The ten best classic French films
Friday 23 January 2004
1 VAMPYR Carl Dreyer, 1932
Just as there are films noirs, so Vampyr is a film blanc - a horror movie with a complexion of deathly pallor, climaxing with the celebrated sequence in which the ethereal protagonist dreams of his own death, and Dreyer films his vision as a first-person tracking shot from within his coffin, thus seeming to invite us to identify with a cadaver.
2 LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR Jean Renoir, 1932
This Simenon adaptation is an astounding exercise in pure cinema, cherished by lovers of the surreal for its potent atmospherics - a black car speeding through a silent, shuttered hamlet; the curdled odour of rain-sodden fields; the mystifying, occasionally incomprehensibledrama played out in a tumbledown house. Some films are called sleepers. This one is a dreamer.
3 L'ATALANTE Jean Vigo, 1934
There exists not a single "greatest film ever made", but several, and L'Atalante, by the short-lived Vigo, is unquestionably one of them.
A sublimely sensual story of mismatched, and, ultimately, well-matched love, aboard a barge, its dreamlike imagery, both tender and surreal, forms part of every buff's cinematographic memory.
4 LE ROMAN D'UN TRICHEUR Sacha Guitry, 1936
Guitry, the French Noël Coward, plays a suavely amoral adventurer who, finding his good deeds systematically punished and his bad ones systematically rewarded, finally accepts what would appear to be his fate and becomes a professional con man. So laconic a précis, though, fails to do justice to the irresistible, almost toe-tapping rhythm of this film, a comedy as airy and insubstantial as a bubble, perhaps, but a lovingly chiselled one.
5 VENUS AVEUGLE Abel Gance, 1941
Though he looked more like a 19th-century Romantic poet, Gance was a 20th-century film-maker like any other, capable of the sublime and the ridiculous, often in the same film. Vénus aveugle, cinema's most deliriously grandiose dud, about a blind cabaret chanteuse, is a case in point. Yet, because of the sheer force of Gance's faith in his disreputable material, hokum not merely squared but cubed, and above all because one genuinely does find oneself moved, it is one of the medium's demented masterworks.
6 LES DAMES DU BOIS DE BOULOGNE Robert Bresson, 1945
Bresson's nerve-wrackingly chic drama of social and sexual intrigues among the Parisian upper crust is a paradoxical artefact: a diamond on fire. The director's rigorous visual formalism finds its perfect complement in the cold, clipped lapidary preciosity of Jean Cocteau's dialogue.
7 LA BELLE ET LA BETE Jean Cocteau, 1946
Once upon a time, with a brilliance unmatched in film history, a famous poet adapted the famous tale of a beautiful woman's courtship of an elegantly hideous hybrid - beast on the outside, Prince Charming on the inside. For Cocteau, cinema was a medium in not only the technical but the supernatural sense.
8 LES VACANCES DE MONSIEUR HULOT Jacques Tati, 1952
A practically plotless chronicle of a holiday in a modest Breton resort, whose bland recreations are disrupted by the hapless Hulot, his pipe perched at a right angle to his beanpole of a body. Les Vacances is one of the drollest comedies ever filmed. If you were to cross a Sempé cartoon with a Cartier-Bresson snapshot, and then tease the result into cinematic life, you might end up with something as funny and sunny as this.
9 MADAME DE Max Ophüls, 1953
Though frivolity is not merely the theme but the style of Madame de - the plot turns on the loss of a pair of diamond earrings - it's as tragic a film as any in cinema history. How come? Because no director was more sensitive than Ophüls to the elusive volatility of love, the fragility and transience of desire, expressed in imagery so mercurially graceful that the screen seems to have been woven out of watered silk.
10 BOB LE FLAMBEUR Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956
Melville's extraordinary film is less a thriller (in Parisian underworld slang, a flambeur is a gambler) than a fictionalised documentary on the genre's woozily neon-lit nightscapes, through which the impecunious Bob, resplendent in trench coat and nonchalantly angled fedora, imperturbably wanders, un vrai gentleman, as the French affect to put it. Nothing very much happens (as was equally true of the New Wave films that it anticipated), yet Bob le flambeur is, mysteriously, a masterpiece.
The films are in chronological order. Gilbert Adair wrote the screenplay of Bernardo Bertolucci's 'The Dreamers', released on 6 February. His novels 'The Dreamers' and 'Buenas Noches Buenos Aires' are published by Faber and Faber in February
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