5 must-see French art films

French art films you should see before you die

By Marco Cretella
| @mbcretella

Sub-edited by Catherine de Guise

By the end of the 1950s, cinema had become stale – the tired, post-war theme of good perpetually triumphing over evil had become a cliche. It was, therefore, a sight for sore eyes when a small group of French directors splashed their stunning debuts across the screens. Young audiences were glued to their seats by the tales of misfits, outsiders and cool criminals. Critics hailed the style as ‘La Nouvelle Vague’ (New Wave) and French Art-House Cinema had begun.

Les Quatre Cents Coups/The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

Truffaut’s stunning debut, a semi-autobiographical tale of an adolescent boy, Antoine Dionel (Jean-Pierre Leuad), who runs away after being caught plagiarising in a writing project at school. He spends his days playing truant around the Pigalle Cinema district in Paris. The famous opening sequence pans around the Eiffel Tower, buildings partially obscuring it, suggesting the real Paris is always slightly out of reach for Antoine.

2) A Bout De Souffle/Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1959)

It is the film that brought Godard and the other New Wave directors to international attention. Suffocatingly cool, each frame could be a poster on a jazz cafe wall, it tells the story of Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a petty criminal who spends his time womanising, conning and stealing until he meets and falls in love with American student Patricia (Jean Seberg). We follow him as he tries to acquire the money to escape Paris with Patricia.

3) Tirez Sur La Pianiste/Shoot The Piano Player (Francois Truffaut, 1960)

Truffaut’s second film tells the story of Charlie (Charles Aznavour), a talented musician whose ended up down on his luck playing Paris dive bars and never realising his full potential as a concert pianist. He is desperately shy and we hear his own thoughts as voiceover, as he constantly talks himself out of ‘making a move’ on waitress Lena (Marie Dubois).

4) Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

Godard had made fourteen films since Breathless, but Weekend was to be his last mainstream film. Weekend follows the adventures of a Parisian couple, Roland (Jean Yanne) and Corrine (Mireille Darc), who navigate traffic jams to get to car accidents, so they can steal expensive clothes from the sometimes still alive crash victims. The film runs at a frightening pace, bombarding you with Pop art imagery, graphic depictions of car crashes, cannibal cults, revolutionary ideas and a scene involving Emily Bronte and Tom Thumb that almost defies description.

5) Belle de Jour (Louis Brunel, 1967)

Debutante Catherine Deneuve plays Severine, a rich, sexually repressed housewife who is unable to consummate her marriage. She has dreams of sexually-masochistic situations that, at her dream husband’s direction, become increasingly violent. When a friend tells her of bordellos operating secretly in Paris’s most affluent areas, a journey into a double life as a prostitute begins. Brunel’s film went on to become an internationally renowned classic, watched by millions, but at the time only a few people saw it, its themes making licensing almost impossible.

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