Who doesn't like watching a good film: curled up on the sofa on a rainy afternoon, or perhaps one might still recall what an occasion going to a theater was, in the days gone by?

Even today, with the smell of popcorn wafting through the lobby and enticing posters hung about, the lure of escape into another world or time, if only for a while, is a pastime most of us regularly indulge in.

But do we give any thought to how that form of entertainment came about? The long history of cinema and the arduous journey it has endured, to provide us with the glamour, the pathos, the thrills and the laughs that play out on the silver screen?

And why is French cinema particularly alluring?

Here we talk about French masterpieces and the stars that bring them to life, the visionaries that convey their imaginary worlds into something meant for the world to see, and the spectators who relish the performances.

Alain Delon, star of many New Wave movies, was easily recognisable as a first class heartthrob
Alain Delon was a considered France's greatest sex symbol at the height of his fame! Source: Wikipedia Credit: Stefan Kragujevic

The Ten Most Famous French Actors

At the end of January of this year, former Doctor David Tennant settled an invasion of privacy suit against News of the World; they had allegedly hacked his phone, and the phones of several other celebrities.

Also, a fake Twitter account was established in his name, which his publicist was quick to refute: the real David Tennant – ironically enough, what the account called itself, abhors the platform and would never establish an account!

Such outrageous actions against popular personalities is a sign of the times: we so crave the latest heartbeat of the people we idolise that we will go to any lengths for a piece of him/her.

Obviously, such manic behaviour is everywhere; perhaps not exhibited by the fans themselves, but certainly by David press photographers who feed the fans what they crave.

We only need to think of Lady Diana's tragic, untimely demise on the streets of Paris to realise that such predatory behaviour exists, even in the ultra-civilised City of Light!

Thus we conclude that it must be a person of amazing fortitude to undertake a career in the public eye.

Furthermore, said persons must be extraordinarily talented, and must possess a mystic appeal in order to garner legions of loyal fans.

France has plenty such luminaries. Find out about the most famous French actors.

The Leading Men of France

Gerard Depardieu has certainly proved his acting chops over the 54 years he's been in the business!

He started his career at the tag end of the French New Wave, gaining international stardom for his role in Jean de Florette, and rode that fame through the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac.

He also had the great fortune of working with the illustrious François Truffaut, early in his career, playing opposite of Catherine Deneuve in The Last Metro.

Daniel Auteuil played alongside M. Depardieu in Jean de Florette, as well as starring in its sequel, Manon des Sources, roles which made him one of the most highly acclaimed, and highly paid actors in France.

His acting style is so fluid, he is equally comfortable doing comedy and thrillers.

He was once linked to Manon co-star Emmanuelle Béart; with whom he has a daughter. His other daughter, Aurore, is an actress in her own right.

Alain Delon was considered a sex symbol in his early career; he too being of the New Wave.

He shot to fame in France, starring in the comedy Women are Weak, otherwise known as Three Murderesses. His acclaim dawned on the international stage when he portrayed Tom Ripley in Purple Noon.

In the spirit of striking while the iron is hot, he dropped in on Hollywood to make a few films of only moderate success. His return to France saw him showered with accolades, and he grew more popular than ever.

Albert Remy's short-lived career is nevertheless remarkable for the number of films he features in, as well as playing in some of France's best known stories: 400 Blows, and Is Paris Burning?, to name just two.

In the twenty three years he spent in front of the camera, he appeared in 98 works, some of them destined for television.

Yves Montand has the distinction of having been discovered and mentored as a performer by Edith Piaf. She incorporated him into her act after having seen him sing in a music hall.

Indeed, M. Montand is billed both as a singer and actor, and he is most renown for films that required his vocal talents.

Late in his career, he was tapped to lead Jean de Florettes and its sequel as the scheming uncle. He also made a number of American films, most notably Let's Make Love, alongside Marylin Monroe.

Although he had many well-publicised actual love affairs, most notably an alliance with Ms. Monroe, he stayed married to Simone Signoret, the German-born French actress who was the first to win an American academy award, until her death.

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The Ladies of French Film

Brigitte Bardot is sadly more famous for her pouty lips and long blond tresses than she is for any of her acting.

She worked under the direction of some of the best names in French cinema, such as Roger Vadim and Jean-Luc Godard.

She retired from filmmaking at the height of her career, after only 21 years in front of the camera. Since then, she has devoted her life to activism, having been charged several times with inciting racial hatred.

Oddly enough, she bills herself as an animal rights activist, but her hate theme is directed at humans that don't necessarily mistreat animals!

Compared to B.B. - as Miss Bardot is also known, Audrey Tautou has a squeaky clean image.

Audrey gave her breakout performance in the delightful romantic comedy Amelie, and since then has sampled nearly every genre, from intrigue (The Da Vinci Code) to drama (A Very Long Engagement).

Although Ms. Tautou has made English language films, she insists that she is fundamentally a French actress and, as opposed to many others who seek greater international distribution of their work through American channels, she intends to remain firmly rooted in France.

Lucky France!

Parisian actress Isabelle Huppert is the most nominated actress for the Cesar award; France's equivalent to America's academy awards.

She is also the most nominated actress for the Molière award, which celebrates excellence on stage.

Indeed, she has been most prolific, turning out more than 110 films during her nearly 50 year career, and taking her place in the theatre for no fewer than 25 plays.

British film critic David Thomson avers she must be one of the world's most accomplished actresses.

He then goes on to rate her performances as rather limp next to those of Isabelle Adjani.

Marion Cotillard is the latest French actress to earn an American academy award, for her portrayal of France's most famous songbird in La Vie en Rose.

Named the most bankable French actress of the 21st Century, she has no issue with crossing the ocean and reporting on the Hollywood sound stage for any role she might find particularly suited to her.

Her latest effort, Allied, allegedly played a role in Brad Pitt's recent divorce!

That movie was not her first war film; she also played alongside Mlle. Tautou in A Very Long Engagement.

No list of great French actresses would be complete without the scintillating Danielle Darrieux.

In a career that spanned over 80 years, Danielle Darrieux has covered every genre and every medium: stage, television and film.

As though that weren't enough, she also sang and danced. In fact, that is how she got her big break: her first film was Meyerling, shot in 1936.

Known as one of the greatest French actresses of all time, her dedication and commitment to her craft had her accepting roles at the ripe young age of 93.

With that kind of work ethic, it is no wonder directors were eager to hire her for their next picture!

The Ten Best French Films

More than anything, French movies reflect French culture, in all of its greatness and with all of its pitfalls.

Whereas Hollywood blockbusters tend to follow a certain formula according to genre, French cinema tells a story and lets the audience work things out for themselves.

Even within the same broad category, those stories do not follow predictable lines!

Take for example two of Audrey Tautou's romantic works: Amelie and A Very Long Engagement.

The first is humorous and whimsical; the second poignant and pointed – who would expect profound social commentary to underpin a story of undying love?

Those realisations beg the question: should we gauge French films for their technical aspects, their performances, their emotional or social impact? All of the above?

None of the above???

Bearing in mind that no two people like the exact same thing for the exact same reasons, we propose this list of must-see French movies.

NOTE: these are in addition to the ones already mentioned in this text!

  • The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a romantic musical directed by Jacques Demy
  • Intouchables: a dramedy of friendship and disability
  • The Rules of the Game: Jean Renoir's satirical commentary of social class in France
  • Breathless: a gangster wannabe ponders the value of life
  • Hiroshima mon Amour: a dialogue between a French woman and a Japanese man
  • Blue is the Warmest Color: a coming of age drama, with a twist
  • La Haine: three youths struggle to find their place in life
  • The Chorus: the choir director reaches out to troubled young boys
  • Jules et Jim: a romance drama describing the choices a love triangle faces
  • The Double Life of Veronique explores the identity and complexity of a woman's life

Please bear in mind that it was exceedingly difficult to select only ten films out of the vast landscape of French cinema offerings, past and present.

Do you have any favourites you might add to this list?

Buster Keaton, with his physical comedy, made a great splash in French theaters
By the time Buster Keaton made it big, French and American studios were in a tight race Source: Pixabay Credit: Perlinator

The History of French Cinema

It is quite unfortunate that the French film industry faces a conundrum of epic proportions.

As the French export only a fraction of their films each year, how can they hope to compete with Hollywood or Hong Kong fare, both of which have much higher international profiles and a greater number of loyal followers?

Obviously, if they released more titles to the international market, they would have more of an audience share, wouldn't they?

You will be so surprised to learn the reasons why this is not happening...

Let's take a look at the history of French cinema.

For one, it is a little known fact that, in order to repay France's debt to the American liberators after WWII, they were obliged to screen more American movies than French ones.

Movie goers were all for that, and for about a decade, enjoyed stories that were not quintessentially French.

Somewhere in the mid-fifties, artists and visionaries grew frustrated at the idea that audiences were ingesting so much pablum – nothing with substance, and certainly nothing to do with French people or French culture.

The greatest visionaries in modern cinema gathered around an ethos – a philosophy that embraced the idea of a film being the direct product of one person's vision: the director.

They also rejected what had till then been considered standard fare in France film making: literary and period pieces that represented a long-gone France.

Robert Bresson was one of the directors that championed the biggest evolution in French cinema: La Nouvelle Vague – the New Wave.

French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps one of the best known directors of that movement, proclaimed that M. Bresson WAS the movement.

Robert Bresson is French cinema as Dostoyevski is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music – Jean-Luc Godard.

From that time on, French films concerned themselves more with realism and telling quality stories rather than the quality of filming, meaning the technical aspects of movie making.

Even today, the 200+ films turned out yearly by France's cinematic greats embrace, at least to some extent, the auteur theory of storytelling.

What happened before the mid- 1950s?

The Dark Era

Obviously, one needs light to create or view film, otherwise even the greatest story captured on celluloid (or digital, these days) would be just so much crinkly plastic (or bits and bytes).

Thus you can safely assume that this period of the film industry – and all of Europe refers to World War II.

With everything rationed including electricity, few studios had the wherewithal to produce films at that time.

Nevertheless, oppressors and civilians alike demanded entertainment, so a few screen gems were turned out.

Not surprisingly, quite a few of them were comedies, such as Paris - New York and Tobias is an Angel.

In the year after cessation of hostilities, what has been called the most influential film of all time was realised in spite of the rationing and harsh conditions.

Have you ever seen Beauty and the Beast?

Jean Cocteau's original masterpiece starred Jean Marais as the Beast and Josette Day as Beauty.

Since then, the story has been retold no fewer than 13 times: as live action, animation, television series, spoofs and satire.

Not too bad a run for a narrative written more than 300 years ago, is it?

It was French film maker Alice Guy who invented the concept of film narrative while working in the studio of Leon Gaumont.

Mr. Gaumont, at the time a partner of Gustav Eiffel, took over the running of what was at the time a photography supply business, and jumped directly onto the movie making bandwagon.

Together, M. Gaumont, with Alice Guy as the world's first female director, went on to become one of the major players in the French film industry.

Not only was Mlle Guy a pioneer of the film world, but she was also the first to experiment with interracial themes, sound effects, and film colouring.

Before leaving for America and eventually setting up Solax studios in New Jersey – the original film capital of America, she was one of the fortunate few who attended the Lumiere brothers' event, in 1895.

March 22nd of that year saw the first demonstration of film projection, making France the ultimate pioneer in the industry of motion pictures.

Although Louis Lumiere intended for colour photography film to be the highlight of the show, he was a bit put off by his audience's rapt attention to the black and white moving picture.

The first film officially screened to a paid audience of 200 people included their very first film effort titled Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory, a 46 second clip that showed nothing more than workers leaving their factory.

Exciting, no?

Indeed it was! Not only was this cinematic first step a marvel of technology in itself, but it also declared the clear winner in the race to making the first motion picture.

As tremulous as the French were that the honour would go to the Yanks, the Lumiere brothers managed the feat several months ahead of Thomas Edison, to be forever immortalised as the Fathers of Cinema.

That still doesn't explain why there aren't more French movies with English subtitles floating out there, but it certainly explains the French people's savage pride in their film industry, doesn't it?

The reason why we don't see more French films released to the international market is because digital distribution is wreaking havoc on foreign films in theaters and on the telly.

Because we can stream pretty much anything these days, with or without a membership to any site, what is the point of going to see an art house film and paying the high price for that admittedly highly cultural fare?

It seems the French are quite happy reserving their best cinematic screening for their population, at their own box office.

Does that make them unusually proud of their French language films?

Do French filmgoers really crowd the cinema for every new release?
Do the French really crowd into the cinema for the latest Jean Dujardin film? Source: Pixabay Credit: Free-Fotos

Are the French Obsessed with Film?

The annual French film festival at Cannes invites a multinational jury to appraise submissions and award prizes, including – especially!, its famed Palme D'or.

Every year, a variety of films showcasing the best from assorted nations make the cut, winning best actress, best actor; best screenplay and film of the year – that coveted golden palm.

For a film industry event this celebrated, happening on French soil, you might be tempted to think that French directors and actors might saturate the event, and that French stories would trump other countries' contributions.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, relatively few submissions and even fewer wins are attributed to the French film industry.

To be sure, French actors go there; the event is held on the French Riviera, after all, and the glamour and publicity cannot be denied.

But is the event shrouded in hubris? Do the French host that international film festival because their particular brand of storytelling deserves the most merit?

Not at all, to listen to the French tell it.

The Cannes film festival got its start in 1946, when spirits were low and the industry was flagging; and it was meant to celebrate film as an art form.

It was also meant to compete with the Venice film festival, but did that so well that the Cannes ado had to be moved to the spring, because the Venice affair took place in the fall and prospective attendees could not be in two places at one time.

So, if the French view films of all sorts, from documentary to thriller so diplomatically, why is it that they give the impression of being mad for movies?

The French view motion pictures as the seventh art, on par with dance, music, sculpture, painting, architecture and poetry.

As these media are fundamental expressions of a culture, by extension, the French people hold that cinema is yet another representation of French culture and history.

Just as Great Britain promulgated the English language throughout the world, a feat we have the right to stake pride in, the French have every right to claim movie making as a part of their national heritage.

Thus we can see that it is not the films themselves that the French are so vainglorious of but the fact that they established a further artistic medium through which to tell stories, and have freely given it to the world!

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As an Englishman in Paris, I enjoy growing my knowledge of other languages and cultures. I'm interested in History, Economics, and Sociology and believe in the importance of continuous learning.