There are very few things that the French don’t excel at. They’ve paved much of the way for modern cooking, fashion, philosophy, and art. It’s safe to say that anything the French touch will be formative, or at the very least, chic. In fact, the French could arguably be credited for inventing the medium of film, with historians citing the Lumière brothers’ 1895 short film “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” as the first-ever motion picture. Since then, France has had a rich and highly influential history with cinema and television. This is the country that brought us Jean-Luc Godard and French New Wave, gorgeous ingenues like Catherine Deneueve and Audrey Tautou, and, of course, the tireless Gérard Depardieu, who has been in more than 150 movies. Mon dieu!
As avid travelers and international film fans, we’ve hand-picked a diverse range of films and shows from France for you to enjoy anywhere in the world. From sexy thrillers to gripping documentaries and not one, but two dance films, here are 10 titles that embody that French je ne sais quois.
This is the ultimate love letter to Paris. The film is composed of twenty vignettes by 20 different filmmakers, including household names like Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, and the Coen Brothers. Each one brings to life a different neighborhood in the city through the eyes of a diverse range of characters, including a blind man, a young Latina immigrant, and more than one well-meaning American tourist. By depicting neighborhoods not typically featured in guidebooks and underrepresented minority characters, the film lovingly celebrates Paris’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity. If that wasn’t enough of a sell, the vignettes star a who’s who of international A-listers, including Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Steve Buscemi, Gaspard Ulliel, Nick Nolte, and Juliette Binoche.
With this documentary, magical realism master Michel Gondry introduces viewers to a subject very personal to him: his family. Part home video, part profile, “The Thorn in the Heart” focuses on Gondry’s aunt, Suzette, a retired schoolteacher known for her unapologetic dedication to her students, including her son, Jean-Yves. Gondry anchors the film with his intimate portrayal of their complicated mother-son relationship while still keeping the overall story light by employing his signature whimsy and stylistic playfulness. For Gondry fans, this is a rare look at a part of his world that lies outside his imagination. Not even Michel Gondry can make this stuff up.
Dark pasts, secret affairs, murder, classical music! “Philharmonia” is equal parts salacious and suspenseful set against the backdrop of high-brow French society, perhaps the most seductive combination of elements known to man. The psychological thriller follows Helene, a conductor who returns to Paris to lead a prestigious orchestra. A maverick in her field known for her unorthodox methods, she has one season to prove herself to the skeptical director and lead the orchestra to success. But will she be able to escape her past or will it catch up to her yet again? To truly cement this as an iconically French show, the orchestra scenes were filmed at the stunning Philharmonie de Paris by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and feature the real Orchestre national d'Île-de-France.
This one’s for the music fans, especially those who prefer analog over digital. “Vernon Subutex” follows the titular character as he goes from recounting his glory days as the owner of Paris’s most bumpin’ record shop in the ‘90s to wandering the streets looking for places to crash. Unbeknownst to him, he’s wanted by a motley group of misfits because he has something immensely valuable in his possession. The show features plenty of music that harkens back to Vernon’s heyday — Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain, Suicide, just to name a few bands — and characters often underrepresented on screen, creating a lifelike tour of modern Paris and its remaining subculture. The show is a true tribute to the French zeitgeist.
“Milla” is a one-of-a-kind two-for-one cinema experience. It is at once one of the most unadulteratedly pure love stories in film history and one of the most moving depictions of motherhood. Two teenage lovers, Milla and Leo, live as vagabonds who seem to sustain each other with nothing but love, but in the blink of an eye, Leo is gone and Milla is pregnant. The story suddenly, but gracefully shifts from young love to motherly love and traces Milla’s evolution in a quiet but hopefully manner. With this kind of daring but thoughtful filmmaking, by Valérie Massadian, it’s no surprise that “Milla” is a critical favorite.
Imagine a queer-friendly “MASH” meets “Love Island” and set in France. How’s that for originality? When his husband is sent to serve in Djibouti, Roger is left at an army base with his adopted teenage daughter, Roxy. Bored and lonely, he seeks companionship in the sexually adventurous army wives who pass their time in isolation with “adult playdates.” Shot in 16mm film and told over four episodic seasons, “Fort Buchanan” is an alternate universe where army bases feel like summer camp and the biggest enemy is ennui. Sounds pretty nice.
Only the French could make a terrorism movie look so chic. “Nocturama” follows a group of young people, who could easily be Instagram influencers, as they plan a bomb plot in Paris. Then they hole up — where else? — in a luxury shopping mall. Set to a hyper-sensual soundtrack featuring Blondie, Chief Keef, and an original ambient-electronic score, the film turns Paris into an urban maze with its multi-character perspectives and deft cinematography. Directed by Bertrand Bonello, who’s known for the “Saint Laurent” biopic, “Nocturama” has a stylish and slick sheen on the exterior but dive deeper and it’s also a taut psychological thriller that reveals a far uglier side to its beautiful subjects.
“Polina” is at once a tribute to dance and an illustration of its immense range. Polina, played by professional dancer Anastasia Shevtsova, is a classically trained ballerina who experiences a reawakening when she discovers contemporary dance, which in many ways is antithetical to the rigid and precise nature of ballet. She breaks free from years of exacting training to move to Paris and study under a renowned contemporary dance choreographer, played by Juliette Binoche, who is also trained in real life. The film opens up the vast world of dance, for both Polina and the audience alike, and offers an inside look at the preparation, inspiration, and tireless dedication that goes into the art. Even if you’re a complete dance rookie, you will be mesmerized by the film’s gorgeous sequences.
French filmmakers seem to really love dance. And it’s this love that enables them to so expertly capture the discipline on film. Such is the case with “Towards Mathilde” by the inimitable Claire Denis. Like “Polina,” “Towards Mathilde” provides an immersive look inside the world of contemporary dance, often allowing the movements and wordless grace to tell the story. The documentary follows Mathilde Monnier, who heads the Montpellier National Centre for Choreography, and her elite group of dancers. If you go into this film knowing nothing about dance, you will walk away feeling like you’ve just had some of the best training in the dance world.
In this animated short, “negative space” takes on multiple meanings. The narrator recounts childhood packing lessons with his dad, who taught him how to fill a suitcase perfectly and with not even a sliver of wasted space. But no amount of practical travel advice could prepare him for the negative space he would feel as an adult. Nominated for Best Animated Short Film at the 2018 Academy Awards, “Negative Space” may only be five minutes long, but it speaks volumes about the father-son relationship at its center.