My curated list of French films from the end of the twentieth century

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Published on 22 June 2023 by Andrew Owen (13 minutes)

My blog articles on the lists seem to be very popular, so I decided to write another one. However, given the subject matter, it seemed more appropriate to write this one in French and then translate it into English. In the late 1980s, I started watching French films with subtitles on Channel 4 in the UK. This may explain why most of my choices are from the following decade.

This is by no means an introduction to French cinema. It is simply about writers, directors and actors whose work I like and can watch again and again, finding something new each time.

The Return of Martin Guerre

1982 - 15 - 1h 52m

I saw Gérard Depardieu for the first time on screen in the dubbed English version of “Cyrano de Bergerac”. This prompted me to look for other works by the actor. I think that “Martin Guerre” is among his best performances, even if it is less known. This film is based on real events in the 16th century. Several years after Guerre left his wife and family to join the army, a man claiming to be him arrives in the village. Despite his extensive knowledge of Guerre’s life, his identity is called into question.

The Price of Danger

1983 - 18 - 1h 38m

Based on the short story by Robert Sheckley, the director sued Twentieth Century Fox for similarities to “Running Man”. I saw the film once on television in Brittany and forgot its name. Thanks to the early days of the internet, I was able to ask questions about it on a usenet channel dedicated to French cinema. I was then able to email the author to ask where I could find a copy of the story. It was out of print, but my mother had a copy in an anthology.

The Green Ray

1986 - PG - 1h 39m

The title refers to the phenomenon of the green lightning that we sometimes see on the horizon at sea when the sun sets. In all my life as a sailor, I don’t think I have ever seen it. But I do remember my first visit to Paris in my late teens, during a school trip funded by the European Union. I still have the caricature I drew that day. Marie Rivière plays Delphine. In the summer, she goes to Paris on a whim, but she is bored and feels empty. One day, she meets by chance someone who seems to be perfect for her.


1990 - 18 - 1h 57m

The director Luc Besson appears frequently in this list. Anne Parillaud plays the role of a street kid who kills a policeman. Instead of going to jail, she is offered a chance at freedom if she becomes a government assassin. This was also Jean Bouise’s last film. The film first attracted me as a kind of live-action “Æon Flux”, years before there was a live-action “Æon Flux”. Indeed, the TV series derived from the film was compared by a critic to a long MTV video.


1991 - 15 - 1h 39m

The director Jean-Pierre Jeunet is also often on this list. In this surreal post-apocalyptic black comedy, Dominique Pinon plays a former clown hired as a handyman by a butcher and apartment owner played by Jean-Claude Dreyfus. During my first year of university, I had a poster of this film on my bedroom wall.

The Double Life of Veronique

1991 - 15 - 1h 38m

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s first film directed in part outside his native country. Irene Jacob plays two women with identical appearance, one living in Poland, the other in France. Although they are not related and are unaware of each other’s existence, they seem to share a deep and inexplicable bond. My interest in Poland began with the television film “A Very Polish Practice”, a sequel to the television series “A Very Peculiar Practice”, a surreal black comedy about a university medical practice.


1993 - R - 2h 40m

Having grown up in Wales, I was more familiar with the works of Alexander Cordell than those of Émile Zola. This film is based on Zola’s masterpiece, which may have been the model for Cordell’s “Rape of the Fair Country”. I saw it on King’s Road in London when it was originally released. Renaud plays Etienne Lantier, a young immigrant worker in a 19th century mining town. Exploited by the mine owner, the workers decide to go on strike.

Three Colors: Blue

1993 - 15 - 1h 34m

This is the film that made me discover Kieslowski. He is known for his thematic films. He has already made a series of films for television on the theme of “Decalogue”. In the first of this trilogy based on the motto of France, he explores freedom. Juliette Binoche plays a woman who loses her daughter and her husband, a famous composer, in a car accident and tries to start a new life. Benoît Régent plays the role of Olivier.

Three Colors: White

1994 - 15 - 1h 32m

The second film in the trilogy explores equality, Zbigniew Zamachowski plays Karol Karol who plots revenge on his ex-wife Dominique, played by Julie Delpy. One of the things I like about French cinema is that the objects on the screen are not randomly placed. In this film, there is at least one white object in almost every shot.

Three Colors: Red

1994 - 15 - 1h 39m

In the third part of the trilogy, dedicated to brotherhood, Kieslowski calls again on Irene Jacob. She plays a model who discovers that a retired judge, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, is listening to the phone calls of his neighbors. As in the previous installments, the main characters from the other films make appearances. This was Kieslowski’s last film.


1994 - 18 - 1h 50m

I visited New York for the first time the year this film was released. I was a teenager pretending to be an adult. Throughout my visit, I was never asked to prove that I was over 21. Although it takes place in New York and the dialogue is in English, it is still a French film. Written and directed by Luc Besson, it features Jean Reno in the lead role and most of the interior shots were filmed in Paris. Mathilda (played by Natalie Portman in her film debut) is orphaned when her entire family is murdered and takes refuge with her neighbor, who turns out to be a professional assassin. The sexualization of Mathilda may be uncomfortable, but the film is considered a cult classic. A planned sequel eventually became the basis for “Colombiana”.

City of Lost Children

1995 - 15 - 1h 52m

In this film directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a scientist from a surrealist society kidnaps children to steal their dreams, hoping that they will slow down his aging process. Ron Perlman, who does not speak French and learned his lines phonetically, plays the role of One. In 1997, Psygnosis released an adventure game adaptation of the film for PlayStation and PC. For some reason I distinctly remember that a version was released for the Amiga, which is just a figment of my imagination.

The Fifth Element

1997 - PG - 2h 6m

This is the movie that made me discover Chris Tucker, who is a wonderful actor. Financed by Gaumont, Besson’s next film after “Léon” was the most expensive film produced outside of Hollywood and had the highest visual effects budget of any film at the time. Set in the 23rd century, Leeloo (Milla Jovovich) stumbles into the life of cab driver Korbin Dalas (Bruce Willis) while on a mission to save the universe from evil and defeat Mr. Zorg (Gary Oldman). Chris Tucker plays Ruby Rhod (an amalgam of Michael Jackson and Prince). Eric Serra has created a futuristic pop opera that was thought to be technically impossible for a human to hit all the high notes in rapid succession. Albanian opera singer Inva Mula-Tchako sang the notes individually so they could be digitally arranged. In 2019, Chinese opera singer Jane Zhang performed a version of “Diva Dance” without digital assistance.


1998 - 15 - 1h 29m

I’ve been a Peugeot enthusiast for a long time. I learned to drive in a 205. The 504 is one of my favorite cars of all time. And Peugeot has always produced the coolest concept cars, one of my favorites being the Proxima (I hope the Blade Runner Curse doesn’t apply and that it will still exist in the year 2049). The modified car of this action comedy written by Luc Besson and directed by Gérard Pirès was to be a Peugeot, more precisely a 406. But the real star is Samy Naceri in the role of Daniel, a cab driver from Marseille. He is reluctantly brought in to participate in a police investigation of robberies where the getaway cars are red Mercedes 500E. Why is this? Because the police officer in charge of the investigation (Frédéric Diefenthal) can’t get his driver’s license. Marion Cotillard plays the role of Lilly, Daniel’s girlfriend. There was an English version and four sequels.

Time Regained

1999 - 18 - 2h 42m

With over a million words, Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” is the longest novel ever written. Famous, it begins with a memory triggered by the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea. I have only met one person who has read it in its original French version. I have read the English version by Terence Kilmartin, a revision of the earlier translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff. Someday, when my French is good enough, I’d like to read the original. Directed by Raúl Ruiz, this film is an adaptation of the seventh and final volume of the novel. In this adaptation, the photographs are the aide-mémoire of a non-linear narrative about the end of an era in French society brought about by World War I. The cast includes Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez and John Malkovich (who I didn’t realize spoke fluent French).

Better Than Sex

2000 - R - 1h 35m

Along with “The Dish”, this is one of the two films I remember seeing in theaters when I was in Australia. To the casual observer, this romantic comedy appears to be an Australian film in English. However, the film was partly financed by France Télévision Distribution, and its aesthetic is very French. This is a point that English-language critics did not seem to pick up on. The reviews are mixed. Stars David Wenham and Susie Porter were praised, but the story was considered weak. But I found it fascinating to see an English-language film that drew so heavily on French cinematic techniques such as the diorama and the careful placement of objects on the screen.

I don’t care about beauty or perfection. I don’t care about the great centuries. I only care about life, struggle, fever. I am at ease among our generation. “*-Émile Zola

Ok, I lied. I allow myself a few films from the 21st century:

The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain

2001 - 15 - 2h 2m

I discovered the concept of hyperreality in the works of Umberto Eco. But the term was originally proposed by Jean Baudrillard. Audrey Tautou plays a young woman who has survived a sheltered childhood by projecting her own fantasies. She continues to see the world through this lens when she takes a job as a waitress in Paris. Part of the film was inspired by the Garden Gnome Liberation Front, which took responsibility for stealing over 150 gnomes in the 1990s. After the film, the gnome was offered to the Café des Deux Moulins. The café changed the chairs to prevent them from being stolen, but the thieves took the gnome away. In 2023, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet released the short film “The True Story of Amélie Poulain”, which offered an alternative interpretation of the events of the film.

Shut Up!

2003 - 12A - 1h 25m

This movie and the third part of the Lord of the Rings are the only ones I remember watching when I was in New Zealand (the latter because someone’s cell phone kept ringing). I also remember attending a lecture by Robert McKee in which he explained why Titanic and The English Patient were bad movies. It should already be clear that I’m a fan of Gerard Depardieu and Jean Reno, but it was great to see them exercise their comedic talents together in this Francis Veber directed film. While “Better than Sex” is an English film with a French sensibility, this film is a French film with an American sensibility. It’s a buddy movie with Depardieu as a simple-minded thief, Quentin, and Reno as a tough guy, Ruby. They end up in the same cell and escape from prison together. Ruby wants revenge on his former gang leader, but first he has to get rid of Quentin.

A Long Engagement Sunday

2004 - 15 - 2h 13m

I am of the opinion that, for combatants, WWI was the worst conflict in history. One of my English ancestors was an ANZAC who survived Galipoli and two tours of duty in France. He never spoke of his wartime experiences. He died without family in New Zealand and was buried in the Napier Military Cemetery. His medals were sent back to Austria where they ended up in a museum in Queensland. This film was adapted by Guillaume Laurant from the novel by Sébastien Japrisot. It tells the story of five soldiers condemned for self-mutilation to escape military service during the First World War. They are condemned to an almost certain death in the no man’s land between the French and German trenches. But the fiancée of one of them refuses to give up hope and begins to uncover clues as to what really happened. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet reunites many of the actors from “Amélie” and gives a small role to Jodie Foster (who speaks fluent French). Jean-Baptiste Rossi began writing crime novels under the pen name Sébastien Japrisot (anagram of his own name) in the early 1960s. “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was his last completed novel and he did not live to see this adaptation.

Paris, I love you

2006 - 15 - 2h

There are other cities in France than Paris. I have the same affection for Marseille as I do for Baltimore in America (but unless you’re a John Waters fan, New York probably holds a more important place in your imagination). This is an ensemble film with 22 directors and an international cast. Originally, 20 short films were planned, one for each arrondissement of Paris. But two of them were cut for narrative reasons. I particularly like the Tuileries segment directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. An American tourist (Steve Buscemi) is drawn into a feud between two young lovers (Julie Bataille and Axel Kiener) because he breaks the cardinal rule of the metro: never look in the eyes.

Even if I don’t like the crew, I won’t sink the ship. In fact, in a storm, I’ll do my best to save it. You see, we are all in this boat and we must sink or swim together."-Daniel Defoe

The last entry is a bit of a cheat, as it is actually a two-part television series. But I include it because I was an extra and my name is in the credits.

Robinson Crusoe

2003 - PG-13 - 3h 12m

A man struggles to survive after being shipwrecked on a deserted island. The boat scenes were filmed aboard the Phoenix off the coast of Cornwall. This was the only time I was able to climb into the air without any safety equipment. But there were a lot of catches, and every time they reset the stage, I had to climb back up. But I’m the only person you see in the air on screen (for about a minute and a half).

Note: This is the unmodified DeepL translation from the original French.