Considering the art of cinema was born in France, knowing when to start with the most important films of the country’s cinematic history can be a daunting task. From the Lumière brothers’ invention of the Cinématographe in 1895 and their 46-second short film La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), Jean-Luc Godard’s pioneering French New Wave film À bout de souffle(Breathless), and modern masterpieces from directors like Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, and Leos Carax, there are an overwhelming number of films to be consumed. But as today marks France’s annual Bastille Day celebration, what better way to celebrate than to reflect on the wonder of French cinema and get a closer look at some of the most fascinating and significant French films available at your fingertips.
1885 to 1929: The Birth of Cinema and Silent Film
At the tail end of the 19th century, the Lumière brothers changed the world when they developed the patent for their Cinématographe, a motion picture camera that could record, develop, and project film. When they screened La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon alongside nine other documentary shorts at the Salon Indien du Grand Café for paying customers in December 1895, the French film industry was born. Capturing black-and-white portraits of everyday Parisian life, the Lumière brothers invented what would become documentary filmmaking. But with illusionist turned filmmaker Geroge Méliès’ 1902 science fiction film A Trip to the Moon and subsequent fantastical features, cinema-going became not only a social experience — it became a thrilling escape from reality.
From the early 1900s to 1914, the French film industry was leading the world in production, but everything changed when World War I broke out. With limits on film stock and resources, production was forced to slow down, and the industry went into decline. Yet despite its restraints, French filmmakers still managed to churn out films that would go on to influence the rest of the century. The decade saw a new brand of avant-garde cinema through the work of now-legendary directors like René Clair, Marcel L’Herbier, Louis Delluc, Jean Renoir, and Abel Gance. Key works were Gance’s six-hour Napoléon and Clair’sParis qui dort, as well as short films influenced by the art world of the time, such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou.
The Cabbage Fairy: Based on a French fairytale in which boys are born in cabbages and girls in roses, Alice Guy-Blaché’s 1896 film not only made her the first female director in the world, it was also the first to bring narrative structure to the medium. [Watch The Cabbage Fairy on YouTube]
A Trip to the Moon: Georges Méliès’ iconic 1902 film follows a group of astronomers on a voyage to explore the lunar surface. The first science fiction film ever made, Méliès’ silent wonder remains one of the most influential films in cinematic history. [Where to stream A Trip to the Moon]
Paris Qui Dort: Concerning a mad scientist and his invisible ray that freezes Parisian citizens, the silent 1925 science fiction film was the second short ever by pioneering twentieth-century filmmaker René Clair. [Watch Paris Qui Dort on YouTube]
Un Chien Andalou: A collaboration between artist Salvator Dali and filmmaker Luis Buñuel, their 1929 short film collaboration is a masterpiece of surrealist cinema and uses their shared affinity for portraying subconscious desire and impulse through their art. [Watch Un Chien Andalou on YouTube]
1930s and 1940s: Poetic Realism and World War II
Many of the films now heralded as undying masterpieces of cinema were made in the style of Poetic Realism. Beginning in post-war 1930s France, and carried on throughout World War II, the films under this umbrella romanticized the oppressed and disillusioned working class. With an emphasis on outsider characters living on the margins of society (criminals, tramps, etc.), they were imbued with a fatalistic or nostalgic view of life. The realism in its name concerns the recreated or art-directed portraits of everyday darkness captured on screen — using distinct lighting, precisely crafted studio sets, and cinematic flourish to highlight the plight of contemporary society. Directors like Marcel Carné, Jean Vigo, Julien Duvivier, and Jean Renoir were all associated with Poetic Realism and brought their idiosyncratic and singular style to this lyrical and melancholic movement. From Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, the period in French cinema was also gave life to the careers of actors like Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, and Michèle Morgan.
But when WWII broke out, filmmakers’ struggle to maintain a vision and personal voice became more dangerous than ever. Yet filmmakers Henri-Georges Clouzot and Marcel Carné managed to create their own masterpieces while operating under Nazi-occupied France with films such as Le Corbeau andChildren of Paradise, respectively. The future directors of the French New Wave were greatly influenced by Poetic Realism and admired the directors of the time for their ability to maintain artistic independence and defying tradition.
Under the Roofs of Paris: Centering on a gangster and a street singer both enamored with the same woman, René Clair’s 1930 romantic musical comedy is known as one of the first of its genre, as well as one of the earliest works of sound film in France. [Where to stream Under the Roofs of Paris]
Boudu Saved From Drowning:Famed director Jean Renoir’s 1932 bourgeois fable stars Michel Simon as a Parisian tramp who, after plunging into the Seine, is saved by a well-off bookseller. [Where to stream Boudu Saved From Drowning]
Grand Illusion: Concerning a group of French prisoners of war during WWII, Jean Renoir’s stunning 1937 antiwar masterpiece about a group of POWs attempting to escape a German camp is considered one of the best films ever made. [Where to stream Grand Illusion]
Pepe Le Moko: A monument of poetic realism, Julien Duvivier’s highly influential 1937 feature follows a Parisian gangster, hiding out in the Casbah of Algiers, who falls in love with a beautiful woman from Paris and finds himself tricked out of hiding. [Where to stream Pepe Le Moko]
The Rules of the Game: Set on the cusp of WWII, Jean Renoir’s 1939 caustic comedy of manners gives a searing look at corrupt upper-class French society and those that serve them when a group of the bourgeois travel to a chateau together just before the war breaks out. [Where to stream The Rules of the Game]
Children of Paradise: Made during the occupation of France, this 1945 crowning achievement of poetic realism centers on the 19th Century Parisian theatre world and follows a beautiful courtesan and the actor, mime, aristocrat, and criminal who are all in love with her. [Where to streamChildren of Paradise]
L’Atalante: The beloved filmmaker Jean Vigo’s only feature-length film, made just before his death at age 29, this fascinating 1947 tour de force explores the marital struggles of a newly wed country girl and ship captain while out to sea with the captains’s first mate and cabin boy. [Where to stream L’Atalante]
1950s: Post-War Films
In the wake of WWII, the French film industry was forced to regain its footing and reestablish its international status. Now liberated from Nazi occupation, filmmakers like Jean Cocteau, Max Ophuls, and Jean-Pierre Melville emerged as new arbiters of style with classic films like La belle et la bette, La ronde, Les enfants terribles. Also new to the scene was director Robert Bresson, about who, Francois Truffaut would later boast: “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” His films likeDiary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket would go on to greatly influence the French New Wave and proved one of the best examples of Truffaut’s auteur theory — a notion that the personal view, aesthetic, and philosophy of the director is the primary creative force of a film.
Beauty and the Beast: Adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairytale, master of the arts Jean Cocteau’s 1946 romantic fantasy is an astonishing and magical film that tells the tale as old as time of a young woman and the reclusive beast who falls in love with her. [Where to streamBeauty and the Beast]
La Ronde: Adapted from brilliant Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial play Reigen, Max Ophuls’ beguiling 1950 roundelay centers on brief encounters with pairs of characters and explores the social moors and sexual exploits of characters from all classes. [Where to stream La Ronde]
Les Enfants Terribles: Adapted from the luminous mind of Jean Cocteau, director Jean-Pierre Melville brings his own enthralling vision to this riveting 1950 adaptation, which explores the complex and psychologically strained relationship between a brother and sister. [Where to stream Les Enfants Terribles]
Mr. Hulot’s Holiday: The first foray into seminal director and actor Jacques Tati’s adventures with the clumsy but winning character of Monsieur Hulot, this brilliantly crafted comedy centers on what happens when its titular star’s beachside vacation causes a fury of unintentional havoc. [Where to stream Mr. Hulot’s Holiday]
Diabolique: A precursor to so many of the films we now hail as modern masterpieces, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s remarkable 1955 psychological thriller meets revenge drama tells the haunting story of a headmaster’s wife and his mistress, whose plot to murder their lover takes a terrifyingly spin. [Where to stream Diabolique]
Pickpocket: An ingenious centerpiece work of treasured director Robert Bresson, his paramount 1959 film tells the story of a young pickpocket who, after his mother dies, falls deeper into thievery as a means to survive. [Where to stream Pickpocket]
1960s and 1970s: French New Wave and Left Bank
Few movements in cinematic history have been as internationally influential and culturally significant as La Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave. Beginning in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the movement forever changed modern filmmaking and ushered in a radical new style and cinematic language that’s still influencing artists around the world. La Nouvelle Vague was led by directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer, whose work in the film industry began during their time as critics for Cahiers du Cinemaunder the leadership of André Bazin. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium and a desire to break free from the staunch cinematic tradition of the past, they rejected classical narrative convention and experimented with the myriad ways a story could be told through editing and visual style.
Films like Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows established the French New Wave as a more immediate and political brand of cinema that reflected modern Parisian life but also called attention to itself in a way film has never been done before. From Godard’s playfully innovative jump cuts and character asides to Rohmer’s philosophical and existential explorations, the prominent directors of the time had their own singular talents, and although each differed in execution, together they shook the world by experimenting with the cinematic format and opening up the possibility of what the medium could offer.
Although not directly associated with Cahiers du Cinema, a handful of filmmakers known as Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, made some of the most enduring and fascinating films of the French New Wave. Directors like Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, and Jacques Demy were all associated with the group. From Resnais’ heartbreakingly beautiful Hiroshima Mon Amour and Marker’s stunning sci-fi short La Jetée,these filmmakers crafted some of the most intelligent and revolutionary work that reflected both their artistic, literary, and political interests. Filmmakers like Jean Eustache, Georges Franju, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Louis Malle also crafted numerous important films during this period with films such as the body horror wonder Eyes Without a Face and Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows.
The French New Wave was also a period of intense collaborations and intermingling of writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. Truffaut co-wrote Godard’s Breathless, Jeanne Moreau appeared in films by Truffaut and Malle, and Anna Karina became Godard’s muse and made an appearance alongside Godard himself in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. The movement launched the careers of actors like Karina, as well as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Delphine Seyrig, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Elevator to the Gallows: Taking place over one rainy night in Paris, Louis Malle’s breathtaking 1958 debut feature — set to the evocative and lilting sounds of Miles Davis’ trumpet — stars Jeanne Moreau as one half of an adulterous couple whose plan to get away with the murder of her husband goes awry when her lover accomplice becomes trapped in an elevator. [Where to stream Elevator to the Gallows]
The 400 Blows: One of the earliest and most important films of the French New Wave, Francois Truffaut’s groundbreaking 1959 semi-autobiographical tale is his first use of character Antoine Doinel, a neglected young boy who turns to a life of petty crime. [Where to stream The 400 Blows]
Hiroshima Mon Amour: Amalgamating the painfully brilliant mind of Marguerite Duras with the revolutionary directorial sensibility of Alain Resnais, this 1960 debut feature remains one of the most hauntingly beautiful films ever made and spurred the French New Wave into being with an intimate and fractured tale of love, memory, and suffering explored through a brief but potent affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress in post-war Hiroshima. [Where to stream Hiroshima Mon Amour]
Breathless: As one of the cornerstone works of the French New Wave, groundbreaking filmmaker Jean-luc Godard helped usher in a new cinematic language with his 1960 ode to American crime dramas in this innovative tale of a young French criminal and the American student he falls for. [Where to stream Breathless]
Last Year at Marienbad: Alain Resnais’ sumptuous and confounding 1961 masterwork — from a screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet — concerns the enigmatic and temporally fractured story of a man and woman who may or may not have met last year at Marienbad. [Where to stream Last Year at Marienbad]
Cleo From 5 to 7: A key work of Left Bank cinema, Agnès Varda’s 1962 existential beauty portrays, in real-time, two hours of a young singer’s life as she awaits the results of a biopsy from her doctor, exploring the ephemeral nature of existence and how we self-reflect on our lives. [Where to stream Cleo From 5 to 7]
Jules and Jim: Widely considered one of the best films of all time, Francois Truffaut’s 1962 New Wave wonder spans decades to explore the legendary love triangle between two male friends, the titular Jules and Jim, and the free-spirited woman Catherine with whom they’ve both always been passionately in love. [Where to stream Jules and Jim]
La Jetée: Although only 28 minutes long and constructed from still photos, Chris Marker’s ravishing and unparalleled time-traveling 1962 sci-fi short tells the haunting tale of a post-war nuclear experiment and remains one of the most philosophical and poetic cinematic works of all time. [Where to stream La Jetée]
My Night at Maud’s: One of the most important films of the French New Wave, formative director Eric Rohmer’s intelligent and refined 1970 film — the third in his Six Moral Tales — stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as a severe, devout Catholic man who world is shaken upon meeting a vibrant divorcée. [Where to streamMy Night at Maud’s]
The 1970s and 1980s Outsiders
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, a handful of crucial filmmakers working in the French film industry simply couldn’t be tied to one single movement. Belgian-born director Chantal Akerman, for example, has been gracing us with haunting and brilliant experimental feminist work for nearly 40 years now, with films whose structuralist form have captured an evocative and patient beauty on screen. Then there were directors like Maurice Pialat, whose emotionally brutal, thrillingly visceral, and unsentimental brand of cinema began in the early 1970s and carried on throughout the 1990s. Also important at the time, and remaining so to this day, is lovelorn filmmaker Philipe Garrel.
We Won’t Grow Old Together: As acerbic and biting as it is emotionally unraveling, Maurice Pialat’s 1972 film explores the painful end of a six-year affair between a brutish married man and his younger mistress. [Where to stream We Won’t Grow Old Together]
Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles:Chantal Akerman’s groundbreaking 1975 feminist feature captures the carefully regimented daily routine of a widow and mother as she takes care of her home and prostitutes herself to make ends meet. [Where to stream Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles]
News From Home: Taking you back to a New York that was both bombed out and bustling, Akerman’s 1976 film is a melancholy masterpiece composed of beautifully structured shots of New York City summer streets as her mother’s personal letters are read over each sequence. [Where to stream News From Home]
À Nos Amours: Few portraits of teenage years have ever been captured with such raw honestly and caustic energy as Maurice Pialat’s 1983 drama starring Sandrine Bonnaire as a 16-year-old Parisian girl who embarks on a series of sexual affairs in rebellion against her wretched home life. [Where to stream À Nos Amours]
1980s: Cinéma du look
In the 1980s and ’90s, French cinema became less unified than in decades past. New Wave directors like Godard and Rohmer further explored their respective auteuristic style, and vibrant young talent was emerging on the scene to inject a shot of vitality and glamour into the industry. The latter group, known as filmmakers of the cinéma du look (which came about in the ’80s and bled into the ’90s), was never regarded with the highest esteem by critics and was said to favor style over substance because of the glossy and precise visual style of their films. Inspired by everything from fashion photography and music video culture to New Hollywood films, the cinéma du look films amalgamated the high and lowbrow pleasures of its directors — something at which critics were quick to turn up their noses. Typically favoring marginalized characters, many of these films explored French youth culture dealing with love, loss, and identity on the aestheticized Parisian streets and in the underground world of the Metro station. The three main directors associated with the movement are Leos Carax, Luc Besson, and Jean-Jacques Beineix.
Diva: One of cinéma du look’s glistening cornerstone films, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s stylish 1981 thriller meets ensemble piece tells the dangerous tale of what happens when a young postman secretly records an American opera singer and the strange aftermath that follows. [Where to stream Diva]
The Lovers on the Bridge: Leos Carax’s tortured 1991 drama stars Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant in this heartbreaking yet electrifying love story about a life on the streets for a young painter with a disease that’s causing her to go blind and her street performer paramour who is addicted to alcohol and sedatives. [Where to stream The Lovers on the Bridge]
Subway: Starring the gorgeous and ferociously talented Isabelle Adjani, Luc Besson’s 1985 comedy drama takes place in the bizarre underground world of the Paris Metro and tells the story of a tuxedo-clad thief who becomes entangled in a relationship with the woman he’s blackmailing. [Where to stream Subway]
Betty Blue: Based on Philippe Djian’s novel of the same title, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s sensual and visually striking 1986 drama stars Beatrice Dalle in the emotionally strenuous love story of a psychologically unstable, tempestuous woman and her handyman and lover, an aspiring writer. [Where to streamBetty Blue]
Mauvais Sang: Leos Carax’s wonderfully inventive and poetically tragic love story stars Juliette Binoche, Denis Lavant, and Julie Delpy in a semi-futuristic tale about young Parisians rapidly dying from by a disease called STBO, which occurs when two people have sex without emotional attachment. [Where to stream Mauvais Sang]
1990s to Present: Contemporary Masters
From Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas to Arnaud Desplechin and Catherine Breillat, many of French cinema’s best working filmmakers rose to international acclaim in the 1990s and continue put forth some of the most exciting and stimulating work today. Whether they began making films under the hyper-sexual and excessively violent style of New French Extremity, where filmmakers like François Ozon and Gaspar Noé got their start, or burst onto the scene with a singular, fully formed voice of their own like or Mia Hansen-Løve, modern French cinema is filled with directors whose work continues to devastate, inspire, and ignite our love for the medium.
La Promesse: Two of France’s most treasured filmmakers, Belgium-born directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, crafted naturalistic films that explore lower class life. This award-winning 1996 film follows the story of a 15-year-old boy who faces a grave moral dilemma while working for his immigrant-smuggling father. [Where to stream La Promesse]
Trouble Every Day: As a fascinating formalist whose films are as poetic as they are visceral, Claire Denis’ 2001 erotic vampire thriller falls into movement of New French Extremity and stars Vincent Gallo and Béatrice Dalle in this sensual and haunting tale of blood and flesh. [Where to stream Trouble Every Day]
Fat Girl: With an affinity for exploring sexuality, violence, and sibling rivalry, Catherine Breillat amalgamates those themes in her seminal 2001 film, which centers on a life-changing summer vacation for physically and psychologically different sisters. [Where to stream Fat Girl]
A Christmas Tale: Although bursting with manic energy and fairytale flourishes, the strained relationships in Arnaud Desplechin’s are beautifully raw and authentic, and his 2008 ensemble drama is no different, telling the story of a family that gathers together for Christmas and finds out the matriarch has leukemia. [Where to stream A Christmas Tale]
Summer Hours: Continually absorbing director Olivier Assayas makes films that are deeply personal and specific yet are universal in emotion. In that vein lives his tautly constructed drama about three siblings who must decide what to do with their family’s estate after their matriarch passes away. [Where to stream Summer Hours]
Goodbye First Love: With a gentle but emotionally devastating voice that’s entirely her own, Mia Hansen-Løve’s 2011 portrait of pained emotion and chosen solitude tells the story of a young woman grieving the relationship of her first love and how the heartbreak echoes in her life for years after. [Where to stream Goodbye First Love]
House of Pleasures: Crafting highly specific worlds with his films, Bertrand Bonello’s daring work brought us 2011’s luxurious and intimate drama about a twentieth-century Parisian bordello and the daily lives of the young prostitutes that inhabit it. [Where to stream House of Pleasures]
Holy Motors: Leos Carax’s thrillingly bizarrely and inventive 2012 feature stars Denis Lavant as a man who, from morning to night, is driven around in a limo and carries out several different “appointments” in different personas with every stop — each more fantastical than the next. [Where to stream Holy Motors]