France gets a bad rap. Despite making great contributions to the arts, sciences and pornography, the world at large is quite quick to mock the French: for surrendering, for being snooty, and for generally behaving like they would in a Monty Python sketch. In the U.S, particularly, we are likely to turn on the French at the drop of a beret, despite their assistance during the Revolutionary War and for providing us with one-third of our geography. One off-color comment out of a French politician’s mouth, and we’re suddenly eating freedom fries and Texas toast. But we geeks owe a lot to our French brethren. With contributions to comics, film, music, sci-fi, fantasy and wrestling, France is responsible for bringing both style and substance to the popular geek arts. Even if you leave the French-speaking Belgians out of it (I do), it’s still enough to make you whistle “La Marsellaise.”
Batroc the Leaper is arguably the most famous comic book character of French nationality in the United States, due to his status as one of Captain America’s most persistent opponents. But even though he started out as a clumsy French stereotype (thanks, Stan Lee!), his martial arts skills were inspired by a very real French tradition. Savate, a form of kickboxing, came up from the streets and ports of France, and is now an officially recognized sport in several countries, one that may one day be practiced at the Olympics. It’s also routinely used by dapperly dressed bad guys in action films. Accordingly, Batroc’s cache has increased in the comics, and Cap has called him one of his most dangerous foes. C’est formidable!
9) Andre the Giant
When one thinks of professional wrestling, one does not necessarily think of France. Canada, sure. Mexico, definitely. Japan, of course. But Andre Rene Roussimoff wrestled in all those countries and more in his 26 years as a pro wrestler. From his early days as a babyface to his famous feud with Hulk Hogan, the massive Frenchman became synonymous with wrestling, and at 7 feet tall he was one of the industry’s most high-profile talents, in all senses of the word. And while we all remember him fondly from his role in The Princess Bride, he had other, less visible roles in pop culture. Masked, he was Dagoth in Conan the Destroyer, a monster on The Greatest American Hero and Bigfoot on The Six Million Dollar Man. In other words, we owe the man for a lot more than slapping Bobby “The Brain” Heenan in the face. Encroyable!
8) Alien: Resurrection
The French have contributed plenty to the world of sci-fi cinema. I could be snooty and name-drop the Gilliam-influencing La Jetee or Godard’s bizarre Alphaville, but I’ll instead give props to their contribution to an ongoing franchise: the Alien films. Sure, Resurrection has its detractors — it is a comedy, after all — but the morbidly quirky sensibilities of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet gave us as many horrifying moments as it did hilarious ones. Ripley shooting a three-pointer without looking was funny, but Ripley taking a flamethrower to her deformed clone sisters was downright freaky. Plus, Jeunet brought City of Lost Children star Ron Perlman to the party, thereby giving us two great tastes that taste great together. Really, this entry should be about Jeunet, but this is the only film he made where Robot Winona Ryder got drunk while wearing boxing gloves, and a hybrid alien’s genitalia had to be digitally removed in post. C’est la guerre!
Although people have been running on rooftops, jumping from building to building and leaping through tight spaces for years, it wasn’t until the French came up with a name for it that it really took off. From “parcours de combattant,” a French system of military exercises, parkour (and its sister sport freerunning) took the spotlight in French films Yamakasi and Banlieue 13, but they blew up after making appearances in blockbuster films like The Prince of Persia, The Bourne Ultimatum and the opening sequence of Casino Royale. Now, the U.S. and British military use parkour to train their soldiers, and someday rooftop battles between armies of guys in hoodies may decide entire conflicts. Bon chance!
The heroes of French-language comics are few and far between — the Smurfs, Brussels-born Tintin and American cowboy Lucky Luke are among the most recognized — but there is no denying which dynamic duo is the Frenchiest. Asterix and Obelix, stars of the Asterix comics by Goscinny and Uderzo, are truly French national heroes, a pair of Gauls (to the uninitiated, think “French Vikings”) who defy the occupation of France by the Romans circa 50 B.C. How do they do that, you ask? By being 50 B.C.’s answer to the Gummi Bears. That’s right, they brew a magic potion in this little Gaulish village that makes them each strong enough to take on a legion of Roman Centurions. Man, if the French had still had some of that magic potion in 1940, Hitler would have never gotten past the Maginot line, am I right? Anyway, the 1959-created comic has produced 34 full-length books, ten animated films, four live-action ones, and a theme park. Does Batman have his own theme park! Non!
5) Le Pacte Des Loups, a.k.a. Brotherhood of the Wolf
A naturalist is dispatched to the rural French countryside to investigate a series of wolf attacks, bringing with him his Native American manservant. Sounds boring, right? Oh, wait, did we mention that his manservant is MARK FUCKING DACASCOS? And that the wolf is some kind of massive, unholy fusion of wolf and machine? That’s right, this movie just got awesome. Needless to say, Mark Dacascos finds reasons to start kicking the shit out of the local criminal element, the local brothel is investigated thoroughly, a wolf hunt is undertaken, and the movie gets more and more awesome until it ends in a cavalcade of blood, ass-kickings and pure, unadulterated awesome. Combining horror, fantasy, martial arts and awesomeness, Brotherhood of the Wolf was directed by Frenchman Christophe Gans (Silent Hill), and is in French, and is awesome. Merci beaucoup!
4) Jean Reno
To everybody who was expecting to see Christopher Lambert on this list, sorry — there is only room for one nerd-friendly French actor, and Reno is it. Sure, both have appeared in numerous geeky film roles, but Lambert’s star rapidly faded after the first Highlander film, much like the Highlander franchise itself. Meanwhile, Reno has only become more visible since he played Victor the Cleaner in La Femme Nikita; his role as Leon in Leon: The Professional established him as a real talent, and earned him roles in the action spectacles Mission: Impossible and Ronin. Granted, that fame has also led to his appearing in a few ill-advised remakes (Godzilla, Rollerball, The Pink Panther), but those missteps are offset by the fact that he was actually turned into a playable character in the video game Onimusha 3. It certainly makes Lambert’s role in the first Mortal Kombat movie (and his Highlander game for the Commodore 64) far less impressive. Fatalit?!
3) Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal
Created by legendary comic artist Jean “Moebius” Girard and others, the sci-fi/horror comics anthology Metal Hurlant (“Screaming Metal”) was a groundbreaking publication when it first appeared in 1974, showcasing the greatest international comics creators of its day for an exclusively adult readership. Its fame only grew when it was licensed to the U.S. as Heavy Metal, which found even more readers and inspired a cult-classic animated film in 1981. (And by “cult classic, I mean “nopple-intensive.”) The French edition of the magazine is no longer published, but there’s now supposedly an anthology TV series in the works featuring Rutger Hauer and James Marsters, which makes me very interested in said anthology TV series, especially if the actors’ nipples are involved. Zut alors!
2) The Fifth Element
It’s hard to deny Luc Besson’s impact on geek culture. As director, writer or producer, he is responsible in some way for some of the best action movies ever made (La Femme Nikita, Leon, Taken, The Transporter, Unleashed), some that were pretty damn good (Kiss of the Dragon, From Paris With Love, Banlieu 13, Transporter 2), and some that were kind of crummy (why be cruel?). But he is also responsible for creating one of the most amazing/bizarre/action-packed sci-fi movies ever: The Fifth Element, which he began developing while still in high school. With production design by Moebius and costume design by Jean-Paul Gaultier, the film was a feast for the eyes, combining dazzling visual effects (the flying car chase scene over a futuristic New York City) with good, old-fashioned actors in alien suits. And although the performances are frequently over-the-top (Gary Oldman’s Zorg, Chris Tucker’s Ruby Rhod), it has a solid Bruce Willis at its center, as well as the brain-searingly unforgettable image of Milla Jovovich wearing an outfit made only of white bandages. Cherchez la femme!
1) Daft Punk
Born Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, the electronic music duo known as Daft Punk would have made this list on the sole basis of their ever-present robot helmets and infectious beats — after all, it’s what got them action figures from Medicom and made them playable characters in DJ Hero. But it’s their greater contributions to geekdom that put them at number one. Influenced at a young age by manga-ka Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock, they enlisted him to supervise the creation of a full-length animated feature, Interstella 5555, set to the music of their album Discovery. The end result is one of the finest animated feature films ever made, in many an otaku’s opinion. And no matter what you thought of the long-awaited sequel to Tron, their soundtrack for Tron Legacy is the perfect complement to the film, and their cameo as DJ programs was the icing on the cake. We would watch a sequel starring the two of them as revolutionary underground mp3s in a heartbeat. Vive la France!