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The French, masters of life

Romantic, with a touch of evil

April 09, 2006|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Postwar years brought the emergence of the great comedian-filmmaker Jacques Tati and his bumbling alter ego Mr. Hulot, and masters such as Max Ophuls continued the grand tradition with such sublime period pieces as "La Ronde" (1950), "The Earrings of Madame de ... " (1953) and "Lola Montes" (1955), but before long the "cinema of quality" would be under assault byyoung filmmakers who would constitute the New Wave -- Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette et al -- and "Breathless," "The 400 Blows," "Jules and Jim," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad" became staples at U.S. art houses. In the '60s Claude Sautet would become one of the most accomplished directors anywhere for the next quarter-century.

By the end of the '70s the French cinema began to lose its dominance, yet it has filmmakers who continue to astonish and beguile, such as Claire Denis and her venturesome "The Intruder" and Michael Haneke, with his "The Piano Teacher" and "Cache." The recent "Cache" indeed represents French cinema at its most rigorous: posing tough questions about society and about one's self in relation to it but refusing to offer the satisfaction of any clear answers. The ambiguity "Cache" evokes reverberates through French cinema all the way back to its beginning.

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Unless otherwise indicated, the films listed here are available on DVD in the U.S. In some cases, titles not available here may be obtainable through foreign sources.

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THESE TALES OF THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE ARE NOW AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCE.

Classics

Georges Melies' "A Trip to the Moon" (1902). Timelessly amusing and inventive.

Louis Feuillade's "Fantomas" (1913) (on DVD in U.K.), "Les Vampires" (1915) and "Judex" (1916). Witty serials featuring master criminals; high art in a modest genre.

Abel Gance's "La Roue" (1923), one of the most exciting railroad movies, and "Napoleon" (1927), a monumental treatment of the life of the emperor, culminating in dazzling Cinerama-like triptych sequences.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928). Still the definitive evocation of the martyrdom of the Maid of Orleans.

Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali's "Un Chien Andalou" (The Andalusian Dog) (1929), Bunuel's "L'Age d'Or (1930) and Jean Cocteau's "Blood of a Poet" (1930). Powerful surrealistic classics.

Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny," "Marius" and "Cesar" trilogy (1932). Alexander Korda directed the first and Marc Allegret the last, but Pagnol's interconnected tales of life on the Marseilles docks are all of an irresistible piece.

Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct" (1933). Never was rebellion at a boy's school so lyrical.

Marcel Carne's "Port of Shadows" (1938) epitomizes pre-war melancholy fatalism, with army deserter Jean Gabin crossing paths with Michele Morgan.

Rene Clair's "Under the Roofs of Paris" (1930), a tale of bohemian Paris of considerable charm, and "A Nous la Liberte (1931), a musical satire on the dehumanizing effects of the assembly line that inspired Chaplin's "Modern Times."

While all of Robert Bresson's films are essential viewing, his greatest is arguably "Diary of a Country Priest" (1951), a portrait of a young priest in a struggle with his faith.

Rene Clement's "Forbidden Games" (1952). The devastating impact of war upon children is unforgettable.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Le Corbeau" (1943) is among the most daring of films made under the German Occupation, while "Diabolique" (1955) lives up to its title as one of the scarier films of all time.

Jean Cocteau's entire oeuvre is essential, with his exquisite "Beauty and the Beast" (1946) the most accessible and his surreal "Orpheus" (1950) the most audacious.

Max Ophuls' "La Ronde" (1950), "The Earrings of Madame de ... " (1953) (both VHS only) and "Lola Montes" (1955), constitute a trio of splendiferous period pieces -- the first a sly rendering of Schnitzler's sexual merry-go-round, the second another romantic carousel set in motion by the sale of a pair of diamond earrings. In the third Ophuls imagines the courtesan and dancer reduced to a circus attraction.

Jean Renoir, one of France's greatest, never made a film not worth seeing, but "Grand Illusion" (1937) and "The Rules of the Game" (1939) remain at the top of the list.

Jacques Tati introduced his tall, bumbling alter ego in "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" (1953) and in "Playtime" (1967) turned him loose in a dehumanized, mechanized metropolis.

Georges Franju's "Eyes Without a Face" (1959) is horror at its most poetic and poignant.

Luis Bunuel enjoyed a final splendid decade in France, launched by "Belle de Jour" (1967), in which Catherine Deneuve's bourgeois housewife discovers liberation by working in a brothel.

Jean-Pierre Melville specialized in meditative reworkings of the American crime film, the best of which is likely "Le Samourai" (1967), starring Alain Delon as a killer for hire.

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