When picturing French women, many of our brains conjure up images colored by stereotypes of chic, young, white women smoking cigarettes at sidewalk cafes with airs of cool detachment. The French stereotypes many outsiders hold are perpetuated in part by French film, and most notably by the popular titles of the male-dominated French New Wave. An overwhelming number of leading ladies in French films over the past several decades have been hypersexualized — as in the case of Brigitte Bardot in Et dieu… crea la femme (1956), Catherine Deneuve in Belle du Jour (1967) and Marine Vacht in Jeune & Jolie (2013) — or as little more than demure, fashionable “muses.”
Still, there are many French films — some classic, others often overlooked — that offer more unique perspectives on the fears, follies, joys and complexities of French women. They reveal the realities of French women of various ages, races, socioeconomic statuses and personalities. The following list is a brief introduction to some of the more interesting glimpses into French womanhood. Each of these movies is an excuse to combine two pandemic hobbies — movie-watching and language-learning — and to take a trip to France from the comfort of your sofa. Bon voyage!
1. Cléo From 5 to 7 / Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962)
Known as the “Mother of the French New Wave,” director Agnès Varda was the sole pioneering woman among the Jean-Luc Godards and Francois Truffauts that shaped the film movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Cléo de 5 à 7 is among her most classic, and one of the finest of La Nouvelle Vague, while still often overlooked in comparison to Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. “As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive,” protagonist Cléo says at the beginning of Cléo de 5 à 7. The film follows Cléo for 90 minutes, from when she takes medical tests for a possible cancer diagnosis to when she receives the results, and the anxious waiting period in between. The film is often recognized for its feminist perspective and the questions it raises about external perceptions of women, exploring themes such as vanity and existentialism as they relate to the female experience. It’s a must-see for its beautiful black-and-white cinematography, memorable music by Michel Legrand, and its exploration of what it means to be beautiful and alive.
It’s ideal pandemic viewing because... disease-related anxiety runs rampant in our day-to-day lives.
2. A Single Girl / La Fille Seule (1995)
Clearly inspired by the French New Wave, and perhaps by Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 in particular, Benoit Jacquot’s La Fille Seule follows its protagonist, Valerie, for a meandering 90 minutes in real time. La Fille Seule offers an intimate look into a day in the life of a young woman and the uncertainty she faces as she experiences a breakup, grapples with the reality of her pregnancy, starts a new job delivering room service at a swanky Parisian hotel, and deals with a series of first-day tribulations. The film is intimate and relatable, exposing the subtle and not-so-subtle affronts young women are subjected to in the most mundane of circumstances.
It’s ideal pandemic viewing because… it can be viewed as a love letter to essential workers, and essential women workers in particular.
3. Amélie (2001)
Amélie is an ideal introduction to foreign film for modern moviegoers. While it is marketed as a romantic comedy, the movie’s plot is unusually complex and original for a rom-com, and it may be one of the most astute character studies in movie history. Even if you’ve seen the modern classic before, it’s worth a revisit in these times of social distancing. Amélie is shy and isolated from those around her in the streets of Montmartre, but the movie does not dwell in the depths of loneliness or strand its protagonist in self-pity. Instead, it highlights the gifts of those who are observers rather than active participants in their local goings-on, as Amélie finds her own quiet ways to be of service to other people and to find the subtle joys and surprises that are often overlooked by those who are too busy or too self-absorbed to notice them.
It’s ideal pandemic viewing because… its protagonist finds beauty and connectedness in isolation.
Watch for free on Pluto TV.
4. Girlhood / Bande de Filles (2014)
Among the multitude of French movies about white women leading charmed lives, movies like Girlhood/Bande de Filles pull viewers out of the confines of Parisian privilege and into the city’s outskirts, offering a rare glimpse into the banlieue (poor suburbs). Girlhood’s 16-year-old, African-French protagonist Marieme joins a group of girls who bond over hairstyles, Rihanna, committing petty crimes, and intimidating rival groups. While the movie explores the difficult decisions Marieme is faced with in her circumstances, it is also, at its heart, a celebration of sisterhood. Upon the film’s release, director Celine Scammia was both praised and criticized for featuring an all-Black cast, as she herself is white. (While she explained to IndieWire that the movie was more about the experience of being a girl than about the experience of being Black, she also agreed that the controversy spoke to the larger issue of a lack of Black women directors in France and beyond.)
It’s ideal pandemic viewing because... it celebrates the beauty of close bonds and the sweeter aspects of being part of a tight-knit “bubble.”
5. Elle (2016)
While Elle is a female revenge story in a similar vein to Promising Young Woman, it has a different, and highly controversial, approach to post-traumatic empowerment. Leading lady Isabelle Huppert, who plays businesswoman and sexual assault survivor Elle, deemed the psychosexual thriller “post-feminist”; director Paul Verhoeven said it was neither feminist nor post-feminist; and its take on misogyny and revenge is an unusual, surprising one in which the avenging character is morally ambiguous herself. Still, it explores how the character is impacted by the misogyny and failures of the men around her, internalizing their sadomachistic perspectives to the detriment of herself and those around her. The movie doesn’t reach any concrete moral conclusions, so viewers are left to draw their own. Please be warned: this movie includes sexual and at times graphic violence.
Photo, top: still image from Girlhood trailer
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Molly MacGilbert is a British-born writer currently based in Portland, Oregon. She loves cats, carbs, thrifting and Twin Peaks. For more, visit mollymacgilbert.com.
Author photo by Allison Barr / @alliisonder