When it comes to making summer movies, France has a head start on other countries. That’s because love and intrigue seem to blaze more brightly on the Côte d’Azur, the beaches of Brittany, in the valleys of Provence, and in other French locales—some south of the Med—than anywhere else. Here’s the evidence.
… And God Created Woman (1956)
Roger Vadim was married to Brigitte Bardot when he directed her as man-eating 18-year-old orphan Juliete in St. Tropez. Exploiting Bardot’s pout, her body, and the 1950s youth-quake, this trash classic was an international sensation that put a lid on the coffin of post-war gloom. Its lasciviousness and the patriarchal taming of Juliete have dated badly, while Simone de Beauvoir’s 1959 essay celebrating Bardot put a sinister gloss on her appeal. The star’s earthiness remains an elemental force.
The Moon in the Gutter (1983)
Though director Jean-Jacques Beineix had a much greater success with Betty Blue (1986), this stylish neo-noir, based on an American pulp novel, is worth its cult reputation. On the sweltering Marseille waterfront (which Beineix mostly created in a studio), rich girl Nastassja Kinski and lowly prostitute Victoria Abril compete for Gérard Depardieu’s hulking dock worker. He, meanwhile, is continually drawn to the alley where his sister committed suicide after being raped. Look for the scene in which Depardieu watches Abril erotically propelling herself backwards and forwards on a backyard swing.
Swimming Pool (2003)
A blocked English crime novelist Sarah (Charlotte Rampling) holidaying at her publisher’s vacation home in Lacoste, Provence, is disturbed by the arrival of slatternly Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), who claims to be the publisher’s daughter and has a series of noisy one-night stands. An upheaval eventually forces Sarah and Julie to bond, though nothing is what it seems in François Ozon’s guileful erotic thriller. The odalisque-like images of Sagnier sunbathing sold the movie, but its power resides in Rampling’s sharp-edged acting and undimmed sensuality.
A Day in the Country (1936)
In 1860, a Parisian shopkeeper takes his wife, daughter Henriette (Sylvia Bataille), and his gormless assistant to a roadside restaurant by the Seine. Two young men, Henri (Georges D’Arnoux) and Rodolphe, contrive to get the women alone, and Henriette succumbs to her desire for Henri. He wants to see her again, but her father has other plans. Jean Renoir’s unfinished masterpiece recalls the light-dappled world of his father Auguste’s impressionist paintings while evincing regret for the tragic sacrifice of love on the altar of petit bourgeois tradition and pride.
Bardot again—no longer married to Vadim, but an ironic muse for Jean-Luc Godard. She gave a subtle interior performance as the unhappy wife of an indecisive screen doctor (Michel Piccoli) hired by a crass playboy producer (Jack Palance) to commercialize an adaptation of The Odyssey that Fritz Lang (playing himself) will direct. Sumptuously filmed by Raoul Coutard at the Casa Malaparte on Capri and Rome’s Cinecittà studio, the film is a dazzlingly self-reflexive drama that comments on Bardot’s exploitable nudity (insisted upon by the producers Carlo Ponti and Joseph Levine) and anticipates the collapse of Godard’s marriage to Anna Karina.
Despite its title, Gilles Bourdos’s languid, sunlit romantic drama tells the story of Andrée Heuschling (Christa Théret), the World War I refugee who became the last model of the impressionist artist Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and a star in the early films directed by his son Jean (Vincent Rottiers). When the old man is visited by Jean, a dejected cavalryman nursing his war wounds, at the artist’s Cagnes-sur-Mer farmhouse on the Côte d’Azur, Andrée decides to have him. “You want to eat me?” she says, biting into a pear. Andrée and Jean married in 1920.
Beau Travail (1999)
Facing a court martial in Marseille, a disgraced Foreign Legion sergeant major (Denis Lavant) recalls how his persecution of a charismatic new recruit (Grégoire Colin) brought about his downfall. Director Claire Denis’ balletic images of legionnaires performing exercise routines in the ferocious Djibouti heat comprise a hypnotic homoerotic reverie that meshes seamlessly with a realistic story about the ruinous effects of jealousy.
One Deadly Summer (1983)
A huge hit in France, Jean Becker’s film initially gives the impression of being a glossy rural sex comedy unworthy of its star, Isabelle Adjani, but it morphs into a complex psychological drama. In 1976, 19-year-old Elle (Adjani) settles in a sunny town in Vaucluse in south-east France with her crippled father and withdrawn mother. She seems intent on driving all the local males wild with her coquettish behavior, but is actually seeking revenge on the three men who raped her mother when they delivered a piano to her home in 1955. A series of misunderstandings unhinges Elle. As she did in The Story of Adele H. (1975), Adjani captures vividly a woman’s descent into madness.
Purple Noon (1960)
Directed by René Clément, the simmering first film version of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley was a showcase for Alain Delon and the Mediterranean, each gorgeously photographed by Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows). Delon is chilling as Tom Ripley, the psychopath and master mimic who switches between his own identity and that of the friend (Maurice Ronet) he has murdered. As terrific as Matt Damon is in the 1999 version, one senses that Delon’s serene dark angel could have snuffed him out like a candle.
Bay of Angels (1963)
In Jacques Demy’s radiant black and white drama, Jeanne Moreau is in her post-Jules and Jim pomp as a divorced Parisian roulette addict with platinum hair who has abandoned her child to expend her emotional lifeblood in Nice and Monte Carlo’s casinos. Claude Mann plays the naive young bank clerk who falls in love with the manipulative, half-mad schemer, but wants more of her attention. Michel Legrand’s jangling score is one of his finest.
A Housekeeper (2002)
Claude Berri directed this slight but rueful Rohmer-esque comedy about the hubris of a middle-aged man who gets involved with an impetuous girl over thirty years his junior. Deserted by his wife (played by the filmmaker Catherine Breillat), sound engineer Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) hires pretty, needy Laura (Émilie Dequenne) as his housekeeper. Irritated by her presence at first, he allows her to seduce him one night. She insists on accompanying him on his Brittany holiday and he is beginning to relax with her when he makes the mistake of taking her to a beach. To every thing—and every lover—there is a season.
Claire’s Knee (1970)
The fifth film in Eric Rohmer’s Moral Tales series is a wry, elegant literary comedy about the lengths a mature man goes to assuage his desire for an unobtainable girl of 17 or 18 without violating her trust or causing offense. On a visit to Lake Annecy, Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), a soon-to-be married diplomat in his mid thirties, is introduced by a novelist friend (Aurora Cornu) to her landlady’s daughters, wise 16-year-old Laura (Béatrice Romand), who falls for him, and the older, beautiful Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), whose right knee he fetishizes. Claire’s Knee is less about lust than its furtive suppression. It’s an ambiguous delight.
Goodbye First Love (2011)
There’s a universal truthfulness to Mia Hansen-Løve’s semi-autobiographical drama. At 15, Camille (superbly portrayed by Lola Créton) is consumed with love and desire for her 19-year-old boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky). At 23, she is an architecture student involved with her professor Lorenz (Magne Håvard-Brekke); though still attracted to Sullivan when they meet after a prolonged absence, she is painfully aware that she has outgrown him. Two pivotal summer sequences years apart—both involving the same talismanic hat—show how Camille grows, over the course of the movie, from dependent to independent.
À Propos de Nice (1930)
Jean Vigo already had tuberculosis when he directed À propos de Nice, the first of his four films. Photographed by the Soviet cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who conceived it with Vigo, it’s a sardonic silent short documentary about the gulf between rich and poor in the biggest resort town on the French Riviera. Images of the bored and indolent rich sunning themselves on the Promenade des Anglais, sailing, bowling, playing tennis, and attending car races are juxtaposed with shots of impoverished mothers begging, laundry workers, street cleaners, and people frolicking at a carnival. Vigo died at 29 in 1934. The coming war resolved many of the class conflicts observed in his metaphor-laden classic.
A Tale of Summer (1996)
The third of Eric Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons is the nouvelle vague director’s delicate autobiographical comedy about his own experiences as a hesitant youth flummoxed by the attentions of different girls. Vacationing in the small Breton seaside town of Dinard, mathematics student and would-be musician Gaspard (Melvil Poupaud) awaits the arrival of the unreliable Lena (Aurelia Nolin). He befriends Margot (Amanda Langlet), a wise anthropology student and waitress who likes him but has an absentee boyfriend, and gets involved with her sensual friend Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon)…then Lena shows up. It’s clear who’d make the best girlfriend for Gaspard, but with so much choice and vanity, how can he be expected to make the right decision?
Rohmer expertly probes the characters’ motives and self-delusions, revealing that when it comes to young love, nothing is casual or certain. Enjoy, too, Rohmer’s 1983 Pauline at the Beach (which starred the teenage Langlet) and his 1986 masterpiece The Green Ray.