So here we are in September: university, work, grey weather… It’s all back, and soon our holidays will seem distant memories. But luckily for you, here at the Yorker we can’t live without new experiences, adventures and discoveries. So why not come along with us on a unique trip: a movie trip, on a quest to establish a Worldwide Watchlist. Every month, writers will present films they love from specific countries. If you would like to share your favorite foreign films with us, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our great Movie World Trip will start with France! Land of wine, cheese, stripy tops, and the Yorker’s amazing film editor – but more importantly the birthplace of cinema. We can all watch films today thanks to the Lumière Brothers who in 1895 invented the cinematographe allowing them to screen their first films in France. More than 100 years have passed since the love story between the French people and cinema started, but it is not about to end. Did you know that Paris currently has 302 cinemas (about 1,000 screens) compared to the 108 cinemas (about 500 screens) in London? Without further ado, let me show you the French films I love and wish more people knew.
La haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995)
This drama is considered one of the best French films ever made. Vinz, an Eastern European Jew living in one of the disadvantaged “banlieue” areas outside of Paris, gets hold of a gun stolen from the police, and decides to head into Paris with his two friends, Said, a north African and Hubert, a black guy. These three very different friends echo the multiracial mix of people living in these areas. Vinsz and his friends are cheeky, funny and likeable but also very very angry, hence the title La haine which literally means “hatred”. This film is a pure reflection of its time. Life was tough in France in 1995, which was marked by mysterious bombings and shootings, not to mention strikes in reaction to the government’s austerity measures. Kassovitz was the first director to show poor French people in a mainstream film, a move that inspired many filmmakers to do so later.
Le diner de cons (Francis Veber, 1998)
Originally a play, this film is a pure French comedy. Every Wednesday night, a group of smug Parisian professionals hold a “diner de cons” or “dinner for idiots”: each of them brings along a guest who is unknowingly in competition for the title of prize idiot. In the film, publisher Pierre Brochant (Lhermitte) has been set up with tax inspector Francois Pignon (Villeret), a chubby, awkward little man who could bore for France about his hobby of making models from matchsticks. But who is the real idiot?
This very well crafted story is hilarious and very clever. Although all the action takes place in a single flat, with a limited number of actors, the film never feels hemmed in as jokes, actions and plot twists just keep on coming.
Duck Pot, (Cédric Klapisch, 2002)
Cédric Klapisch is my favourite French director. His stories are always fun and strongly relatable, are driven by young dynamic characters you wish you were friends with. L’auberge espagnole follows a French student off to spend a year in Spain, where he shares an apartment with seven loud fellow students from all around the world. The friendships and memories he makes there will stay with him for his whole life (including two more movies follows the characters in London and New York!). The unique editing, characters and story details all immerse us in the busy lives of Xavier and his international friends. For those who struggle with subtitles, this film also contains sequences in English and Spanish, so what’s not to like?
Another recommended film by the same director is “The Péril Jeune”, a story about high school and friendships set in the 70s. You will get to see hippies, French people on demonstrations instead of working, and Romain Duris, the charming actor who played Xavier in L’auberge espagnole.
Azur & Asmar : The Prince’s Quest (Michel Ocelot, 2006)
This original animated fairy tale is one of my personal favourites. Set in the 15th century, it tells the story of Azur, raised by his North African nurse Jenane, who cares for the boy alongside her own son, Asmar. Jenane regales the boys with tales of the mysterious Fairy Djinn, a magical creature with great powers who is kept prisoner. Only the person who finds three hidden magic keys can save her. This legend will divide Azur and Asmar, who later become rivals in the quest to save the fairy. The film is an ode to North African and French culture, a celebration of differences and a pleasure for the eyes. It is also quite funny and relatable. It premiered at Cannes in 2006.
OSS 117: Cairo – Nest of Spies (Michel Hazanavicus, 2006)
This french spy spoof, you could put in the same category as Austin Powers or Airplane is one of the funniest if not THE funniest film I have seen. The year is 1955, and Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, (Jean Dujardin) also known as Agent OSS-117 has been sent to Egypt to deflect the impending Suez crisis, bring peace among the Americans, Russians and Egyptians and settle the problems of the Arab world. Easy. His superiors see him as a “specialist in the Arabo-Muslim world”, an assessment that turns out to be horrifically wrong, when OSS-117 smirkingly informs the natives that Islam is a foolish religion: “You’ll grow tired of it – it won’t last long.” Hubert our French Chauvinist – Patriot hero is to make contact with agent Larmina, played by Bérénice Bejo. The relation between the french sexist agent and this skilled egyptian agent is hilarious. Larmina rejects all of Hubert’s advances and tries to educate him a bit about her culture and religion. The poor woman fails as he keeps on coming with racist, sexist, stupid and generally insensitive remarks. OSS 117 is actually an adpatation of the world created in the innumerable, deadly serious postwar thrillers written by Jean Bruce, before Ian Fleming was even thinking about James Bond. OSS 117 is detailed period pastiche in which the costumes, set design and filming techniques are replicas of the the 50s. OSS 117, is for me more than a simple parody it is the proof that french cinema can make fun of itself and its culture.
Populaire (Regis Roisnard, 2013)
Populaire is a charming vintage comedy that will make you wish you had a secret talent for typewriting. Yes that’s what this rom com/sports movie set in the 1950s is about: Rose, a sweet girl from a sleepy village, discovers she has a talent for fast typing. When she leaves to work in a city, her boss Louis decides to enter Rose for a typewriting contest. Her talent and his coaching will take them further than Rose could have ever imagined and of course… a workplace romance blossoms. The retro-style costumes, and the cinematography by Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) will have you yearning for the 1950s! Populaire has an old-fashioned Hollywood movie feel that makes this story very charming. It is a very lighthearted film, but very amusing because of the originality of the story. The seriousness of all the characters regarding the typewriting contest is truly exhilarating. Who knew a typewriting contest could be as exciting?
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)
I’m considering this a French film because the director is French-Turkish and French-trained. Mustang is an accomplished study of what it means to be young and female in Turkey. Five teenage sisters start to experiment with their sexuality in a town where their natural beauty makes them morally suspect. This very touching story exudes rebellion and the search for freedom. The director illustrates beautifully how children can be deprived of the right to a happy life just because of the sex they were born in. The close relationship between the sisters seemed very natural and having 5 female leads is a clever way to show us a range of personalities, and once again emphasise that women are more than sex objects, they are people! Mustang is a very good thought-provoking film that I recommend to all.
Tomorrow (Cyril Dion and Melanie Laurent, 2015)
The climate is changing, making money seems more important than anything else, the apocalypse seems inevitable. We all know that, so instead of focusing on all the problems, why not think of solutions? That is the premise of this documentary directed by ecological rights advocate Cyril Dion and actress-filmmaker Melanie Laurent (seen in Inglorious Basterds, and Now you see me). Tomorrow provides a comprehensive look at ways in which activists, organizers and everyday citizens are trying to make the world a better, greener, more sustainable place. Laurent and her team travel everywhere from Detroit, to Copenhagen, to Kuttambakkan in India to see how we can avoid the apocalypse, concentrating on matters such as agriculture, energy, economics and education. This documentary had significant influence in France, where a huge number of people adjusted their consumer habits. There is a danger that this sort of militant film-making will only ever preach to the converted, but Tomorrow smartly avoids this danger by presenting people who are fighting in small ways to make the world a better place. Almost inadvertently, it embodies not just how but also why humanity ought to survive – because of all these ordinary people who make tomorrow seem promising.
Le sens de la fête (Eric Toledano, Olivier Nakasche, 2017)
In this ensemble comedy, Max is a wedding organizer. Today he is organizing a wedding in a very upmarket chateau venue for a slightly annoying couple, and behind the scenes of the event itself one crisis follows another throughout the entire day. Max’s team is made up of many different and not particularly suitable people including a rude organizer, to an unqualified chef, to a self-centred DJ, and it is his job to get them cooperating in order to create the perfect wedding day. This film is a comedy with many very funny moments, but its real strength lies in its varied palette of characters and an honesty and truth that emanates from their interactions. The directors of this film made the successful Intouchables, one of the rare modern French films known across the entire world.
So here is a glimpse of what French cinema has to offer. I hope you will enjoy my selection and do not hesitate to share your thoughts and favorite French films with us. Au revoir!
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