We’re back! This week continues our new series highlighting French films available through the Criterion Collection. To celebrate our year of collaborations with France, I’ve scoured Criterion’s extensive selection of French titles for the best of the best. As we’ve come to expect, it’s all here: thriller, personal drama, family epic. France’s unrivaled style is apparent, especially when you’re watching a great French film. Enjoy all of our Criterion Collection choices online and in-store at Ace Hotel!
The most indelible image from the The 400 Blows is, of course, the face of young Antoine Doinel. Antoine (in an iconic performance by Jean-Pierre Léaud) is an average pre-teen growing up in France in the early 50’s. The story follows him closely through his daily struggles with school and a less-than-perfect family life. Petty thief, troublemaker and loyal friend: Antoine is a captivating (and inescapably relatable) protagonist. It’s little surprise that Antoine had a basis in reality; director François Truffaut based the film on his own childhood experiences. Before stepping into the director’s chair, Truffaut was a film critic who wrote a sensational attack on the state of French filmmaking in 1954. Five years later, he ushered in a new era of filmmaking with The 400 Blows — which would become something of a blueprint for the emerging French New Wave. Deeply personal but rebellious in spirit and style; few films are as coveted as The 400 Blows.
Best special feature: Excerpt from a French TV program with Truffaut discussing his youth, critical writings, and the origins of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and Antoine and Colette.
A brilliant exercise in formality, Elevator to the Gallows plays like a wind-up toy: the characters are placed, the stage is set, and then— away it goes. This classic thriller from Louis Malle is a claustrophobic beauty. Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and her lover Julien (Maurice Ronet) have come up with the perfect plan to murder Florence’s husband. Things don’t go exactly as planned. But that’s half the fun. A stalled elevator sets the cogs in motion and doesn’t let up until the final moments. There’s so much to enjoy in this film: the carefully executed plot twists, the coolly naturalistic night photography by Henri Decaë and the melancholic musical score by Miles Davis. Most enjoyable, perhaps, is Jeanne Moreau herself. As the panic-stricken accomplice, Moreau’s face conveys a placid sense of internal anxiety. As she wanders dark Paris streets, never more enigmatic and beautiful, Julien’s murderous motive becomes instantly clear: she’s a woman worth killing for.
Best special feature: Archival interviews with director Louis Malle, actors Maurice Ronet and Moreau, and original soundtrack session pianist René Urtreger.
Novelistic in scope and atmosphere, A Christmas Tale is a dense but entirely satisfying epic from director Arnaud Desplechin. The film centers on the extended Vuillard family, led by Abel and Junon (Jean-Paul Roussillon and Catherine Deneuve). Their grown children (as well as respective significant others and grandchildren) reunite for Christmas to discover that Junon has fallen ill and will require a bone marrow transplant from a member of the family. But that’s just the start; A Christmas Tale is full of hidden secrets and grudges. Desplechin’s film is rich in detail and highlights some of the best actors working in contemporary French film, including Chiara Mastroianni (real-life daughter of Deneuve), Melvil Poupaud and Emmanuelle Devos (stealing scenes as a mysterious new girlfriend). The real stand-out is Mathieu Amalric, a regular in Desplechin’s films, who charms as the black sheep of the family.
Best special feature: L’aimée, Desplechin’s 2007 documentary about the selling of his family home.