Film, TV, pop music – every country's cultural offering tells you something about its society, its values and its social problems – but they don't have to be serious pieces of art to teach you about a country. In fact, we reckon that the films most popular with French people actually tell you far more about the country than the high-profile works of the nouvelle vague.
So here is our pick of the popular, funny or even downright daft films that will give you a great intro into what France is all about.
Actresses Leïla Bekhti and Géraldine Nakache star in the snappy French rom-com, Tout ce qui brille. Photo: AFP
1. Snobbery – Tout ce qui brille (2010)
France is, famously, a republic where the aristocrats mostly met a sticky end – so now everyone is equal, right? Wrong, France has a lot of social divides and your accent, where you went to school and where you grew up are still very important to a certain section of society.
One of the biggest divides in France is between Parisians and banlieusards – the people who live in the, often economically deprived, suburbs around the city.
There are a lot of quite serious films about the social problems of Paris' suburbs (see below for our pick), but this 2010 teen comedy gives a fascinating insight without being too serious. Tour ce qui brille (All that Glitters) follows two girls from the suburbs who blag their way into a posh Paris night club and manage to pass themselves off as members of the wealthy Paris set. One of the girls makes friends and attempts to enter the world of Paris high society, which only lays bare the massive contrast between their lives and hers.
Jacques Villeret earned himself a Best Actor César award for his role in le Dîner de cons. Photo: AFP
2. Tax and football – Le Dîner de cons (1998)
This is an older farce where a group of French posh blokes play a cruel game of inviting des cons (idiots) with strange hobbies to dinner and laughing at them.
Apart from being a classic of the French farce tradition Le Dîner de cons (The Dinner Game) also reveals a couple of fascinating aspects of French society. The abject terror of a tax audit leads one character to nearly poison himself in an attempt to prove how poor he is while the long-standing football rivalry between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille also forms a crucial plot point. There's also adultery and mistaken identity – obviously, this is farce.
3. Laughing at Belgians – Rien à déclarer (2010)
All countries have a neighbour at whom they repeatedly poke fun and for France this is Belgium, whose people are (unfairly) caricatured as simple and slow-witted.
Rien à déclarer (Nothing to declare) is set on the French/Belgian border in 1993, as the Schengen agreement comes into force and border controls are scaled back.
Under the new regime French and Belgian customs officers are forced to work together – a culture clash that sparks much mutual animosity between les gauffres (the waffles aka the Belgians) and les camemberts (the French).
4. North-south divide – Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008)
Like most countries, France has a glaring internal divide between different regions – a gap that is filled with stereotypes, prejudices and jokes. In France, southerners dread the north as a horribly cold place that is home to an unsophisticated, slightly brutish people known as the Ch'tis (the sticks).
In this film, southerner Philippe gets a big shock when he, the manager of a post office in the south of France, is forced to move up north after a committing a serious professional gaffe. When his boss tells him that he's moving “up north,” Philippe says, “Paris?”. “Further north,” his boss says. “Belgium?” Philippe asks.
Philippe is going to Nord-Pas-de-Calais, the northernmost region in France. When Philippe leaves, his wife equips him with a doudoune – a huge winter jacket.
When it first aired on French cinema, Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis became a massive success that provoked a rare surge in the number of French people who were eager to visit the north of the country. This film will teach you a lot about French cultural stereotypes – and some ch'ti' (the very specific northern dialect). Definitely worth a watch.
5. Cheesy pop – L'arnacoeur (2010)
It's a classic rom-com and it features Vanessa Paradis and France's go-to movie hearthrob Romain Duris (as well as Brit star Andrew Lincoln) which is reason enough to watch it but it also reveals an important truth about France.
The country of Proust, Voltaire and Jean-Luc Godard also secretly loves cheesy Anglophone pop culture, is this case British 1980s chart-toppers Wham! and the 1987 film Dirty Dancing. You'll have the time of your life.
Ladj Ly gained an Oscar nomination for his sombre illustration of the life in one of Paris' poorest suburbs in his film Les Misérables. Photo: AFP
6. Police violence – Les Misérables (2019)
This is a more serious offering than the films above, but it's also brilliant so we couldn't let an article about French film go by without recommending it.
It follows the locals and a police team in one of Paris' poorest suburbs over two days in 2018, when France wins the World Cup. Admirably balanced it explores the tense, mistrustful and violent relationship between the banlieue police and the poor and racially mixed community they serve.
If you want to make sense of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in France this is vital viewing.
7. How police violence isn't new – La Haine (1995)
If you want to understand how France has been struggling for decades with the problems that are shown in Les Miserables – police violence, racism, poverty and the Paris-banlieue gap – award-winning film La Haine (the hate) is a must-see. It's co-directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, who you might recognise from the more recent and world-famous French spy series Le Bureau des Légendes.
La Haine is an explosive story told in black and white through the eyes of an angry young man living in an impoverished and crime-ridden Parisian banlieue, surrounded by other angry young men who don't see a way out.
Despite its social realism and sombre message, it's actually easy to watch. There's humour accompanying the misery. And one of the most interesting lessons is perhaps how France's relation to race was then vs now.
Sophie Marceau plays the mother of Lola in LOL, a heartwarming French comedy. Photo: AFP
8. French teenagers – LOL (2008)
If La Haine is an example of cinematic broccoli (it's not your favourite thing on the menu but you'll be so happy that you had some for dinner), LOL is more like a chocolate bar. But dark chocolate, because it will teach you important lessons about being young in France.
9. The other side of Paris – Ensemble c'est tout (2007)
Paris is known world-wide as a dream city, full of romance and adventure. Ensemble c'est tout, or “Hunting and Gathering” (an odd translation because the plot ha nothing whatsoever to do with either hunting or gathering), is based on a novel by French author Anna Gavalda and shows a different side of Paris – the “real” Paris for “normal” Parisians.
Audrey Tautou (best known from Amélie) and Claude Berri play the main roles, a cleaning lady and a chef, who work long hours but struggle to survive on their salaries. They are strangers who find solace in each other's company in the big, lonely and often cruel city of Paris.
It's an intimate and simple story that, when it's done, you'll want to cuddle up in a blanket and hit replay.
10. Class divide – Les Intouchables (2011)
The award-winning film known as Untouchable in English sheds a different kind of light on French class divides, racism and prejudices, through a story about male friendship told with a large dose of humour and wit.
Inspired by true events, Les Intouchables tells the story of Philippe (François Cluzet), a rich man who after a paragliding accident lost the ability to move his body. Trapped inside his own dysfunctioning body, Philippe is frustrated and depressed, unable to take care of himself.
Enter Driss (played by Omar Sy) – a tall, handsome black man with an unrelenting optimistic approach to life despite his tough background. It's a clash of two different Frances – Philippe's wealthy and white and Driss' poor and black – and two men who turn out to have much more in common than they think.
11. French arrogance – OSS 117 (2006, 2009 and 2021)
These comedies are based on an old French spy novel series that let you simultaneously deepen your understanding of and laugh at French old-school attitudes to race, gender and La France.
OSS 117, played by Jean Dujardan, is a French spy. He is dashing, but dumb, arrogant and glaringly politically incorrect, incessantly blurting out racist and sexist comments, completely oblivious to the fact that he could be offending anyone. Why would they, he's just saying it as it is?
This mix of a parody of the James Bond movies and the self-involved français archaïque (old-school Frenchman) is a hilarious portrait of the stereotypical French macho-man, a white, privileged conservative who is convinced that his view of the world is the only view possible.
There are two films currently and a third is to come out in 2021.
12. Yellow vests – Merci patron !
This is actually a documentary but it's made nearly as a film, with a style that has been compared to American director Michael More and a story that could have been the plot of a cinematic blockbuster. It's not new, but it's currently available on Netflix in France. And it's really worth watching.
When it came out in 2016, Merci patron ! (Thank you boss!) became a huge success in France. Directed by the then-journalist Francois Ruffin (now an MP for the far-left party La France Insoumise), the César-winning documentary tells the story of a couple in the French countryside, Jocelyn and Serge, who lost everything after Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury brand LVMH, moved the factory where they worked to Poland.
It's a heartbreaking tale about hidden poverty in France, emblematic of the divide between the country's winners and losers. Although it came out before the 'yellow vests' transformed France in 2018, it gives rare insight into the underlying anger that shaped the movement.
Do you have a favourite film that tells us something important about France? Tell us about it at [email protected]