“My French Film Festival” is running free online, offering its annual selection of works from current French cinema. This week’s alternative list comes from the nation’s long and adoring love affair with the medium that began in the late 19th century and has continued to be a vital part of France’s cultural output ever since.
The art house essential: Playtime — YouTube
No-one did as much to breathe new life into the classic genre of dialogue-free sight gag comedy as French legend Jacques Tati. Through the creation of his beloved alter-ego Monsieur Hulot, he combined the pleasures of silent cinema with a distinctively acerbic mid 20th century dissection of modern capitalist absurdity.
Sparing no expense, Tati’s 1967 masterpiece is his magnum opus. It's a bleakly funny imagination of a futuristic, technologically obsessed Paris, for which the pipe-smoking, trench-coated Hulot serves as a befuddled and not-always pleasantly amused guide.
A necessary and smart antidote to the schmaltzy chocolate box romantic iconography of the city, it’s full of memorable set-ups that are carefully and simply choreographed, but effectively funny and transcendent. It's no wonder that Tati’s influence can be seen in nearly every present-day master of absurd comedy from Wes Anderson to Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismaki and Pedro Almodóvar, to name a few.
It’s expensive to produce because of the singular futuristic imaginings of its director, but pays off with its beautiful visual composition, colours and detail. Rarely has such a simple premise — one day in the life of a techno-futurist city as seen through the eyes of a quietly bemused veteran resident — yielded impressive, intricate and effectively amusing and ultimately profound entertainment.
The stone-cold classic: Pickpocket — Mubi.com
Virtuoso director Robert Bresson’s existentially fraught social-realist crime drama from 1959 is a masterclass in creative profitability.
Remade, reinterpreted and endlessly imitated but never surpassed, it’s a bare-bones, 75-minute tightly wound character study that packs an emotional punch.
Martin La Salle plays Michel — a bored, angsty young Frenchman who spontaneously decides to try his hand at becoming a pickpocket. He soon discovers that he’s too clumsy and untrained for his new hobby. When he’s arrested, it seems that his lark may have landed him in far too much trouble to warrant his diversion into petty crime. His mother dies soon after. Against the objections of his only real friend and his mother’s neighbour, Michel's interest in pickpocketing is reignited by adept pickpockets who help him improve his skills and lead him down an increasingly slippery path.
Bresson’s masterful visual cues echo his character’s existential torture. This gives Michel’s personal journey a larger philosophical significance, making it difficult for the audience to reject his side of the story. Using literary techniques such as voiceover and printed words to help convey the inner turmoil of its protagonist, Bresson creates a delicately crafted ballet that never allows us to sit in easy judgment of Michel’s decisions.
Bresson's strong influence can be seen in Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver script, and films like Day Sleeper and American Gigolo which explore similar tales of marginal outsider criminals. Pickpocket remains a classic of the cinema of ideas — a film that deals with big questions of life with the subtle emotional delicacy of classic 19th century literature and leaves long-lingering questions that are more rewarding than simple black and white answers.
The diamond in the rough: La Classe Américaine — YouTube
Rightfully described as, “One of the weirdest, most hallucinatory films of all time,” directors Michel Hazanavicius and Dominique Mézerette’s 1993 cult classic is entirely made up of clips from classic American cinema. It’s constructed from archive selections of Hollywood giant Warner Bros. who gave permission to French company Canal+ for the directors to raid its back catalogue to create the inventive film.
The 70-minute montage film combines clips from a host of classics such as the John Wayne western Rio Bravo and the paranoid Watergate drama All the President’s Men. This creates a madcap political comedy that loosely owes its plot to Citizen Kane and features old performances from legends like Wayne, Robert Redford and Paul Newman who are repurposed for its absurd but highly entertaining surreal delights.
It's well known that the French are mad about classic Hollywood and that their love of the films spurred the creations of the influential 1960s French New Wave. Here that obsession is taken to wholly new and insane extremes. All the dialogue from the original films is absurdly rewritten and then redubbed back into French. The result is strange and intriguing madcap comedy that though not widely seen at the time, has since gone on to earn cult status among film buffs and lovers of French comedy.