French Movie Classics: Immersion into the Culture and Language

Watching foreign movies with sous-titres (subtitles) is a great way to get to know a culture and its language. More and more films are now available, but it may be difficult to find those suited to one’s level. Some like Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain have generated an international following and seem to epitomize the proverbial French je ne sais quoi (lit. I don’t know what).

While the list below is subjective (click on the links), it should familiarize your ear with the language, as well as provide you with enjoyment and an immersion into works which have become part of la culture française (French culture).

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot: a masterpiece of French comedy, this film is quintessential in its representation of idyllic French summers in a sea resort of the 1950s. Mostly without dialogues, it is a real jewel to revel in French balmy, carefree atmosphere.

La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast), by filmmaker, painter and poet Jean Cocteau. Ravishing and easy to understand, this film is a great entry into French films.

Les Enfants du paradis (Children of Paradise). A timeless masterpiece of French cinema. While the language is often literary in style, it also has many moments of simplicity – the réalisme poétique of screenwriter poet Jean Prévert. Importantly, the actors’ enunciation is clear and remarkable.

Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) A musical film with the iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve, the movie has generated a cult following around the world. It is part of an informal trilogy with Lola and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort.

The films of François Truffaut: Beginning with Les Quatre cents coups (the 400 Blows), Truffaut sparked the French New Wave movement. All his films bear his unmistakable signature. A few among them: Baisers volés (Stolen Kisses); la Nuit américaine (Day for Night); Jules et Jimla Femme d’à côté (The Woman next door), with Gérard Depardieu.

Ascenceur pour l’échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) with another important French actress, Jeanne Moreau. This archetypal film noir is made unforgettable by the jazz soundtrack of Miles Davis.

Diva: somber in mood, the film marks the debut of filmmaker J.J. Beinex and a cult following.

Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob (The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob) with Louis De Funès, considered un comédien incontournable ( a key comedian that cannot be ignored; lit. that cannot be circumvented). The comedic style may not translate well for some, but for those who ‘get it’, it is incomparable (incomparable).

Garçon ! by Claude Sautet, with the famous French actor and singer Yves Montand.

The movies of Francis Véber, with hugely successful and critically acclaimed comedies like La Chèvre (Pure Luck; lit. The Goat); Le Dîner de cons (Dinner Game; lit. Dinner of Jerks).

Finally, among the films à grands succès (big box office movies; lit. films with great success), dethroning even Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and Le Cinquième Élément, the recent Les Intouchables (the Intouchables) is a comedy-drama which resonated with French audiences and beyond.