The Dreamlife of Angels 1998 ***


Writer and director Erick Zonca’s French film is a frank and finally shocking drama about two girls in the town of Lille and their relationships with men. Élodie Bouchez plays Isa, a girl disappointed in love and life, who strikes up an alliance with Marie (Natacha Régnier), who lives in an apartment where all the inhabitants have died in a car accident. The two girls struggle to reconcile their desire for love with the differing attitudes of local men, and Isa’s discovery of a diary belonging to the accident’s sole survivor Sandrine opens up an inner world that leads to a casually depicted but truly tragic event. The Dreamlife of Angels is naturalistically acted and performed, but the low-key presentation only disguises Zonca’s determination to turn clichés inside out; there’s no miracles here, just bravery in the face of a world without pity or remorse.

The Widow of St Pierre 2002 ****


Another gem from writer and director Patrice Leconte, The Widow of St Pierre is a skilful melodrama which deals with the subject of the death penalty; set in Newfoundland in the mid 19th century, it features director Emir Kusturica as Ariel, a killer who is sentenced to death. The isolated community lacks a guillotine, and during the delay while one is sent from the mainland, Ariel wins over the hearts and minds of the locals, including Pauline (Juliette Binoche) and Jean (Daniel Auteuil). He appears to be rehabilitated; so does he still have to die? Based on a true story, this is a chilly but accomplished drama, with strong performances and one incredible sequence in which Ariel rescues the township from a runaway house.

Martyrs 2008 ***


Most horror films are for kids; the hokey characterisation and plotting is just for fun. Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film is anything fun, a brutal and at times near unwatchable drama of torture and degradation. What elevates it from the torture porn genre is the set-up; Lucie (Mylene Jampanoi) has suffered a childhood torment, and enlists the help of Anna (Morjana Alaoui) for a revenge mission. They target a suburban house where a normal-looking family live. Anna begins to have her doubts about whether Lucie’s actions are justified, and when their home invasion begins, the girls get more than they bargained for. The first half of Martyrs is unbearably tense, and although the seconds half is more physically revolting, Laugier’s film has earned the right to go to such dark places. Human pain has rarely bee depicted in such detail; Martyrs is recommended for those seeking the extremes of horror cinema.

Ernest and Celestine 2012 ***


Arriving with little fanfare, this French animation won an Oscar nomination and plaudits for the charming, water-colour animation created by the GKIDS studio. Ernest is a bear who is demonised for his large and imposing shape, and he finds friendship with Celestine, an orphaned mouse who refuses to believe what she’s told about evil bears. Ernest refuses to make a dinner of Celestine,  and the two embark on a partnership that sees them marked down as criminals who can’t accept a bear/mouse relationship. Adapted from Gabrielle Vincent’s book, Ernest and Celestine is a lovely piece of hand-drawn work from directors Stéphane Aubier , Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner, and this subtitled version is a pleasant diversion for kids of all ages.

Max Mon Amour 1986 ***


Working with Jean-Claude Carriere, the go-to provocateur for everyone from Luis Bunuel to Jonathan Glazer, Nagisa Oshima crafted this truly bizarre one-off drama. Peter Jones (Anthony Higgins) is vexed when his wife Margaret (Charlotte Rampling) appears to have taken a new lover, but his nose is further out of joint when he discovers her new paramour is a chimp called Max. To make matters worse, this isn’t sex but love, Peter’s world crumbles as he realises that he’s been bested by an animal. Max Mon Amour sounds like a comedy, but it’s a deadly serious examination of modern morals and sexual jealousy, played with a straight-face and the serious intention which might be expected from the director of In the Realm of the Senses. Without any real graphic content, Max Mon Amour deconstructs the male psyche with broad, brutal strokes, and looks at a darker side of animalistic machismo than most directors would be prepared to explore.

Last Year in Marienbad 1961 ****


The 2014 death of director Alain Resnais provides a welcome excuse to exhume on of his best films, 1961’s haunting Last Year in Marienbad. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) arrives at a gloomy spa resort where he strikes up off relationships with A (Delphine Seyrig) and M (Sacha Piteoff), but it’s never clear who any of them are. Have they met before, are they lovers, rivals, or what? Resnais never revels the answers, but the beautiful deep-focus black and white photography and weirdly looping dialogue make it a pleasure to unravel the secrets of Marienbad’s corridors. Based on the novel The Invention of Morel, the secret is actually a sci-fi conceit; the hotel is a hologram, and the characters X meets are ghosts of the past. For him to fall in love with A, and prefer to become part of the hologram, is an extraordinary conceit, and baffled audiences at the time; absurdly included in The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made, modern audiences may find a more profound heart in Resnais’s pretentious but rich and ambiguous film that his detractors at the time did.

L’Appartement 1996 ***


Remade with Josh Hartnett and Diane Kruger as Wicker Park, this Gallic thriller is an ingenious slice of voyeurism from writer/director Gilles Mimouni, with Max (Vincent Cassell) as the soon-to-be-married businessman who spies his old-flame Lisa (Monica Belluci) in a busy café. He sneaks into her apartment, only to become involved with Alice (Romane Bohringer). All is not what it seems, and Mimoui’s twisty-turny flashback structure keeps things on edge until the true nature of the deception is revealed. A top-notch cast of French stars and a Pulp Fiction-style time-switch make L’Appartement an engrossing study of romantic obsession as only the French could make.