Too tired in the evenings to do much besides sit in front of the telly? Fear not, brave student of French! You can learn French from your sofa by watching French films in the original language.
Using Movies to Learn French
Movies and TV series are a wonderful way to learn a language. I myself learned German by watching Star Trek: Voyager, Back to the Future and other films in German.
In fact, the best way to start is with things that you know. Choose the French-language option for your favourite series or movies on Netflix (or DVD/Blue ray). You already know the story and the context of the dialogues, so its an excellent way to practise hearing French vocabulary in context.
This is important because in everyday life, you will often be confronted with words you don’t know. But if you practice a bit, you will learn to extrapolate the meaning from the context (of course, if you can’t, it’s all right to ask!) You can practise this in written form by reading the news in French.
If they are speaking too fast for you, don’t hesitate to put subtitles on. English subtitles are fine, but French are better - they can help you recognise the words you had never heard aloud. And after watching the film a few times with the subtitles on - turn them off. You really need to listen to the rise and fall of the language if you want to better your French pronunciation, and you can’t do that if you are concentrating on the written word.
Whether you prefer fiction or biographies (such as La Vie en Rose about Edith Piaf), thrillers or horror, French New Wave or those premiered by the French film society, art house or comedies - here are some of the best French movies to help you improve your command of the French language.
Feel-Good French Comedies to Practice Your French
If there’s one thing French cinema does well, it’s comedies. You might notice that the jokes and timing are different than in British comedy - the French love visual and situational comedy, but they play around a little less with words. And if you want to keep learning in a playful vein - why not try out some French-learning games?
If you like light-hearted comedy with a heart of gold, Amélie Poulain is for you. It’s the story of Amélie, a young girl who doesn’t see the world quite as we do. As she tries to solve the mystery of the man whose portrait constantly pops up in the bin beside the photomat, she gently touches the lives of those around her, from the young man working at the grocer’s to the old invalid to her own father.
Starring French actors François Cluzet and Omar Sy, The Intouchables is a tale of friendship based on the life of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caregiver Abdel Sellou. The director had discovered their story in a documentary and decided to make a movie out of it.
Philippe is a rich eccentric Frenchman tied to a wheelchair after a paragliding accident. When interviewing caretakers he decides to take on Driss, a French-Algerian who only showed up so he could tell unemployment he was looking for a job. As Philippe unlocks Driss’s artistic sensibilities, Driss reminds him that he still has a life to live.
Omar Sy won a César for best actor for this motion picture.
If you are simply on the lookout for a fun family farce, Les Visiteurs can deliver. It is the story of a medieval French nobleman, played by Jean Reno, and his servant who appear in 20th-century France. Adopted by one of his descendants Béatrice (who mistakes him for a long-lost cousin), the Count de Montmirail must try and get home, all the while turning Béatrice’s life upside-down.
Iconic French Films to Improve Your French
La règle du jeu
This iconic film by director Jean Renoir (also famous for his 1937 film La Grande Illusion, considered the best French film of all time) the Rules of the Game is a cinematic comedy of manners that started its life as box office disaster. Deemed too long for the 1939 public, it had been cut down from 113 to 85 minutes for the theatres, to the detriment of the story.
Apart from its tangled triangle of desire centred around aristocratic Christine, the film, which Renoir not only directed but starred in, was carefully crafted with extremely long camera shots and the interesting premise that all the music heard in the film was broadcast by someone or something within the film - a phonograph, a band, etc. It has since earned a cult following and is even sometimes taught in school.
La Nouvelle Vague
This cinametographic movement in the French film industry of the 1950s and 1960s, a time in which new directors were familiar with the history of French filmmaking but were eager to try out something new and distance themselves from mainstream cinema. Pioneered by essays and critiques on auteur theory in the moviemaker magazine Les Cahiers du cinéma, the French New Wave features a more documentary style with long takes and little editing, striving towards more realism in the theatre.
Note: You can start taking French lessons online today.
Inspired to a certain extent by pioneer American filmmakers such as Orson Wells, well-known figures of the Nouvelle Vague include François Truffaut (with his film The 400 Blows in 1959 and the romance Jules and Jim in 1962), Jean-Luc Godard with his thriller Breathless (À bout de souffle, 1960) and his 1965 science-fiction film Alphaville, Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Jacques Rivette with his silent film Paris Belongs to Us (1958, with dialogue added a year later) and Eric Rohmer’s short films or his My Night at Maud’s.
Of the actors and actresses associated with the New Wave, both Catherine Deneuve and Anna Karina stand out, as do actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon.
The 1990 feature film La Nouvelle Vague, written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard with Alain Delon in the main role, is an homage to this period in film history. Using almost exclusively quotes from literary sources and older French films for his dialogue, he tells the story of a drifter taken in by a rich industrialist, showcasing the see-saw of power between the two protagonists.
Le Salaire de la peur - the Wages of Fear
This king of psychological thrillers by Henri-Georges Clouzot in 1950, an opponent of the New Wave mouvement, deals with the unsafe transport of nitroglycerin in gerrycans to extinguish a fire in the oil fields of a remote southwestern town in the US, from the point of view of the drivers.
It won the Palme d’Or at the International Film Festival at Cannes and the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
French Action Movies to Improve Your Vocabulary
You tend to think only of the American film industry when thinking of action movies and thrillers, but French cinema has its own genre of psychological thriller and action-filled narrative films for a nice evening in front of the telly eating popcorn.
Léon the Professional
Brought to you by the director of the cult sci-fi movie Luc Besson, featuring Jean Reno and young actress Nathalie Portman, Léon is a touching tale of the friendship between a professional killer, his plant and a young girl.
After her family is murdered by a corrupt DEA agent (played by Gary Oldman), Léon takes on a young girl, Mathilda, teaching her his trade while she takes care of his household and teaches him to read. But Mathilda wants revenge for her family’s deaths, leading them both down a dangerous path…
French Literary Classics turned into Films
I wouldn’t recommend these French movies to beginners. The language is much more formal and florid and, in the case of Cyrano, in verse, so you won't be learning many contemporary French words and phrases. But there are truly wonderful films for the advanced French student seeking to experience classic French culture as feature films.
Cyrano de Bergerac
The classic play by Edmond Rostand brought to the big screen, this swashbuckling story of romance tells the tale of Christian de Neuvilette (Vincent Pérez), a young musketeer in love with the précieuse (a 16th century version of a hipster), Roxane (played by actress Anne Brochet). Helping in his endeavors is another musketeer called Cyrano de Bergerac (played by French actor Gérard Depardieu) - a savant and poet sadly afflicted by a very long nose. It is one of the best French films out there; Depardieu was nominated for a César for his performance.
You can watch the trailer here.
Jean de Florette
Another film starring Gérard Depardieu as a deformed man, Jean de Florette is a cinematic adaptation of the charming - and cruel - book by Marcel Pagnol, itself a prequel to Pagnol’s script for the film Manon des Sources. Directed by Claude Berri, Jean de Florette details the scheming of two men in a small village of Provence to get their hands on the property by stopping the flow of water from its spring. It was shot at the same time as a new adaptation of Manon des Sources, detailing the life of Manon, Jean de Florette’s daughter, after her father’s death.
French Animation Films for Fun French Classes
Strictly speaking, animation films are not ideal for learning a language, since the lips are not quite as well synced as in real life. But if your household includes young French learners or you are a fan of the genre and appreciate the artistry, here are some French animation films.
Princess of the Sun (La Reine Soleil)
More a tribute to the book than a true dramatisation, Princess of the Sun is inspired by a novel by Egyptologist Christian Jacq on the life of Ankhsenpaaten, daughter of Nefertiti and wife of Tutankhamun. The movie concentrates more on young Tut as he and Ankhsenpaaten try to defeat the plot of the Hittite prince to overtake the Egyptian monarchy.
Kirikou and the Sorceress
Drawing on West African folktale, Kirikou et la Sorcière is the story of young Kirikou, whose village is plagued by drought, cursed by an evil sorceress. Kirikou finds out that she is evil because a thorn in her back is causing her pain; with the help of human and animal friends he makes along the way, Kirikou manages to remove the thorn and cure the sorceress, saving his village and becoming an adult in the process.
The Asterix films
There is a whole series of animated Asterix films (and several live-action ones). The least of them is the first film, which suffers from somewhat wooden storytelling; the best are Asterix and Cleopatra, Asterix Legionnaire and Asterix and the Normans, though all of them are charming, simple narratives with a lot of cartoon violence against Romans.
Fairly Recent Acclaimed French Films
Of Gods and Men
Des Dieux et des Hommes, based on a true story, came out in 2010. Set against the background of the Algerian Civil War of 1996, this feature film tells the tale of a monastery of French monks decides to stay and tend to their community, even after a terrorist group finds them and, ultimately, takes them hostage. Considered a masterpiece of our time, it won the César for best film at the French film festival.
Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue is the Warmest Colour, a 2013 French motion picture by French filmmaker Abedellatife Kerchiche that received the Palme d’Or at the International Film Festival in Cannes, explores a young woman’s sexual identity. Adèle, the protagonist, meets a woman with blue hair with whom she falls in love. They begin as friends but their relationship soon progresses beyond. The plot follows them through their relationship and breakup to where they find themselves.
The original title is La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1&2; the screenplay is based on the graphic novel by Julie Maroh (Le bleu est une couleur chaude).
Due to lack of space, there are many actors and directors we haven’t mentioned - Jean Dujardin, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Isabell Huppert, Claire Denis, Jean-Pierre Melville, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean Vigo, Jacques Audiard, Louis Malle, Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Binoche. And many amazing films such as Jacques Demy’s Les Jeunes Filles de Rochefort with Gene Kelly and Catherine Deneuve.
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