So, you’re feeling glum about Valentine’s Day. Maybe you’ve suffered a recent breakup. Or you’re happily single, but suddenly…it’s Valentine’s Day and everyone else is pretending to be fou amoureux. Maybe you’re bored with your steady beau, or believe that the holiday was invented by Hallmark to sucker dumb lovebirds into buying cards, flowers, and heart-shaped boxes of candy. No matter why you’re feeling like love (or at least V-Day) stinks, there’s a French love story out there that will lift your spirits. These films feature the heartbreak, betrayal, humiliation, rage, bickering, insanity, suicidal longings, aging, death, and other common symptoms of that crazy little thing called l’amour—like only the French can do it. Cozy up with any of the following French films for Valentine’s Day, and get ready to feel smug in your solitude, while all the love-crazy dingdongs pull fast ones to get impossible restaurant reservations, gorge on trop de chocolat, then have epic fights in the middle of SoHo or in the car not he way home…only to go to bed grumpy that VD was just as disappointing as last year.
1. 2 Days in Paris, dir. Julie Delpy (2007)
In the Before Sunset star’s hilarious directorial debut, Marion (Delpy) and her neurotic American boyfriend, Jack (Adam Goldberg), crash with her parents in gay Paree after a romantic Italian séjour. What should be one big Parisian party turns into a nightmare, between his horrible French, her uber-inappropriate parents, and a virtual parade of her exes showing up on every street corner. Delpy has a real knack for dialogue and keeping this cringe-fest focused more on love’s obstacles than its rewards. The tagline says it all: Can their love survive two days in Paris?
Stream on Amazon Prime.
2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, dir. Céline Sciamma (2019)
In Sciamma’s masterpiece, set on a remote island off Brittany in the 18th century, Adèle Haenel plays Héloïse, a young heiress who refuses to pose for a wedding portrait for the Italian nobleman to whom she has been promised. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a painter, is hired to act as Héloise’s companion and paint her secretly. The unexpected love that erupts between them is fiery, profound, bouleversant—the opposite of arranged marriage between rich people—forcing both women to examine their personal yearnings, as well as the expectations of a society that determines how they will live and who they will love. In a period when young ladies couldn’t live or love openly together, heartbreak is the only place this can go.
3. The Lovers on the Bridge, dir. Léos Carax (1991)
Alex (Denis Lavant), a homeless alcoholic and street performer, falls for Michèle (Juliette Binoche), a fellow vagrant who is going blind. The story veers from the gritty harsh realities of living on the streets of Paris to an explosive love story. A famous scene of the couple dancing on the Pont Neuf while fireworks explode in the sky overhead is worth the price of admission. Music by David Bowie, Le Rita Mitsouko, and Iggy Pop provides a propulsive soundtrack.
Rent on Amazon Prime.
4. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, dir. Jacques Demy (1964)
Demy’s beloved musical, with music and lyrics by Michel Legrand, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The film stars Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as giddy young lovers separated when he is drafted to fight in the Algerian War. Their story is so achingly beautiful and sad, just hearing the Oscar-nominated theme song “I Will Wait for You” will bring tears to the eyes of pretty much anyone who’s seen the film.
5. Amour, dir. Michael Haneke (2012)
Devastation reigns supreme in the story of an elderly couple, Anne et Georges, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for 10 César Awards, winning five, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress. When Anne suffers a stroke, Georges becomes her caretaker, even though their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) wants to put her into a facility. When a second stroke leaves Anne unable to speak and Georges overwhelmed, he is forced to decide what real love means to him and what it is asking him to do. None of the options are pretty.
6. Jules and Jim, dir. François Truffaut (1962)
The New Wave classic touts cinema’s most famous threesome. With Henri Serre as Jim, Oskar Werner as Jules, and Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, Jules’ flighty, Bohemian girlfriend and later wife, who loves—and bounces back and forth between—both men. Upbeat, sexy fun; deeply troubled love triangle with no easy way out; or a bit of both? Set during World War I, Jules et Jim will make you swoon—and make your heart hurt.
Stream on Max.
7. Betty Blue, dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix (1986)
The cult classic of doomed love stars Jean-Hugues Anglade as an aspiring novelist who falls hard for Betty (Béatrice Dalle), an impulsive, tempestuous younger woman. The impassioned pair throw convention to the wind, turning life into an all-consuming adventure for two. The gorgeously shot emotional/carnal whirlwind they create together is electrifying, until it isn’t, as Betty transforms from free-spirited sexpot to uncontrollable psychopath who poses a threat to herself and others. The tragic love story was a huge hit—and made Dalle a star.
8. Atlantics, dir. Mati Diop (2019)
In a coastal suburb of Dakar, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is engaged to a wealthy man, Omar, but she loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a lowly construction worker whose boss hasn’t been paying him. When Omar’s bed catches fire on their wedding day, the police suspect Ada and Souleiman, but he has gone missing, along with a group of his co-worker believed to be lost at sea. People in their town begin behaving strangely, including the young detective in charge of the case. Is it possible that the ghosts of the men lost at sea have returned to get revenge on the boss who cheated them? If so, will Ada have a chance to see her dead lover one last time?
Stream on Netflix.
9. Jacquot de Nantes, dir. Agnès Varda (1991)
Varda’s hybrid documentary and narrative film functions as a love letter to her husband, the French New Wave director Jacques Demy, who died in 1990. The film includes interviews with Demy before his death and recreations of his early life, that reveal the creative seeds of his career as the filmmaker best known for his musicals The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort. Almost unbearably beautiful are Varda’s meditations on Demy and his life, along with images of his hands, his hair, his eyes, filmed while he was dying, which appear as an artist’s attempt to preserve the husband she loved and was losing and remember him and keep him through the movie she makes of his life.
Stream on the Criterion Channel.
10. Blue is the Warmest Color, dir. Abdellatif Kechiche (2013)
This queer love story starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos follows a high schooler’s (Exarchopoulos) coming of age as she enters into a relationship with an older, blue-haired woman (Seydoux). Raw and real, this film is proof that relationships don’t always need to work out to leave a lasting impact on you.
Stream on Tubi.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex & the movies column for IFC, and a horror screenplay for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY, and the Boston Globe.