France: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves and Steve Smith

To learn more about France past and present, check out a few of these books and films. To get the French perspective on world events and to learn what's making news in France, check France 24 News.

Books: Nonfiction

  • A to Z of French Food, a French to English Dictionary of Culinary Terms (G. de Temmerman, 1995). This is the most complete (and priciest) menu reader around — and it's beloved by foodies.
  • Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris (Sarah Turnbull, 2003). Turnball takes an amusing look at adopting a famously frosty city.
  • The Course of French History (Pierre Goubert, 1988). Goubert provides a basic summary of French history.
  • Culture Shock! France (Sally Adamson Taylor, 1991). Demystify French culture and the French people with this good introduction.
  • D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Battle for the Normandy Beaches (Stephen E. Ambrose, 1994). Relying on 1,400 interviews with war veterans, Ambrose spins a detailed history of this fateful day.
  • A Distant Mirror (Barbara Tuchman, 1987). Respected historian Barbara Tuchman paints a portrait of 14th-century France.
  • French or Foe? (Polly Platt, 1994). This best seller, along with its follow-up, Savoir-Flair!, is an essential aid for interacting with the French and navigating the intricacies of their culture.
  • I'll Always Have Paris (Art Buchwald, 1996). The American humorist recounts life as a Paris correspondent during the 1940s and 1950s.
  • Is Paris Burning? (Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, 1964). Set in the last days of the Nazi occupation, this book tells the story of the French resistance and how a German general disobeyed Hitler's order to destroy Paris.
  • La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Elaine Sciolino, 2011). Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, gives travelers a fun, insightful, and tantalizing peek into how seduction is used in all aspects of French life — from small villages to the halls of national government.
  • The Longest Day: The Classic Epic of D-Day (Cornelius Ryan, 1959). Ryan's classic recounts the hours before and after the D-Day Normandy invasion.
  • Marling Menu-Master for France (William E. Marling, 1971). A compact guide for navigating French cuisine and restaurant terminology.
  • A Moveable Feast (Ernest Hemingway, 1964). Paris in the 1920s is recalled by Hemingway.
  • My Life in France (Julia Child, 1996). The inimitably zesty chef recounts her early days in Paris.
  • Paris to the Moon (Adam Gopnik, 2000). This collection of essays and journal entries explores the idiosyncrasies of life in France from a New Yorker's point of view. His literary anthology, Americans in Paris, is also recommended.
  • Portraits of France (Robert Daley, 1991). Part memoir, part travelogue, this is a charming reminiscence of the writer's lifelong relationship with France, including marrying a French girl on his first trip there.
  • The Road from the Past: Traveling Through History in France (Ina Caro, 1994). Caro's enjoyable travel essays take you on a chronological journey through France's historical sights.
  • Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong (Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, 2003). This is a must-read for anyone serious about understanding French culture, contemporary politics, and what makes the French tick.
  • The Sweet Life in Paris (David Lebovitz, 2009). Funny and articulate, pastry chef and cookbook author Lebovitz delivers oodles of food suggestions for travelers in Paris.
  • Travelers Tales: Paris and Travelers' Tales: France (edited by James O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, and Sean O'Reilly, 2002). Notable writers explore Parisian and French culture.
  • Two Towns in Provence (M. F. K. Fisher, 1964). Aix-en-Provence and Marseille are the subjects of these two stories by the celebrated American food writer. She also writes about her life in France in Long Ago in France: The Years in Dijon (1929).
  • Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure (Don and Petie Kladstrup, 2001). This compelling story details how French vintners preserved their valuable wine amidst the chaos of World War II.
  • A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence (Peter Mayle, 1989/1991). Mayle's memoirs include humorous anecdotes about restoring and living in a 200-year-old farmhouse in a remote area of the Lubéron.

Books: Fiction

  • Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War (Sebastian Faulks, 1993). This novel follows a 20-year-old Englishman into WWI France, and into the romance that follows.
  • Chocolat (Joanne Harris, 1999). A woman and her daughter stir up tradition in a small French town by opening a chocolate shop two days before Lent (also a movie starring Juliette Binoche and filmed in the Dordogne region).
  • City of Darkness, City of Light (Marge Piercy, 1996). Three French women play pivotal roles behind the scenes during the French Revolution.
  • The Hotel Majestic (Georges Simenon, 1942). Ernest Hemingway was a fan of Simenon, a Belgian writer who often set his Inspector Maigret detective books, including this one, in Paris.
  • Labyrinth (Kate Mosse, 2005). This thriller set in Carcassonne jumps back and forth between present-day archaeological intrigue and the medieval Cathar crusade.
  • Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert, 1886). Emma Bovary's yearning for luxury and passion ultimately lead to her demise in this literary classic.
  • Murder in the Marais (Cara Black, 1999). Set in Vichy-era Paris, private investigator Aimée Leduc finds herself at the center of a murder mystery.
  • A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel, 1992). Three young men come to Paris in 1789 — Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, and George-Jacques Danton — and the rest is history.
  • Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky, 2004). Némirovsky, a Russian Jew who was living in France and died at Auschwitz in 1942, plunges readers into the chaotic WWII evacuation of Paris, as well as daily life in a small rural town during the ensuing German occupation.
  • A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens, 1859). Dickens' gripping tale shows the pathos and horror of the French Revolution.
  • A Very Long Engagement (Sebastien Japrisot, 1991). A woman searches for her fiancé, supposedly killed in the line of duty during World War I (also a movie starring Audrey Tautou).

Movies

  • Amélie (2001). A charming young waitress searches for love in Paris.
  • Before Sunset (2004). Nine years after meeting on a train to Vienna, Jesse and Celine (played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) are reunited in Paris.
  • Breathless (1960). A Parisian petty thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo) persuades an American student (Jean Seberg) to run away with him in this groundbreaking classic of French New Wave cinema.
  • Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). A homely, romantic poet woos his love with the help of another, better-looking man (look for scenes filmed at the Abbey of Fontenay).
  • Dangerous Liaisons (1988). This inside look at sex, intrigue, and revenge takes place in the last days of the French aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary Paris.
  • Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). Steve Martin and Michael Caine star in this hilarious flick, filmed in and around Villefranche-sur-Mer.
  • The Gleaners & I (2000). Working-class men and women gather sustenance from what's been thrown away in this quiet, meditative film by Agnès Varda.
  • Grand Illusion (1937). French WWI prisoners hatch a plan to escape a German POW camp. Considered a masterpiece of French film, the movie was later banned by the Nazis for its anti-fascism message.
  • The Intouchables (2011). A quadriplegic Parisian aristocrat hires a personal caregiver from the projects, and an unusual and touching friendship ensues.
  • Jean de Florette (1986). This marvelous tale of greed and intolerance follows a hunchback as he fights for the property he inherited in rural France. Its sequel, Manon of the Spring (1986), continues with his daughter's story.
  • Jules and Jim (1962). François Truffaut, the master of the French New Wave, explores a decades-long love triangle in this classic.
  • La Grande Bouffe (1973). In this hilarious comedy about French food, French sex, and French masculinity, Marcello Mastroianni leads a rat pack of middle-aged men in a quest to eat themselves to death.
  • La Haine (1995). An Arab boy is critically wounded and a police gun finds its way into the hands of a young Jewish skinhead in this intense examination of ethnic divisions in France.
  • La Vie en Rose (2007). Marion Cotillard won the Best Actress Oscar for this film about the glamorous and turbulent life of singer Edith Piaf, who famously regretted nothing (many scenes were shot in Paris).
  • Les Misérables (2012). A Frenchman trying to escape his criminal past becomes wrapped up in Revolutionary intrigues (based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel).
  • The Longest Day (1962). This meticulous re-creation of the D-Day invasion won two Oscars and features an all-star cast including John Wayne, Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda.
  • Marie Antoinette (2006). Kirsten Dunst stars as the infamous French queen (with a Californian accent) at Versailles in this delicate little bonbon of a film about the misunderstood queen.
  • Midnight in Paris (2011). Woody Allen's sharp comedy shifts between today's Paris and the 1920s mecca of Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald.
  • Paths of Glory (1957). Stanley Kubrick directed this WWI story about the futility and irony of war.
  • The Red Balloon (1956). A small boy chases his balloon through the streets of Paris, showing how beauty can be found even in the simplest toy.
  • The Return of Martin Guerre (1982). A man returns to his village in southwestern France from the Hundred Years' War — but is he really who he claims to be?
  • Ridicule (1996). A nobleman navigates the opulent court of Louis XVI on his wits alone.
  • Ronin (1998). Robert De Niro stars in this crime caper, which includes a car chase through Paris and scenes filmed in Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Arles.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998). This intense and brilliant story of the D-Day landings and their aftermath won Steven Spielberg an Oscar for Best Director.
  • The Silence of the Sea (1949). A Frenchman and his niece, forced to house a German officer in Nazi-occupied France, resist through silent protest.
  • The Sorrow and the Pity (1969). This award-winning documentary about the Nazi occupation doesn't pull any punches about French collaboration, which is why it was banned by French TV.
  • Three Colors trilogy (1990s). Krzysztof Kieślowski's stylish trilogy (Blue, White, and Red) is based on France's national motto — "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity." Each features a famous French actress as the lead (Blue, with Juliette Binoche, is the best).
  • Welcome (2009). A young Kurdish refugee in Calais, France, faces the harsh realities of illegal immigration as he tries to join his girlfriend in England.

Steve Smith is the co-author of the Rick Steves France guidebook.