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Shortcut: Be an expert in French cinema

By Jackie Dent for CNN
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(CNN) -- For some experts in French film criticism, a brief overview of French cinema is akin to a, er, a Hollywood action film starring a glistening Bruce Willis. C'est la vie.

What is the Grand Café? It's the name of the Parisian cafe where the Lumière brothers projected the first ever film in 1895. The film was "l'entrée du train en gare de la Ciotat" and the brothers called their invention "cinématographe," which led to the word "cinema."

Why are there no French blockbusters? French cinema is typified by a sense of justice, which usually means an unhappy ending. If the lead character has done something nasty to someone, they will more than likely pay the price by the end of the film -- "Jean de Florette" and its sequel "Manon des Sources" typify this French angst. The give you a sense of the "integrity" of the industry, "Cyrano de Bergerac" -- one of the highest grossing French films -- is about swordsmen/poet with a large nose. It also launched the international career of Gérard Depardieu.

Who were the Cahiers? Knowing what "Cahiers" is referencing is essential. "Les Cahiers du cinéma" was a French film criticism magazine, launched in 1951, which gave birth to the concept of modern film theory. Co-founded by legendary film critic and theorist André Bazin, many of its critics, including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer went on to make significant films that formed the New Wave movement.

What directors should I name drop? Probably Godard. His '60s masterpiece "A Bout de Souffle," which starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and the stunning Jean Seberg, revolutionized ideas about narrative, style and rhythm in cinema. The very long scene where Michel and Patricia mooch about in bed having a seemingly pointless conversation is possibly the apex of le cool in cinema. Knowledge of Truffaut's influential "Jules et Jim," a ménage-a-trois set during World War I, is important and can be expressed by gleefully running across a bridge holding hands with two friends.

What do the critics adore? "La Règle du Jeu." The film, tragic-comedy directed by Jean Renoir in 1939, came in at number three on a 2002 Sight and Sound film critics' list of best films ever made. It is set in a chateau and basically takes a swipe at the French bourgeois. "Les Enfants du Paradis," made in 1945 and set in Paris in 1828, tells the story of Garance, an actress and courtesan who is in love with Baptiste, a mime artist, and other men. It was voted the "Best French film of the century" in a poll by 600 French critics and film professionals.

What about something more modern? Well, depends on your taste. The utterly adorable "Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain," the dreamy tale of Amélie, an innocent helping people and looking for love in Paris, was an international smash hit. The film, starring Audrey Tautou, had girls reaching for the scissors to bob their hair, and cardigans to spruce up their library chic look. For comedy, "La Cage Aux Folles," the tale of a gay couple pretending to be straight was remade by Hollywood, is a treasure. At the other end of the spectrum is "Baise-Moi," a sexually violent and extremely controversial film about two women on a murderous rampage through France, which was banned in many countries.

Actors? Bridget Bardot may have turned into an animal rights and anti-Islamic activist, but she is considered one of France's greatest actors, alongside Jeanne Moreau, Jean Gabin, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Hugues Anglade and Daniel Auteil.

What about something sexy? Do not go on a first date to "37°2 le matin," starring Béatrice Dalle. The opening sequence is, er, hot.


Audrey Tautou, star of Amelie.

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