Special Pages | A Few (of Many) Important Musicals from France

Editor’s note: Musical in cinema is generally considered an American genre. The very first feature “talkie” The Jazz Singer (1927) is indeed a musical, selling sound as a novelty on the big screen. While musical directors from countries other than the U.S. often admit to being influenced by big Hollywoodian spectacles, the impulse to employ the emotional agency of music in cinema as soon as sound became accessible is not unique to the Americans, as demonstrated by French director René Clair who made Under the Roofs of Paris in 1930. Throughout the history of cinema, non-American musicals have greatly contributed to the sophistication and nuance of the genre. To accompany our Elements of Cinema screening of Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, we picked 6 French musical movies that we think you should know, and watch.

Yangqiao Lu
Editor of Film Notes

Under the Roofs of Paris (Sous les toits de Paris) (1930) dir. René Clair

One of France’s first musicals was not very typical of the genre. With a somber tone, René Clair created a dismal representation of lower-class Paris that was very disparate from the cheerful, operatic musicals that were popular in France during the 30s. French moviegoers expected to be transported away from their problems at the movies, not reminded of them. The film follows a street singer named Albert that falls for Pola, a beautiful Romanian immigrant. However, two other men are also in love with Pola: Albert’s best friend Louis and the incredibly dangerous gangster Fred.

Coming from an avant-garde background, Clair was best known for his Dadaist short film, Entr’acte (1924) and the comedy The Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d’Italie) (1928). The director was well versed in silent film and was initially doubtful towards the coming of sound. Ironically, Clair made a string of musicals that utilized sound including Under the Roofs of Paris (which debuted at the Moulin Rouge cinema), The Million (Le Million) (1931) and Freedom for us (À nous la liberté) (1931).

French Cancan (1955) dir, Jean Renoir 

After his success with La Grande Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), legendary auteur took a dive into the musical genre with a trio of films in Technicolor, though not all straightforward musicals. First, he made The Golden Coach (Le Carosse d’or) (1952) that detailed the Peruvian theatre troupe, commedia dell’arte. Renoir’s next film in the trilogy, the conventional musical French Cancan, earned him the Grand Prix de l’Academie du Cinéma in 1956.

Working together for a fourth time in French Cancan, Renoir cast Jean Gabin as Danglard, a poor Parisian café owner dating a belly dancer. The couple leave the city and heads to Montmartre, where they find the aged cancan movement is still alive. Danglard hatches a plan to reinvigorate the cancan and finally become successful. However, a pretty, young cancan dancer makes the situation more complicated for Danglard as he tries to juggle two women. Renoir followed this film with his last installment of the trilogy, Elena and Her Men (Elena et les Hommes) (1956).

Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson) (1997) dir. Alain Resnais

Perhaps one of the best French filmmakers of all time, Alain Resnais is best known for exploring the themes of memory and imagination in his films such as Hiroshima mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963). However, in the last few decades before his death in 2014, Resnais became increasingly interested in incorporating musical and the theatre into his films.

Intrigued by popular culture, Resnais directed Same Old Song; a musical film that follows a handful of Parisians as they search for new apartments. Their internal thoughts are available to the audience as they lip sync to popular recorded songs. Humor ensues as male characters sing famous tunes by female artists and vice versa. Due to Resnais’s originality, Same Old Song won 7 César Awards including Best Film and Best Sound in 1998.

Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (Jeanne et le Garçon formidable) (1998) dir. Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau

In their first feature length film together, directing duo Oliver Ducastel and Jacques Martineau made the musical, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy. The film follows Jeanne, a Parisian woman that is sick of the dating routine until she encounters Oliver on the subway. While Jeanne wants a relationship, Oliver keeps his distance, not wanting to hurt Jeanne with the news that he has AIDS.

Inspired by the musical works of Jacques Demy, Ducastel and Martineau cast Demy’s son, Mathieu Demy, in the role of Oliver. The ode to Jacques Demy was amplified by the director’s death in 1990 from complications of AIDS. The directing team was nominated for the César Award for Best Feature Film and continues to make films that deal with LGBT issues such as The Adventures of Felix (Drôle de Félix) (2000) and Born in 68 (Nés en 68) (2008).

8 Women (8 femmes) (2002) dir. François Ozon

Loosely based on Robert Thomas’s play Huit Femmes, François Ozon drew from the directing styles of George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, and Alfred Hitchcock for his 2002 musical, 8 Women. Starring an exorbitant amount of female French film stars from across the decades, including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Denueve, and Fanny Ardent, Ozon’s film was nominated for 12 César Awards and amounted great critical success.

The film takes place in a cottage, where a mostly female family gathers to celebrate the Christmas holiday. After the outnumbered man in the house is found stabbed, all of the women try to find out who is the killer among them. With themes of deception, jealousy, and greed, 8 Women is a successful mélange of musical, mystery, and melodrama. Ozon followed his musical with the mysteries Swimming Pool (2003) and In the House (Dans la maison) (2012).

Love Songs (Les Chansons d’amour) (2007) dir. Christophe Honoré

Heavily influenced by Jacques Demy, Christophe Honoré created a film with many references to the beloved filmmaker’s body of work in Love Songs. Like Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Honoré divided his musical into three sections: the departure, the absence, and the return. The film follows Julie and her boyfriend Ishmaël, as their relationship is tried and tested by others living in Paris, specifically Alice, a woman they bring into their relationship.

Love Songs is the second film in Honoré’s musical trilogy that features the same cohort of actors but no other similarities. In Paris (Dans Paris) (2006), Love Songs, and The Beautiful Person (La Belle Personne) (2008) all deal with young people trying to make sense of love and relationships. They also all have original music penned by composer Alex Beaupain. The trilogy helped to establish Honoré as an auteur of French filmmaking.



Tara Zdancewicz is pursuing her MFA in Film and Television Studies at BU. She enjoys gushing about film to the undergraduates that she teaches.
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