Text: Brian Clark
Slipping into a small theatre at two in the afternoon to catch a beat-up 35mm print of an old movie is probably one of the most authentically Parisian activities still available in the city. On any given day in Paris, there are at least four or five amazing movies from the past waiting to be discovered or rediscovered on the big screen: “Grand Classics” of France, screwball comedies, musicals, neglected B-movie masterpieces, and even David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock cycles all share screen time around the city and, nine times out of ten, they’re much better than the new releases of the week.
You’ll likely be joined by a dedicated group of older, mostly retired Parisians who seem to live at the city’s many repertory theaters. They usually applaud at the end of the movie, and if you laugh too loud at a joke, they’ll shush you. Even a weekday afternoon showing will be fairly crowded – I once went to see Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch on a Sunday afternoon only to find that it was sold out. This would not have happened anywhere else in the world.
Moreover, these classic films were made to be seen on the big screen with an audience. I don’t mean this in some reverent, nostalgic sense (though there’s obviously something to that as well), I mean that Jean Renoir, for example, never imagined that people would have the option of taking in his meticulously orchestrated mises-en-scène on a fifteen-inch laptop. The collective experience of seeing these films projected onto a big screen is something that simply can’t be replicated at home, no matter how sweet of a home theater setup you’ve somehow managed to cram into your apartment.
And even if the French aren’t exactly at the avant-garde of filmmaking these days, they still seem better at recognizing great films than anybody else. This is even more true for classic American films. The French were the first to see the artistic, subversive and personal potential of American genre films, and currently, they’re still pros at unearthing lost gems.
I walked into a movie I hadn’t heard of at Action Christine called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House only to emerge two hours later completely floored. Not only did the movie contain what was arguably the best performance of Carey Grant’s career, but its subversive, often jet-black humor was way ahead of its time… and funnier than most movies in ours. Also, I now know that Max Ophüls’ masterpiece is not Earrings of Madame de…, Lola Montes or Letter from an Unknown Woman, but actually a pulpy movie called Caught where Robert Ryan plays a cranky billionaire obsessed with his pinball machine. The latter has played in Paris at least four times within the last year.
I caught both of these films at Action Christine, which plays almost exclusively American Movies made before 1960. But as long as you’re in the Latin quarter, you might as well check out Le Champo, which gets the best new prints of old movies, Grand Action, which plays a great mélange of old films but is most noteworthy for its auditorium with a giant, creepy portrait of La Cinémathèque Française founder Henri Langlois staring at the audience, La Filmothèque, which does the best retrospectives in the area, Le Desparado, owned by prolific (though uneven) filmmaker Jean-Pierre Mocky, which specializes in French classics and films by Mocky and (deep breath) Réflet Medicis, which has no rhyme or reason to its repertory program that I’ve been able to figure out.
Then there’s also La Cinémathèque Française and Forum Des Images, along with MK2 theaters which often give carte blanche to certain artists, The Brady, whose programming makes about as much sense as Réflet Medicis, although once I saw Brian De Palma’s Blow-Out there at four in the afternoon. Really though, the easiest way to keep track of repertory film is to go to the presse and buy a copy of Pariscope each Wednesday (40 centimes). Here, you’ll find a comprehensive listing of every movie, new and old, playing in Paris as well as showtimes and theatres. In fact, maybe you’ve seen people on the subway hunched over a small, paper-back size magazine. Those are the cinephiles of Paris planning their week around listings in Pariscope, and again, it’s something you won’t see anywhere else in the world.
4 Rue Christine, 6th
Métro: Saint Michel (4)
5 Rue des Écoles, 5th
Métro: Cardinal Lemoine (10)
51 Rue Ecoles, 5th
Métro: Odéon, Saint Michel
23 rue des Ecoles, 5th
Métro: Maubert Mutualité (10)
3 Rue Champollion, 4th
Métro: Cluny-La Sorbonne (10)
39 Boulevard de Strasbourg, 10th
Métro: Chateau d’Eau (4)
9 Rue Champollion, 5th
Métro: Cluny-La Sorbonne (10)