1. The Fanny Trilogy (1931 – 36) – Marcel Pagnol
The great brilliance of Pagnol’s Fanny Trilogy – consisting of Marius (1931), Fanny (1933), and César (1936) – is the simplicity of its premise: over the course of three films we witness the growth of a small group of characters residing in the seaside town of Marseilles. What occurs in between are the great problems of growth and change, the tensions between aspiration and responsibility, fidelity and happiness, spontaneity and repercussion. The Fanny Trilogy recounts the epic, heartbreaking events of small, uneventful lives.
2. L’Atalante (1934) – Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo’s death from tuberculosis at age twenty-nine canonized L’Atalante, his final film. A great underappreciated classic of French poetic realism featuring perhaps the best of Michel Simon’s many great anomalous characters, the film tells the story of newlyweds captaining a barge between Le Havre and Paris. The symbolic journey of love and marriage is a nautical fairytale of pre-Vichy France, a navigation through a world that no longer exists and perhaps never did in the first place.
3.Grand Illusion (1937) – Jean Renoir
Let there be no mistake: Jean Gabin has the everyman’s face of the 20th century. Homely and simple, yet irrepressibly brave and just in even its most bored expressions, Grand Illusion has plenty of opportunities for his face to elicit a quiet, understated heroism. Renoir’s war film still stands as a beautiful treatise on the foolishness of war, and, released only two years before the start of World War II, an unintentional symbol of its own naïveté. Gabin’s face, poised in an innocent expression of goodwill, was immediately and forever made obsolete by the Holocaust.
4. Quai des Orfèvres (1947) – Henri-Georges Clouzot
An embittered post-war murder mystery, Quai Des Orfèvres is Clouzot’s most perfect balance of his trademarks: dark and sardonic without being hopeless, sneering and funny without becoming ridiculous, and strangely humanistic without betraying its convictions. The film’s surprisingly happy ending manages to eclipse its glimpses of moral depravity and hypocrisy. Along the way there’s plenty of songs and dancing, murder and gangsters, and a lesbian photographer with her own name spelled out on her sweater.
5. Orphée (1950) – Jean Cocteau
Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus, set outside 1950’s Paris, is an allegory of poetry and death that occasionally gets lost in its own daydream. As strange and suave as any good French film, Orphée code-switches between avant-garde filmmaking, classical philosophizing, and unabashed make-believe fantasy. With a typically overstated performance by Jean Marais, the film is dated in the best way a film can be: a perfect capsule of its exact moment.
6.Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) – Alain Resnais
Alain Resnais’s response to the request to do for Hiroshima what Night and Fog (1955) did for the Holocaust is an hour-and-a-half long conversation between French and Japanese lovers. The first ten minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a surreal collage of actual post-bombing footage cut with the constant refrain of “You saw nothing in Hiroshima”, manage to outline in a single consummate document both the beginning and the end of the world. The remaining eighty minutes meticulously, tragically outline everything in between.
7.Jules et Jim (1962) – Francois Truffaut
Along with Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Truffaut’s own 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim is a candidate for the French New Wave film, and maybe the French film of all time. Perhaps the only generational epic (the clichéd tale of a generation-spanning friendship torn apart by love and war blah blah blah) that is able to maintain humbleness, idiosyncrasy, and intimacy, Jules et Jim is responsible for generations of off-beat yet sincere movies. Like so many great novels, the film begins with the tragic promise of everything we could have been, and spends its second half documenting its slow deterioration into what we actually became.
8. Band of Outsiders (1964) – Jean-Luc Godard
Every Godard film is a Godard film above all else: a disjointed collection of scenes, people, and lines all pointing back to the same bleak message. Band of Outsiders is both one of his darkest and most lighthearted films and thus it makes sense that Quentin Tarantino, its most famous devotee, would name his production company after it. An often funny heist film, it’s also perhaps Godard’s most watchable. A few highlights: synchronized dancing, a full minute of silence, a run through the Louvre, mangled Shakespearean English, and an assured Technicolor sequel set in South America.
9.Fantastic Planet (1973) – René Laloux
Like the best science fiction, Fantastic Planet is alternately psychedelic, playful, naïve, innocent, funny, and verisimilarly horrible. The surreal story of humanity’s enslavement and eventual rebellion against an alien race could not have been made in any decade other than the seventies, with its concurrent post-hippy cynicism and pseudo-hippy pretensions. At its core is a sort of dreadful strangeness. Anyone who can watch the simultaneously horrifying and revelatory scene of the alien Draags meditating and not be stunned by the strange quagmire of existence has missed the whole point.
10. Au Revoir, les Enfants (1987) – Louis Malle
Louis Malle’s semi-autobiographical story of wartime Jewish refugees hidden at a Catholic boarding school above all focuses on the awkward, meandering quality of adolescent friendship. The film does not attempt to paint an idyllic landscape felled by holocaust, but rather portrays the graceless, stilted lives that were also prematurely curtained. Au Revoir, les Enfants reminds us that the awkward, the maladroit, the feeble and mawkish and uninnocent were also destroyed by war, and are in themselves worth remembering.