The best French films you've never heard of

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The best French films you've never heard of
French actor Tahar Rahim in a scene from A Prophet. Photo: YouTube/Screengrab

Here's a look back at the best ten French movies you've probably never heard of, thanks to French cinema expert Judith Prescott.


La Balance, director Bob Swaim - 1982.  
American-born director Swaim definitely brings a touch of the Hollywood gangster movie to this tale of Paris' underworld.  Philippe Léotard plays a pimp forced to become a police informer to help the police capture a criminal mastermind.  It's one of the most successful films in French cinema history and is credited with changing the face of French crime films. As a bonus, the original 1980s Parisian settings give the film a fabulous retro feel. 

Mon Père, Ce Héros (My Father, the Hero) director: Gérard Lauzier - 1991.  
A charming, funny film with Gérard Depardieu in the role of an absent father who tries to reconnect with his 14-year old daughter (Marie Gillain) while on vacation in Mauritius. The film was later remade by Hollywood  with Depardieu once again in the lead role and American actress Katherine Heigl, of Grey's Anatomy fame, in one of her first screen appearances. They even brought in the French award winning writer and director Francis Veber to help with the script, but it's not a patch on the original with its touching portrayal of a father-daughter relationship.
On Connaît La Chanson (Same Old Song) director Alain Resnais - 1997. 
This comedy of manners set in Paris is the late director's homage to British playwright Dennis Potter. He applies the same technique of actors lip-synching to old songs used to great effect by Potter in Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. It's hilarious and absurd - just what you'd  expect from a director most widely associated with the French New Wave.

Vénus Beauté Institut (Venus Beauty Institute) director: Tonie Marshall  -  1995. 
A romantic comedy which notably brought Audrey Tautou, the star of Amélie, to the public's attention. Nathalie Baye shines as the  lonely, ageing beauty who has all but given up on love until she meets the handsome Samuel Le Bihan. With shades of Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar, the film scooped up numerous awards at film festivals around the world.

Les Rivières Pourpres (Crimson Rivers) director: Mathieu Kassovitz - 2000.  
In 1995 Kassovitz exploded onto cinema screens with La Haine. Five years later he produced this breathtaking crime thriller starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel as two detectives investigating a grisly crime in an alpine village. It was cleverly marketed as 'Seven' meets 'Silence of the Lambs'  and put Kassovitz back on the map as one of France's most exciting young directors.
Le Placard (The Closet) director: Francis Veber - 2001. 
Less well-known than Veber's hugely successful Dîner de Cons, Le Placard is a refreshingly honest comedy about attitudes towards homosexuality with a deadpan Daniel Auteuil once again playing François Pignon. Witty dialogue and fine supporting performances from Depardieu and Thierry L'Hermite made this one of the most successful French films of 2001.

Sous le Sable (Under the Sand) director: François Ozon - 2001.  
Before splashier films such as Swimming Pool and In the House, Ozon directed this low-key feature about a woman whose husband disappears into the sea while she dozes on a beach.  British actress Charlotte Rampling is superb as a woman pushed to the edge of madness by grief and Ozon's analysis of the psychology of loss is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No-One) director: Guillaume Canet - 2006.  
A strange turn-around sees a novel by best-selling American thriller writer, Harlan Coben, turned into a French film directed by Canet in only his second time in the director's chair. François Cluzet, star of the wildly popular Intouchables, is a doctor who believes his wife was murdered several years earlier until he receives a mysterious message that she may still be alive. This classy, smart film has Britain's Kristin Scott Thomas and André Dussollier in supporting roles.

Un Prophète  (A Prophet) director: Jacques Audiard - 2009. 
Billed as Scarface meets The Godfather, Audiard's prison-set drama was deservedly nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Tahar Rahim is a young Frenchman of Arab descent who is sent to prison as a naïve outsider and gradually becomes an evil, adult criminal. Audiard went on to direct the award-winning Rust and Bone and Rahim is now at the forefront of a new generation of French actors.

Tout ce qui Brille (All that Glitters) director: Géraldine Nakache, Hervé Mimran - 2010.  
Céline Sciamma's Girlhood about young women from France's notorious banlieues has been widely praised by critics.  But All that Glitters was there first as a rare female-led story of childhood friends Lila (Leïla Bekhti) and Ely (Nakache) who aspire to a better life . It's a funny, intelligent chick-flick which sends out the message not often heard in French films that men are not the answer to everything. 

Judith Prescott has lived and worked as a print and broadcast journalist in France for 23 years and is an avid follower of French cinema. Her blog, French Cinema Review, is aimed at fellow cinephiles around the world to keep them up-to-date with what's making news in the French movie world.


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