Six French Films That Speak to the Identity of the Nation


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Juliette Binoche in “Caché,” a work obliquely about the sins of French complacency.

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Sony Pictures Classics, via Photofest

The shock of the Nov. 13 attacks in and around Paris refocused attention on debates that have convulsed French society for decades — about the marginalization of the Muslim population, about the tensions between Islam and French Republican ideology, about the identity of the nation itself.

Is France defined by its language and traditions, by its geography, or by its universal ideals of liberty, brotherhood and equality? Filmmakers and artists have taken up these questions, often with more cogency than politicians or intellectuals. There are scores of movies — from elsewhere in Europe, from the United States, from Africa and the Middle East — that offer instructive viewing in the wake of the attacks. We have settled on six, all French and all relatively recent, that seem to us especially relevant to the painful, necessary work of thinking and understanding that lies ahead.

“Caché,” 2005, directed by Michael Haneke

The family of a Parisian television intellectual, Georges (Daniel Auteuil), begins receiving mysterious videos surveilling the exterior of its home. Georges’s attempt to figure out who is doing this and why gives him nightmares and leads him to a childhood friend, an Algerian (played by a heartbreakingly good Maurice Bénichou), whose parents used to work for Georges. Mr. Haneke is an Austrian often working in France, and his outsider status affords him a particularly harsh vantage. “Caché,” like “Code Unknown,” his film from 2000, is obliquely about the sins of French complacency. Its terror works as an existential mystery and, in its great final closing-credit sequence, something more conspiratorial and timely: Failure to reckon with the past allows a future generation to do the reckoning for itself. Available on Amazon Video, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play. WESLEY MORRIS

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­­Sami Bouajila, left, and Jamel Debbouze in “Days of Glory,” a World War II infantry film that is also a pointed critique of the limits of French Republican ideology.

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Weinstein Company and IFC Films

“Days of Glory” (“Indigènes”), 2006, directed by Rachid Bouchareb

This rousing, conventional World War II infantry picture, very much in the vein of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Big Red One,” is also a pointed critique of the limits of French Republican ideology. The English title invokes “La Marseillaise,” a call to arms for “the children of the fatherland.” (The film’s French title means “natives.”) But the soldiers in this movie are all North African men, and, as such, colonial subjects rather than full citizens. Like African-American soldiers in the same war, they are expected to risk their lives for a “liberté” that remains cruelly theoretical, and for a nation that oppresses them. In insisting that France live up to its ideals, the film is both an ardent defense of those ideals and a warning about the consequences of betraying them. Available on DVD only. A. O. SCOTT

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Dany Verissimo, above, and David Belle in “District B13,” which looks at criminalizing stereotypes.

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Magnolia Pictures

“District B13” (“Banlieue 13”), 2004, directed by Pierre Morel

This is another one of those movies that find an excuse for a cop and a crook to team up. But it’s quite an excuse. Housing project drug lords have come into possession of a bomb. And it’s not theirs. It’s the government’s. There’s a baldness to this movie (and its 2009 sequel) that balances, with alarmist urgency and parkour, the rampant, criminalizing stereotypes of Arabs and the African French. Luc Besson produced this movie and wrote the script with Bibi Naceri, the brother of Samy Naceri, the French-Arab star of Mr. Besson’s very popular “Taxi” franchise. These sorts of action-comedies and sci-fi extravaganzas tend to zoom off Mr. Besson’s assembly line and, in their sloppy way, get at crucial problems of disenfranchisement among poor, nonwhite French. “Sloppy,” because for such a visually oriented filmmaker, he’s terrible at certain racial optics. But his outrage, such as it is, works on behalf of the culturally omitted. Available on iTunes, Amazon Video, YouTube MORRIS

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From left, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Karidja Touré and Marietou Touré in “Girlhood,”about a troubled adolescent.

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Strand Releasing

“Girlhood” (“Bande de Filles”), 2014, directed by Céline Sciamma

In political discourse and popular culture, the French banlieue, like the American urban ghetto, is imagined as a predominantly male space, a place where disaffected young men work out their alienation and struggle with the temptations of violence, crime and extremism. “Girlhood” tilts against this bias, delving into the life of Marieme, a teenager of African descent navigating the transition to adulthood in very tough circumstances. Hemmed in on one side by the indifference of the state (embodied, as is customary in French cinema, by school and the police), and on the other by traditional male authority (embodied by her older brother), Marieme finds a measure of freedom in the company of her friends and a release in popular music. Céline Sciamma’s film is vibrant and exuberant — there’s more than a little “Mean Streets” in this high-rise neighborhood — but it also confronts viewers with the bleak realities and circumscribed destinies faced by too many of France’s nonwhite young people. Available on Amazon Video, Vudu, YouTube. SCOTT

“Of Gods and Men” (“Des Hommes et des Dieux”), 2010, directed by Xavier Beauvois

Based on the true story of a group of French Trappist monks who were kidnapped by Islamic militants during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, Xavier Beauvois’s “Of Gods and Men” links modern terrorism to France’s bloody colonialist legacy. As much about forgiveness as about fanaticism, it insists, painfully and passionately, on the shared humanity that binds the perpetrators and the victims of religiously motivated violence. Available on Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Video. SCOTT

“A Prophet,” 2009, directed by Jacques Audiard

Jacques Audiard’s prison film and gangster epic manages to put a petty French-Arab thug (Tahar Rahim, headed toward stardom) at the top of a French organized-crime ring. (There are certainly more productive places for French-Arab innovation.) This movie almost works as allegory for life beyond prison, but to Mr. Audiard, power is power. When he wants to be, he is France’s most provocative director: a major film artist who doesn’t care about what’s politically correct, only what is just. Insanely, sensationalistically just. Available on Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu. MORRIS



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