Sunday, August 03, 2008

French films that aren't freaky

The woman whom I'm tutoring in conversational French hesitated when I suggested that she watch one movie in French a week to practice her listening comprehension and to expose her to slang and contemporary culture. "Yes, but…" she began, "French movies are just…weird. They're so talky. There's lots of strange sex scenes. Nothing else really happens. Until people die."

And she does have a point.

To those of us who grew up on Hollywood action films, nuance-free blockbusters, and insipid predictable romantic comedies, yes, French films can seem abstruse and pointless. It's taken me a while to learn to appreciate the subtle, slow-paced, oft-disturbing fare that French cinema tends to offer. (My husband still proclaims Amélie to be the only decent French movie in existence.)

But that's not what we're here to debate! I've started to search out "user-friendly" French movies appropriate to American viewers who want to improve their language skills and enjoy the diversion (rather than be embroiled in something intense and/or uncomfortably sexual and/or "huh???"-inspiring). These aren't necessarily films you'd want to show to children without vetting them first yourself, but this list is a place to start. What other French-language movies fitting these criteria would y'all recommend? What about ones appropriate for kids? And movies from other francophone countries?

Amélie (a whimsical and touching people-pleaser)
Mon meilleur ami (genuinely funny and touching, restrained instead of over-the-top)
Le dîner des cons (funny and farcical with a touch of cruelty)
Le placard (funny and farcical, a little sad, a little predictable)
Paris, je t'aime (twenty short films, one set in each arrondissement, by twenty different filmmakers, including some American directors and actors)
Trois hommes et un couffin (the inspiration for Three Men and a Baby)
Les visiteurs (broad comedy about a medieval knight and his servant who arrive in the 20th century)
L'auberge espagnole (mildy funny comedy about a group of foreign students sharing an apartment in Spain; very popular among the college students I knew, but I didn't think it was that great)
Les poupées russes (the sequel to L'auberge espagnole; it takes place quite a few years later; I liked it better than the first film)

La gloire de mon père
(beautiful depiction of Marcel Pagnol's Provence in the early 20th century and the people who live there)
Le château de ma mère (sequel to La gloire de mon père--almost as good)
Jean de Florette (also set in Pagnol's Provence, but less idealized when it comes to human nature--a great story)
Manon des sources (sequel to Jean de Florette--just as good)
La belle et la bête (1946 black and white version of Beauty and the Beast)
Argent de poche (story of children in 1976)

Train de vie (a feel-good--until the end--movie about an entire eastern European Jewish village escaping deportation to a WWII concentration camp; surprisingly funny)
Les choristes (people-pleasing story about the music teacher at a boys' school)
Au revoir, les enfants (beautiful autobiographical story about friendship and growth at a Catholic boys' boarding school during WWII. I taught the script of this movie in my second-year French classes for a couple of years; despite reading it and watching the film repeatedly, I still love it and cry at the ending. It's that good.)
La môme (English title: La vie en rose--the recent biopic about Edith Piaf; fascinating in a depressing way)
Le festin de Babette (tale of a brilliant French chef in a dour small Danish town)
Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran (story of an unusual friendship in Paris; very good despite a disappointing ending)
Le gone du chaaba (based on the autobiographical novel by Azouz Begag, now a minister in the French government; it's about growing up in the immigrant slums in the 1960s)

Films historiques:
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990 version with Gerard Depardieu--well acted and swashbuckling)
Camille Claudel (based on the life of artist Rodin's long-time lover who was a sculptor in her own right)
La veuve de St. Pierre (love story set on a French-speaking island off Canada about a prisoner condemned to the guillotine)
Le hussard sur le toit (very swashbuckling)

Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (about gleaners, people who scavenge in fields after the harvest, those who go dumpster diving, etc., with very interesting narration)
Entre les murs (be a fly on the wall in a middle school French classroom with scenes improvised by students and inspired by a young teacher's autobiography)


  1. Merci, merci, merci! I've seen a few of these, but it looks like I'm going to be busy catching up on French films before summer comes to an end. I also used to teach Au revoir les enfants . . . I still cry, too! Thank you so much for compiling this list of recommendations.

  2. I love the post title! I am a francophile, but I agree with that girl that a lot of French films are very least from an American's perspective. I like your list a lot, but I was surprised to see Amélie on it. I enjoyed that movie but I think some of the content of that movie would definitely fall under the "freaky" umbrella. It did have wide appeal stateside though, so it can't be too odd for American tastes. I love Les visiteurs! I would also add to this list "Une longue dimanche de fiançailles" and "A la folie...pas du tout," which both star Audrey Tautou.

  3. While I did enjoy Une longue dimanche de fiançailles, I saw it during my junior year abroad in France and without subtitles I barely understood anything! I'm not sure if it would help for learning since the story is so complicated.

    Don't forget comedies like Tanguy, Tatie Danielle, and Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob. All the movies of Louis de Funès are pretty aproachable, although La Grande Vadrouille can seem a bit too slapsticky nowadays.

    I just saw Le Magnifique with Jean Paul Belmondo, and that was a fun, light, action film from 1973. The clothes were a hoot. Anything Belmondo is going to be more Hollywood style.

    And also in Hollywood style are the Taxi movies, although I've heard the 3rd and 4th aren't worth watching (I've only seen the 2nd).

    Another thing to keep in mind is that French people don't just watch French movies, but see all kinds of American movies dubbed. While it wouldn't expose you to French culture, putting the French audio on for your Dvd is a quick way to practice listening to French. If you already know the story, you can focus on the language and not worry about getting lost with the plot.

    And lastly, it's not a movie, but I love the tv series Un gars et une fille. The short sketches about life in a couple are be great for working on your French and I still learn an expression or two while watching them.

  4. I like a lot of these movies. For a kid friendly option, some of the Asterix cartoons are available in the US. My daughter likes these a lot.


  5. Thanks for your suggestions, everyone!

    @Samantha--To me, Amelie is whimsical rather than freaky. While the main characters are eccentric and the romantic liaisons don't fit the "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" pattern, the film never feels disturbing to me. Ironically, "A la folie" is the movie my tutee cited when expressing her distaste for French films! I agree with her that its female stalker protagonist really is disturbing (even though I didn't dislike the film).

    @L--I don't know most of the movies you recommended--thanks for the suggestions! I wish "Un gars et une fille" was available through Netflix. I wonder if any decent French tv shows are--anyone know? And I agree that watching familiar movies in one's native language with the French soundtrack and/or subtitles is fantastic listening comprehension practice.

    @Dana--The Asterix films are a lot of fun, but I think most language learners would need to watch them in English (or read the books they're based on) before watching them in French because they're so full of puns and so far removed from what most American kids are familiar with.

  6. Can Asterix be added to the list?

    Each time living in Europe, watching Hollywood movies is like a treat because they are imported from America. But back when living in Chicago for 4 years, I borrowed European, Hongkong, Bollywood movies a lot as I just got too many Hollywoods on TV. Yes, I agree, French and other European movies can be weird, but it's also nice to know how different culture produces different styles.

  7. I just added one more comedy to my list--I watched Mon meilleur ami last night and loved it! It's funny without being too broad or too cerebral and it has a happy ending that still feels mostly realistic.

  8. I saw Mon meilleur ami a few weeks ago, and I loved it as well! Your list is very comprehensive, but I can add a few more:
    Joyeux Noel - Fairly recent, it's about the temporary truce declared by troops in WWI Monsieur Klein - A story of mistaken identity that takes place in Nazi-occupied France. The end is a bit odd, but I still like it.
    Être et avoir - a documentary filmed in a one-room schoolhouse in France. The little kids are sooooooo cute.
    Fauteuils d'orchestre - A romantic comedy / girl makes good kind of thing that was released as Avenue Montaigne in the US.
    Persepolis - I just bought this last week at Target and haven't watched it yet, but it was popular, so I added it to the list. :-)

    If you look up Un Gars Une Fille on YouTube, there are several clips there.

  9. There are two French Canadian films that are very much recommended for your list Sarah. The first, Decline of the American Empire, is definitely a product of its time. Drugs, sex, etc. The same director reunited all the original actors decades later for The Barabarian Invasions. Older, wiser, they are dealing with deeper issues and emotions. The latter actually won the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards a couple of years ago. Although Canadian, there are overtones of American imperialism from a Canadian and, interestingly, French point of view. Incredibly gripping.

  10. @Eponine--Thanks for the additional suggestions! I had forgotten about Avenue Montaigne, which I liked too. And now that you mention Etre et avoir, I remember wanted to see that one too. The others are new to me but are getting added to my Netflix queue!

    It wouldn't have occurred to me to check YouTube for the French tv shows--thank you for the idea.

    @Stevie-B--Bienvenue to my blog! I'm so glad that I posted something that inspired you to write in. Your recommendations are also in my queue now.

    (Stevie-B, or Etienne as I call him, is a dear friend and movie addict who majored in French and got an MA in English. He's my only friend who likes all the weird French movies!)

  11. I can't speak with experience about French films, but I know it's very difficult to find original Spanish-language films that are okay to show in a Spanish class or to my own children. I'd show Pan's Labyrinth if I thought the linguistic value of it were enough to outweigh the trouble of getting parent signatures (105 of them) for showing a rated-R film. Unfortunately the film isn't available without subtitles so even if I did show it, I'd have to duct-tape the bottom of the TV, lol. But from a cultural perspective, the view of the Spanish civil war and its aftermath is quite valuable to students who spend most of their mid-20th century history time on WWII.
    I also wanted to show some perspectives on the absolute gruesomeness of the Spanish conquest of the New World, so I rented La otra conquista. Glad I was watching it alone, in my house. I couldn't find a half hour clean enough to show in class. Motorcycle Diaries has the same subtitling issue but also has language that's too foul for a classroom. Not that anything with Gael García in it can be shown in public. Seems like everything coming out of Latin America these days is too racy for young eyes (or mine, but I have pretty high standards for films).
    I do, however, refuse to show American cartoon films with the foreign-language audio, which many of my colleagues do, because they're culturally worthless and the students know the story so most of them tune out the language. Which leaves me with online news video clips and the ever-growing selection on YouTube. (sigh)

  12. @la profesora--I know what you mean--it's so hard to find films to show to American students! Even at the university level, one of my colleagues had some students walk out of his Latin American film class because they were so offended by the content/language.

    In French, the movie "Amelie" is more accessible than a lot of other films, but the ten or so references to sex (most brief) mean that there's no way a teacher could show it in high school without interrupting the flow to skip scenes. Too bad.

    I agree with you about dubbed Disney-type movies, by the way. I suppose I might reconsider for something like "Ratatouille," which does depict Paris, or "Hunchback of Notre Dame" or "Beauty and the Beast" because they're set in France and could be compared with the original stories. Maybe there's an animated film that takes place in a Spanish-speaking country that you could use?

    Completely unrelated note: I love the name "Sarita," probably because a former prof and now friend from Paraguay always calls me that.

  13. Are there any French subtitles for "Le Gone du Chaâba" for when Arabic is spoken? My Arabic is fair, but nowhere near good and I miss so much of it when it is spoken in the film.

  14. Thanks for the list! Check out Michel Ocelot's animated films. I love them just as much as my children do. The best ones seem to be "Kirikou et la sourciere" (really just for kids but the animation is truly beautiful) and "Princes et princesses" (I thought it wasn't interesting until I started paying attention--it is actually quite witty--also animated in an unusual and very beautiful style).

  15. @laduquesa--Yes, I believe that any Arabic dialogue was subtitled in French.

    @Anonymous--I *love* Kirikou! I borrowed them from Netflix and then bought the two films because they are wonderful. They're too scary in spots for Griffin right now, so he's only seen bits and pieces, but he seems to like them too. (He calls the character "Ki-Kou"--so cute!)

    Thanks for the recommendation about Ocelot's P&P. I had heard of the title but didn't know anything about it.

  16. I think Bienvenue a Ch'tis is a geat film that americans would love! it teaches a little about french culture too with the north/south differences!

  17. Thanks for the suggestion! That is one I had never heard of.

  18. I love the freaky french films. However, I agree that Amelie is whimsical AND freaky (I own it on DVD and I love it! along with a German movie called Run Lola, Run). Thanks for the list. We have to look at downloading the movies though since in South Africa, French is not a general second, third or fourth language (we have 11 official languages, and I think, German is more acceptable as an alternate to these, but then we also have a lot of Italian and Greek communities... Anyway, french does not feature as such).

    I am looking forward to watching the movies though. A lot of movies have the french dubbed feature though, and although possibly not perfect, it will do in the absence of anything else.

  19. Do you have a list of french language films for children?

  20. Even though I've been living in France for more than 20 years, I must admit that it takes some time to get used to it all (films as well as tv series and advertisements).

    I believe your list was very good with the least unshocking films.

    And, as "L" mentioned, Louis de Fenes films are great and Bienvenue les Ch'tis. I would add any Pierre Richard film as well.

  21. Time to update my Netflix queue! Thanks for the suggestions, Denise.

  22. I finally saw "Etre et Avoir" and agree heartily with Eponine's endorsement. It's a documentary that traces a semester in a one-room schoolhouse (preschool through fifth grade) in a village in Auvergne. Lovely and slow-paced and featuring a male teacher with heroic patience, it's definitely worth seeing, especially if you're interested in education, French culture, or adorable children.

    Griffin loved the poetry recitations by some of the littlest ones (part of the DVD special features)--we watched them over and over.

  23. I have come back to this resource many times now for movie suggestions. i would like very much to have bi-lingual children. I wish Netflix had more of your suggestions though. Where can I stream them?

  24. Glad to be helpful! Have you checked your local library? Often even if the library doesn't have the films, they can borrow them through Interlibrary Loan or even purchase them for the collection if you ask.

    You could also check YouTube to see if any extended clips from any of the films have been posted.

    Maybe there are some resources for streaming from France? Any ideas?

  25. We just recently watched "Les Chorsites" in our french class and i must say it was amazing! very enjoyable and entertaining to high-schoolers, and not what we as american students are used to. :)

  26. Merci pour le partage!

    Mon fils est bilingue italo-français
    et,je suis une maman toujours à la recherche des ressources pour moi et lui!

  27. @Anonymous--It's good to hear that this type of film can appeal to American teenagers. Good for your teacher for showing it to you!

    @Mamma--Bienvenue! Oui, c'est pareil pour moi. J'ai regarde ton blog pour apprendre un peu plus sur ce que tu fais avec ton fils bilingue, mais je ne parle pas italien :(

  28. Here is a blog post from French Today with the teacher's vote for top ten French films for language learners (with some overlap with my list plus some I don't know yet):

  29. I saw Au Revoir les enfants in the theatre in NYC when I was 14 years old. Awesome film, extremely sad. I always remember the last line of the voiceover, especially now that Louis Malle has passed away. (The lead in that film, Gaspard Manesse, who played Julien is a trumpet player with an orchestra now!)

  30. Amazingly, it turns out that my husband had seen one French movie that I hadn't: Le ballon rouge (The Red Balloon). It's a short, nearly wordless film about a little boy who finds a red balloon (which stays improbably aloft for several days, returns to him when he lets it go, and waits patiently when he's in school). They roam around 1960s Paris together.

    I saw this with Griffin recently and really liked it. Although the lack of dialogue means it's not ideal as a language learning tool, Griffin and I talked about what was going on as we watched. And culturally, it was valuable--he was able to see how a big, old city in France differs from the town we live in. The apartment buildings lining narrow cobblestone streets, the famous monuments, the concrete courtyard in the school instead of an expansive playground.

  31. My criticism of most (but not all) French films is that the characters seldom represent anything greater than themselves. No one is out to really help anyone else or do the right thing. Most all French characters are just out for themselves and meander through the film until the end.

  32. Just found your blog whilst looking for some resources to help my homeschooled boys learn French (they will be Skyping with my Dad in French three mornings a week. He lives in rural France and is pretty fluent). I'd love to add a movie to your list. We watched a movie with the kids free on Netflix Instant Watch, but I can only remember the English title: A Town Called Panic. The kids LOVE this movie and laugh hysterically in all the right places. There are a few mature themes and it is a bit strange but in a totally great way.

    Also, I remember watching the Red, Blue, White trilogy with my Dad back in high school, and absolutely loving it.

    We've also always turned on the 'in French' language function on favourite DVDs from time to time. Gotta love Nemo in French! It helps that the kids already know the plot and basically what the characters aree saying.

    Looking forward to checking out your blog as we go along! Thanks for the movie tips!

    1. Hello Anonymous! Tell me more! Where do you live, how old are your boys, and do you (and your partner, if applicable) speak French together (in addition to the Skype dates with the kids' grandfather)?

      I looked up the movie you recommended: in French it was called "Panique au village" and apparently is based on a television series. Sounds like fun, so it's on our Netflix queue now!

      We watch American DVDs with the French audio track too; for a while, Griffin didn't even realize that the characters in "Nemo" could speak English too!

      Let me know if you come across other films in French for kids. Thanks for commenting!

    2. I was going to mention "Panique au Village," which was entertaining enough for my kids (ages 8, 7, 6, 4, 3, and 1) to love and laugh the whole time, even though they couldn't understand words or read the subtitles. And I was cracking up! We showed it at a movie night for our high school French classes, and there are short YouTube videos of it and some TV episodes that we have shown in class.

      (And I am glad to discover your blog and to see where you live. I live in Milliken, not too far away from you. I teach French now, and used to teach Spanish in middle school in NYC. I wish I was disciplined enough to speak more in French with my kids. Maybe this summer...)

    3. Oh, and we were able to check it out of the High Plains Library system, I love when I can find stuff at the library. :)

    4. Bonjour Cathyg and thank you for your comments! Okay, now I definitely have to see Panique au Village, currently languishing on my Netflix queue.

      We're practically neighbors....maybe during the summer you and your kiddos could join us for French storytime in Lafayette (currently 1st and 3rd Friday of the month) and/or French playgroup in Boulder (every Monday morning at 10)!

      Keep me posted on how things go trying to integrate more French into your family's daily life this summer....I'd be interested in hearing how it goes.

      Yes, yay for libraries and interlibrary loan. The Fort Collins library has quite a few children's books in French, by the way.

  33. For kids, try Le Petit Nicolas, very cute and well known in France. Also, and these aren't movies, but I like watching the French version of the 1990's Tintin cartoon, good for vocab and really entertaining.

  34. What a great post; You've listed some of my favorites. Here are some more that I've enjoyed:

    Apres Vous
    The Valet
    Le Placard
    Prete-moi ta main

    All are pretty funny romantic comedies that don't get freaky, as far as I can remember :)

    1. Bonjour Carol! I don't know the first and fourth ones on your list, but I did like the middle two. Thanks for the recommendations!

    2. Here's Carol's annotated list of enjoyable French films--check it out!

  35. These are great! I am a high school French teacher and struggle with appropraite movies constantly (you can't show Les Choristes over and over). Two I noticed that were not on your list (obviously this post is from 2008, so these are newer and maybe you have now heard of them):

    Les émotifs anonymes
    Bienvenue chez les ch'tis

    Also, I am currently pregnant with my first child (due in February) and have been wondering if (since my husband doesn't speak French) I would be able to raise our child bilingually. You have inspired me! Merci beaucoup!

    1. Please forgive my much-delayed reply and accept my congratulations on the birth of your beautiful son! Thanks for the recommendations--I have heard of les ch'tis but not seen it yet, and I don't know anything about the first one. I will check them out!

      Have you started speaking French with Oliver? My son, Griffin, is nearly seven, and while he isn't fluent in French, he can read and write it a bit, he understands very well, and he has a darn good accent when he speaks. It is definitely possible, even with a monolingual husband! Keep me posted….

  36. Amelie? It shows characters having orgasms. Doesn't seem family friendly to me :)


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