List: Movies about France

Continuing our summer vacation in the movies, we’re going to a different European country each Thursday in August. This week it’s France. This list is not my picks for the best movies that happen to be set in France but the best portrayals of the country or part of the country that I’ve seen in the movies.

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10. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

The seaside community of Rochefort gives us beautiful scenery and a delightful musical comedy from masterful director Jacque Demy (the first of three films he has on this list).

 

9. The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

The only movie I know of that takes place at the Tour de France, Sylvain Chomet’s wildly drawn animated film introduces us to some crazy old women (the triplets), a bizarre kidnapping, and a hero dog all centered around France’s great sporting event.

 

8. Lili (1953)

Leslie Caron plays Lili, a 17-year old trying to find a way to live after the death of her father. She does so through working at one of the great carnivals so common in provincial France locations in the first half of the 20th century.

 

7. The Rules of the Game (1939)

A harsh indictment on the urban upper class France of his time, Jean Renoir’s comedy both pokes of the rampant immorality and oppression against servants in his society in what is probably the angriest and most incendiary comedy of all times that still manages to stay hilarious every second.

 

6. Ratatouille (2007)

What would a trip to France be without the food? Master chef Remy the Rat introduced not just his co-workers and friends, but the entire world to what was once was known as a peasant dish but has become a staple at fine-dining restaurants worldwide only in the last 10 years thanks to Remy and Disney/Pixar.

 

5. Lola (1961)

The second Jacque Demy film on the list, this tale of the joys and heartbreak of first love and its effect on entire life spans is set in Nantes. The coastal views are beautiful, and the film ends at one of the carnivals I mentioned with Lili a few movies earlier.

 

4. Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s family movie about film preservation is one of the strangest phrases I’ve ever said. The strangest thing about Hugo is how wonderfully it works. And it works so well in part because of the extravagantly beautiful sets that are equal parts 1931 France and a fantasy world created by Scorsese for a spectacular 3-D interpretation of Brian Selznick’s novel. French literature, French architecture, French music, and especially French film (and even more especially Georges Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon) are beautifully presented in Martin Scorsese’s family movie about film preservation.

 

3. Les Misérables (2012)

This masterful adaptation of the Broadway musical that itself adapted the Victor Hugo novel of the same name takes us to a very ugly France during the French Revolution. But the hope, the faith, and the willingness to fight for what is right in its characters bring the beauties of France to light even within the ugliest of situations.

 

2. Charade (1963)

Stanley Donen’s comedic espionage thriller finds Audrey Hepburn running for her life with the assistance of many people though she never knows (and neither do we) if they’re actually out to help her or to kill her. All the chasing is done throughout Paris, and we see many sites of the city as we watch her frantically run, hide and fight for her life however she can.

 

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

The best portrait of France that I know of in the movies is Jacque Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Set in the town of Cherbourg, the title refers to the umbrella shop that the main character helps run with her mother who owns it. The 1960s pastel colors bring the streets to life even in the rainiest of scenes, and with a title like this, you can expect that it’s raining most of the time but that never dampens the color and the beauty of this magical, romantic trip to France.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)

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Jaque Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and the music of Michel Legrand that fills every second of it is probably more influential in the careers of director Damien Chazelle and jazz composer Jutstin Hurwitz (who worked together on La La Land, which just became the most nominated film in Oscar history this week, tied with 1959’s Ben-Hur and 1997’s Titanic) than any other film. Every word of dialogue is sung, but this should not put off people who don’t normally like musicals, just as La La Land is appealing especially well to the same type of people. It begins with hilarious self-parody that eases viewers into what could otherwise be a shock of telling a story through wall-to-wall singing. The opening scene is set in a mechanic’s garage and one of the mechanics sings about how he hates going to the opera because all the singing gives him a pain, saying that he likes movies better.

Umbrellas‘ singing is so gently placed in the film that it doesn’t take long before it feels natural and we don’t have to worry about getting a pain from all the singing like the character who doesn’t like opera. The story is about the power that promises made and broken can have to effect the future. Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is in love with Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and after seeing a few short glimpses into their romance and their family backgrounds, they sing the film’s most famous song, “I Will Wait for You.” Guy just told Genevieve the news that he’s being sent to the war in Algeria without any knowledge of when he will be back home to Cherbourg. The song includes their promise to wait for each other until he returns, whenever that may be.

Many moments in Umbrellas are familiar of most Hollywood romances, despite being made in France. But the familiarity is always met with originality in how the story is told so that there is never a cliched moment but every second sparks with intelligence, passion, and beauty. The majority of the films follows the two characters separately after Guy’s departure, showing one partner’s faithfulness to the promise and the other’s infidelity to it. As the film unfolds it works as both a comedy and tragedy (according to the definitions of those terms in ancient Greek drama). The story of the partner who is faithful to the promise is a comedy—meaning that it has a happy ending—while the story of the unfaithful partner is a tragedy, including regret over past decisions that have shaped the character’s life in very negative ways.

Every second of Umbrellas is built around the promise of waiting. Before they make the promise, we see a typical young love that looks easy but once they are faced with the need to make the promise, the grief and insecurity of their separation takes hold. In such situations, what people promise one another often seems sincere but that doesn’t mean they’re really able or willing to carry it out since they simply don’t know what the fulfillment of that promise holds for them yet. Keeping promises may involve even more grief and despair and it does for the character faithful to the promise but it ultimately means a life free of regret because of that fidelity to promises made. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg tells its story about this reality of life in as entertaining and as romantic a way as could be possible.