As I’ve stated before on this blog, I’m a bit of a film buff. And growing up with a multi-lingual mum who loved to induldge in foreign cinema, there were bound to be a few foreign films I was going to love. I know some people turn up their nose to foreign language films because it requires having to read subtitles the whole time, but I have to say, those people are missing out. Why pass up the opportunity to miss some truly great movies just because you have to do a little reading?
In light of my recent trip to Paris, I’ve decided share some of my favourites in world cinema from over the years. And being such a Francophile, half of these are French and star Audrey Tautou, because I’m a massive cliche.
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (2002), or simply known as Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is one of the most comercially successful French films in cinema. It is a whimsical depiction of contemporary Parisian life, set in Montmartre, and tells the story of shy Amélie, a waitress at the Café des 2 Moulins (which is actually a real life cafe that I’ve visted). Having grown up with an active imagination and a mischievous personality due to being homeschooled by her overprotective parents, Amélie (played by Audrey Tautou), decides to change the lives of those around her for the better, while struggling with her own loneliness.
I think this film speaks for itself, really. Everyone has seen it, or at least heard of it. Charmingly weird and eerily wonderful, Amélie is the quirky heroine you can root for, because who doesn’t enjoy elaborate random acts of kindness? As cliché as it may sound, I really do consider this film a modern classic, and think everyone should see it at least once. Jeunet’s unique way of filmmaking stands out and is pleasing to the eye, and he has a great way of tugging at your heart strings at one moment, and having you laugh out loud the next.
Kolya (1996) is a Czech film about a man whose life is reshaped in an unexpected way. Set in 1988 as the Cold War is winding down, František Louka, a middle-aged Czech concert cellist and womanizer, is struggling to make a living. Through a friend, he is offered a chance to earn a some money by marrying a Russian woman to enable her to stay in Czechoslovakia. But she immediately emigrates to West Germany to live with her boyfriend, sticking the bachelor with her 5-year-old, Kolya, and a host of official questions about the sham marriage.
Though Louka and Kolya have a rocky start, with the young boy not knowing where his mother is, and the pair having communication difficulties due to not speaking the same language, they gradually form a bond. It’s very sweet seeing a hardened, middle-aged bachelor take in the little boy as his own, taking him on trips and looking after him when he’s sick. It’s also very interesting seeing the relationships between the Soviet Union at this period in time, and the bitterness and prejudices that lingered in the air, which is not really something we focused on a lot on in school.
This film is a strange one as it’s not one I fell in love with right away. I’ve been studying French since school, so French language films are easier for me to grasp. I may not understand everything, but I certainly get the gist. Kolya, however, is spoken in either Czech or Russian, so I’ve always had to pay special attention to the subtitles, and since I was introduced to this film quite young, that put me off a bit. But it grew on me as I got older.
Priceless (or Hors de Prix, in French) is a 2006 French film starring Audrey Tautou and comidian Gad Elmaleh. According to director Pierre Salvadori, the film is inspired by Blake Edwards’ 1961 hit, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Jean (Elmaleh), a waiter and barman at a luxury hotel, is mistaken for a millionaire by Irène (Tautou), a gold digger who convinces wealthy men to fund her lavish lifestyle in exchange for companionship and sex. When Irène finds out his true identity, she leaves for Côte d’Azur, and lovestruck Jean, determind to win her affection, follows quickly behind her.
The outcome doesn’t come as much of a surprise, and in that regard, it’s your typical romantic comedy. But its more than that. It’s delightfully funny, bittersweet, and oh-so-stylish, from the soundtrack to the backdrop that is the French Riviera. From sugar daddies/mummas, to elaborate schemes, to being mistaken as royalty, Priceless has the feel of a classic French farce, and has the smiling cynical approach to love and romance that we so often associate with the French. I believe that anyone can follow along to this film, as it’s such an easy watch.
Pop open the prosecco and pretend you’re also a fancy French gold digger/jiggalo.
Eden (2014) is a French nightlife drama film directed by Mia Hansen-Løve and co-written with Sven Hansen-Løve, starring Félix de Givry and Pauline Etienne. Paul (de Givry), a teenager in the underground scene of early-nineties Paris, forms a DJ collective with his friends and together they plunge into the nightlife of sex, drugs, and endless music. The film depicts the euphoria of dance music but doesn’t shy away from showing what happens when the party’s over.
In other words, this film is gritty, down-to-earth and cool. I remember seeing trailers for it last year around my birthday and wanting to see it right away. Everyone is obsessed with DJing these days, however most of it seems to be done through computer programs and fancy MacBooks. It’s really interesting seeing the rise of house music throughout the nineties, as we follow Paul not only into the depths of Parisian underground nightlife, but all the way to New York when he gets his ‘break’. Eden doesn’t sugarcoat things though, and Hansen-Løve isn’t afraid to show humanities dark side. With every sweet moment comes tragedy, whether it’s the form of heartbreak, drugs dependency or death.
Watch if you like Daft Punk, and want to experience French nightlife without leaving your sofa.
The last of Audrey Tautou on the list, Coco Before Chanel (2009) is directed by Anne Fontaine, and tells the story of Coco Chanel’s rise from obscure beginnings to the heights of the fashion world. Several years after leaving the orphange where her father abondoned her, young Gabrielle Chanel (Tautou) works as a seamstress by day and a cabaret entertainer by night, earning the nickname ‘Coco’ from the song she sings nightly with her sister. She meets a wealthy heir (Benoît Poelvoorde) and becomes his liaison, living with him in his manor in the country, as he introduces her into French high society.
Tired of the flowery hats, tight corsets and yards of lace that defined women’s fashion, Coco takes inspiration from the village’s fisherman as a starting point to distill an elegant and sophisticated line of women’s clothing that propels her to the top of Parisian fashion. She falls in love with English businessman Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola), who believes in Coco’s talent and her refusal to follow the whims of fashion.
Coco Before Chanel is effortlessly stylish and poignant, and is definitely one of Tautou’s most refined performances. Seeing Coco’s journey through young adulthood is really moving, as she reluctantly accepts that maybe she’s not cut out for fame, or not in the way she thinks. Like with many Tautou films, we watch her character fall in love, but not in the way you’d expect. This is definitely one of my top biopics (and I love a good biopic).
Watch for fashion porn, a few tears, and delicious French high society.
City of God (2003), or Cidade de Deus in Portuguese, is a Brazillian crime drama co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. It was adapted from the 1997 novel of the same name written by Paulo Lins, the plot loosely based on real events. It depicts the growth of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus favela (Portuguese for slum) of Rio de Janeiro, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s.
The film is told from the point of view of a boy named Rocket (Buscapé in Portuguese) who grows up there as a fishmonger’s son, and wants to get away from life in the slums once and for all and make an honest living as a photographer. His story narrates the violence and corruption surrounding the city and the rise and fall of one of the city’s most notorious drug bosses, Li’l Ze.
Being Portuguese myself, it’s always cool coming across a Portuguese language film, even though this one is set in Brazil. Whenever it came on TV, I would watch it without fail, and I’ve definitely watched it a few times on Netflix. It’s Slumdog Millionaire before Slumdog Millionaire, and without the millions. Favelas and drug gangs are still very much a reality in Brazil, and this film really captures the essence of fear and desperation of trying to make a living in these conditions.
For a breadth of complex characters and life outside the first world, look no further.