French movies can still be a great way to learn about the culture, music, history, people, and accents around the Francophonie. It can also be a great way to loosen your grip so that language learning remains a joyful activity and not just the game of learning the subjunctive. So whatever your goals are, movies to learn French should be evenly spread along your calendar.
During my 50-days French Challenge (yes, with a capital C), I spent my procrastination hours on retrieving French movies from the immense archives of the Canadian Netflix. And hereby I declare that I watched probably everything that could be useful for learning French. And this is how I’ve made this little collection of good stuff to watch in French.
I decided not to be obvious and avoid spamming the list with Intouchables and Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain. But if you happened to miss these two make sure to add them in your personal “to watch” list.
What movies to watch to learn French?
#10: Huit femmes / 8 Women
French cinema can be weird. If you didn’t get this point earlier on with Amelie or Taxi, this masterpiece from Canadian francophonie will certainly set things straight.
But! Never in my life have I seen a more hilarious movie than 8 Women.
What do you think you can expect from eight women locked down in a mansion with one dead body? While all are trying to decide which one of them actually killed the man, accusing each other in current and past sins, the house slowly turns into a serpentarium and you, my dear friend, learn the top secrets of the family. And these secrets spread far beyond what you think is possible.
And so you don’t get shocked: it’s a musical movie so they gonna sing and sing a lot. Just try not to give it up after the first song and let the plot to develop.
#9: Jeux d’enfants / Love me if you dare
You might have watched this one. Probably, not as one of the movies to learn French but as a sweet romantic comedy… or drama. I guess it’s on both sides.
Jeux d’enfants is another proof that Frenchmen are strange. In this movie, you follow the story of Sophie and Julien, two students who still cannot outgrow their childhood game of “outdo”. And if in childhood their pranks were quite innocouos like to pee in front of the headmaster, with the age their game began to go further and further until it hit the edge between life, death, and love.
It’s very exciting to watch.
#7: Le Brio
Le Brio is my personal Top#1.
I was lucky enough to watch it on CineFranco, the festival of French cinema in Toronto. And the absence of this movie on Canadian Netflix is one of the reasons that make me dislike Canada in general. But let’s come back to the movie.
Le Brio is the story of two stubborn characters that learn to deal with each other. There’s an excellent French prof, who is, unfortunately, a racist and doesn’t hide it, and a brilliant student, who is, unfortunately, an immigrant and looks too provocatively for the first to ignore. On top on that, both have quite a sharp tongue and a trouble holding it. And, of course, they cross each other’s way, otherwise, where’s the intrigue?
The movie is stuffed with intelligent humor, clever play on words and provocation. It will be hard to understand without subtitles but after watching Le Brio you will be in love with the French language.
#6: Le Grand Bleu / The Big Blue
Le Grand Bleu is actually a good blend of Italian, American and Greek culture but it tells the story of a French guy… and some dolphins around him.
Do you know Jacques Mayol, the French diving legend who still holds a good deal of world records in freediving? Le Grand Bleu is about him, his life and his relationships: both with humans and – guess it – with dolphins. It’s a little bit on a spiritual side but the dilemma of Jacques Mayol was beyond normal human thinking anyway.
He had two worlds he loved: one we all live in and one underwater. At the end of the count, he’d have to choose where to stay.
There’s not so much talking here (although you would expect some even from dolphins if you watch movies to learn French and not just to have fun). So, again, change your focus. There’s so many things you can enjoy here: like the soundtrack by Eric Sierra that sends you in a whole different universe.
#5: Banlieue 13
Here are a few things you can learn from Banlieue 13:
- how to swear in French;
- what to do with an activated bomb;
- how to blackmail the government;
- how to jump the roofs;
I guess I have a ton of political reasons not to include this in the list of the movies to learn French. But let’s agree: these things sound too cool to ignore.
Both Banlieue 13 and Banlieue 13: Ultimatum are awesome movies full of Jackie-Chan-like fights, dizzying parkour tricks and epic music by Octupusss. There’s also a 99% chance that you won’t understand much of the dialogs whatever level of French proficiency you have. Just because 99% of these dialogs contain slang, swearing and other properties of “banlieue” code.
Nevertheless, both the first and the second parts of B13 are worth watching just to learn more of the Parisian street culture. And, of course, to see David Belle, the creator of parkour, jumping walls.
#4: Léon: Le Professionel / Leon: The Professional
Out of all movies to learn French, this one is probably the most popular.
I mean, it’s just nothing to compare with… What else can give that spectrum of emotions as Jean Reno carrying around with his ficus while killing bad guys? Or Garry Oldman hysterically yelling E-e-everyo-o-one? But that’s an English story. Should you watch Léon in French and all hues are changing.
No, the sexy French language doesn’t turn this thriller into an erotic drama. You wish.
Rather, Léon itself changes your whole perception of the French language that suddenly starts to sound suspicious, dangerous and … okay, still a little bit sexy.
#3: L’Odyssée / The Odyssey
Nope, it’s not about the Greek Odyssey as you could expect: titles can be misleading.
This French-Belgian version is about the adventures and misadventures of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the legendary French explorer and oceanographer who basically opened us the underwater world. L’Odyssée will tell you the story of a Dreamer: with all these crazy ideas, money problems, discoveries, and failures. It will make you admire him, then dislike him – then, probably, just accept as he is.
In any case, not knowing Jacque-Yves Cousteau is a deadly sin for a learner of French so, please, save your soul. Your efforts will be rewarded with mesmerizing underwater scenes, a beautiful love story and an absolutely wonderful classic French.
#2: Les Choristes / The Chorus
I noticed that The Chorus is one of those movies everybody heard about but only some managed to watch. So if it’s your story, make things right and watch this movie in French.
1949, a French board school for troubled boys whose parents either left them or never came back from the battlefield. The institution is governed by fear and the discipline inside is ensured by force. There’s no future for these boys outside the school walls. They don’t know the trust. So what can a new teacher do to get them out of this reality? And how can music transform their lives?
If you watched the English version, you know that nobody dared to translate the musical part: the boys still sing La Nuit and Vois sur ton Chemin. So Les Choristes is something that should be watched in French: this is how you preserve the integrity of the movie.
#1: Avis de Mistral / My Summer in Provence
This is another movie where Jean Reno mostly drinks and speaks to olive trees. It’s also an amazing family movie that leaves warm feelings in the heart no matter how many times you have watched it.
Avis de Mistral is also a modern drama since getting in the middle of Provence for a summer was an indeed a tragedy for three Parisian kids. No WiFi, no friends, no fun and a bad-tempered grandfather who cannot separate from the bottle – what can be worse? But as the summers days go by the family learns to accept and love each other, all while discovering good sides of the villagers’ life.
My Summer in Provence is one of the essential movies to learn French culture – or, as you’ll see, French cultures.
Watching movies to learn French… or not
To be honest, I don’t believe in learning French and learning any other language by watching movies.
In movies, there’s too much individual variation. Accents, vocabulary, topic, the speed of speech vary from one film to another. Moreover, not a single movie, unless it watched 20 times, would provide you with a stable acoustic data. So if you want to improve your understanding of spoken French watching movies is probably the most uneffective way to do so.
That’s why I recommend you to leave your attempts to understand a movie, turn on your English or French subtitles and just watch it for fun.
If you know another great movie to learn French, feel free to share in the comments below! These lists are never complete ;)