So pop that popcorn and get to it!
Oh, but it’s not that simple, now is it?
Yes, you set your eyes on the screen and listen, we have that much established.
What to watch is the real question, and more so, how to watch it.
In this crazy-technological world, where video stores are far and few between and buying DVDs isn’t something people do willy-nilly, we need to delve into the amazing world wide web.
Netflix is probably the first thing that comes to mind, and rightfully so. But not every French learner has the service, and for some of you French film buffs out there who have exhausted all of Netflix’s French films, you’re probably wondering what to explore next.
Let’s dive into how to watch, where to watch and what to watch. I think you already know when to watch…every chance you get!
Tips for Learning While Watching (and Eating Popcorn)
What to Do About Subtitles
This is a true conundrum (nobody said this language learning business was flawless).
If you’re an advanced French speaker and want to keep your ears tuned in while enjoying the beauty of French cinema, then you know the answer. Nix the subtitles and jump right into it. It’s okay if you don’t understand every word; it’s how you improve!
If you’re a beginner, it may be helpful to watch the film once with English subtitles so you can understand what’s going on, and then a second time with French subtitles or none at all to see how much of it you can understand on your own. Just don’t get discouraged. It can sometimes take a while before you understand conversational French like it’s spoken in French films.
Ah, but there’s that awkward spot that every French language learner hits—the intermediate level. Depending on how well your comprehension is going along, you could go either way here. Watching French films with French subtitles can be very helpful if your reading skills are fair, but taking a chance with no subtitles could end up surprising you with how much you actually know!
How you choose your subtitles is up to you, but be aware of two quick things:
1. Watching a French film with English subtitles more than once to understand the storyline isn’t recommended. You’ll stop hearing the French and start reading the English, and the film might as well be in Japanese at that point!
2. Watching a French film with French subtitles is often an ideal choice no matter your level, but keep in mind that the written text isn’t always exactly what’s being spoken, so don’t rely on that more than the context.
Want your subtitles to do even more work for you? Check out FluentU, which transforms authentic French movie clips, trailers and other videos into language learning experiences.
Each video comes with interactive subtitles you can click for an instant definition, translation and native pronunciation of any word you don’t recognize. No more slow-and-steady-with-a-dictionary.
Everything you need is right there, so you can enjoy your video while actively building your French skills.
For example, if you tap on the word “suit,” then this is what you see:
And you can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right at any time to see more examples for the word you’re on. Reinforce the words from the video with built-in flashcards and fun quizzes.
Alongside the movie clips, you’ll get everything from music videos to inspiring talks to news broadcasts. FluentU keeps track of what you’ve watched and suggests further videos based on that info, so you get a truly diverse but personalized learning experience.
Filling in the Gaps
For beginners, intermediates and advanced learners who want to ditch the subtitle crutches all together and go for the full immersion experience, there are plenty of ways to make sure that you understand the film.
Watch the movie trailer with English subtitles before the film and read the comments on YouTube. All this background will give you an idea of the basic plot (as well as provide a short session of French comprehension practice) before you jump into the film. Confidence in the material can help.
Read the film’s page after watching the film (in French)! You could do it beforehand if you don’t care about spoilers, but where’s the fun in that? It’ll be easier to look things up by starting from the Wikipedia page, as all the relevant vocabulary is there before your eyes—and you can always go between the French and English Wiki entries. This can also lead you to similar films, information on the history and making of the film, and maybe guide you to source material like French novels or plays.
Watch and Discuss
French is more fun with friends! If you have French speaking friends, set up a movie night and then discuss the film together. It may help you fill in gaps and get further recommendations. Above all, it’s a chance to get chatty in French!
Best Sites to Watch French Films
One can’t write a post about watching French films online without mentioning Netflix.
To start, I’m going to make a crazy suggestion: If you can swing it, maybe consider the DVD by mail add-on if you already have the service. It will give you an almost unlimited selection of French titles, in DVD form, with the options to add French subtitles, English subtitles or none at all. It may seem old fashioned in this streaming-crazed age but trust me, you’ll have to look no further when it comes to your French film catalog. Just don’t let the unopened envelope sit on your desk for two months.
For the rest of you who are well immersed in the online-only era, Netflix offers a little over 150 French language titles. It’s completely possible to turn off the subtitles on (most of) these, but the only titles Netflix has that can support French subtitles are…American titles. So, if you want a little extra reading practice while you binge watch your favorite Netflix TV shows, pop those on when applicable.
When you think Hulu, you likely think of binge-watching favorite TV shows. And yes, it’s definitely good for that.
What makes Hulu one of the best places to watch French films is its catalog of over 700 Criterion Collection titles. If you’re unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, it’s a collection of classic films from around the world (art house, historically significant and otherwise). Since France is one of the cornerstones of world cinema, there are lots of French films in the collection.
In addition to pretty much every classic French film you need to watch in order to be an expert on the subject, there’s also a sizable collection of modern French films and even a few French TV shows like “Spiral” (a murder investigation drama).
Hulu is a great tool to have (despite not having many subtitle settings…grrrr) if you love French cinema. It’s an easy way to bundle together your American TV show regime with your (fun) French homework.
YouTube is a fantastic resource for learning French. But it goes beyond French tutorials and stand-up comedy. Fun fact: you can rent movies on YouTube, and the selection is fantastic.
Streaming in HD, you can rent movies for around $2.99 a pop, which is a great way to rent considering the best option for finding French films—going to a locally-owned video store—is a thing of the past. Make it a special occasion and find a friend (French-speaking or not) who’s willing to watch foreign masterpieces and get that popcorn popping!
Something about renting a film makes it special, so have fun! There’s one downside to using YouTube—not all titles give you subtitle options. But, I suppose you could just avert your eyes from the annoying English text on the bottom of the screen. An easy fix, in my opinion.
If you’re going on a trip and need to load up your devices with movies, iTunes is a great way to access French films. You can rent them for around $2.99-$4.99 per film, or buy them to have and to hold forever (for around $9.99-$19.99). They have a very large selection, including timeless classics and newer releases in French cinema. Your odds will be the best with iTunes if you’re looking for a specific French title and can’t find it elsewhere.
Another plus with iTunes is that you often have more control over subtitles compared to other sites. Once it’s on your device, you can enable or disable the subtitles and in some cases put on French subtitles.
In short, iTunes may not be the cheapest option for watching French films online, but it can be convenient and it’s the best way to add certain titles permanently to your catalog of French content.
This is a seriously underrated online streaming service. If you’re one of those people who spends more time looking for a movie on Netflix or Hulu (wasting precious French learning time!) than actually watching movies, then Mubi is the solution.
Catering to those who love film for its art (lots of indie hits, art house films and foreign masterpieces), it adds a new film every day and takes it off after thirty days. That leaves you with a manageable amount of films to sort through. What makes this site absolutely ideal for French film watching is that there’s usually a handful of French films in the mix.
Oh, and did I mention it’s only $4.99 a month?
One last thing…it’s easy to change subtitle options. Hooray!
12 Old and New Classic French Movies That You Can Watch Online Today
“Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie”
Let’s start this list off with a surrealist bang!
This was the winner of the Best Foreign Film at the 45th Annual Academy Awards (it was made in 1972), but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a stuffy old French film. It’s about stuffy French people, but it’ll have you either in stitches or scratching your head from beginning to end.
A group of upper-middle class friends try to dine together, but this is no easy task (for a multitude of bizarre reasons). If you aren’t familiar with surrealist film, this is a great introduction to the insanity of it. Luis Buñuel, the director, was a Mexican filmmaker who made films in Mexico, France and Spain. Some of his best-known work is in French.
This film is a great choice if you want a good laugh, a taste of (satirized) bourgeoisie life in France and a historic gem all wrapped into one 90-minute masterpiece.
Where to find it: YouTube, iTunes
This is a more recent film, but it also proved itself to be an instant classic, to put it lightly. It was the winner of the Best Foreign Film at the 85th Academy Awards and was nominated in four other categories. It was nominated in ten categories at the César awards (the French Oscars) and yada yada, basically it was a magnet for awards.
“Amour” is something of an unconventional love story, and by unconventional I mean it will rip your heart in two and leave you in both awe of the masterpiece this film is and crying because…life.
The film centers around an elderly couple. When the wife suffers a stroke, this incites a series of events that will pull on your heartstrings—hard.
If you aren’t deterred by all the crying that will happen, this film is beautifully shot, powerfully acted and leaves you in an unusual state of suspense as its tension plays out. You’ll probably forget you’re learning French through the tears.
Where to find it: YouTube, iTunes
“Le gamin au vélo”
Another heartbreaker (I promise I’ll let up after this—for a moment). This film is about a young boy (yes, he has a bike, which actually plays a big part in the film) whose father leaves home. He finds comfort in a neighborhood woman who sort of takes him under her wing.
The film is a heartwarming, heartbreaking reflection on boyhood, violence and growing up too fast. Oh, and it’s Belgian. The Dardenne brothers, the creators of the film, are known for their naturalist style—and are a great choice if you want to delve into some Franco-Belgian Cinema!
Where to find it: Netflix, YouTube, iTunes
I’m not going to pretend that some of the films on this list aren’t a little on the depressing side (“A LITTLE?!?!” you say).
I understand that not everyone wants to cry while they improve their French comprehension. “Populaire” is a lighter alternative. Released in 2012, it’s a romantic comedy that takes place in the late 1950s. The protagonist, a secretary, is encouraged by her boss (ahem, the love interest) to enter speed-typing contests.
The basic plot sounds a bit on the dull side, but do you think I would’ve included a dull movie in this list? It’s hilarious, adorable and perfect for scratching that rom-com itch, but in French!
Swoon (at the adorable lead actors) and laugh (at the hilarity of speed-typing) all wrapped-up in a 1950s setting. It features the kind of flirty French that will remind you of why you learned the language in the first place.
Where to find it: Netflix
“Les amants du Pont-Neuf”
Talk about the nitty-gritty of French films! An unlikely romance buds between Michèle (Juliette Binoche) and a homeless fire-eater (Denis Lavant) and things get crazy pretty fast. But it’s not all woe and disaster; this film has a lot of heart and more than a few good laughs.
The film starts with some pretty grim shots, highlighting the homeless population in Paris. The protagonist is one of them, and is arguably having the worst night of them all. Then Michèle comes along, suffering through the horrors of being a painter going blind. They end up emotionally tangled on Pont-Neuf (the oldest standing bridge in Paris) which they’re illegally living on during its renovation.
This film contrasts beautiful images with horrifying ones. And yes, for some, it’ll prove to be another tear-jerker.
Where to find it: Netflix
“Belle de Jour”
Luis Buñuel again! His films are so iconic that it would have been hard not to mention him more than once. Five years before “Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie,” he teamed up with the beautiful and breathtaking Catherine Deneuve for this tale of a woman who casually tries out prostitution. Yeah, just casually. You know, when her husband is at work.
Another surrealist work of Buñuel’s, though perhaps more on the serious side, this film will give you plenty of stark visuals to watch as you train those ears.
You might be surprised (or perhaps not so surprised) to hear that this is one of the more graphic films on this list. So keep that in mind as you pick and choose your French movie night lineup.
Where to find it: Hulu, YouTube, iTunes
This movie is so cool. It’s beyond cool: it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, laughing, wincing and loving all the cool aerial shots it has to offer.
Set in a poor neighborhood in Paris, three friends are dragged into a series of events when one of them gets their hands on a gun. Do the math.
All the action takes place in one day, which only increases the tension of the film. There’s a lot of everyday French in this film—and it will give you lots of flavor as far as slang is concerned. So whether you watch it for the hip language or Vincent Cassel’s perfect performance, this one comes highly recommended.
Where to find it: Hulu, iTunes
“La Belle et le bête”
You’re probably familiar with Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.”
While that classic bit of animation is a perfectly good film to watch dubbed in French (the songs in the French version are magnificent!) you might want to try and kick it old school with this Criterion Classic.
This is a live action version of the classic tale, with a little grimmer of a tone and ending (Oh, the French!).
The real attraction to this film is its visuals. The costumes and sets are stunning, surreal, breathtaking even. The film can also serve as a gateway to the novels (including “Les Enfants Terribles”) and paintings of the film’s director Jean Cocteau. Go ahead and give this 1946 French gem a shot, and you may come out of it more fluent and more knowledgeable of French cultural history.
Where to find it: Hulu, iTunes
Oh, so you want to delve into French New Wave, huh? This period of 1960s French film is characterized by naturalistic style, jumpy editing, on-location shooting and natural sound. It also influenced many directors in years to come.
To get started, you could just hit up Hulu’s Criterion Collection and their ever-present “French New Wave” section and go to town on classics like “The 400 Blows, Breathless, Band of Outsiders” and other mega-classics. Or you could start with this recommendation because it’s so much fun.
For either seasoned film historians or French learners looking for a new kind of kick, “Alphaville” has all the science fiction, Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard one person can handle. It’s funny, mysterious and timeless.
But the best part about it isn’t learning French from one of Godard’s most bizarre films, but the narrator’s voice. It’s deep. No, you don’t understand. Like Morgan Freeman times ten thousand. Trust me, it only adds to the mood.
Where to find it: YouTube, iTunes
If you’ve seen “The Artist” (arguably the worst French film to learn French with — it’s silent), then you may be familiar with Bérénice Bejo. She’s a fantastic actress, and her face will become more familiar as you browse through catalogues of French films.
“The Past” is an award-winning drama film about a couple who is going through a divorce (after being separated for some time). The ex-wife is re-marrying, and things get tangled up and go dark pretty quickly. The film has an element of suspense to it, but is filled with excellent actors, and will keep you engaged as you soak up all the French emotion!
Where to find it: iTunes
“Jules & Jim”
It’s a war movie! It’s a love triangle! It’s classic! It’s Truffaut!
Seriously, not many French films get better than this classic. Truffaut, like Godard (mentioned above in “Alphaville”), was one of the fathers of the French New Wave movement. Exploring the history of French cinema is a great way to practice comprehension, and Truffaut is a great director to follow.
This movie is based on a book by Henri-Pierre Roché, if you want a book tie-in to add to your French reading list. The film itself is full of heart, drama and history (it takes place around WWI).
Where to find it: Hulu, iTunes
Let’s get some love in here for the French Canadians! Not only will this film give you the slightest flavor of the Quebec accent, but plenty of pause to take it all in with its beautiful slow motion shots.
This is another example of a fantastic love triangle in the spirit of “Jules & Jim.“
The director, Xavier Dolan is well-known in France, Canada and The States for his work writing, directing and starring in “I Killed My Mother.” He went on to make “Laurence Anyways,” “Mommy” and “Tom at the Farm” (all valid options for improving your French). If you’re a fan of indie film, this is a great French-Canadian director to know about!
Where to find it: YouTube, iTunes
Since France has a healthy and thriving modern film scene and history, the options are limitless for watching and learning. Just make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience and not reading English subtitles from beginning to end, ignoring the wealth of comprehension practice these great films can provide!
Thanks to the Internet and all the sites available for watching, it’s not an unrealistic (or boring) goal to watch one a week.
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