25 influential French films to watch

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Rules of the game (1939)

It’s a movie about society – where you stand, how you keep your status, the things you are allowed to do, and the things you keep hidden. The nobility meets in a country house for a hunting expedition. They have things that shouldn’t be talked about. Servants have their own issues, but when things turn violent the gentry should not see them. It is below their status to get involved in such things. And we see, through the camera in the large rooms and along the waxed floors of the castle, that this aristocracy has had its day; World War II is upon them, and everything will change.

There is a great scene in this movie that takes place after dinner when the guests get together to be entertained. The mechanical piano plays Saint Saens’Danse Macabre ”, the keys move by themselves, and on stage, three ghosts and a skeleton appear, jiggling to the rhythm of the music. They jump into the audience and terrorize them, but everyone stands still and laughs. After all, that’s what is expected of them. No one can break with social conventions. And we sit and watch the entertainment too.

Orpheus (1950)

Jean Cocteau was best known in France as a poet and novelist, but he also made such beautiful fantastic films. Orpheus is a modern account of the myth of Orpheus. In this version, Orpheus is a poet lacking inspiration. When he meets Death in the form of a princess and strange messages start coming out of his car stereo, he becomes obsessed. He neglects his pregnant wife, Eurydice, and when she is killed, he realizes his selfishness and goes to the Underworld to find her and bring her back to life.

This film is so inventive and weird, and it’s all about the big questions. Is love stronger than death? Can a person love death more than life? What is the nature of happiness? And how is it possible to visit the Underworld using only a pair of rubber gloves and a household mirror? It’s a mixture of fairytale and absolute seriousness. The Underworld is breathtaking to watch – a bombed-out city littered with rubble, leading us to realize that World War II has only just ended in the world of Orpheus, and Death walks alongside it.

Olivia (1951)

Olivier is the story of a young girl who arrives at a boarding school run by two principals who are in a difficult relationship. The young girl has a crush on one of the directors and involuntarily intervenes between them, causing jealousy and rage.

It’s a very traditional looking film with a soapy Hollywood feel that is at odds with the controversial subject matter. Directed by Jacqueline Audry, the only woman at the time to make French commercial films, everything is neat and shiny and the girls at the boarding school are images of prettiness. It makes the jealous headmistress’s outbursts ugly and hard to watch.


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