Do you know the equivalent of “Casablanca” or “The Wizard of Oz” in the French world?
France has impacted world cinema just as much as Hollywood, and their classics are so worth watching.
From the first time the Lumière brothers dazzled crowds with their Cinématographe at L’Eden, the world’s first cinema, to the founding of the Cannes Film Festival, France has pushed the envelope in what cinema is and what it will be.
For French learners, classic French films offer an extra dimension of language learning on top of the rich cultural, historical and entertainment factors.
But if you didn’t grow up in France, it can certainly be tricky to know which movies are considered classics. So for some quality suggestions, keep reading to discover 15 classic French films you can use to improve your français.
How Classic Movies Help You Learn Spoken French
Understanding the French spoken in films, although challenging, is the icing on the cake for learners. Why is that? Watching French movies improves your French in several ways.
- See the evolution of spoken French. Have you ever noticed that in American films, accents seem more formal in older films? By contrast, newer films sound more “familiar.” Well, the same is true in French. The films I recommend below span over 70 years, and the way spoken French has changed over that time is striking. Listen for these differences as you travel through the decades.
- Pick up modern, casual speech. In my opinion, movies are the best source of listening practice because they provide the most immersive environment possible. In movies, French is spoken informally and at normal speed. Once you’ve watched a film to understand the plot, you can then go back and extract phrases as you slowly pick apart scenes.
- Learn intonation. The pitch of dialogue in different parts of a sentence, the syllables that are stressed and the way sounds are separated are all fine points which often separate learners from native speakers. Learning your favorite scene’s dialogue by pausing and repeating after the characters will give you the opportunity to copy a native speaker’s intonation.
Where to Find Classic French Movies
The Internet comes to the rescue big time here, as foreign films are often just a click away! You can always check your local library or buy DVDs too, but just remember to check the DVD region code before purchasing.
- YouTube. YouTube has a surprising collection of French films. A quick search of “films français” (French films) turns up an exhaustive list. With YouTube videos, you can slow down the playback, which can be useful for comprehension.
- Dailymotion. Dailymotion is a French video service similar to YouTube. Sometimes specific films not on YouTube can be found on Dailymotion, so it’s best to check it out from time to time.
- Netflix. Netflix always offers some French movies in the international section—both timeless classics and modern films. The monthly subscription is quite affordable, especially if you use it for watching TV and movies in your native language as well.
- Allociné. Think of Allociné as a French IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes. It offers a wealth of information on most French films, so you can use it to find more movie recommendations. It’s also great for things like plot summaries and casting, but unfortunately they don’t host videos.
There are thousands of French films lurking out in cyberspace, so if you’re just looking for suggestions about films to start with, I’ve provided a list of 15 of my favorite French films below. Note that the translated titles I provide aren’t necessarily the names of the films in English—they’re just the English translations of the French movie titles.
15 Classic French Movies for Learners of Français
1. “La Règle du jeu” (1939)
“La Règle du jeu” (Rules of the game) was one of the last French films made before World War II. It depicts a world of privileged individuals whittling their time away while the world crumbles around them. “La Règle du jeu” is the crowning achievement of Jean Renoir, son of painter Auguste Renoir.
This movie exposes you to spoken French from the ’30s. If you can, I recommend reading some older French literature before watching; it’ll help your vocab comprehension. Some classic examples of 1930s French literature include “Voyage au bout de la nuit” (Journey to the end of the night) and “La Condition humaine” (Man’s fate) .
2. “Le Chomeur de Clochemerle” (1957)
“Le Chomeur de Clochemerle” (The unemployed man of Clochmerle) features actor Fernandel, a legend in French cinema for several decades. In this film, he plays a philosopher who tries to get paid as a “licensed” unemployed person.
There’s a noticeable difference in cinematography between this movie, filmed not long after WWII, and “La Regle du jeu,” filmed just before. The spoken French in this film also provides an example of the French used in the ’50s.
3. “Moderato Cantabile” (1960)
The words “Moderato Cantabile” are actually directions from a piece of music, a sonatina, and mean the piece should be played “moderately and singingly” (modéré et chantant). What the movie lacks in fast-paced action, it makes up for with its powerfully simple plot.
Based on the eponymous book by Marguerite Duras, this movie shows a morose wife and mother falling for a dock worker at her husband’s company who witnessed the same murder she did. This is one of the best films for French learners because the dialogue is slow and well-spaced.
4. “Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez” (1964)
We often think of French films as brooding and psychological, but there are many great French comedy movies. My favorite is “Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez” (The police officer of Saint-Tropez), where a police officer is transferred to the tourist brigade in Saint-Tropez. Watch as the hilarity ensues!
The success of “Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez” was such that it was spun into several sequels. Watching them all will give you a consistent set of characters to understand.
5. “Masculin féminin” (1966)
“Masculin féminin” (Masculine feminine) is probably the film that best illustrates the departure from the ’50s. Under the direction of quintessential New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, a group of urban youth take advantage of the new and exciting youth culture around them.
The dialogue is young, but actually doesn’t have too much slang. Additionally, there are many one-on-one conversations that are several minutes long, which gives you time to adapt to the voices of the two characters.
6. “Les Bidasses en folie” (1971)
The popular band made of hilarious comedians, Les Charlots, get into all sorts of trouble when they have to show up for military service in “Les Bidasses en folie” (Soldiers fooling around).
The dialogue is fast, so you’ll get good practice following the plot. Note that “Charlot” is also the French name for Charlie Chaplin’s character The Little Tramp.
7. “Violette et François” (1977)
Some people think that French cinema was in the doldrums, but there are some real jewels from the ’70s, one of my favorites being “Violette et François” (Violette and Francois), about a young couple who lives by shoplifting.
The dialogue is crisp and easier to understand than most films of this decade, making it ideal for intermediate to advanced learners.
8. “Le Thé au harem d’Archimède” (1985)
“Le Thé au harem d’Archimède” (Tea in Archimedes’ harem) introduces a France which you won’t see in tourist brochures. Certain low income suburbs around French cities are inhabited by people just trying to eke out a living.
Director Mehdi Charef portrays young banlieusards (suburbanites) growing up in this difficult environment. Note the play on words with Théorème d’Archimède (Archimedes’ Theorem).
The slang used in the banlieue (suburb) is difficult for learners to understand, so the informal dialogue will be an excellent challenge for more advanced learners.
9. “Au revoir les enfants” (1987)
The occupation was an unfortunate time in French history, but also a time of courage and altruism. “Au revoir les enfants” (Goodbye children) recounts a friendship formed by two students in different circumstances at a Catholic boarding school.
10. “La Révolution française” (1989)
In my opinion, some of the best French films are actually mini-series, such as “La Revolution française” (The French Revolution). Filmed for the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, this two-part movie does a great job recounting the major events.
Again, if you’ve read anything from the 18th or 19th centuries before, it’ll help you better understand this movie. So if you’re up for it, look for books that have been heavily analyzed and interpreted, such as “Candide, ou l’Optimisme” (Candid, or the optimist) or “Le Mariage de Figaro” (The marriage of Figaro), which are both freely available online.
11. “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” (1998)
If you’ve read the book, you’ll get a lot out of this series. That’s because if you know the plot before you watch a film, you can focus more on just understanding the dialogue.
12. “Le Fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain” (2001)
Titled just “Amélie” in the English version, but with an original French title that translates to “The fabulous destiny of Amélie Poulain,” this movie was such a success that it received well-deserved notice worldwide. In fact, its idyllic portrayal of Paris inspired me to work hard learning French.
Amélie, a young woman living in Montmartre, lives in her own little world. One day, after returning a candy box of childhood mementos to its owner, she sets out to do good deeds for those around her. Let Amélie’s refreshing take on life inspire yours—including your French learning!
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, daughter of Serge Gainsbourg, and with a cameo appearance by Johnny Depp, “Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants” (They got married and had lots of children) traces the life of three 40-something friends unsatisfied with their lives.
More than other films on this list, this film gives a good example of the everyday French you’ll hear when you visit. If you can understand how French is spoken today, you’ll be golden.
14. “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (2008)
An employee is transferred from the south of France to Nord-Pas-de-Calais where the locals, called Ch’tis, live different lifestyles and speak a noticeably different accent.
You’ll learn to appreciate both cultural and linguistic differences between regions of France in “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis” (Welcome to the land of Shtis).
15. “Rien à déclarer” (2010)
“Rien à déclarer” (Nothing to declare) is a comedy about two customs workers, one French and one Belgian, who have to work together during the gradual process of EU integration.
French is spoken in Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium, albeit with a slightly different accent. It’s advantageous as a learner to listen to as many accents as possible.
For its size, France has had an unequaled impact on world cinema. Even beyond these 15, there’s a whole world for you to discover. And as for learning French, movies are an incredible source of real-world dialogues. Enjoy!
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