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Good French Movies (1985-90): Les Femmes Et Les Hommes

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GJ Cole itcherA strong strand of feminism began to emerge in French cinema, encouraged by the earlier work of artistic and political visionaries such as Agnès Varda and Chantal Akerman. Concurrent with the debut of some the nation’s greatest and most enduring actresses – Julie Delpy, Juliette Binoche, Sandrine Bonnaire – a new maturity developed in filmmakers’ handling of sexual politics and the power dynamics between women and men. ~ GJ Cole

Cherchez La Féministe

The late 80s marked the beginning of a long run of serious, humanistic movies from the great Catherine Breillat, an author whose take on feminism was the beating heart of her oeuvre. But Breillat’s emergence as a filmmaker occurred in an environment in which women and women’s issues were beginning to demand a more modern form of respect in French cinema.

Actresses such as those mentioned above came to represent a new kind of idol for whom intelligence was more important than physical beauty. And while French women have often been portrayed as assertive and proud, the ‘delicate woman’ in film was truly given short thrift in stories that wanted to show a fuller spectrum of womanhood: emotions and behaviours that demanded collective dignity by refusing to conform to well-meaning but restrictive ideals.

Movies like ‘Vagabond’ and ‘36 Fillette’ do not apologise for or explain their characters’ transgressive or anti-social behaviour: they put untold stories into the culture and legitimize their subjects by listening.


Progressive French Movie Recommendations

‘Sans toit ni loi’ / ‘Vagabond’ (Agnès Varda, 1985)

Why did you drop out?
Champagne on the road’s better!

Opening with the discovery of a young woman’s corpse in a ditch, Varda takes us on a formalistic journey over the homeless girl’s last days: squatting in an abandoned mansion with a lover, shacking up with goat herds, and squandering the good will of concerned parties all round.

Fictive vox-pops and disciplined camera pans around the landscape add shape to Sandrine Bonnaire’s untamed adventures as the homeless girl, creating a patchwork effect rather than a linear story. But Varda’s true accomplishment here is to make Mona part of the environment, from her symbolic and physical relationship to the outdoors, to decrepit symbiotic buildings.

Professing to be an almost academic of study of the doomed and self-spiting young woman (any sympathy for her must come from deep humanism, as on the surface she remains selfish and hypocritical), ‘Vagabond’ offers no concrete answers about Mona’s background or how she came to be the way she is. Varda’s refusal to judge or to reduce the situation to digestible facts establishes a strong feminist standpoint in a tough physical and political environment.

‘37° 2 le matin’ / ‘Betty Blue’ (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986)

I had known Betty for a week. We screwed every night. The forecast was for storms…

Perhaps the most infamous movie to emerge from the cinéma du look, ‘Betty Blue’ is known for being “that sexy French film” – convenient for publicists and those in search of titillation, but perhaps doing a disservice to Beineix and his cast. In fact, ‘Betty Blue’ is a funny, moving, tragic, and gloriously photographed epic romance, and the eroticism is inseparable from the characters, their chemistry and their environment.

Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade are lovers on the run from responsibility, and it’s a couple’s tale that unfolds like a family saga – broad and roaming in scope. Ultimately, Betty’s mental health and Zorg’s inability to cope seem destined to overtake them.

It’s one of those films that, if it feels corny now, it’s because it has influenced so much since – and the boldness and clarity of Beineix’s vision has made it tough to challenge.

‘Détective’ (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

We’re not in one of those little French films, where the actors believe talking is thinking…

Since the boundless (if critically-engaged) joy of Godard’s early work, it’s been hard to imagine him having much fun on his film sets, as the humour became more wry or evaporated altogether while his exploration of personal feelings has evolved and calcified into the area of world politics. (His recent 3D movie ‘Goodbye to Language’, however, blends both well).

Positioning the women in supportive roles in the shadow of their variously cruel, criminal or violent male counterparts, Godard plays up the frustration of the position and the absurdity of male-worship.

‘Détective’ is a bright spot in his mid-career work, unpretentiously mixing the mechanics of power with expressions of love, fear and frustration. An ensemble cast of great French actors (including the debut of Julie Delpy) inhabit four overlapping stories, all taking place in a quirky hotel. Godard’s playfulness with the sound, plot, and dialogue hint at a more mature return to his earlier interests, and makes for an entertaining and thought-provoking ninety minutes.

‘Mauvais Sang’ / ‘Bad Blood’ (Leos Carax, 1986)

You need to feed the eyes for your dreams…

Perhaps the crime flick Godard would have made if he’d been starting out in the mid-eighties, Carax’s second feature expands his own concept of how the personal indexes the political: in the near-future, an AIDS-like disease is killing those who make love without emotion, and a romantic young man is hired by crooks to steal the cure, which is being suppressed by the authorities.

Falling in love with a gangster’s moll, young Alex (Carax-regular Denis Lavant) seems doomed to live out his life in fast-forward as events spiral out of control. Juliette Binoche and Michel Piccoli complete a dream cast, and Carax’s unapologetic pop art sensibility has a jagged, agitated edge that keeps the film fresh and relevant three decades later.

The centrepiece of the director’s three early movies about impossible love, ‘Bad Blood’ is closer to the avant-garde than ‘Boy Meets Girl’ or ‘The Lovers on the Bridge’. It may take a couple of viewings to get everything that’s going on but the film still does not outstay its welcome.

‘36 Fillette’ (Catherine Breillat, 1988)

Breillat’s first step into the world as an artist was the publishing of her debut novel, ‘Easy Man’, when she was just 17 – French authorities banned it from being read by anyone under 18.

Breillat has never shied away from expressing honest and passionate beliefs about womanhood and sexuality. Twenty years after ‘Easy Man’, her controversial, confrontational approach again got her censored, this time for ‘36 Fillette’: the story of a fourteen-year-old girl on holiday who, not yet equipped to comprehend her burgeoning sexuality, begins a relationship with a predatory older man.

A measured colour palette and unassuming camera work leave all the focus on Delphine Zentout who, as young Lili, is furious, bold, scared, and cruel. It’s a rare cinematic treatment of its subject that achieves Breillat’s stated goal: “I’ve never wanted to break taboos, I simply want to go through them.”


Une Femme Est Une Femme

French cinema began a rejuvenation with a host of new directors and actors bringing previously ignored values and characters to the screen. A quarter of a century later, these artists still produce striking work, which is testimony to a strength of will, imagination and voice that refused to conform.

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