary: A teacher negotiates a year with his racially mixed students from a tough Parisian neighborhood.

My reaction: If you're used to Hollywood's glossy, sickly sweet tales about high school life, prepare yourself for something very different. Entre les murs is so brutally realistic you'll forget it's a film. You'll time-warp to the awkward days of adolescence and experience (again) the hell that teachers and students endure. Superb execution across the board.

Intimate Strangers (Confidences trop intimes)
My rating: 6/10

IMDb Summary: A woman shares her troubles with a man she mistakes for a psychiatrist, and soon they form an unusual relationship.

My reaction: Luchini's range impressed me yet again, and I could appreciate how the film explored a rare breed of intimacy, but I was underwhelmed. The gloomy atmosphere was appropriate given the subtext, but when combined with a somber tune virtually playing on a loop, the result was one dull film. Scenes were slow, frustrating, repetitive. I was happy to see it end.

The Valet (La doublure)
My rating: 8.5/10

IMDb Summary: A porter and a top-model have to pretend to be a couple in order to salvage a CEO's marriage.

My reaction: The plot is silly, borderline ridiculous, but I really enjoyed The Valet. I laughed often and found the characters quite endearing. I was especially impressed at the film's pace; they trimmed all the fat and no scenes were stretched too long. Ignore the low IMDb rating, try this one.

My rating: 7/10

IMDb Summary: When her husband is taken hostage by striking employees, a trophy wife takes the reins of the family business.

My reaction: Solid individual performances, remarkable set design, and a few laughs. However, Potiche didn't quite equal the sum of its parts and felt strangely uneven to me. The style of humor seemed to change throughout the story, to the point where I couldn't always discern what was intended to be satire. Enjoyable film but not one I'd watch repeatedly.

In the House (Dans la maison)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb summary: A high school French teacher gets increasingly drawn into a precocious student's increasingly transgressive story about his relationship with a friend's family.

My reaction: Surprisingly funny, great chemistry between Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas. Good pace and well-written, love how the plot was able to explore one path, reverse course, and split into another direction.

Hidden (Caché)
My rating: 2/10

IMDb summary: A married couple is terrorized by a series of surveillance videotapes left on their front porch.

My reaction: A painfully tedious pile of garbage masquerading as art. Many scenes overstay their welcome as Haneke attempts to make viewers contemplate their meaning. There is meaning, it's just not interesting. The acting was respectable given the material, otherwise I would've bailed on this flick ASAP.

The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)
My rating: 8/10

Summary: Paloma, an intelligent yet suicidal 11-year-old girl, connects with the concierge of her apartment building.

My reaction: What a courageous and compelling performance by Josiane Balasko (the concierge). The narrative is intriguing and brutally honest, one that will speak to your soul if you allow it. Bonus points for the captivating special effects that are applied to Paloma's drawings.

Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot)
My rating: 6.5/10

IMDb Summary: A man and his friends come up with an intricate and original plan to destroy two big weapons manufacturers.

My reaction: I just couldn't get into it, which is surprising since I'm a huge fan of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's masterpiece Amélie. In fairness to Jeunet, I was tired and not in the right mindset for a story with offbeat humor and a frantic pace. The cinematography is outstanding, I just never managed to connect with any of the characters.

Delicacy (La délicatesse)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: A French woman mourning over the death of her husband three years prior is courted by a Swedish co-worker.

My reaction: I was prepared for a letdown given how much I loved Audrey Tautou in Amélie, but she mesmerized me again. It's intriguing how this film weaves together melancholy and honest humor without jarring the audience. One minute I'm empathizing with Nathalie, the next I'm laughing as Markus strolls along a street full of women. The final scene is well-executed and quite touching.

Romantics Anonymous (Les émotifs anonymes)
My rating: 8/10

Summary: Two introverts are drawn together by their shared quest to make high-quality chocolate.

My reaction: It's not everyone's cup of tea, but as an introvert I loved the characters almost immediately. If you seek complicated plot twists or philosophical subtexts, this ain't your movie. If you enjoy quirky, endearing characters that make you smile when the credits roll, try this romantic comedy.

My rating: 7.5/10

IMDb Summary: Rose is a terrible secretary but a demon typist. Her boss resolves to turn her into the fastest girl in the world.

My reaction: You wouldn't think a movie about competitive typing would be fun to watch, at least not for more than ten minutes. But the brisk, highly polished Populaire actually turns it into a pretty successful romantic comedy. It's fairly predictable and I personally didn't get very attached to the characters, but then again, I was expecting a terrible disappointment going in. Solid movie.

Mademoiselle Chambon
My rating: 7/10

Summary: Despite having a modest yet happy life and a loving wife, Jean finds himself drawn to his son's homeroom teacher.

My reaction: In general I detest any character who commits adultery or any film that glorifies it, but I will concede that Mademoiselle Chambon has two very sympathetic characters at the core of its risqué storyline. My only real gripe: too many scenes with characters staring pensively at each other, stretching the movie longer than it needs to be.

The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: A red balloon with a life of its own follows a little boy around the streets of Paris.

My reaction: Just a fun, feel-good movie with almost no dialog. It's essentially a tour of Paris with some mind-bending cinematic tricks here and there. Some rightfully call Le ballon rouge a historical record, for it features some parts of Paris that no longer exist.

The Intouchables (Intouchables)
My rating: 10/10

IMDb Summary: A quadriplegic aristocrat hires a young man from the projects to be his caretaker.

My reaction: You know a movie's excellent when half-way through it you don't even notice it's in a foreign language. It's appropriately classified as both a comedy and drama, for it's the best of both worlds. Moments that feel good, moments that are uncomfortable, and some that will simply have you in tears. This is what filmmaking should be.

Paris, je t'aime
My rating: 7.5/10

IMDb Summary: Through the neighborhoods of Paris, love is veiled, revealed, imitated, sucked dry, reinvented and awakened.

My reaction: A compilation of 18 short stories is pretty ambitious, and it's understandably uneven. Some segments are great, others fall flat. My favorite segment by far is the last one featuring Margo Martindale ("14e arrondissement"). Her assessment of Paris put quite the lump in my throat.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le schaphandre et le papillon)
My rating: 8/10

IMDb Summary: The true story of Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby who suffers a stroke and has to live with an almost totally paralyzed body; only his left eye isn't paralyzed.

My reaction: If the IMDb summary makes this film sound "heavy" and hard to watch, that's because it is. But it's also incredibly powerful and thought-provoking. It also happens to be a good movie for French language-learners, as the dialogue for some scenes is slow and deliberate.

Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain)
My rating: 10/10

IMDb Summary: An innocent and naive girl in Paris with her own sense of justice decides to help those around her. Along the way, she discovers love.

My reaction: Not only my favorite French film, my second-favorite movie of all time (behind only Shawshank). It's a feast for the senses. Flawless cinematography, crisp writing, compelling characters, lots of laughter, and one of the most addicting film soundtracks you'll ever hear.

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