Rick Steves: Vive la France – films and books about France
Interested in learning about French culture? From history to comedy, books and films set in France are a great way to start.
Books about France: Non-Fiction
For a good introduction to the French culture and people, read Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow), Culture Shock: France (Sally Adamson Taylor) and/or French or Foe (Polly Platt).
For a readable history of the country, try The Course of French History (Pierre Goubert). Portraits of France (Robert Daley) is an interesting travelogue that roams from Paris to the Pyrénées. A mix of writers explore French culture in Travelers Tales: France (edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O'Reilly).
Many great memoirs take place in Paris. Consider reading Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, Art Buchwald's I'll Always Have Paris, and/or Paris to the Moon, by New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, who takes his young son for a carousel ride in the Luxembourg Garden.
If you'll be visiting Provence, pick up Peter Mayle's memoirs, A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence. Ina Caro's Road from the Past is filled with enjoyable essays on her travels through France, with an accent on history. The Da Vinci Code fans will enjoy reading the book that inspired that book — Holy Blood, Holy Grail (Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln) — which takes place mostly in southern France. Labyrinth (Kate Mosse) is an intriguing tale, much of which takes place in medieval southern France during the Cathar crusade.
War buffs may want to read these classics before visiting the D-Day Beaches: The Longest Day (Cornelius Ryan) and Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure (Donald and Petie Kladstrup). Is Paris Burning?, set in the last days of the Nazi occupation, tells the story of the French resistance and how a German general disobeyed Hitler's order to destroy Paris (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre).
If you'll be enjoying an extended stay in France, consider reading Living Abroad in France (Terry Link). Gourmands appreciate the Marling Menu-Master for France (William E. Marling). Travelers seeking green and vegetarian options in France could consider Traveling Naturally in France (Dorian Yates).
Books about France: Fiction
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," begins Charles Dickens' gripping tale of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. In Les Misérables (Victor Hugo), a Frenchman tries to escape his criminal past, fleeing from a determined police captain and becoming wrapped up in the Revolutionary battles between the rich and the starving. Another recommended book set during this time is City of Darkness, City of Light, by Marge Piercy.
Ernest Hemingway was a fan of Georges Simenon, a Belgian who wrote mysteries based in Paris, including The Hotel Majestic. Other mysteries using Paris as the backdrop are Murder in Montparnasse (Howard Engel), Murder in the Marais (Cara Black), and Sandman (J. Robert Janes).
A Very Long Engagement (Sebastien Japrisot) is a love story set during the bleak years when World War I raged. Using a similar timeframe, Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks) follows a 20-year-old Englishman into France, and into the romance that follows.
Chocolat (Joanne Harris) — a book and a 2000 movie with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche — charms readers with its story of magic and romance.
Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky) plunges readers into the chaos of the evacuation of Paris during World War II, as well as daily life in a small, rural town during the ensuing German Occupation. The author, a Russian Jew living in France, wrote her account within weeks of the actual events and died at Auschwitz in 1942.
Films about France
In The Grand Illusion (1937, directed by Jean Renoir), WWI prisoners of war hatch an escape plan. Considered a masterpiece of French film, the movie was later banned by the Nazis for its anti-fascism message.
Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) is a WWI story about the futility and irony of war. François Truffaut, a filmmaker of the French New Wave school, shows the Parisian streets in Jules and Jim (1962). Wander the streets of Paris with a small boy as he chases The Red Balloon (1956).
Jean de Florette (1986), a marvelous tale of greed and intolerance, follows a hunchback as he fights for the property he inherited. Its sequel, Manon of the Spring (1986), continues with his daughter's story. Blue/White/Red (1990s) is a stylish trilogy of films by Krzystof Kieslowski, based on France's national motto — "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity."
Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) is about a homely, romantic poet who woos his love with the help of another, better-looking man. Fans of crime films — and Robert De Niro — will like Ronin (1998), with multiple scenes shot in France. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is Steven Spielberg's intense and brilliant story of the D-Day landings.
The Gleaners & I (2000) — a quiet, meditative film by Agnès Varda — follows a few working-class men and women as they gather sustenance from what's been thrown away. In Amélie (2001), a charming young waitress in Paris searches for love. If you'll be heading to Versailles, consider seeing Marie Antoinette (2006), which stars Kirsten Dunst as the infamous French queen (with a California accent).