“Paris is truly a movie city.”
I was sitting in the bar at my hostel in Paris when the curly-haired Parisian receptionist said that to me. I had just been lamenting the fact that over the last week and half of my travel through Europe I hadn’t seen a single movie, which for someone who watches movies obsessively is quite a challenge. “Here,” he continued, “you can see any movie you want, anytime. We have it all.”
I had four days in Paris and having been there before, I had no interest in joining the throngs of tourists to gawk at the Arc de Triomphe or the Notre Dame Cathedral. So I decided to put my Parisian friend’s claim to the test.
There are the run-of-the-mill style North American style cineplexes scattered across the city, but I didn’t travel 3000 km to see “Iron Man 2” in the multiplex. I wanted a uniquely Parisian film experience. So I headed to the left bank, where a majority of Paris’s rep cinemas are clustered around Sorbonne University. Typically, when one says rep cinema, you envision an old theatre with a classic marquee, surrounded on either side by hip coffee shops and other earmarks of gentrification. Not in Paris. A cinema district is quite literally a cinema district. Several winding cobblestoned streets in the area are filled with movie theatres of varying sizes showing every type of movie you could ever hope to see. French films, old Bond movies, screwball comedies from the ’40s, grind house flicks … the list could go on and on. My Parisian friend was right; they certainly did have it all.
I could have wandered the area for hours deciding which film to see. However, the apparently cinema-loving angel that looks over me had other plans. As I stepped onto the street, I caught sight of a poster for a movie I have seen countless times above the marquee of the Champo Theatre. It is considered the best example of Technicolour usage in film and is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films. It’s a ballet movie.
“The Red Shoes” is a British film originally released in 1948. It follows the rise of a prima ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer, in her only notable film role) and the conflict between her love for dance and her actual love interest, a young composer played by Marius Goring. At the centre of the conflict is the Svengali-esque head of the ballet company Boris Lermontov, played terrifyingly by Anton Walbrook, who will do anything to keep Page under his thrall and dancing for the company. The name of the film comes from the ballet “The Red Shoes,” based on a Hans Christian Anderson story of the same name. In it, a girl who loves to dance insists on having a pair of red dancing shoes. This bring a Hans Christian Anderson tale, you can be sure the shoes are enchanted and evil. The catch here? The shoes never allow her to stop dancing and she eventually dances to her death. Without giving away the ending of this excellent film, just know that the plot is very much informed by the Anderson story.
This is a film that many young aspiring ballerinas watch and love, without understanding the more adult subtext of jealousy and sex. I include myself in this group. As an adult, however, the film has always stayed with me because of its absolutely stunning visuals, which include a 15-minute long ballet piece, as well as a plot that stays with you well past final viewing. Lermontov is an example of an antagonist that, no matter how much you hate him, you also sympathize with. He is a lonely man who only has his ballet and a fake sense of intimacy with Victoria Page based on their mutual love of dance. It is very easy to see why it is one of Scorsese’s favourite films (fun fact: The Criterion DVD edition of the film has as one of its special features a look at Scorsese’s personal “Red Shoes” memorabilia collection). It’s not so much about ballet as it is about love, passion and treachery.
So it’s understandable that I was excited to get a chance to see this on the big screen. But getting to see it in Paris was a whole other thrill altogether. Seeing a film in another country can be as interesting an experience as doing all the other touristy stuff, if not more so. It’s a chance to experience a city as those that live in it do. Movie viewing is something we view as mundane, almost an everyday activity thanks to the ubiquity of the multiplex. But in a foreign place, you notice the little things that make one film going experience different from another.
For starters, there is no chilling out in the theatre for up to 45 minutes before the film starts. Paris rep cinemas don’t open their box office until near minutes before showtime. In fact, some theatres don’t actually advertise the time the film is going to start; they advertise the time that the tickets go on sale, and the movie starts 10 minutes later. I found that the advantage of this system is actually that it forces you to have some interaction with your fellow filmgoers. While waiting in line, I found that patrons who didn’t know each other were chatting away about the film. At least I think that’s what they were talking about. The ability to eavesdrop is limited when your knowledge of French consists of being able to ask where the nearest toilets are. Still, I was able to pick up that most of the folks there — all about 20 years older than I am — were discussing “The Red Shoes” along with all the other films they had plans to see. Paris clearly has a dedicated film audience made up of more than hardcore film geeks. Maybe it’s because of the proliferation of rep cinemas in the city, but it seems that there is a culture of love for films in Paris that goes beyond the usual suspects.
The second shock: Upon purchase of my ticket, I headed downstairs into the theatre, eager for some popcorn and candy after weeks of abstaining from junk food in favour of more European cuisine. I was greatly disappointed. This theatre did not have a concession stand. All it had was a pathetic little vending machine with a few French candy bars and pop. I could barely hide my disappointment. Going to see a movie is intimately connected with the consumption of junk food in my mind. But, had I gone to another of Paris’s rep cinemas, I would have been just as disappointed. It seems that due to cost and size, most Parisian rep cinemas have eschewed the snack bar in favour of much easier to maintain vending machines. There is also a European school of thought that films should be enjoyed without eating anything. Perhaps the Champo cinema also prescribed to this way of thinking? It is one that has lost favour, however, amongst younger Europeans. I was told by new friends on the trip that they loved popcorn at the larger theatres; salt or sugar flavoured. Yes, in Europe you have the option to have sugar on your popcorn. Suddenly, our butter-drenched popcorn wasn’t looking so bad.
Despite the lack of a concession stand, the Champo was a cozy little theatre with seats that more resembled armchairs then those found in a North American cinema. And I don’t know if it was the chairs, or the smaller theatre size, or my own familiarity with the film, but it did end up being a much more intimate viewing experience than any I have experienced in Toronto. It was almost as if I were watching a film in my home rather than having gone to the cinema. I don’t mean this as a knock against the Champo; on the contrary, it heightened my enjoyment of the film as I was able to relax and really absorb the film on the big screen as I had never seen it before.
The film ended and I walked back into the gray Paris day and joined the whir of Parisians and tourists headed to the subway. But my mind was pre-occupied with thoughts of home. I remember, once upon a time in Toronto, that every neighborhood had at least one movie theatre to call its own. But as the cineplexes set up shop, these theatres disappeared. Only a few now remain and they get by primarily by showing second-run features. Some are able to show indie and classic films. For example, on my return I noticed “The Red Shoes” was also playing at my local rep cinema, the Bloor. However, it was only showing for two nights, whereas the Champo was able to play it three times a day for a whole week!
I was jealous. As much as I do enjoy a trip to my local giant theatre, rep cinemas are important. They keep our film history alive and they provide valued opportunities for new filmmakers to have their work seen. Yet all over North America, we see these cinemas disappearing. We are told that there isn’t an audience for them. Yet here I was in Paris, surrounded by cinemas with people going in and out of them. There are clearly Western audiences that want to support rep cinemas. Is it just that Parisians had a culture that was more willing to seek them out? Are North American rep cinemas too esoteric, too focused on their stalwart audiences of film nerds and fanboys? Or is it a problem of the people. Are North Americans a little too comfortable, cinematically speaking?
I then had a terrible thought. In every other place I had traveled to in Europe, I had been warned that what I was seeing could be gone in 10 years. Artists squats and graffiti areas in Berlin were being mowed down for condos. In Prague, art-deco architectural masterpieces housed H&M’s and McDonald’s. Would Paris’s rep cinemas be next on the list? I had a vision of coming back to Paris in 10 years only to find a monolithic movie theatre in place of all the charming, cozy cinemas that surrounded the Sorbonne.
I had wanted to quiz my Parisian friend about this, but I never got the chance. Later, when I was visiting Bruges, in Belgium, a friend pointed out a local cinema to me. “There used to be more” he said, “but a big one opened up outside of town, and now a lot of them have shut down.” Clearly, Europe was not immune to the trend of the big theatre chains shutting down the small cinemas.
Then again, maybe there is a lesson to be learned here. Paris showed me that forgotten classics like “The Red Shoes” can find audiences again. And even though it was the middle of the day on a Wednesday, every theatre I saw had a line and all seemed to be doing business, which is more than can be said for many theatres. Maybe North American cities needed to invest more time in making this cultural shift by encouraging people to seek out new theatres and more interesting films. How one would do that, I hardly know, though success stories like the Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas make me hopeful. As well, when I got home I was immensely heartened to find that a new rep cinema had opened in Toronto; the Toronto Underground Cinema, with a mandate that included presenting classics, film festivals, and indie flicks. Perhaps there is hope after all.
For now, however, I am satisfied that my Parisian friend was right. Only one look at the many theatres around the Sorbonne or my wonderful experience at the Champo confirmed it: Paris is truly a movie city.
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Follow H.G. Watson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HGWatson7.