People learning French often ask me which are the best French movies to watch to learn the language of love.
However, what they often don't consider is how to use those movies to learn French effectively.
We all love French movies, but are movies just a bit of fun or can you actually use them to improve your French?
The answer, of course, is that you can learn a LOT through French movies…if you know how to.
In this post, we're going to take one French film as a case study (my favourite of all time), and look at examples of how you might use the movie to improve your French.
The list is long, but the best French movie for me, and the one I always recommend, is an enchanting and quintessentially French film: Contempt (Le Mepris), by Jean-Luc Godard.
Contempt is a sexy cocktail of gorgeous shots, landscapes, poetry and philosophy. It is the story of Camille and Paul Javal, a married couple, who go to Italy to shoot the screen adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, which Paul has been asked to write a new script for.
The film follows the unravelling of their relationship, and stars one of our national treasures, Brigitte Bardot, as Camille, and Michel Piccoli as Paul Javal. (You can get the stunning new remastered version here.)
The French love to think about the meaning of life. The opening dialogue of Contempt (which is also one of the most famous scenes in French cinema) illustrates this perfectly.
In what appears to be a simple conversation between lovers, Brigitte Bardot in her role as Camille, raises the question of objectification. She probes her husband about his unconditional love. She asks him if he likes her feet, her breasts, her shoulders.
She goes on to describe the rest of her body and concludes, “then you love me totally.” He answers, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.” The look on her face at his response suggests disappointment.
Philosophy is compulsory for French students taking the Baccalauréat, so you shouldn’t be surprised to get caught in a conversation about life and death sparked by a minor incident. Contempt is a fantastic illustration of the way French people think.
Observing this will allow you to have more natural conversations with people and understand what’s going on when things get all serious.
If you’ve just started studying French, you should enjoy the scene where Camille is introduced to the producer of the film Paul has been asked to work on, Prokosch, and the director, Fritz Lang, in Cinecittà.
You might recognise a few words such as enchantée (pleased to meet you) for example, and learn a trick or two in the art of seduction.
Camille circles around the film producer’s car, like a cat exploring new territory. When Prokosch invites her for a drink at his place, she answers coyly, “Je ne sais pas” (I don't know) – a simple sentence charged with ambiguity.
Bardot is famed for what we call la moue (pouting, in English) and she uses it profusely in Contempt.
La moue is an essential facial expression for any girl wanting to look at home in France. If you need something from your father or your boyfriend, this is a powerful weapon. Put on a look of faint boredom, purse your lips ever so slightly and take a blank look; you're doing la moue.
When asked if anything is wrong, just say, “non, rien” (nothing) and look into the distance. You'll be halfway to being fluent, and people will be more likely to speak to you in French. You can do this anywhere you want, and it will make you look intriguing in any situation.
Actors overacting on set offer a great opportunity to perfect your diction. You can practise your elocution by repeating the lines between Paul and Camille in the argument scene. The dialogue, which takes place in their flat, is particularly well delivered.
At one point, Paul tells Camille that swearing doesn't suit her. To get back at him, she enunciates a list of swear words in typical Bardot style – slow, over-the-top and delightful!
There are little nuggets throughout the scene, such as, “Si tu m'aimes, tais-toi” (If you love me, shut up), to prepare you for a real life situation.
Mimic the actors to your heart’s content and before you know it, your intonation will sound natural and convincing!
[Tweet “‘Si tu m'aimes, tais-toi!'”]
The relationship between Paul and Camille is rocky. From early on in the movie, Paul tries hard to read the signs in Camille's behaviour. She's sulking, he knows that, but he can't figure out what the reason is. He keeps searching for clues in her demeanour.
The movie takes the viewer on a journey from romance to suspicion, resentment, arguments and ultimately, the breakdown of the couple. It presents a great assortment of emotions, which will help inform you on how people behave in a given situation.
The scene where the couple are reunited at Prokosch’s house is particularly gripping. The camera dwells on Brigitte Bardot’s face as she comes to the realisation that her husband is using her to seduce the producer.
The French are terribly proud of what we refer to as Le Septième Art (The Seventh Art form) and in particular of the Nouvelle Vague (the French New Wave: 1958 – late 60s), a film movement started by a group of young rebellious filmmakers who were fed up with the stiff way in which movies were made in France. The group wanted to use the new, lighter filming equipment to experiment with form, and talk about current issues.
Contempt is one of the best-known New Wave movies and its director, Jean-Luc Godard, was one of the most daring filmmakers of the group. The opening credits are constructed in a very unique and experimental way, and Godard plays with exciting new sound and visual editing tricks throughout the movie. The haunting soundtrack by the composer Georges Delerue will follow you around, carrying the movie with all its melancholy in its trail.
Cinema is a serious matter in France; it is carefully analysed in the media and discussed in great detail. Being familiar with it will allow you to better understand conversations about arts and culture.
The movie was recently remastered so you can now enjoy it in all its vibrancy. (You can get it here on Amazon.)
Charlotte Wells is the founder of A Story Worth Living, a cross-media production company, specialised in creating interactive tools for personal growth.
She previously combined her love for film and languages by designing in a university course called “French for film-lovers” and is currently developing a self-awareness app for women called Curativity.
Do you have any tips for using French movies to learn the language? Let me know in a comment below! If you know someone learning French, please send them this article!
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