Staff Picks Category: French language

Day For Night []

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La Nuit Américaine, or Day for Night, is one of my favorite films. This 1973 film by French director François Truffaut shows the cast and crew of a dramatic film on and off the set. In addition to the obvious work necessarily to make a film—selecting costumes and props, learning lines, building sets, performing for the camera, adjusting lights, etc.—we also see these men and women as they make friends, suffer nervous breakdowns, fall in love, gossip, run away, return, and otherwise live rather complicated lives.

The film stars Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud as the film within the film’s young stars, but the film truly has an ensemble cast, with many talented actors portraying a wide array of interesting and memorable characters. Truffaut himself is part of the cast, as he not only directs the film, but also plays the director of film within the film. The music is by Georges Delerue, who also worked with Truffaut on a number of other films.

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Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg []

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The master melodist and provocateur, Serge Gainsbourg introduced a revolutionary recording with 1971’s Histoire de Melody Nelson. The French pop star abandoned an archetypal singing style in place of a soft and nearly spoken word delivery. This was achieved by the singer’s smokey, baritone voice captured by close microphone placement. The music behind this voice is expressive and experimental with shades of psychedelia. Groovy (and yes, there’s really no other way of putting it) electric bass lines, freak out fuzz guitar and busy drums supply the basic tracks that are augmented by a choral and haunting string score by Jean-Claude Vannier.

Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg’s then wife, appears on the front cover and also provides the voice of Melody Nelson. You see, this is a concept record. It tells a Lolita-esque tale of a middle-aged man out driving who accidentally hits a bicycling British girl. The man falls in love with his victim and a love affair follows. Melody soon decides to fly home and the man, now devastated, performs an African Cargo Cult ritual to make his love return. His desperation proves to be tragic as he discovers that this act of mysticism caused an airplane crash.

The songs of Serge Gainsbourg, and the Melody Nelson album in particular, have inspired many musicians including Air, Jarvis Cocker, Beck, Portishead, Sean Lennon and the Divine Comedy. Rarely has the marriage of lyrical ingenuity and musical arrangement been achieved in popular music.

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Summer Hours []

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Three siblings’ memories of the past and aspirations for the future collide when confronted with their shared inheritance of an exceptional 19th century art collection and the family’s country house in Oliver Assayas’ 2008 feature film. Left to negotiate the future of the collection and the country house in which it has been kept, Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a successful New York designer, Frédéric (Charles Berling), an economist and university professor in Paris, and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), a dynamic businessman in China, confront the end of childhood, their shared memories and backgrounds, and unique visions of the future. The film is a complex spin on the traditional pastoral country house film and poses questions about the power of objects and their connection to the sentimental allure of the past in an age of globalization. One of two feature films that developed out of a proposed series of shorts that would have been produced to celebrate the Musée D’Orsay’s twentieth anniversary (the other film, The Flight of the Red Balloon, also starred Binoche). Despite these heady themes and what sounds like a relatively mundane plot, the film remains focused and often riveting due to its great casting and exceptional cinematography. French Language, with subtitles.

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Jules and Jim []

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Jules et Jim, François Truffaut’s third feature, is arguably his masterpiece. The film is based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché which drops us into a delicate love triangle that lasts for twenty-five years. A marriage, a child, romantic affairs and a World War (with the closest of friends on opposing sides) are seen through the lives of Jules, Jim and Catherine. Despite being a tragic piece, this 1962 film maintains a certain lightness and a sense of humor throughout many of its scenes. In addition, a beautiful score composed by Georges Delerue accompanies the equally impressive cinematography by Raoul Coutard.

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A Prophet []

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A brutal, raw and riveting look at the progression and growth of a young convict in the harsh environment of a French prison. Nineteen year-old Franco-Arab Malik El Djebena is just beginning his six year prison sentence in Brécourt after a youth spent primarily in detention centers. As a new inmate without friends or enemies inside, he finds the prison divided between Corsicans and Muslims, with the Corsicans holding the balance of power because of influence with the prison guards. Tahar Rahim is excellent as El Djebena, and seems to transform physically as his character rises from isolation and illiteracy to become a key player within Brécourt and beyond its walls. Director Jacques Audiard builds tension masterfully throughout, drawing out scenes with excruciating anticipation before moments of shocking violence. Frequently compared with the Godfather, this French Language film received the 2009 London Film critics “Best Feature Film” Award and was nominated for a 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign language Film.

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