Learn French by watching movies can be a very effective method. Depending on your level of knowledge, English or French subtitles is a fantastic way to improve your linguistic skills. Listening to dialogues and conversations that you might encounter in everyday life is an effective learning process. Learning French by watching French movies can help you learn new expressions, expand your vocabulary, and improve your familiarity and fluency with French grammar. Movies are also a really engaging way to learn French, much more so than traditional learning materials.
But, you must be prepared to work with the movie. Listening passively, as you might perhaps listen to music in the background, won’t help you get the most out of the learning possibilities a movie can offer.
As a tool for learning, a French movie, when studied carefully, can be just as effective as any other method for helping you learn or improve your French.
Here are a few tips to help you work on a movie :
Method and tips to learn French by watching movies
The choice of movie is important. Fans of “La nouvelle vague” and directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard should keep in mind that French language has evolved since the 1960s and 1970s. Whilst these movies are widely regarded as classics of French cinema, some of the idioms and expressions employed in the dialogue are no longer used or heard in daily life. A movie that includes a lot of humorous, but difficult to translate, wordplay might also not be the best choice. For the best learning experience, I recommend avoiding movies that contain too much slang or idioms that might not useful in everyday situations.
Choose a movie with subtitles. These are essential, whether in English, French, or both. Select French subtitles if you feel comfortable in French and your level is minimum intermediate or pre-intermediate (B1 level). If, for the moment, English subtitles are helpful for your confidence, select this option. In either case, be aware that subtitles sometimes don’t match the spoken dialogue exactly, word-for-word. Linguists and perfectionists might feel occasional frustration as a result!
With these suggestions in mind, there are still many, many French films, in all genres, that would be helpful as learning tools and fun to work on.
Here, then, is a short list of movies that I would recommend :
“César and Rosalie” (1972)
Directed by Claude Sautet
Starring Romy Schneider and Yves Montand
Rosalie is amicably divorced and dividing her time between two homes: her mother’s, with her siblings and small daughter, and that of César’s. He’s a self-made man, a scrap-iron king, outgoing, amiable, and in love with her. Enter David, an artist, and an old flame of Rosalie’s from before her marriage. In a quiet and brooding way, David seeks to reclaim Rosalie. César’s jealous outbursts and attempts at cunning backfire disastrously to send Rosalie back into David’s arms.
“The Dinner Game” (1998)
Directed by Francis Veber
Starring Thierry Lhermite, Jacques Villeret and Francis Huster
A comedy about a dinner game in which the participants are conmen and the guests are idiots. The story unfolds across a single evening and takes place, for the most part, in a single setting. Both aspects facilitate concentration on the dialogue.
Directed by Luc Besson
Starring Anne Parillaud
An action thriller about a young criminal recruited to work for the French intelligence service. Instead of going to jail, convicted felon Nikita is given a new identity and trained, stylishly, as a spy and assassin.
“The Untouchables” (2011)
Directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
Starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy
A touching movie about a quadriplegic millionaire who meets a headstrong young man from the suburbs. Highlighting the friction and clashes between rich and poor suburbs, the film also depicts the difficulties faced by handicapped people in their daily lives. The story of a beautiful and unexpected friendship between two people who, at first glance, seem to have nothing in common.
Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Starring Audrey Tautou
One of the most well known romantic French movies. Paris has rarely looked so alluring and enchanting on film. Amélie is a young, innocent girl working as a waitress in Paris and doing her best to help people around her, whilst also hoping to find love in the French capital. Her quest for the latter leads to a realization that in seeking to help others she often forgets about herself. Amélie decides to take control of her destiny.
“OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” (2006)
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Starring Jean Dujardin
This James Bond parody depicts a sexist, racist, and truly insufferable French spy who makes mistake after mistake. Despite his shortcomings, the spy is almost likable by the end of the film.
My method for watching movies and learning French
Here is my method for those who do not have a high-level understanding of the French language.
Watch the film from beginning to end. Hide the remote. Your goal for the first viewing is to familiarize yourself with the story, the main characters, and the pronunciation. Think of yourself as the average cinemagoer, perhaps focusing slightly more on the dialogue than usual. If you feel that your level of French is good enough, try not to read the subtitles and focus only on the dialogue.
When you’ve finished the first step it’s time to move on. You can now begin to work on the movie. All you’ll need is a laptop (or a pen and paper) and a dictionary. Start again from the beginning, this time watching the movie scene-by-scene. A scene rarely lasts more than a couple of minutes. Start with the opening scene and watch the subtitles carefully (in English or French, depending on your level).
Have you understood everything so far? Pay close attention to the vocabulary, the expressions, the grammatical structures employed, idioms, slang, colloquialisms, and plays on words. If you encounter problems with the pronunciation of certain French words, it might also be helpful to repeat the words and sentences until your pronunciation becomes more fluid.
Write down everything that is unfamiliar, or new to you. Verbs, expressions, and so on. Use your dictionary to find the right translation in English, or your native language. This is the most important part of the exercise. For some students, writing can be a very effective way to memorize.
Once you have ground through this process you are now in a position to re-watch the scene until it becomes completely clear and you feel ready to use what you have learned in a conversation with a French native speaker.
If there are too many characters in the scene, if the dialogue is too quick for you, or if the soundtrack is too loud, you can also decide to stop frequently and move through the scene again step-by-step.
Each time you re-watch the scene, you will remember more and more of the context in which expressions and phrases are employed, retorts are snorted, and so on.
As a tutor at French à La Carte, I really enjoy teaching French to my students using movies. The web site Apprende le Français… Avec le Cinema Français offers a wide range of movie extracts, dialogue transcriptions, and quizzes.
Many of my students have tried to learn or improve their French by watching movies and found it not only engaging, but also quite effective. If you work by yourself, strong self-discipline is required. You need to be both motivated and patient. Working on a ninety minute (or more!) movie can take a number of hours.
If you need the help of a private teacher, we would be very pleased to work with you on movie scenes during a private French lesson.