10 great French films of the 1970s

With forgotten gem Peppermint Soda now released on Blu-ray, we remember a great decade in French cinema that offered sex, style, controversy… and masterpieces aplenty.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Peppermint Soda (1977)

Peppermint Soda (1977)

France was at the epicentre of a cinematic earthquake in the 1960s. The young filmmakers of the French New Wave had ripped up the rulebook, pointing the way towards a more modern, personal style of filmmaking. Budding directors the world over were watching.

By the dawn of the 1970s, however, that wave was receding. The movement’s most feted director, Jean-Luc Godard, had largely abandoned narrative film in favour of politics-fuelled experimentation. As his onetime colleagues François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer settled into more expected grooves, it began to look as if Chabrol had been right all along when he said: “There are no waves, new or old. There is only the ocean.”

But if so, it was an ocean that harboured some very big beasts. Alongside its celebrated auteurs, huge 1960s stars such as Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo remained supreme. They were joined by younger names of the calibre of Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu who would go on to dominate the French scene for decades afterwards.

The secret is that while French cinema of the 70s may lack the flash and dazzle of the previous decade, it continued to reap both huge critical acclaim and commercial success. Box office tills rang loudest, however, for the 1974 release of Emmanuelle, a landmark softcore porn movie that became a crossover sensation – for men and women alike.

La Rupture (1970)

Director Claude Chabrol

La Rupture (1970)

The cycle of films that Claude Chabrol made with his then wife Stéphane Audran in the late 1960s and early 70s are some of the most unsettling and ambiguous thrillers you’ll ever see. Take La Rupture, which begins in heart-stopping fashion after a demented husband interrupts his wife and child at breakfast to violently throw the baby across the room. He must be the villain of the piece, right? No, wait until you meet his own slimy father (Chabrol regular Michel Bouquet), who blames Hélène (Audran) for her husband’s mania and will stop at nothing to regain custody of his grandchild.

La Rupture follows Hélène to sanctuary at a boarding house, but never takes the route you anticipate. In a sly act of anti-genre subversion, Chabrol simply refuses to show Hélène making any of the bad decisions that we expect from preyed upon protagonists on screen. Despite her domestic woes, she remains extraordinarily level-headed – at least until the full-blown psychedelia of the finale.

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Director Jean-Pierre Melville

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

With a brilliantly tense robbery sequence in a Paris jewellery shop that’s sustained over 30 nail-biting minutes without a word of dialogue, the penultimate film made by French noir master Jean-Pierre Melville has a strong claim to the title of greatest ever heist movie. Alain Delon takes the lead as the trench-coated burglar who gets wind of a chink in the store’s elaborate security system and sets out to take advantage the moment he’s released from jail. Joining Delon on the wrong side of the law are escaped con Gian Maria Volontè and alcoholic marksman Yves Montand, while André Bourvil is the dogged lawman on their trail – as grimly set on his chosen path as they are.

This is a long, slow-burning thriller, taking place across a series of moodily desolate French landscapes that seem bleached of colour and vigour. It comes near the end of a cycle of films that Melville made in the 1960s and 70s that pay loving tribute to American film noir while at the same time pushing the genre in an ever more abstract and mythic direction.

Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972)

Director Maurice Pialat

Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (1972)

Maurice Pialat’s searing 1968 debut, L’Enfance-nue, promised much, and he spent the 70s delivering on it, turning his attention to terminal illness (La Gueule ouverte, 1974), disaffected youth (Passe ton bac d’abord, 1978) and, in 1972’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble, the disintegration of a marriage. This run of films has rarely been equalled for their unvarnished dramatisations of how people fractiously go about life together.

Jean Yanne (who won the best actor prize at Cannes) and Marlène Jobert are the doomed pair who are locked into a destructive pattern of dependency, abuse, malingering love and contempt. Witnessing the death throes of their relationship play out makes for a scalding experience, but one that feels bracing in its truthfulness. Imagine Blue Valentine (2010) recast in the dour browns and yellows of the 70s and you’ve at least some warning of what a gruellingly emotional experience Pialat offers up. This is a breakup movie with the blinkers off.

Day for Night (1973)

Director François Truffaut

Day for Night (1973)

There’s no better way to understand the fundamental difference in temperament between Truffaut and Godard – those two key figureheads of 1960s French film – than in comparing their movies about moviemaking. In the red corner, there’s Godard’s film-shoot melodrama Le Mépris (1963): astringent, fractured, despairing. In the blue, 10 years later, came Truffaut’s Day for Night: still cynical about the industry, but affectionate and forgiving about the vain talents who make their careers in it.

Truffaut himself plays the director, while Jean-Pierre Léaud, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese orbit around him on the hectic shoot of a rather silly-looking comedy called Meet Pamela. As evocatively as it’s ever been done, Day for Night captures the chaos of movie production, the work of a director as problem solver and the delicate balancing of egos on set. Look out for a Graham Greene cameo as an insurance company rep amid this very enjoyable maelstrom. Truffaut’s film won the Oscar for best foreign film – the second of four French films to do so that decade.

The Mother and the Whore (1973)

Director Jean Eustache

La Maman et la Putain (1973)

Critic David Thomson called Jean Eustache’s nearly four-hour feature debut, The Mother and the Whore, “a dark, vaguely perceived beast on the edge of polite society”. Locked in an interminable rights dispute, this monumental, sexually frank drama remains difficult to see or properly get to know, remaining in the shadows while even Jacques Rivette’s legendary 13-hour Out 1 (1971) has since seen the light of day on DVD.

The Mother and the Whore shares that film’s star, Jean-Pierre Léaud (also Truffaut’s favourite), as well as its backdrop of bohemian Paris in the aftermath of May 68, with Léaud playing a self-absorbed young café-dwelling intellectual as he juggles his relationships with three different women. Filmed in black and white and on 16mm film, it’s a talky, thorny, adult drama, consisting of long, involved discussions about sex that still feel astonishingly candid and intimate. Sadly, Eustache completed only one other feature – 1974’s Mes petites amoureuses – before committing suicide in 1981 following a car accident that left him immobilised.

Immoral Tales (1973)

Director Walerian Borowczyk

Immoral Tales (1973)

Polish animator and director Walerian Borowczyk began to part company with the critics who’d lauded pictures such as Goto, Island of Love (1969) and Blanche (1971) with this sexually explicit collection of four erotic stories set throughout history. But while critics washed their hands of him, Immoral Tales was a massive hit when it was released in Paris.

The title cheekily calls to mind Eric Rohmer’s six-film series of Moral Tales (1963-72), so it’s apt that Rohmer favourite Fabrice Luchini takes centre stage in the first story, as the young pseud who coaxes his beautiful cousin into giving him head as the tide comes in on a remote beach. Elsewhere, a country girl gets turned on by the religious artefacts in a room where she’s been grounded, Lucrezia Borgia (Florence Bellamy) screws various relatives in Renaissance Italy, and Elisabeth Bathory (Paloma Picasso) orgies with local girls before killing them and bathing in their blood. It’s extreme stuff, smearing the boundary between art and porn, but with a visual wit and eye for decor and framing that recall Pasolini or Ken Russell at their best.

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Director Jacques Rivette

Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974)

This fantastical epic begins in a Paris park in summertime – as magical a place as any. Julie (Dominique Labourier) is sat on a bench reading a book of spells when she sees a woman, Céline (Juliet Berto), dashing by, dropping belongings in her wake. When she follows, like Alice in pursuit of the White Rabbit, so begins a strange adventure that leads ultimately – and with the help of some magic sweets – to a bizarre old house where the pair witness a murder mystery playing out over and over again.

Over a leisurely three hours, Céline and Julie Go Boating sees Jacques Rivette – in some ways the black sheep of the key French New Wave directors – still determinedly bending and reshaping cinema in new ways. The result is a teasing, dizzying and often infuriating movie, best enjoyed when you’re in the mood to follow rabbits yourself. For armchair filmmakers, it offers tantalising inspiration in showing how a story (and a movie) can be spun out of the summer air.

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Director Luis Buñuel

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977)

Spanish director Luis Buñuel once claimed he never missed his daily martini, and you wonder whether such rigour can explain his extraordinary creative longevity. Nearly 50 years after his career began with the scandalous surrealist short Un chien andalou (1929), it came to a close – his wit undimmed – with the delicious That Obscure Object of Desire.

This was the culmination of a terrific late run of films that he made in France collaborating with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, also including Belle de jour (1967) and the Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Adapted from a novel by Pierre Louÿs (also the basis for the Marlene Dietrich classic The Devil Is a Woman), it stars Fernando Rey as an ageing French gentleman, Mathieu, who recounts his frustrating love affair with a Spanish flamenco dancer, Conchita, who keeps blowing hot and cold on his affection. Buñuel’s inspired idea here was to cast two different actors (Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet) as the contrary sides of Conchita’s personality. Yet poor Mathieu is so blindsided by lust that he never spots the switches.

Peppermint Soda (1977)

Director Diane Kurys

Peppermint Soda (1977)

Diane Kurys was one of a number of French women directors who emerged during the 70s, alongside Nelly Kaplan, Coline Serreau and Nadine Trintignant. Newly released on Blu-ray and DVD, her debut feature, Peppermint Soda, is ripe for rediscovery, a coming-of-age movie that offers a welcome girl-centred answer to classic French boyhood pics such as Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959) and L’Enfance-nue.

Set in 1963, with The Great Escape and Alain Resnais’ Muriel competing at the local cinemas, it charts the growing pains of two sisters at a strict school in Paris. The younger, Anne, experiences her first period, while her sibling Frédérique navigates her political awakening and attraction to an older man. Kurys’ film presents a succession of beautifully observed and very funny anecdotes from their school days, not so much telling a story as offering a lived-in picture of sisterhood, pubescent uncertainty and female friendship. Refreshing and pungent, Peppermint Soda deserves to be far better known.

Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Director Eric Rohmer

Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Arthurian legends enjoyed a cinematic comeback in the long-hair era, from Camelot (1967) to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). Not one but two major French auteurs got in on the action: first Robert Bresson with the typically pared back (though very muddy) Lancelot du Lac (1974) and then French New Wave veteran Eric Rohmer with the one-of-a-kind Perceval le Gallois.

Inspired by Chrétien de Troyes’ epic 12th-century romance Perceval, the Story of the Grail, it features Fabrice Luchini as the eponymous knight of the Round Table, retelling his story – complete with chorus – against a succession of hyper-stylised storybook backdrops that serve to emphasise the mythic quality of Perceval’s adventures. This represented a radical about turn for Rohmer, who was previously known for the delicate naturalism of his classic Moral Tales, but in fact there’d always been something courtly about his stories of love and temptation. With Perceval le Gallois, he turned in one of the decade’s oddest yet most beguiling trips into the distant past.

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