12 Non-Boring Movies You Should Watch When Learning French

As someone who learned English predominantly through movies, I can attest to their capacity to not only improve language skills but also facilitate cross-cultural exchange. From experience, only a genuine interest in the movie itself will have you hooked enough to be able to learn. It is almost useless to watch boring movies just for the sake of learning the language. So, out with the French animations from the 60s about the life and death of Marie Antoinette, and bring in some of the hottest French language cinema being made today.

France has been a very interesting place for cinema, addressing themes of immigration, identity and sexuality. One of the earliest examples of that is La Haine, a beautiful, sad, yet effective take on the social outcasts of the suburbs (think Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing). And this style carries on to the movie Divines from last year, available currently on Netflix. Here are those two amazing titles plus 10 more.

Directed by: Philippe Lioret, 2009

A Kurdish-Iraqi immigrant runs into serious immigration problems as he tries to immigrate from France to England in order to be reunited with his girlfriend. Eventually he begins to train in swimming, in an attempt to swim the channel between France and England. Welcome is a gripping tale of tolerance as well as relationships between locals and immigrants. It also gives a great look into the shortcoming of the European immigration system, and will have you crying by the end of it, no question.

Directed by: Guillaume Canet, 2006

Francois Cluzet, who you may remember from The Intouchable, plays a man whose wife is killed and is afterwards accused of murdering her. To make matters even more confusing, signs that his wife is actually still alive surface. This well thought out thriller is at all times the furthest thing from boring and has, among other great components, well crafted chase scenes as the protagonist looks for 8 years of unanswered questions.

Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995

At the risk of being cliché, I’m going to state that only the French could have made a movie about racial issues and the troubles of youngsters in the suburbs and still make it elegant. I’ve tried looking for other adjectives, but I coulnd’t find one that better describes those long takes shot in a moody black and white. But despite the elegance of the footage, the power of the narrative and the acting makes the violence and hate realistic as hell, dragging you into the story and empathizing with the characters until you want to raise your arm and fight for your rights. Aside from this unusual combination of fine art and explicit violence, the most shocking thing about La Haine is how much the issues it addresses still make sense right now, even though the movie was released 20 years ago.

Directed by: Sylvain Chomet, 2003

This French film, written and directed by the filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, is in the strictest sense an animated foreign comedy film but it is unlike anything I have ever seen. It has a unique surrealist animation style that manages to stay oddly grounded. In other words, it wasn’t some psychoactive drug trip but more like taking a look at the world through Salavador Dali’s eyes. However what struck me the most while watching this film was how everything was animated to extenuate ugliness and imperfection. None of the surroundings and characters look like you see in most animated films, either hyper-realistic or like unblemished porcelain dolls; everything is drawn with blatant, over-exaggerated, and warped features. These features define each character as well as instantly evoking what thoughts and feelings the director wants you to associate with them. The characters’ exaggerated features also allow the film to progress without almost any actual dialogue. Contextual clues and facial expressions were more than enough to conduct entire conversations as well as progress the story line without ever saying a word. This makes the movie accessible to people of all tongues without the subtitle stigma that many people have with watching foreign films. In conclusion, while this film is not for the causal movie watcher, it is still a beautifully imperfect work of hand-drawn art that is an experience that goes far beyond mere entertainment.

Directed by: Stéphane Lafleur, 2014

Nicole is 22, just out of college, and adrift during her first summer as an “adult.” Tu Dors Nicole (“You’re Sleeping Nicole”) is a French-Canadian take on the late coming-of-age story. Nicole spends most of the summer is her small, sleepy Quebec town lounging around her parents house (they are gone for the summer), occasionally working at the local thrift store, trying to sleep (she’s developed insomnia), and wandering aimlessly around town and the Quebec countryside with her best friend Veronique. The two are joined at the hip (as evidenced by how their bikes are always locked-up together) but the arrival of Nicole’s brother and his bandmates threatens to upend the lifelong relationship between the two; because of this waning friendship Tu Dors has earned comparisons to films like Ghost World and Frances Ha which examine the complexities of young female friendships, particularly when one’s identity is in flux. The film was shot on gorgeous Black & White 35mm film , adding to it’s floating dream-like quality, and boasts a sweet and droll sense of humor. There are occasional touches of the surreal as well — my favorite running gag being the presence of the pre-pubescent Martin, a small boy whose voice has prematurely developed (the voice that comes out of his mouth sounds like that of a world weary 45-year-old) who attempts to woo Nicole with poetic insights such as, “the heart has no age.” This film is a true hidden gem.

Directed by: Philippe Falardeau, 2012

After the sudden death of a teacher, 55-year-old Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar is hired at an elementary school in Montreal. Struggling with a cultural gap between himself and his students at first, he helps them to deal with the situation, revealing his own tragic past. A strong portrait without any weird sentimentality. 11-year-old actress Sophie Nélisse makes her brilliant debut.

Directed by: Mélanie Laurent, 2014

Mélanie Laurent’s fifth movie that she both directs and writes, Breathe is an impressive display of deft film-making and honest, insightful storytelling. Charlie is a teenage high school student with seemingly nothing unusual about her. When Sarah comes to her school from Nigeria they quickly form a friendship that brings out many unexpected sides of Charlie. Breathe sometimes veers to darkness which adds the last element to a perfect portrayal of a friendship between two girls at that age.

Directed by: Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013

Emma, a free minded girl with blue hair, influences Adele’s life dramatically, teaching her how to be honest with herself and discover her true desires about love. The film beautifully and realistically portrays the evolution of Adele, from a highschool girl to a grown-up woman, even though the spirit which Emma lighted up in her never dies. Blue Is the Warmest Color or La Vie d’Adèle is a very honest, intense, and charming picture, prepare not to blink much and have your face glued to screen from start to finish.

Directed by: Uda Benyamina, 2016

Deep in the suburbs of Paris, Divines follows the story of Dounia (played by Oulaya Amamra) and her best friend Maimouna (played by Déborah Lukumuena). Director Houda Benyamina serves a nest of social issues – welcoming the viewer into a world where poverty is pervasive and adults are haunted by their own ghosts, where there is a life vest only in the reliance on friendship. The nature of this bond between the two female characters is deep, playful, and backed by mesmerizing acting on behalf of Amamra and Lukumuena.

Just as prevailing throughout the film is the commentary on immigrant diasporas and the power of idealization. The girls fantasize about financial excess with guttural determination, guided only by the realization that their escape from their current lives has to come to fruition no matter what the cost. This film is entrancing and thought-provoking. You won’t be able to look away.

Directed by: Jacques Audiard, 2009

A cynical, gripping and unconventional French film that combines prison drama with the Goodfellas-styled narrative of the rise to criminal power. A Prophet takes age-old cliches and turns them upside down, resulting in a movie that manages to be completely original while remaining truthful to its influences. It’s not often that a film leaves me giddy with enthusiasm and has me constantly thinking back to it, but A Prophet achieves it. Incredible acting, fantastic pacing, great narrative arc, with a brutal, cynical and uncompromising take on morality, self-realization and life on the fringes of society. There are only two “action” sequences in this movie and they are as brutal and realistic as they are unexpected. Look past the subtitles, do yourself a favor and watch it.

Directed by: Julian Schnabel, 2007

Directed by celebrated artist-turned-fillmmaker Julian Schnabel, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the true story of French journalist and fashion editor Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a devastating stroke at the age of 43. Almost completely paralyzed by what is termed “Locked-in Syndrome”, Bauby was left with only the operation of his left eye intact, leaving him forced to communicate via partner-assisted scanning (selection of each letter of the alphabet via blinking). Ultimately, Bauby employed this painstaking procedure to dictate his own memoir “Le Scaphandre et le Papillon”, which became a number one bestseller in Europe. The film alternates between Bauby’s interaction with his visitors and caretakers (including the dictation of his book) and his own dream-like fantasies and memories of his life prior to paralysis. With the title, Bauby uses the diving bell to represent his self-perceived state of isolation, akin to a deep-sea diver encased in an oxygenated chamber, and the corresponding butterfly to represent the freedom he enjoys as he often journeys quite magically through his own mind’s eye. It’s a somber yet engaging film full of heart and vision, featuring wonderful performances by the entire cast across the board.

Directed by: Eric Toledano, 2012

A wealthy paraplegic needs a new caretaker. His choice is surprising — an ex-con down on his luck. Both of their lives are changed forever. Based on a true story, it is funny, touching, and very surprising.  It will have you rolling on the floor laughing one minute and reaching for your hankie the next. Intouchables is one of those perfect movies, that will easily and instantly make anyone’s all-time top 10 list.