How do you even say Louvre???
September 26, 2012 10:08 PM   Subscribe

French tv & movie recs for someone who wants to be entertained but also get used to the language?

I'm going to Paris this winter on a trip! Super excited. But, I have always been tragically terrible at french. I've never been good at languages, but french has been the huge shame of my life. I was a student of art history for years and years - I still can't remember how to spell nouveau, let alone how to pronounce it. I have no space in my brain, it seems, for french spelling or pronunciation. I can't physically make my mouth make the sounds that french has that english does not.

However, for my job, I watch japanese tv and cartoons constantly, and I have been known to go on media binges of different cultures - hindi and korean most recently. It seems that, with repeated daily exposure to a compelling narrative, combined with good subtitles (I edit subtitles for work, so it's extremely distracting when they are bad or poorly timed) I can pick up, not the language itself, but a comforting familiarity with it.

I would like to do this with french. My goal is, when I get to Paris, to be comfortable ordering off a menu with only minimal pointing and not being ashamed of my pronunciation, and finding the bathrooms, and buying things from stores with the assistance of hand gestures. I'd like to be able to not stress out about how to say please and thank you and excuse me. I would also love to be able to have a comfortable familiarity with the sounds of the language so that I will be able to discern the tones and emotions of the people talking around me. It's not really about content, so much as... gist, I suppose?

I really think I can do this by the end of December if I start watching french media now. I already know that I love the french sense of humor and absurdity, I love their art and food, and I love the preoccupation with love. What I don't know are the actual tv shows and movies that are any good to watch! Are there sitcoms? I love sitcoms. Are there over the top soap operas with starcrossed lovers and mean people in fabulous outfits? I love those. I also like really nerdy things, cartoons, movies about imaginative and beautiful and strange people and objects. A good coming of age story is like finest candy to me, so are quirky rom-coms, which try as I might I never get tired of. Fantasy, science fiction, and strange genre works are all good, too. Shows intended for older kids are also great, and that might work well on the language front.

I suppose the caveat is that the characters speak fairly clearly, with a pretty neutral accent, about a variety of subjects relevant to the modern world (as much as I would like a period piece I probably don't want to skim french off them), and the soundtrack isn't overwhelming the words.

I've got netflix (USA), amazon prime, and... a variety of other means. Big multi-season shows would be cool, as well as lists of films and miniseries. You can assume I've seen and enjoyed everything by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Thanks in advance!
posted by Mizu to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I suppose this might be a silly answer since it's so darn obvious but here it goes...

The French New Wave was built around a certain naturalistic tone of voice so despite being of a different era, in many of those films the dialogue sounds naturalistic and clear enough for you to gain a feel for the cadence.

Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows
Jean Luc Godard's Breathless
The Bakery Girl of Monceau is a fun little short.
Les Bonnes Femmes is a good one.

Might also be interested in the rest of Francois Truffaut's library: The Last Metro, Day For Night, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim, the rest of the Antoine Doinelle series that starts with The 400 Blows.
posted by dr handsome at 10:31 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Recent french language films I've enjoyed:

The Kid with a Bike (2011) a nice, kind of idealistic drama about a hairdresser who takes on a troubled kid who has been abandoned by his parents and forms a strong friendship with him. pretty heartwarming with a nice plot that slowly meanders along...nothing melodramatic.

Le Havre (2011) drama about a man in a small french seaside town who helps an illegal immigrant child evade the authorities and avoid deportation with the help of his community.

The Intouchables (2011) a nice drama about a recently paraplegic guy who hires a guy from the ghetto to care for him, lots of good dialogue.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) French-Canadian drama about an Algerian refugee who poses as a school teacher after a classes teacher commits suicide.

I Killed my Mother (2011) another French-Canadian drama about an angsty gay teenager who has an antagonistic relationship with his mother. I found this one really funny.

Hidden (2005) psychological thriller/mystery about a couple being harassed via a series of mysterious notes/videotapes.

Martyrs (2008) quite a gruesome horror film - some might see it as gratuitous torture porn but I think the originality of the plot makes up for it, and it is genuinely terrifying, unlike the cheesy US equivalents such as Saw and Hostel.

All of these have had a reasonable amount of critical acclaim and have more than a 7 on IMDB, if that matters to you.
posted by kwes at 10:59 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The City of Lost Children for your Gilliamesque fantasy fix, Amélie for your quirky love story, and if you can handle a good dose of crushing despair (artfully realized), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly for a compelling personal narrative.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:26 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I really enjoy the tv show Engrenages (spirals in English/on amazon)
I believe the English subs were done by the BBC so should be decent.
I watched the3 first seasons, now impatiently waiting for 4th one.
posted by PardonMyFrench at 11:42 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Le Dîner de Cons/The Dinner Game is great, and nothing like its sappy American remake, Dinner for Schmucks. DVD available on Netflix.
posted by homodachi at 11:46 PM on September 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're specifically trying to get familiar with the sound of Parisian French, I'd have to recommend against watching Quebecois films right now. Save them for after your trip.
posted by jacalata at 1:06 AM on September 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

A tool that could be interesting for you is Captvty. It automates the downloading of TV shows made available on-line by French TV channels. The tool is legal in France, thanks to the law allowing to make private copies. Those shows can be streamed for free on the channels' websites (like the adult cartoon Silex and the city on Arte), but it's more convenient to have them as MP4 files, particularly for someone who wants to learn the language. Just download a bunch of them and just watch/keep those that seem interesting. Note that Captvty may or may not work from a foreign IP, depending on the show. Also these shows are less likely to be high-profile ones, but they may still give you a good feel of the place before you go.
posted by elgilito at 2:49 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the Parisian police drama Engrenages. . . series un, deux, trois.
posted by Mister Bijou at 3:21 AM on September 27, 2012

I came here to mention Amélie, because it is awesome and because it is shot around many of the places you will go (see also ... er... Moulin Rouge... ).

I will also recommend Micmacs and 8 Women if you like your quirky comedies. It's been a long time since I've seen 8 Femmes, but I recall it being almost stage-like in delivery, and Micmacs is your rapid fire ... oh, in checking you have probably seen it.
posted by Mezentian at 3:43 AM on September 27, 2012

Seconding Amelie. Loooove that movie. Plus Parisian French sound different than other French (faster, more dropped sounds) so watching Parisian movies/shows is really the best for your purposes.
posted by DoubleLune at 3:57 AM on September 27, 2012

There is a movie starring Gerard Depardeau (sp) in which life really laws his character(a man aiming to make the most of an inheritance, if I recall) a beatdown. Highly recommended -wish I could searcsh for the title right now. Upon reflection ive just realixed that "a good year" (warning:minimal french language content) probably was somewhat inspired by that movie, but thats neither here not there.
posted by Yowser at 4:34 AM on September 27, 2012

Just looked up the title of the Gerard D movie - it`s "Jean de Florette"
posted by Yowser at 4:39 AM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Might I also recommend french news and documentaries in general? People speak much slower and use simplified language in these media.
posted by Yowser at 4:46 AM on September 27, 2012

Oooh, I have a great French documentary recommendation. To Be And To Have. I don't remember whether it's entirely in French with English subtitles, or whether the footage is, and the narration is in English. But lots of everyday French, for sure. It takes place in a French one-room schoolhouse, so presumably at least some of the language will be slow and simple.

That said, it's very much not Parisian French -- I forget what region of the country it is, but it's a very rural area.

A narrative film in French that is amazing, for your general list of stuff to see: Au Revoir Les Enfants. Seriously, I think this movie changed my life.
posted by Sara C. at 5:11 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the interesting suggestions so far!

I'm just popping my head in to say, you can stop suggesting Amelie, because that's what I meant by "You can assume I've seen and enjoyed everything by Jean-Pierre Jeunet." He's the director of that, and Delicatessen, and The City of Lost Children, all of which I love and have seen numerous times.

I would definitely be interested in more suggestions, particularly longer-running tv shows, if that's a thing in french tv. Watching a couple episodes a night would be great. It doesn't have to be critically acclaimed. Just, fairly good, or beautiful to look at, or funny, or with a couple of memorable characters.
posted by Mizu at 5:50 AM on September 27, 2012

Entre les murs (The Class) and Army of Shadows. The latter does not meet the "modern world" requirement you mentioned, but the actors do speak French in a variety of settings and it is such an amazing film I had to post it!
posted by mlis at 6:02 AM on September 27, 2012

If you watch Jean de Florette, you should probably watch Manon des Sources so you know how it ends.

I watched 1990's Cyrano de Bergerac for an English Lit class and cried on the walk back to the dorms -- beautifully shot, acted and spoken.
posted by hmo at 7:05 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Intouchables. You need to watch that one.

If you don't mind checking out the not-so-intellectual side of french cinema, you could do worse than Taxi. It's a mindless action-comedy by Luc Besson of Fifth Element fame. It utterly deserves it's IMDB rating, but it looks good, is quite funny and very wordy for an action movie. Plus it will teach you a thing or two about french taxis.
It has two sequels, so if nothing else it will keep you busy for quite while.
posted by Sourisnoire at 7:12 AM on September 27, 2012

If this Askl. has taught me one thing: Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed every French film, ever.
posted by Mezentian at 7:23 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The DVD of Batman: The Animated Series comes with a French audio option. [ /] (I know this, because it was the only TV DVD with that option in HMV when I went on a similar search). I like it because I can combine subtitles and audio in English and French to suit my mood, there are a lot of episodes and the plots are easy to follow.

Also the "...variety of other means" you may be referencing have French equivalents too.
posted by rollick at 7:25 AM on September 27, 2012

Chacun cherche son chat ("When the Cat's Away") provides a nice slice-of-life view of a Parisian neighborhood in transition.
posted by whuppy at 7:26 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

OSS 117! On Netflix. Really satisfyingly funny, verrry Frannch (culture, mores, history, politics) spy spoof.
posted by xueexueg at 10:42 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is a French Immersion Learning series called "French In Action," which is dated firmly in the 1980s but which can entertain while passively teaching french. Each 30 minute episode is about 15 minutes of an amusing and very contrived narrative, followed by the series creator, Pierre Capretz, reviewing the language of the narrative.

There are companion workbooks and such, but the show was entertaining enough to just watch, IMO.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:52 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Potiche with Catherine Deneuve whose French is not so rapid as many other actors.

Intouchables as already mentioned.

SODA is an show about French teenage slackers; it's funny and there's lots of everyday slang. Each show is made up of several different scenes.

Un gars une fille is similar to SODA in that the show is made up of different scenes but it's a comedy about a French 30-something couple. (There is also a Canadian version, which is where the series was created.)

I absolutely loved Le Hérisson. The French was clear and not a lot of slang.

Un Air de Famille - about a bickering family in a cafe that one them owns who are celebrating a birthday.

Ne le dis à personne - an excellent French thriller

I wouldn't recommend New Wave Truffaut. They're excellent movies but too dated for your needs.

Check out for documentaries and news shows.
posted by shoesietart at 12:58 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you like quirky rom-coms, I recommend Le placard (The Closet) and La doublure (The Valet), both by Francis Veber. Both are very funny, have lots of (not too complex) dialogue, and are available on American DVDs with English subtitles.
posted by mbrubeck at 2:32 PM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is more generic advice than specific recommendations -- first of all, can you "hear" the different sounds that are the toughest for people to master in french? The very soft "r" and "l" sounds at the ends of many words seem like the biggest stumbling blocks with everyone I've encountered trying to improve their french.

Also... you might wan to stay away from Quebecois movies/tv. Its a VERY different accent and to be frank, Europeans will laugh at you if you learn to speak this way. Been there, done that (I'm Quebecoise originally).
posted by id girl at 4:53 AM on September 28, 2012

How are your learning efforts going - not long till December! I am a little late to the game but stopped by to recommend various French counterparts to English speaking shows. France has its own version of "Dancing with the Stars" and of "Masterchef" for example (both on TFI). I find these reasonably easy to follow and actually prefer the production to the English versions - there lots of useful everyday phrases get used in both shows.

Frustratingly the close-captioning of these shows does tend to lag a few seconds behind what is being said - something that only seems NOT to be the case in movies. This can be somewhat useful for learning however: I try to listen to what people are saying and then read it off afterwards to see if I have heard right.
posted by rongorongo at 5:23 AM on November 13, 2012

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