9 classic French movies to explore the culture and language of France

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on reddit
Share on email

The French have a world-class reputation for many things, not least their contribution to world cinema. And as you would expect from such a rich cinematic tradition, there is a long list of French movies worth watching.

We have selected 9 classic French movies, each offering a different perspective on la culture française. 

The French have a world-class reputation for many things, not least their contribution to world cinema. And as you would expect from such a rich cinematic tradition, there is a long list of French movies worth watching.

We have selected 9 classic French movies, each offering a different perspective on la culture française. 

So, whether you’re looking for a flavour of all things Gallic, French movies to learn French, or just a great movie, this list is for you.

1 – Les Intouchables (The Untouchables

This thoughtful, moving drama quickly became a beloved classic of French cinema.

Based on the remarkable, real-life story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Abdel Sello, it charts the blossoming friendship between a wealthy, lonely quadriplegic (François Cluzet) and a young, energetic man (Omar Sy) from the banlieues (urban housing estates).

Touching on issues of disability, class, and friendship, it is brimming with heart and humour. Showcasing two outstanding acting performances, it is an unmissable French movie.

Watch this for a heart-warming true story and a thought-provoking view of modern French culture.  

2 – La Haine (Hate)

Whereas Les Intouchables will leave you with a warm, fuzzy feeling, this French movie will take you down a much darker path.

Taking its name from the phrase “La haine attire la haine!”, (translation: ‘hatred breeds hatred’), it is a gritty, often surreal insight into the harsh realities of life in the Paris banlieue.

La Haine follows the ups and (mostly) downs of 3 friends seeking purpose, against the backdrop of a violent riot provoked by an act of police brutality.

Filmed in black and white and directed by the cinematic luminary Mathieu Kassovitz, it stars a young Vincent Cassell as the perpetually angry Vinz.

Channelling Taxi Driver, it exploded into the French consciousness with its raw depiction of the simmering tensions and social problems in deprived immigrant communities.

A cult classic. A tour-de-force that lingers in the memory long after the powerful ending.

Watch this for a devastating critique of life in la banlieue.

3 – Amélie (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain)

Continuing a theme of starkly contrasting French movies, Amelie is a world apart from the mean streets of Paris’s banlieue.  

Set in the far more upmarket surroundings of Montmartre in Paris, this is a warm, upbeat tale of whimsy.

Played with disarming charm by Audrey Tatou, we dreamily follow the titular Amélie as she searches for joy after a life touched by tragedy.

This multi-garlanded film from 2001 – nominated for 5 Oscars – remains the single biggest-grossing French-language film outside France.

And with good reason. It’s a romantic comedy that inverts many French stereotypes and keeps you rooting for our hero throughout.

Watch this film for a playful view of Parisian life.

4 – Jean de Florette

Jean de Florette is a period drama, released in 1988, that stands up today. A quintessentially French film depicting rural life between the great wars. Events that scarred and defined modern French society.

Based on a novel by one of France’s legendary auteurs, Marcel Pagnol, it stars 3 of the country’s biggest names of the time, Gerard Depardieu, Daniel Auteuil, and Yves Montand, and earned critical acclaim and numerous award nominations.

Set in the pastoral charms of one of France’s prettiest regions, Provence, it tells a universal tale of greed and suffering.

Like its sequel Manon des Sources, it is considered a classic of heritage cinema and remains a firm favourite in France.

Watch this classic French movie for a window on France between the wars and the simmering intrigues hiding behind the charms of French rural life. 

5 – La vie en rose (A life in pink)

Another French movie offering a snapshot of bygone France, La Vie en Rose charts the stratospheric rise to fame of one of the country’s most celebrated chanteuses, Edith Piaf.

La môme Piaf (little sparrow) – her nickname and eventual stage name – was a true superstar. Acclaimed for her distinctive voice and quintessentially French – often biographical – songs.

Including the eponymous La vie en rose and the instantly recognizable Non, Je ne regrette rien (No, I do not regret anything)

Her backstory reads like a Hollywood script. Abandoned by her parents, raised in a brothel, ‘discovered’ by a nightclub owner who was later murdered by the local mafia, there is much to unpack.

Some critics felt the film lacked depth. Yet this 2007 film went on to win multiple awards, including a Best Actress Oscar for Marion Cotillard for her accurate portrayal of the illustrious singer.

Watch this to discover the story behind one of the defining voices of French culture.

6 – Mesrine: L’instinct de mort (Killer Instinct) / Mesrine : L’Ennemi public nº 1 (Public Enemy No. 1)

This two-parter flew under the radar outside France. This is one of those French movies that deserves a wider audience.

A roller-coaster ride of a French movie, it charts the improbable true story of notorious gangster Jacques Mesrine. Escape artist, master of disguise, bank robber, murderer.

Starring the versatile Vincent Cassell in the eponymous role, Mesrine was a famously charismatic figure that dominated the news cycle in his day.  

People rightly point to the many creative embellishments, while some see a story that is too sympathetic to a cold-blooded killer. But these two films chronicle a remarkable story that few outside France know.

Watch this for a breathless French spin on the classic gangster movie. 

7 – À bout de souffle (Out of breath)

No list of famous French movies would be complete without an inclusion from la nouvelle vague (French new wave). A movement in French cinema that cemented France’s global reputation for creative filmmaking.

A product of the late 1950s, it was a hotbed of avant-garde experimentation. Known for lingering camera shots, existentialist musings, and unusual narrative structure, the films helped define the modern French image.

Many films from that period could feature on a list of great French movies, although À bout de souffle checks all the boxes.

Directed by the influential Jean Luc Godard and starring a soon-to-be French acting legend, Jean-Paul Belmondo, its release in 1960 is credited with shaping the flourishing French New Wave.

Distinguished credentials aside, it is a taut, dizzying crime drama that ripped up the filmmaking handbook. A stylish movie that is very French.  

It often features on lists of the greatest films ever made and is a talking point amongst cinephiles today

Watch this for a flavour of the French New Wave that still influences French movies and culture today. 

8 – Le Diner De Cons (Dinner of Fools)

This French movie is unlike the other French movies on this list.

Originally a stage production, it is a conventional comedy that showcases French humor.

The premise? Snooty Parisians hosting a dinner party to which cons – fools – are invited for their amusement.

Laced with farce and self-reflection, this 1998 film was a box office smash in France (second only to one of the highest-grossing films of all time, Titanic). 

And although there was a Hollywood remake, the original is much better.

Watch this for the farce and wry observations typical of French humour.

9 – Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Bell and the Butterfly)

We started this list with a moving and ultimately upbeat story of someone living with a profound disability. We end the list on a similar note, with a French movie from 2007 that left a mark on global audiences.

Based upon the affecting memoirs of Jean-Dominique Bauby, it depicts the tragedy of living with locked-in syndrome: completely paralyzed, but fully conscious and able to communicate with his eyes.

He likens his life to being trapped in a diving bell, while his friends remember the spirit within, the butterfly.

Mathieu Amalric stars and delivers a beautiful, poignant performance. Considered by some critics to be one of the greatest films of this century, it also serves as an ode to the rich poetry of the French language.

Originally slated to be filmed in English – and to star Johnny Depp – the director, Julian Schnabel, insisted on filming in the language of the memoirs. A decision that helped the film deliver a sincere, heartfelt account of this moving story.

Watch this with tissues ready. A moving tale, epitomizing the beauty of French storytelling. 

Final thought

If you’re furiously questioning where your favourite French movie is, I understand. A list this short cannot hope to capture all the magic of French cinema, and there are many notable exclusions.

However, I hope there is a film here for everybody. Each one offering a unique take on French culture.

Bon film!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Don't miss out on any new French Lessons! You will also get a free copy of our graphical overview of all French Verb Tenses!

More To Explore

Do You have any feedback? let me know!

I would love to know how I can make learning Languages easier for you