10 great French period films

From Napoléon to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, we recommend 10 of the best French costume dramas.

23 January 2020

By Sam Wigley

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

British cinema is often ribbed for its over-dependence on costume dramas, but the taste for corsets and cutlasses has proved at least equally enduring across the Channel. The illustrious tradition of the French costume picture stretches back to the dawn of cinema, when pioneering films such as The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908) used the moving image to serve up tantalising reconstructions of the distant past. And where the pioneers went, some of France’s greatest auteurs were to follow.

Flash forward to the height of Merchant Ivory’s popularity in the UK, in the late 1980s and early 90s, and French cinema was also experiencing a heritage boom. Lavishly appointed films like Tous les matins du monde (1991), set during the reign of Louis XIV, and the Charles IX-era La Reine Margot (1994) made for easy arthouse bookings, offering all the respectability of our homegrown costume fare but with the heady perfume of continental sophistication to boot. 1990’s Cyrano de Bergerac, which is re-released at BFI Southbank from 24 January before making its debut on Blu-ray, was the biggest hit of them all: a tantalisingly opulent and witty 17th-century romance with Gérard Depardieu cutting a delicious swagger as the big-nosed poet of Edmond Rostand’s classic play.

To set the stage for Cyrano’s revival, we’ve selected 10 magisterial examples of the French period drama – one from each of the last 10 decades. 

Napoléon (1927)

Director: Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

The two most celebrated French historical films of the silent era could hardly be more different in their scope and impact. In the blue corner is the minimalist medievalism of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), an 80-minute study of St Joan’s last days that draws its immense power from director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s clipped visual style, including his emphasis on facial close-ups. In the red corner is Abel Gance’s Napoléon, a triumph of cinematic maximalism that incorporates a kaleidoscopic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to film technique that dazzles the senses over five and a half hours.

If we’ve opted to include Napoléon here, it isn’t because it’s the better film, just that it better represents a particularly silent-era excitement about dramatising the past on screen – “writing history with lightning”, as Woodrow Wilson reportedly said of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Opening with an epic snowball fight during Napoléon’s school days and taking us up to his invasion of Italy, when the image explodes into a three-screen panorama that guarantees sharp intakes of breath to this day, Gance’s film is a hubristic masterwork that sweeps in front of us with much of the notorious general’s own swagger and ambition. Gance planned to continue the story in five further Napoléon epics, but they never came to pass.

Les Misérables (1934)

Director: Raymond Bernard

Les Misérables (1934)

Scarcely less ambitious than Gance’s silent epic (and shot by the same man: Jules Kruger), Raymond Bernard’s four-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth 19th-century door-stopper is one of the major achievements of the early sound period – Hollywood wouldn’t attempt anything like this unwieldy duration as a talkie until Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Hugo’s tale has inspired countless film versions, but across three feature-length parts Bernard’s scrambles head and shoulders above them all by giving proper scope for the author’s many characters and plot strands to develop, all the while relaying convict Jean Valjean’s storied life with a fluent cinematic style that’s bracing to watch. Take the scenes at the barricades, as student revolt engulfs Paris in the film’s last section: these are allowed to play out over 50-plus minutes, creating an extraordinary political immediacy that rivals anything in, say, Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (2018). What an odd thought that Bernard’s film is now closer to the time of the novel’s publication than our own.

Les Enfants du paradis (1945)

Director: Marcel Carné

Les Enfants du paradis (1945)

During the Second World War, the Vichy government imposed a 90-minute maximum duration on any native film production – so the vast scope of historical projects like Napoléon and Les Misérables was actively prevented. Under the watchful eyes of the authorities, director Marcel Carné dodged this limitation by splitting his epic of the 1820s/30s theatre world into two parts, recreating Parisian street life on sets at a Nice film studio – the work of celebrated set designer Alexandre Trauner. By the time of its eventual release, the two parts were happily able to be premiered as one in a free Paris, with Carné’s film euphorically received as a national epic. Since then, it’s often been voted the greatest French film of them all.

If Carné’s film is an epic, however, it’s one of exquisite intimacy: Balzacian in the breadth with which it introduces its madding crowd of thespians and thieves, courtesans and dandies, yet with the tightest of grips on our hearts as its central tale of unrequited love works its course. 

Madame de… (1953)

Director: Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

We’re spoilt for choice when it comes to French period films of the 1950s, a decade when postwar nostalgia for the belle époque brought forth such all-timers as Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or (1952), Max OphülsLe Plaisir (1952) and Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1955). A nose above all of these is another Ophüls classic, a film that esteemed New York critic Andrew Sarris believed to be “the most perfect film ever made” and his colleague Dave Kehr “one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands”: 1953’s Madame de…

Adapting a recently published novel by Louise de Vilmorin, Ophüls’ film follows the chain of misunderstandings, compromising situations and romantic intrigues that begin to pile upon each other after an aristocratic general’s wife (Danielle Darrieux) sells his wedding gift – a pair of earrings – in order to pay off some personal debts. What such a précis misses, however, is the visual refinement with which Ophüls pulls it all off, prompting critical ecstasies with the graceful, endlessly prowling tracking shots with which he binds together the film’s physical and emotional realms.

The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966)

Director: Roberto Rossellini

The Rise to Power of Louis XIV (1966)

Having twice laid down new templates for cinema – firstly, with the on-the-streets shooting style of Rome, Open City (1945); secondly, with the groundbreaking emotional intimacy of Voyage to Italy (1954) – Italian director Roberto Rossellini stunned the film community in the early 1960s by announcing he was withdrawing from cinema altogether in favour of the small screen. He saw TV as a better platform from which to answer his new calling: history. The plan was to use the moving image “to reexamine everything from the beginning … in order to rerun mankind’s path in search of truth”.

Rossellini’s encyclopaedic TV project included films and series on subjects including Socrates, Christ, Blaise Pascal and the Medici family. The most widely acclaimed of these is the film about the Sun King that he made for the French broadcaster ORTF. Opening with the death of Louis XIV’s adviser, Cardinal Mazarin, Rossellini’s film details the king’s gradual consolidation of absolute monarchy and the ascendancy of his fashionable court. But where so many period filmmakers go looking for the present inside the past, trying to find points of access for contemporary viewers, Rossellini simply presents us with the objects, ideas and material reality of olden times and trusts us to be interested.

Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Director: Eric Rohmer

Perceval le Gallois (1978)

Eric Rohmer was not a director to swim with the tide. Although he was far from the only filmmaker of the 1970s to delve into Arthurian lore – there were also Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac (1974) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – his was the only Knights of the Round Table fable to be filmed on radically unreal sets, amid metal trees and against a rolling Teletubbies-scape. His Holy Grail tale Perceval le Gallois is something like an illuminated manuscript come to life, with rhyming couplets drawn from a 12th-century epic poem by Chrétien de Troyes and a singing chorus to keep the titular knight’s grail hunt at a gambolling pace.

Rohmer is better known for his contemporary-set moral tales and relationship comedies, though even these often seem obliquely framed through the rituals of courtly love. His actual period films are some of the boldest out there – witness his early digital experimentation on 2001’s French revolution drama The Lady and the Duke, which recreated late 18th-century Paris street scenes with the aid of digitally manipulated backdrops.

A Sunday in the Country (1984)

Director: Bertrand Tavernier

A Sunday in the Country (1984)

Cinephile encyclopaedist and director Bertrand Tavernier is another filmmaker drawn to the past – from his Louis XV drama Let Joy Reign Supreme (1975) to The Princess of Montpensier (2010), his opulent romance set against the build-up to the St Bartholomew’s Massacre. Among his most affecting releases is 1984’s A Sunday in the Country, a miniature masterpiece set over the course of a glorious late-summer day in the house and garden of an elderly painter in the year 1912.

The story commences as Monsieur Ladmiral (Louis Ducreux) wanders to the local train station to meet his grown-up son, Gonzague (Michel Aumont), and his family. This is their routine every Sunday – lunch and a day together in the green and pleasant grounds of Ladmiral’s small estate. On this occasion, however, his housekeeper has to set a place for a rarer guest too: Ladmiral’s more free-spirited daughter, who arrives unannounced, stirring up wistful emotions in the ageing artist. Tavernier’s roaming, explorative camera traces a day of emotional eddies, all as subtle as the way the light changes, inside and outside, as the August day wears on. His film wowed awards bodies and charmed critics back in 1984, but it’s fallen off the radar since then. It awaits rediscovery.

Time Regained (1999)

Director: Raúl Ruiz

Time Regained (1999)

Where Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey had tried and failed to mount a film version of Marcel Proust’s enormous novel In Search of Lost Time, the prolific Chilean fabulist Raúl Ruiz came up trumps in the dying days of the 20th century. With his star-studded 1999 film Time Regained, he chose to concentrate on only the final volume of Proust’s masterwork, which – since the whole novel plays out as an echo chamber of reverberating memories – made perfect sense: we join Marcel (Marcello Mazzarella) on his deathbed, and so a lifetime of recollections is there for Ruiz to slip into and segue between.

And slip and slide is exactly what Ruiz does, keeping several eras – the belle époque, the First World War – and a host of characters continually in play like so many spinning plates. At times the very image feels unstable, capable of dissolving into a new time frame, as Ruiz invents a panoply of magical effects as a visual second-best to Proust’s ruminative sentences. So while Time Regained looks for all the world like a prestige project, it has few equals in the field of literary adaptation for the way it rises cinematically to the challenge.

Don’t Touch the Axe (2007)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Don't Touch the Axe (2007)

This mysterious late film from French New Wave master Jacques Rivette details the lengthy, somewhat tortured courtship between a general, Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), and a coquettish gentlewoman (Jeanne Balibar). The action begins on Mallorca in 1823, where Armand is drawn to the singing of a cloistered nun, discovering she’s the past love he’s been searching for for years. Rivette’s film then flashes back to the pair’s Parisian dalliances: a series of frustrated encounters that unravel like a succession of parlour games before climaxing with kidnap.

The wonderfully titled Don’t Touch the Axe (boringly renamed The Duchess of Langeais in the US) is drawn from a slim volume in Balzac’s History of the Thirteen, part of his colossal La Comédie humaine. Although their existence is only hinted at in the present film, the ‘Thirteen’ are in fact the very same cloak-and-dagger cabal who obsessed Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character in Rivette’s infamous 13-hour film Out 1 (1971). So while Don’t Touch the Axe can be enjoyed as simply an austere costume drama, it also plays enticingly into the broader Rivettian cinematic universe: a ludic world in which conspiracy is forever just out of frame.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Director: Céline Sciamma

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Like Don’t Touch the Axe, Céline Sciamma’s much feted period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire (due for UK release on 28 February 2020) also begins on an isolated island where an enigmatic woman is living a sequestered life. In this case, we’re off Brittany, and it’s the end of the 18th century. A painter, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), arrives from the mainland. She’s been commissioned to paint a portrait of a young woman, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), ahead of the latter’s arranged marriage to an Italian nobleman. Héloïse, who resents the contract, has refused to be painted before, so Marianne must work furtively, playing at companionship while clandestinely commiting Héloïse’s features to memory.

Sciamma’s first historical project, following the very contemporary settings of Tomboy (2011) and Girlhood (2014), is an exquisitely modulated tale of forbidden love. Its potency derives from the freighted act of looking: between artist and subject, and between desirer and desired. Told with a virtually all-female cast, it captures a utopian moment away from a more hidebound society, in which fires are lit and given the air to burn.

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