No matter how motivated and interested you are in learning a language, let’s face it: sometimes all that memorizing and practicing can be boring. Luckily there are some genuinely helpful things you can do to practice your French that are also actually fun – like watching movies.
Exposing yourself to the sounds of a language is an excellent way to hone your listening skills and improve your speaking skills, as well.
A study by Dr. Paul Sulzberger of Victoria University even found that listening to a foreign language creates new connections in the brain that make it easier to learn. According to his research, “One hour a day of studying French text in a classroom is not enough—but an extra hour listening to it…would make a huge difference.”
You might be thinking that all this sounds great, but how are you, a beginner, going to understand an entire French movie? You don’t want to use subtitles, right? So, should you just stare at the screen for an hour or two? Bien sûr que non! Using French movies to practice your French listening skills doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing measure, but a gradual process.
Start with subtitles
It’s awesome how DVD’s, streaming services, and other media today offer subtitles and closed captioning options. There’s no harm in taking advantage of this when you start watching French movies (or TV shows).
Of course, your goal isn’t to stop there – you want to work up to one day not needing subtitles at all (or at least not most of the time). But you have to use them to get there.
If you need to, start by watching French movies with English subtitles. Pay attention to what you’re hearing. You may notice that some translation choices are a bit unexpected. On rare occasions, you might even realize there’s a translation mistake.
When you get to the point where you’re really paying attention to and recognizing French words and phrases and are able to understand a good amount of what’s being said, move on to the next step: subtitles in French.
Watching a French movie with French subtitles is an excellent way to train your ear. You’ll get used to how words you’ve mostly read up till now are actually pronounced (not always easy to know when it comes to French). And on top of that, you’ll be learning new words and phrases, too.
When can you stop using subtitles when you watch French movies?
For me, this was sort of like learning to ride a bike or how to swim. One moment, I was practicing, going through the motions, and then – I got it. It took a lot of practice, but one day, I was able to understand most of what people were saying in the movie without subtitles.
One way to encourage that process is to test yourself. Start with a scene that you’re familiar with and turn off the subtitles. See if you can hear and understand what’s being said. If you can, try to keep going on to the next scene. If not, watch the scene again, this time with French subtitles. Continue to practice this way (with any scene or scenes you like) from time to time.
The most important thing when it comes to French listening skills: Remember that no one is perfect
Language mastery is a tricky thing. When it comes to listening, for most non-native speakers, no matter how good you get at a language, there will probably always be certain accents, dialects, or volume issues that will make it difficult to understand a particular film or scene from time to time.
I’ve lived in France for most of my adult life and am a fluent French speaker, but there are still times when I need subtitles – for example, if I’m watching something with French-Canadian speakers. It’s even the case with certain actors. I adore Romain Duris on many levels, and he often chooses compelling roles. But something about the way he speaks makes it very hard for me to understand him.
Don’t beat yourself up (and certainly don’t stop watching!) if you’ve got an advanced or fluent level of French and you occasionally still have problems understanding movie or TV dialogues. As long as you’re watching most of these without needing subtitles, you can give yourself a pass for an especially tough one.
What’s the best kind of movie to practice French listening?
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, you may be wondering which French movie to watch.
The best movie genre to start with is probably documentaries. Documentary narrators usually speak clearly and at a reasonable speed and volume. They rarely use slang, idiomatic or regional expressions, etc.
Documentaries are not only great for listening practice; since there are so many out there, about so many different subjects, they can also help you build your vocabulary.
If this sounds good and you have a little time, why not get started looking for a French documentary to watch right now? Log onto your streaming service, or simply head to YouTube, and look for documentaries by subject. For instance, fellow history lovers will find lots to choose from simply by doing a search of their favorite historical figure/period, etc. and “documentaire”. The same goes for other topics, like nature/animals, politics, and so on. For example: “Charlotte Corday documentaire” or “chiens documentaire”
Here are some popular French documentary movies, starting with my favorite:
Les glaneurs et la glaneuse
I saw this movie by chance many years ago and it totally captivated me. It depicts the life of those who survive and/or thrive off what most of us throw away, but it does it in a poetic way that shows celebrated documentarian Agnès Varda’s feeling of connection with her subject. It’s an experience between documentary and poetry.
La marche de l’empereur
You may have already seen this famous documentary, called March of the Penguins in English. Even if that’s the case, watching it in French can be a great way to practice, since you already know what to expect. Of course, that’s if you’re up to watching what those poor penguins have to go through, again.
Nuit et Brouillard
Directed by Alain Resnais, this documentary was filmed 10 years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, and features footage from when the camps were in operation. It’s a very, very heavy and difficult film to watch, but is one of the most famous and critically acclaimed French documentaries – and of course, hard as films like this are to watch, it’s important never to forget. That said, after watching this one, you should probably have a French comedy on hand to lighten the mood.
Être et Avoir
A commercial and critical success, this film is about a year at a rural French school. It became immensely popular in France when it was released in 2002. Watch it and see if you can relate to it as someone learning French, or how it compares to your own experience of school when you were a kid.
Another famous French nature documentary, Microcosmos reveals the world of insects, up close. I have to admit that I’m not a fan of creepy-crawlies, so I watched a lot of this one through my fingers, but if you like bugs or are simply interested in seeing the world from a different perspective, this is an excellent choice.
Le monde du silence
This was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival – and no wonder. Created and narrated by the legendary Jacques Cousteau, it’s the perfect way to discover the world below the ocean waves. That said, there is some controversy about damage that was done during filming (shark and whale deaths, coral destruction), so if you’re sensitive about those things, maybe choose another ocean-related documentary.
If you can’t seem to find a French documentary that appeals to you, another option is to watch documentaries in another language dubbed into French. Dubbing for documentaries is usually virtually unnoticeable, since they’re usually narrated off-screen, anyway, and often, interviewees who speak another language are dubbed, anyway.
Watching other movie genres in French
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the speed and clarity of documentaries in French, you can move on to other genres.
There’s no hard and fast rule from here – different genres have their pros and cons when it comes to listening practice.
For example, an action movie might have a lot of loud explosions that make it hard to hear lines of dialogue, or a rom-com might feature fast talkers. Period dramas tend to have clear dialogue, but it depends on the subject and also on whether or not the director chooses to feature a lot of background noise or obscure words and speech patterns (although it’s much easier to understand French from centuries ago than it is to understand older forms of a language like English).
Basically, keep in mind that, whatever movie genre you choose to watch in French, there will probably be some trial and error.
Don’t get discouraged if a movie is a little hard to understand at first – try to give it at least a few minutes. You may need that time, yourself, to get into the “French zone”. Remember, too, that for many movies, opening scenes have to grab the audience’s attention, so the noise, dialogue speed, and general pacing may be extremely ramped up compared to the rest of the film.
Another thing you’ll learn by watching French movies: French culture
There are two main things watching movies in French with help you with: listening skills, and cultural knowledge.
Some French movies are worth watching because they’re cultural references. The dialogue may not always be easy to hear, some of the expressions may be outdated, but these movies and even individual lines are still referenced in France today.
When it comes to which movies to watch in order to understand French culture and/or French cultural references, you’ll find a lot of lists out there, but many of them differ. The following list is based on films that I see/hear referenced today – often in general, popular culture, but sometimes because they’re such iconic films unto themselves. That said, I’m sure there are movies that fellow cinephiles, as well as French people in general, would say I should have included.
And of course, there’s entire genres and subgenres of films that are cultural references for certain groups (kids, inner city teenagers, anime fans, etc.), that may not appear here. Still, this list should be a way for you to discover some of the best-known French films.
Ideally, you should watch all of these, but it’s understandable that some may just not appeal to you, I have to admit that I, personally, can’t get through Les visiteurs, which French people seem to universally adore, and I loathe Le père Noël est une ordure, which most French people I know regard fondly, the same way most Americans I know love A Christmas Story.
Keeping all that in mind, here is the list….
Must-see best French movies for listening practice and cultural knowledge
Le Dîner de Cons
I’ve talked about this movie before. Not only is it funny and extremely well-known and -liked in France; it’s also a great introduction to mainstream French humor, which often relies on making fun of people. The thing great thing about this film is that even the “normal” characters ultimately look like fools.
Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain
Internationally known and beloved, Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain is a beautiful, bizarre, funny, moving, romantic film. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it!
If you talk to anyone who’s seen this movie, they usually get stars in their eyes. Cédric Klapisch’s film is a charming depiction of a group of European students in the Erasmus (study abroad) program, sharing an apartment in Barcelona. A metaphor for European unity, most people who’ve seen it (including me) also think of it as a perfect depiction of life when you’re young and discovering the world. If you studied or traveled abroad during those years, it will probably be especially meaningful to you. It’s also a way for your ear to juggle between French and other languages.
This powerful movie gives insight into the anger of young banlieusards – poor people, often 1st or 2nd generation immigrants who live in the government housing around Paris. It’s an intriguing, compelling, well-written glimpse into their world and a reminder that the titular hate doesn’t just go one way. What differences do you notice between the main characters’ way of speaking and the way the people they interact with (especially bourgeois Parisians) talk?
Le Père Noël est une Ordure
This 1980’s ensemble comedy features some of the best-loved French actors and comedians of the era, many of whom are still working and beloved today. It’s essentially an ensemble story of a group of mostly unlikable (at least in my opinion) people and their adventures around Christmas. Many of these characters and their lines of dialogue are extremely well-known among the general French population, and the movie is usually aired at Christmas, of course. It’s not my favorite, by a long shot, but give it a try and see if its very French humor appeals to you.
Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis
The biggest commercial success of any domestic French film, this 2008 comedy tells the story of a postal worker from the south of France who has to go work in the north of France – a region that is very, very different, and often made fun of as an eccentric, sort of low-class place. That said, I can personally attest, as the movie shows, that the Ch’ti (the name of speakers of the local dialect) are extremely warm, nice, and merry people.
Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob
France has a complicated relationship with Jewish culture. With a long history of antisemitism, as well as the stain of the deportation of millions of French Jews to concentration camps, Jewish culture is often toned down here (as opposed to the way it’s celebrated in places like New York), both by Jews themselves, and the rest of the French population. When there are jokes or funny Jewish characters in French movies or TV shows, there usually seems to be a sense of acceptance and tolerance. That’s why Les Aventures du Rabbi Jacob seems like a total anomaly. Released just a few decades after the Shoah, it makes fun of conservative French people’s antisemitism but also unabashedly pokes fun at Jewish stereotypes, as well. It’s about laughter and accepting all people. It’s still very frequently referenced today, and has been adapted for the theater.
Pretty much any film starring Louis de Funès
Louis de Funès is an iconic comedian here in France. Many of the films he made and/or starred in during his nearly forty-year career (including the previous one on this list, Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob), are well-known and loved. His work spans nearly four decades of the 20th century (1945-1982). and most French people, at least those 30 and older, know and adore him. As an American, I agree that his physical comedy and timing are impressive, and many of his films are quite funny, although the Gendarme de Saint-Tropez series is a bit too Benny Hill for me. But films like L’aile ou la cuisse, Hibernatus, and Sur un arbre perché have moments that always make me laugh.
Another recent French domestic box office hit, this 2011 movie also did well internationally. Based on the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, tetraplegic after a paragliding accident, and Driss (name and character were changed for the movie) the no-nonsense, banlieusard with a criminal record he hires as his nurse, this movie has so much chemistry between its leads and just a general feel-good vibe (somewhat rare in French cinema), although it certainly has its sad moments, too. This is an engaging watch that also gives you two very different kinds of French – the classic accent, speed, and vocabulary choices of Philippe (played by François Cluzet) and Driss (Omar Sy)’s banlieue-infused, energetic expressions. The movie shows the French approach to cultural differences and physical disability, which is less politically correct than the American point of view.
This iconic comedy film is about a twenty-seven-year-old intellectual who doesn’t want to leave home. He’s a fairly nice, peaceful man who’s beloved by his parents, but his parents are fed up and want him out. Lots of humor, great acting, and twists ensue. Because of the film, an adult who overstays their welcome at their parents’ house is often jokingly or insultingly called a “Tanguy” in France.
Les 400 Coups
This movie is often cited by American intellectual snobs as their favorite film, but Les 400 coups deserves better. It’s a movie for everyone, a truly touching, sometimes troubling story of the woes of Antoine Doinel, a “bad boy” who cuts school, misbehaves in class, steals…and yet, we get him. His story is at once particular, and universal.
Hiroshima Mon Amour
This iconic film is a stark, sad meditation about the destruction of war and love. Its simple dialogue also makes it easy to understand – although you may be too shaken to really notice, by the end of it.
Another huge French domestic box office hit, this 2004 film about a chorus at a boys’ boarding school in the mid-20th century is touching and features not only dialogue to listen to, but also great songs.
The story of two medieval peasants who time-travel to early 1990’s France, this is another movie French people seem to universally love and often reference. I have to admit I can’t get through the whole thing, but give it a try – maybe you’ll discover you agree with most of the French.
A Bout de Souffle
The New Wave is a cinematic style and movement that originated in France and continues to influence filmmakers around the world, so between that and practicing your French listening skills, this movie, which is probably the most famous New Wave work, is worth checking out. The story, about a French criminal and the American woman he seduces, is really enjoyable, too. If you’re a movie fan, as you watch see if you can spot techniques, scenes, dialogue, fashion, etc., that have gone on to inspire other filmmakers (including Quentin Tarantino).
Les Enfants du Paradis
Another famous French film that’s often referenced and revered by cinephiles and people working in cinema, Les Enfants du Paradis deserves all of this praise and then some. It’s the saga of Garance, a performer in 1820’s-1830’s Paris and the four men who love her in their own ways. It’s incredibly poetic and moving and very much worth a watch.
La Belle et la Bête
Much as I love this one, I hesitated to include it on this list. Jean Cocteau’s surrealist take on the fairytale is a classic, and often shown in French arthouse cinemas (I was so excited to see it that way a few years ago), but most French people today are probably more familiar with the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast. But what tipped the scales in its favor is that I think it’s an excellent movie for practicing your French listening skills, since the Beast speaks very slowly, words and phrases are often repeated, and Belle’s horrid sisters’ expressions and gestures are very French unto themselves.
Although these aren’t originally made or spoken in French, Disney does a great job translating and dubbing their animated films. But there’s also the cultural impact. I’ve included lots of box office hits on this list, but guess what the third top-grossing film of all time is in France? Disney’s Snow White. For generations, Disney movies have been a big part of life for French people as much as they have for Americans. Cultural references to the classics abound, and the influence continues – the coat racks in my son’s preschool are full of coats and backpacks featuring characters from Cars, Moana (Vaiana), and, of course, Frozen (La Reine des Neiges).
More French movies: My personal favorites
If none of those appeal to you, I humbly submit some of my personal favorite French movies. Some of these might be more or less easy to understand, but all of them are, in my opinion, absolutely delightful, and, like most movies, they will teach you something about French culture, too (though some more than others).
C’est arrivé près de chez vous
This Belgian mockumentary is so ridiculously dark (think: an iconic scene that shows a criminal making a drink named for a famous drowned child) that it’s now a cult classic. I can’t help but laugh every time, especially when killer Ben (the always entertaining Benoît Poelvoorde) shows his sensitive side with a poem about pigeons. The movie is Belgian but the references, like the drink, are often French, showing how close the two cultures can sometimes be.
Moi César, 10 ans ½, 1m39
This movie, about a short time in the life of ten-year-old Cesar, is just a charming comedy film about being a kid. There are some French touches you probably wouldn’t find in the same type of American film (parents who fight and a dad who’s almost frightening played off as being a part of life; the sexual awakening of a kid), but it’s just an overall comforting, happy, entertaining movie.
Les Émotifs Anonymes
Another film starring Benoît Poelvoorde (alongside Isabelle Carré), this cute, quirky romantic comedy takes its aesthetic and a bit of its tone from Amélie. It’s about two “émotifs” – people who are easily overcome by their emotions – and how they navigate falling in love. Plus, they work in a chocolate factory, which is a bonus for chocolate lovers like myself (especially when you think that it’s Belgian chocolate, the best kind of chocolate!).
A bizarre, hilarious early film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and co-director Marc Caro), of Amélie fame. It takes place mostly in (and below) an apartment building full of quirky people, in a post-apocalyptic world. If you liked The Shape of Water, you’ll probably like this, too: many scenes from that movie, as well as a lot of its overall design, seem to have been lifted from Delicatessen. But Delicatessen is much savvier and funnier, in my opinion.
Comme Une Image
Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui are an acclaimed screenwriting team who create smart ensemble comedies. This one, starring Marilou Berry, a charming, talented actress who used to represent for all of us curvier women (not common in French cinema) stars as the underappreciated daughter of an oblivious father in this dramedy.
Les Beaux Gosses
This hilarious movie is, essentially, the French equivalent of Superbad, which came out around the same time. It’s a great way to practice listening to younger French speakers who use a lot of slang, swallow their words, and so on.
This animated film, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, tells the story of Satrapi’s early life, growing up a Western pop culture-loving kid and teen in the tumultuous years of the first Iranian Revolution and the strict regime that followed, and how she adapted to life after escaping to France. It’s by turns funny, tragic, and always, always engrossing.
Where to watch French movies
Depending on where you live and your budget, there are many ways to watch French movies. Here are some suggestions – hopefully at least a few will work for you.
- Check your streaming or on-demand service. Services like Netflix, for example, offer lots of foreign-langauge movies and TV shows.
- Watch French TV channels that offer French movies.
- Head to your local library. Most libraries have at least the classic French films available to borrow, either for free or for a small fee.
- Look for used copies. There are lots of local and international websites for this, including big ones like Amazon. You can also check out flea markets, second-hand stores, bookstores (some have a section selling movies), and garage sales.
- See if there’s a movie rental place near you. I know, I know, these have become obsolete in most of the world, but there are still some hold-outs, whether in big cities or small towns.
- Buy or rent a digital copy. You can download a copy of one of these movies to keep forever, or rent it to stream on your computer, tablet, or phone for a limited time. For example, as of this writing, Amazon will let you rent “Les 400 coups” for $3.50 USD if you live in the US.
- Contact your branch of the Alliance Française. This organization is dedicated to promoting French learning around the world. They can probably give you advice about where to find French movies, or they may even have access to copies.
- Use your university. If you’re a student, check out your school’s library. When I was in college, if I had a big gap of time between classes, I would go to my library and watch a French movie in a private viewing cubby, with headphones. Some schools may even let you check out the movie or rent a streaming version.
- Look for French bookstores. See if there are any French bookstores in your area. These may carry French movies on DVD or Blu-Ray, too. Just check that the DVD zone works for where you live.
- Contact expat organizations. If there’s a francophone community where you live, do some online searching to see if they have a community center or gathering place. You don’t have to be from a particular country to find out about and participate in things like garage sales or movie screenings that are being organized by community members.
- Find out what’s on at your local arthouse cinema. Even a small town may have one of these. They often screen classic and foreign movies, which could mean you’d get to see some of the movies mentioned in this article on the big screen!
Hopefully these lists have helped you find some French movies to practice your listening skills. If you’ve already embarked on a cinematic French listening skills journey, what French films have helped you hone your ear?