As a film student at LMU, I’ve been asked the question: “What’s your favorite movie?” It’s certainly an interesting question and one that can spark an infinite amount of passionate conversations, for better or for worse, between the competitive and heated minds of us film majors. The answers I’ve received when asking this question to others resulted in a mix of Christopher Nolan, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher and Jordan Peele films, with vocal contributions from the A24 advocates and a pinch of Disney and Studio Ghibli from the animation majors.
I came to two conclusions from these responses:
First, we clearly have great taste.
Second, we don’t watch enough foreign films.
As an international student, I would like to (re)introduce Lions to foreign cinema by presenting the world’s greatest films, country by country. We all should collectively broaden our horizons, which are unfortunately often restricted to Hollywood blockbusters and domestic indie productions, and explore the masterpieces that await beyond the language barrier.
France, my home country, has been home to some of the greatest filmmakers the world has offered. The French, historically, were pioneers in the filmmaking business, starting with the very first projections in history from the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès during the late 19th century.
Since then, many “chefs-dœuvre” have been produced, and many directors have made quite the name for themselves in the realm of international cinema: François Truffaut, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, along with contemporary powerhouses such as Céline Sciamma and Julia Ducournau.
The immense impact of French culture on world cinema and its many movements is truly undeniable, and I hope that the following films will eventually pique your interest in exploring foreign films.
“La Haine” (“Hate”), directed by Mathieu Kassovitz and released in 1995, is, in my eyes, the greatest French film ever made. Despite the fact that it could be labeled as a drama, I consider this film to be, at its core, a genreless piece: the term “drama” is far too broad to apply here. Its structure and editing defy all preexisting norms and contribute to the film’s uniquely dark and loud atmosphere.
A quote from the French philosopher Albert Camus perfectly encapsulates the film’s energy: “Le seul moyen d’affronter un monde sans liberté est de devenir si absolument libre qu’on fasse de sa propre existence un acte de révolte.” (“The only way to face a world without freedom is to become so absolutely free that your one’s very existence is an act of rebellion.”). “La Haine is not simply a film, but a revolutionary and refreshing visualization of what it means to live in a cage, and why escaping it matters — perhaps not a physical cage, but one large and powerful enough to contain human hatred and passion in general.
Three friends, Vinz, Saïd and Hubert, living in one of France’s infamous “banlieues” (often worn out and neglected “housing projects”), struggle to deal with the hospitalization of their friend Abdel following brutal riots with the police. In their eyes, the world and their freedoms are restricted by boundaries imposed upon them by an unjust set of institutions, which in turn only fuel the film’s raw and unrelenting emotion: the film is angry. Extremely angry, inspired by real student protests and police response.
I often compare it to Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Uncut Gems” (2019) because of the way the characters constantly yell over one another. The space for characters to truly express themselves is minimal, and the tension on screen is palpable. Kassovitz’s reflection on violence, hatred and rage is purely timeless; “La Haine” is an immortal representation of social injustice and rebellion. The film is available for free on YouTube with English subtitles.
“Intouchables” (“The Intouchables”), a comedy-drama directed by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, released in 2011, is based on the true story of a wheelchair-bound Frenchman and his French-Algerian caregiver. While I’m certainly not a fan of comedies myself, I cannot help but acknowledge that “Intouchables” stands out for many reasons. Most importantly, its lead, Omar Sy, who you may know from Netflix’s hit series “Lupin.” He is highly charismatic in this film, and I consider it his greatest performance, as an unemployed man named Driss (who also lives in the “banlieue”) who ends up working for the owner of a hotel named Philippe, who is quadriplegic and in need of a new caregiver.
At first, their opposing social classes create a slight amount of tension between the two, as Driss is not used to the many luxuries at Philippe’s disposal. However, they quickly become friends, and watching their relationship unfold is an immensely entertaining on-screen experience. The film’s popularity in France and beyond inspired the 2017 American remake, “The Upside,” released in 2017 featuring Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston; needless to say, the original is infinitely better. Toledano and Nakache’s heartfelt portrayal of French society, in its beauty and its messiness, as well as their exploration of love beyond our personal issues and trauma, make “Intouchables” one of the greatest comedies of the 21st century. The film is available to rent on Vudu for $2.99.
Not all of France’s greatest films are live-action; several of them actually happen to be animated. “Ernest et Célestine” follows the lives of a friendly and innocent mouse named Célestine living in an underground world populated by rodents, and a lazy and irritable bear named Ernest, who happens to live on the surface where all the other bears live. One day, when Célestine is out trying to collect bear teeth on the surface (as part of her dentistry studies), Ernest tries to eat her, but she manages to convince him to keep her alive, and they slowly but surely become close friends, something the rest of the world seemingly cannot comprehend or tolerate.
The premise is rather absurd, and the film is full of typical power of friendship and appearances can be deceiving tropes, but at the end of the day, they simply work. It’s a very plain and sweet film, which thrives on minimalism and simple, two-dimensional hand-drawn animation: every frame resembles a watercolor painting, and its style is very effective in advancing the film’s storytelling, along with its charming humor and quirky soundtrack. The film is available on Hulu in French and in English dub. I recommend the French version).
“Ma Vie de Courgette” is a claymation film about a young boy named Icare (who prefers to go by the name Courgette, literally translating to “zucchini”) who is brought to an orphanage by the local police officer following a dramatic family incident which I will not spoil. Upon arriving at the orphanage, Courgette’s quiet and reserved personality automatically results in him getting picked on and borderline bullied by the other, much louder and excitable kids. “Ma Vie de Courgette” is also a simple film, focusing on Courgette’s experiences with love and friendship for the first time, without the fantasy elements of talking bears and mice that “Ernest et Célestine” introduced.
Indeed, the film’s visual aesthetic, through its vibrant colors, contrasted with its mature and often dark subject matter, and fluid claymation and production design, contributes to an overall beautiful depiction of childhood and its problems, its precious moments and its importance in all our lives. The film is available to rent for $3.99 on platforms such as YouTube, Amazon and Google Play.
Where French filmmakers fail with digital and computer animation (in films such as “Ballerina”), they brilliantly shine with traditional two-dimensional and experimental animation, as proven by “Ernest et Célestine” and “Ma vie de courgette.” Both films place the main characters in environments where they do not typically fit in, and where their mental and physical safe spaces are sometimes jeopardized.
Despite this, over the course of the films, Célestine and Courgette slowly adapt to and take solace in their new surroundings. They have found a sense of belonging and meaning in a world they once thought would despise and hate them for their identities, oddities, and existence in general, something I believe every LMU student should seek and find for themselves.
The struggle with the sentiment of non-belonging is universal, and perhaps French cinema can help us confront it in order to overcome our personal fears and anxieties, just like Célestine and Courgette.
For those interested in arthouse cinema — “high art” films, or films that are meant to be considered as art rather than approachable to wider audiences — I highly recommend checking out three directors in particular: Céline Sciamma (who also happens to have co-written “Ma Vie de Courgette”) and her film “Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu” (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), released in 2019, which is perhaps the most intense and cinematically gorgeous romance I’ve ever seen.
Ducournau’s “Grave” (“Raw” 2016) and “Titane,” which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, are both graphically disturbing and cerebral additions to the arthouse collection, and have sparked mass controversy and outrage since their releases. Lastly, for those who can stomach it, Gaspar Noe’s work, namely “Climax” (2018), consists of the most grotesque and mind-bending psychedelic experiences ever put on-screen (but do be warned, as the subject matter his films deal with can be very triggering and traumatic for some viewers). “Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu” and “Titane” are available on Hulu. “Grave” is available on Netflix. “Climax” is available to Showtime subscribers and can be rented for $2.99 on YouTube and Vudu.
The lessons we can learn from foreign cinema and French cinema in particular are numerous and valuable, and expanding our worldviews and knowledge of art is an incredibly rewarding experience. Happy viewing!
This is the opinion of Antoine Corbani, a freshman film, television and media studies major from Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Email comments to Follow and tweet comments to @LALoyolan on Twitter, and like the Loyolan on Facebook.
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I totally agree there is a lack of knowledge with regards to international films. I also like how he provided French films, I will make sure to watch them and better appreciate foreign films!
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