To anyone who’s ever seen the film Amélie with Audrey Tautou, France is a whimsical dreamland, filled with unexpected interactions and quirky apartments. But Amélie, while no doubt a great and beautiful film, more-or-less ignores the grittier aspects of French society.
An outcast in her own way, Amélie is still a relatively well-adjusted white, Parisian woman in a country that’s increasingly diverse, full of paradox and inequality. French society is ripe for storytelling that highlights the struggles of those who are the most marginalized—either because of their race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion.
And indeed, many French filmmakers have stepped up to the occasion. Their films confront these issues.
These seven French films, all of which can be streamed (legally!) online, show France in its beautiful complexity:
1. La Haine (1995)
English name: La Haine
Taking place over the course of 19 hours, this black-and-white film follows the lives of three disaffected youth in a Parisian banlieue (suburb) who struggle against racism and boredom on a hot summer day. Vinz (who is Jewish), Said (Arab), and Hubert (French African) find themselves involved in an increasingly tense situation that reaches a deadly climax. The London Times called it, “One of the most blisteringly effective pieces of urban cinema ever made.”
2. Divines (2016)
Dounia, a young Muslim teenager at a Parisian vocational school, is frustrated with her lack of upward mobility in French society. Teaming up with another young girl from the projects, Maimouna, she becomes unwittingly involved in a high-octane drug ring that puts their street smarts to the test. The film won three César awards in 2017, and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes.
3. Les Intouchables (2011)
English name: The Intouchables
Rent: Google Play
A rich quadriplegic man confined permanently to a wheelchair, Phillippe, and an ex-con from a rough neighborhood, Driss, enter into an unexpectedly close relationship when Driss lands a job as Philippe’s caretaker. Both characters begin the relationship with preconceived notions about the other, but end up with a deeper appreciation of one another despite their differences.
4. Quand On a 17 Ans (2016)
English name: Being 17
Two high-school boys living in the beautiful, snowy mountains of southwest France are rivals, but must learn to live together in harmony when one of their mothers falls ill and they are forced to live in the same house. This powerful coming-of-age drama captures a variety of themes not usually portrayed in the glossy French films popular in America, including race, sexuality, health care, and rural poverty.
5. La Vie D’Adele (2013)
This nearly-three hour film explores the sexual awakening of Adele, a French high school girl who becomes ostracized from her friends because of her LGBTQ identity. Adele begins a passionate, but challenging relationship with Emma, an openly lesbian art student, several years Adele’s elder. Broadly, this romantic coming of age drama touches on issues of sexuality and class in modern day France.
6. Bande de Filles (2014)
English name: Girlhood
Bande de Filles portrays a group of black French teenagers living in a suburb of Paris, and struggling to find themselves in a economically and socially-deprived setting. Constantly forced to prove their toughness, they often must resort to violence, which reaches a boiling point on several occasions. Film critic Mick LaSalle remarked, “it’s as if [the director] is saying, not stridently, but plainly, ‘Here’s something real people are going through that you’ve never thought about.'”
7. L’Emprise (2015)
English name: L’emprise
This TV-movie, released in 2015, dramatizes the true story of Alexandra Lange, a French woman who killed her husband in 2012 after he had abused her and their four children for nearly 15 years, and the subsequent trial. In the film, Alexandra takes the witness stand, and we see her daily life before her husband’s death. Watching someone’s daily life could be dull (though certainly educational for those looking to understand France), but the looming abuse heightens the tension in every quotidian moment.