À voix haute (Speak Up)
What do you get if you follow a group of teens in France’s most deprived département, Seine-Saint-Denis, for six weeks of debating training followed by a prestigious competition? The result, which is extraordinary, is found in this documentary, directed by Ladj Ly (the director of Les Misérables, 2019) and Stéphane de Freitas.
Beautifully shot and edited, Speak Up gives a rare and raw insight into the lives of a part of France's youth that not only often seen, growing up under the burden of economic hardship, but also the stigma of being from Seine-Saint-Denis, a Parisian banlieue infamous for its relatively high rates of crime, poverty and social problems. Mostly, though, this film is about the magic of words and what can happen young people get a real chance to thrive.
It’s from 2017, but it’s back on Netflix in France now.
Une fille facile (An Easy Girl)
A 16-year-old girl in Cannes, south of France, goes through a radical life change when her older cousin pops over to visit from Paris.
Her cousin, a Champagne-drinking, seductive 22-year-old with large hoop earrings and lots of makeup who “does not believe in love”, shows her a different way to live her life. It's an intimate portrait of young women and how growing up can be both painful and liberating, contrasted with the calm, beautiful landscapes of southern France.
Police (Night Shift)
It's fair to say that French police haven't had the best press this year, but this drama is a more sympathetic look at the challenges that police officers face, without attempting to gloss over the structural and systemic problems in the force.
It tells the story of three police officers who are given the job of escorting a failed asylum seeker to the airport for his repatriation flight. The film frequently replays scenes to show a different character's point of view and doesn't shy away from showing some of the grim challenges that police face and the effect it has on them. It stars the excellent Omar Sy, who is rapidly becoming a big star in France.
Stars Virginie Efira, Omar Sy and Grégory Gadebois.
Un pays qui se tient sage (A country that stays silent)
David Dufresne's documentary about police brutality in France came out just a few months before the country embarked on a loud, polarised debate about the topic.
The film is particularly pertinent because it's nearly solely based on amateur videos, most of which were shot during the 'yellow vest' protests. Dufresne has himself been an outspoken critic of the draft security bill that could ban such images in the future.
But the most interesting thing about this documentary is its form, which is centred around the choice to create dialogue in a time dominated by short Twitter-outbursts. The result is compelling, with a few unexpected moments of breakthrough.
Une Sirène à Paris (Mermaid in Paris)
A struggling nightclub musician finds a mermaid washed up on the banks of the Seine, so naturally takes her home to nurse her back to health.
This film has that very French combination of realistic storytelling interspersed with flashes of magic and fantasy – so while the ethereal mermaid hovers between life and death the musician has an argument with the receptionist at the hospital about whether his carte vitale will be accepted. Romantic, charming and weird, it's a perfect holiday watch.
Stars Tchéky Karyo, Rossy de Palma.
Objectophilia is the technical name for what afflicts Jeanne, the main character of this film.
The shy and troubled young woman takes a job at a fairground and forms a romantic and then sexual attraction to one of the fairground rides, the titular Jumbo.
For a film with a fairly strange subject, the film is actually quite down-to-earth as it shows Jeanne's struggles with her eccentric mother and her difficulty in connecting with the world around her. The scenes between Jeanne and Jumbo are beautifully and imaginatively shot and surprisingly tender.
Stars Noémie Merlant and Emmanuelle Bercot.
Grégory (Who killed little Grégory)
This is actually a 5-part Netflix documentary, rather than a film, but it's a fascinating look at a case that has haunted France for more than 30 years – the unsolved murder of four-year-old Grégory Villemin.
The very through documentary looks at the crime itself, but also what happened afterwards – several bungled police investigations, the appalling behaviour of certain sections of the media, the poisoning of community and family relations and finally another murder.
It's not exactly light-hearted, but it's certainly gripping and an excellent example of what the multi-part documentary format can achieve when done right.
Santa & Cie (Christmas & Co)
Anyone looking for an actual Christmas movie could turn to Santa & Cie, a clever comedy from 2017, directed by French comedian Alain Chabat, who also plays the main character, a slightly grumpy (and very French) Santa.
To save his elves (lutains), Santa embarks on a perilous journey over a thunderstorm stricken sky, which forces him to order his reindeer to make an emergency landing on “that big red toy over there” – the Parisian landmark Moulin Rouge. It’s a heartwarming and funny film that incorporates a lot of wordplay in the dialogues, which means watching it with French subtitles is perfect for foreigners who want to improve their vocabulary.
Stars Alain Chabat and Audrey Tautou.