Lots of students seem to believe that watching French movies is a great way to improve their French. It can be so, but only if you have the appropriate level of French, and you are ready to "work" with the movie, not just casually watch it with the English subtitles on.
I mean, watching a film in French with English subtitles an relaxing is not going to be bad for your French, it will certainly not harm it, but it is a mistake to think you are going to significantly improve your French by doing so.
There is however a way to work with French movies: it's a lot of work, it's tedious and time consuming, but you will learn a lot.
Here is what you should do:
1 - Pick an appropriate French movie
a - sound quality
Many people think they don't understand the movie because they don't know the vocabulary. Well, it is obviously true if you are a beginner, or have selected a movie with a lot of slang and expressions that are not common. But my experience is that most of the time, the culprit is not so much the vocabulary as the sound quality. Students don't understand well because they cannot hear well; either the actors mumble, or they speak all together, or there is a noisy background, or it's an old movie and the soundtrack is not crisp. So take all this into account when you choose your movie, and prefer slow paced stories with dialogues between 2 actors indoors. See my list of 10 top easy-to-understand French movies.
b - it doesn't have to be a French movie
As far as it comes with a French soundtrack... Actually, picking a movie you already know will help you understand the French better, so it's not a bad idea at all.
c - date and genre
Be careful also to train with movies that match the kind of vocabulary you want to learn. You might love "les 400 coups" (Truffaut 1959), but be then aware that French expressions have evolved since the sixties... In the same idea, a movie like "la Haine" (Kassovitz 1995) taking place in the "hood" may not teach you the vocabulary you need to communicate everyday.
Choose movies with French soundtracks, English subtitles and if possible French subtitles. That's the best. However, don't get frustrated: often the subtitles don't exactly match the dialogues. It happens, but it's a very small percentage of the dialogues.
2 - the method for studying with French movies
a - You will need a remote control :-)
Put the movie on, without subtitles (if you only have a version with subtitles, take a plastic bag and put it against the TV screen: it will stick and hide the subtitles).
Listen to a sentence or 2, and try to write the dialogue down. If you succeed, great, move to the next 2 sentences.
If you cannot do it, rewind and repeat. At least 4 times. If you still don't get it, write what you hear, phonetically. Then check the French subtitles, or the English one if that's all you have, and figure out what they said (If you only have English subtitles, you might not be able to do it for every single word, but with the help of a dictionary, you should be able to translate most of the dialogues).
b - Analyze why you didn't understand.
- You didn't know the vocabulary
But did you get the sound right? If you did, that's already a victory! Can you guess what it means with the scene? If not, go check the English subtitles (or use a dictionary). Then repeat the sentence out-loud, trying to mimic the actor. Then write down the new words of vocabulary in a notebook, in 2 columns: French on one side (don't forget the article if it's a noun), English on the other. Later, test yourself: look at the English word and see if you can come up with the French.
- You couldn't understand the actor
Then listen to the sentence very carefully, and repeat out loud, trying to mimic exactly the actor. Figure out how you would have said it, and compare it to the way they said it. If it's a common word/sentence, write it down in a notebook and try to write how the actor pronounced it. later, test yourself to see if you can read the word or combination of words correctly.
Many students of mine have used this method, and made great progress. It's a lot of work, but the results are outstanding. If you feel that movies are too hard, start by challenging your understanding with longer audio recordings: I suggest you check out my Poetry Reading and Analysis series, or Fun French Tales, which are both a reachable way to challenge your listening skills.
Finally, it's not because the movie is in French that you have to do all this hard work: there are many good French movies, that should be enjoyed for the story and the film making, with the English subtitles on, not for language learning purposes.
There is work, and there is leisure, you should have both in your life.
About the writer
Born and raised in Paris, I lived in Boston for 16 years and have been teaching French to adults around the world for 19 years. Returning to France in 2008, I created French Today which offers audiobooks and lessons in grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary. All my lessons come from my personal teaching experiences. I developed my method to match the needs of adults who want to learn and interact in real, modern French.