French film blog: Five movies that show what France is really like

The Hollywood vision of France is all chic Paris apartments and sun-soaked rural bliss but French cinema offers a far more realistic vision of the country, explains Elizabeth Lanier from Lost in Frenchlation.

French film blog: Five movies that show what France is really like
A still from 1995 film La Haine. Photo: IMDB

France is a modern country with modern problems and a diverse and complex population, but you wouldn't know that through watching the Hollywood version of France, and especially Paris. 

In fact there's even a name – Paris Syndrome – for the brutal disconnect tourists can experience between their romanticised movie views of Paris and the real, modern, bustling, sometimes grubby city.

READ ALSO How foreigners learn to romanticise Paris through film

Films can offer a very romanticised view of Paris. Photo: AFP

But films made in France offer a far more realistic view of the country. French films can still be heartwarming when they tell realistic stories, but they are not simplistic or patronising to viewers.

The tourist sites that most people see don’t engage with these issues, such as poverty and immigration, but France is dealing with them every day. Films that tell these stories focus on the humanity of the characters to try and bring them to life on screen, pushing the viewer to engage with the film.

Here are five modern French movies that depict a more realistic view of life in contemporary France.

READ ALSO Why a movie can be hilarious in France but rejected in the US

1. La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color)

This 2013 movie is the coming-of-age story of Adèle, a young French teenager who falls in love with an older woman, Emma.

Through the two women, we see tensions between the exploration of sexuality and how this fits into French culture, especially between social classes.

During Pride month, discussions of sexuality are in the forefront of our minds, and this movie is an intense examination of LGBTQ+ identity in modern France, and holds almost nothing back.

Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos won the Palme d'Or for their exploration of LGBTQI identity in La Vie d'Adèle

2. Divines

This movie takes place in a Romani banlieue around Paris – an area most tourists will never get to see, but it’s really about the characters, not the place.

It depicts the struggle that a young teenage dancer goes through in order to lift herself from poverty, as she confronts drug dealers and street gangs. This side of Paris, or even this strata of society, is rarely depicted in movies that Americans watch because it isn’t pretty and happy endings seem forced.

Think Aladdin; even Disney characters can escape poverty only with the help of magic. This movie is not heartwarming and the ending doesn’t wrap everything up neatly, but neither does real life. If you want to feel emotions deeply and gain an understanding of an underrepresented sector of society, watch this movie.

3. La Haine (Hate)

This movie also takes place in a banlieue near Paris, the day after a violent riot due to rising tensions between the harsh police and a racially-diverse population. It focuses on three friends of a boy who was hospitalised after the police attacked him.

Like Divines, La Haine depicts racial and economic tensions in a part of France that most tourists wouldn’t see, but is crucial to gaining a full understanding of twenty-first century France.

Made in 1995, this was the first movie to depict the banlieue in mainstream entertainment media, and almost twenty-five years later, the central issues still exist.

4. Welcome

This 2009 movie isn’t set in Paris, but Calais, and shows the bond between a French swim coach going through a divorce, and a young Kurdish immigrant trying to get to England by swimming across the Channel.

It reveals the harsh, unforgiving nature of immigration laws in Europe, and sugar-coats neither the immigrant Bilal’s journey, nor that of struggling coach Simon.

It also shines a light on general anti-immigrant sentiment, and shows France from an outsider (non-American) perspective. It explores friendship and hardship, with a heart wrenching ending.

Actor and teacher Francois Begaudeau wrote about his own experiences in a Paris school. Photo: AFP

5. Entre les Murs (The Class)

The Class follows a multicultural Parisian high school class and a French language teacher who desperately wants to help his students.

The “problem children” challenge the young teacher’s methods, as he attempts to walk the line between discipline and cooperation, and between his superiors and his students.

The story was written by a French teacher who based it on his own experience, and he plays the lead. It’s a journey through the educational system, dealing with racial and class tensions, relationships within a community, as well as the simple fact that being a young teenager is tough in any neighborhood.

Of course, Paris isn’t all rough-and-tumble, with violent street gangs lurking around every corner. But it also isn’t all perfect. It has its own cultural issues, most of which are not that different from America, and many French films don’t shy away from depicting them.  

They serve a second purpose beyond simple entertainment, which is to get their audience to engage with the story and underlying commentary. Some of these movies have happy endings, but a lot don’t, which may be more realistic as many French directors hold a mirror up to society with their films.

Elizabeth Lanier works for cinema club Lost in Frenchlation, which shows a diverse range of French films, with English subtitles so that Anglophones can experience the full range and diversity of French cinema. Find out more about their upcoming screenings here.

Check out the new film section on our website here.

Member comments

  1. This is no more what France is really like than the happy Parisian films. This is just the dark side, and unfair at that. France is much more than the happy films and much more than this.

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French films with English subtitles to watch in November

As days get shorter and temperatures drop, November is a great month to enjoy a warm and comforting moment at the cinema. Here’s a round up of the French movies with English subtitles to see in Paris this month.

Cinema in France
Photo: Loic Venance/AFP

The cinema group Lost in Frenchlation runs regular screenings of French films in the capital, with English subtitles to help non-native speakers follow the action. The club kicks off every screening with drinks at the cinema’s bar one hour before the movie, so it’s also a fun way to meet people if you’re new to Paris.

These are the events they have coming up in November.

Friday, November 5th

Boîte Noire – What happened on board the Dubai-Paris flight before it crashed in the Alps? In this thriller Matthieu, a young and talented black box analyst played by Pierre Niney (star of Yves Saint-Laurent among other movies) is determined to solve the reason behind this deadly crash, no matter the costs. 

The screening will take place at the Club de l’étoile cinema at 8pm. But you can arrive early for drinks at the bar from 7pm. 

Tickets are €10 full price, €8 for students and all other concessions, and can be reserved here.

Sunday, November 14th

Tralala – In the mood for music? This new delightful French musical brings you into the life of Tralala (played by Mathieu Amalric), a 48 years old, homeless and worn-out street singer, who one day gets mistaken for someone else. Tralala sees an opportunity to get a better life by taking on a new personality. He now has a brother, nephews, ex-girlfriends, and maybe even a daughter. But where is the lie? Where is the truth? And who is he, deep down?

The night will start with drinks from 6pm followed by the screening at 7pm at the Luminor Hôtel de Ville cinema. There is also a two-hour cinema-themed walk where you’ll be taken on a “musicals movie tour” in the heart of Paris, which begins at 4pm.

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here. Tickets for the walking tour cost €20 and must be reserved online here.

Thursday, November 18th

Illusions Perdues – Based on the great novel series by Honoré de Balzac between 1837 and 1843, this historical drama captures the writer Lucien’s life and dilemmas who dreams about a great career of writing and moves to the city to get a job at a newspaper. As a young poet entering the field of journalism, he is constantly challenged by his desire to write dramatic and eye-catching stories for the press. But are they all true?

The evening will kick off with drinks at L’Entrepôt cinema bar at 7pm, followed by the movie screening at 8pm. Tickets are available online here, and cost €8.50 full price; €7 for students and all other concessions.

Sunday, November 21st

Eiffel – Having just finished working on the Statue of Liberty, Gustave Eiffel (played by Romain Duris) is tasked with creating a spectacular monument for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris. It’s ultimately his love story with Adrienne Bourgès (Emma Mackey) that will inspire him to come up with the idea for the Eiffel Tower.

After a first screening last month, Lost in Frenchlation is organising a new one at the Luminor Hôtel de Ville cinema, with pre-screening drinks at the cinema bar. 

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here

Thursday, November 25th

Les Héroïques – Michel is a former junkie and overgrown child who only dreams of motorbikes and of hanging out with his 17-year-old son Léo and his friends. But at 50 years old, he now has to handle the baby he just had with his ex, and try not to make the same mistakes he has done in the past. 

The film will be followed by a Q&A with the director Maxime Roy who will discuss his very first feature. 

Tickets cost €10, or €8 for students and concessions, and can be found here.

Full details of Lost in Frenchlation’s events can be found on their website or Facebook page. In France, a health pass is required in order to go to the cinema.