The French take classic movies, like all forms of sophisticated pleasure, rather seriously.
For instance, if I want to go see a great movie at the Forum des Images, I must do so without so much as a macaron to sustain myself through the screening. Meanwhile, a few meters away, a huge multiplex sells the latest forgettable films on the market—with a full concession stand wafting good smells. I can hear its siren call, “Come over to the dark side… we have popcorn.”
But no, true bliss demands discipline before it bestows its favors. As much as the rigor and intensity of French audiences intimidate me, I also admire their deep respect and love for the fascinating films of yesterday. It warms the cockles of my heart to witness such a wide range of ages attending screenings, from a school group of tweens at the Cinémathèque to dowagers in Chanel suits frequenting the legendary theaters of the Latin Quarter.
In Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, the narrator of the first story concludes, “Le bonheur n’est pas gai.” That is, “Happiness is not joyful.” So you’d be wrong to think that solemn spectators in Paris movie theaters were absorbing the films like some kind of bitter medicine. In fact, they’re about as happy as you can get for €7.50.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s a pretty representative sample of what you can see in huit jours (the French often talk about “eight days” when they mean a week) in cinema’s hometown. Lucky for me, I also happened to be visiting Paris during La Fête du Cinéma, a yearly event that reduces ticket prices to €3.50 for a few days.
Cover Girl (Charles Vidor and Gene Kelly, 1944)
The Venue: Sadly, the Cinémathèque Française doesn’t live where it used to back in the days when Langlois hand-picked the movies, Musidora helped work the box office, and the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette hogged the front-row seats. But, hey, look on the bright side: there’s a gift shop. And you can still see a wide variety of classics, from the obvious to the obscure, projected from the archive’s own collection of prints.
The Movie: This inventive, flamboyantly-colored backstage musical, about a hoofer who wins a modeling contest, gave Rita Hayworth’s rising star a major boost.
Why I Went to See It: Whereas the Cinémathèque’s founder put together wildly eclectic programs of movies each day, the establishment now heavily favors retrospectives and coherent series. When I go see a movie at the Cinémathèque, I look for movies that belong to the Histoire Pérmanente du Cinéma series, which tends to feature a wider assortment of films, including some real rarities as well as Hollywood classics.
The Print: A 35mm version with French subtitles from the Cinémathèque’s vaults. The well-loved reels started to crackle and break up at their beginnings and ends—resulting in one jump cut so startling that I swear I thought the Nouvelle Vague boys got ahold of the print!
My Highlight: Rita Hayworth, wearing a somewhat plain navy suit with red piping, in a waiting room full of models decked out in chic pastels. The lily needs no gilding.
Bottom Line: Technicolor is a damn good storyteller.
The Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)
The Venue: Crammed into an underground mall amongst numerous fast food joints and chain stores, the Forum des Images does not overwhelm you at first sight.
However, since the Forum opened in 2008, its exciting programs and decidedly hip ambiance have won over cinephiles from all walks of life.
With both purple fluorescent lights and a changing collection of real vintage posters hanging up in the lobby, the space revels in an oh-so-French blend of old and new. Did I mention the cinema library, where individual browsers can partake of thousands of films and books about films?
The Movie: A horror film? A coming-of-age story? A psychological thriller? However you categorize The Other, it’s much more than another good-twin-bad-twin movie.
Why I Went to See It: In my humble opinion, The Other also ranks as one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 1970s.
The Print: I neglected to notice that the Forum planned on screening a 35mm print in version française, borrowed from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. That is, with dubbing from the original French release. Listening to all of the characters speaking approximations of their lines in French—and having to provide some whispered translations for my mother—oddly enough gave me the pleasant sensation of watching the film as if for the first time.
My Highlight: The way milkweed silk catches the sunlight as one of the twins carries pods of the fluffy stuff across a bucolic field.
Bottom Line: My respect for this film grew even more after seeing it on a big screen.
Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)
The Venue: Fortified by some steak au poivre, I returned to the Forum des Images for the second screening of the day.
The Movie: A barely legal cellist tames a notorious roué by regaling him with false tales of her amorous escapades… lifted from the files of her private eye father. I can only describe this silly, tender trifle as an operetta without singing.
Why I Went to See It: Billy Wilder + Paris + Tango Music = Where Do I Buy My Ticket?
The Print: A well-preserved 35mm version.
My Highlight: Back-to-back close-ups of weathered Gary Cooper and weathered Maurice Chevalier in their confrontation scene. I’d weather that weather!
Bottom Line: It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to go kiss the first person you meet in the street. Fortunately I knew better than to ruin my lipstick.
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)
The Venue: Rue Champollion is the epicenter of Paris cinephilia, lined with art house theaters of which La Filmothèque is my favorite so far. Sure, you might have to elbow someone out of the way to get your tickets, but it’s totally worth your trouble to burrow into a comfy plush chair in a screening room with golden floral sconces.
And, sure, some crazy filmgoer might bawl you out for fidgeting during the movie when you were just reaching for your lip balm, but that’s all part of the thrill. Next time, I think I’ll shush someone who isn’t talking, just for the hell of it.
The Movie: A typical love story set in crumbling WWII Germany, elevated by Sirk’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty, but always arresting use of CinemaScope.
Why I Went to See It: When I was in college, I read young Godard’s review of A Time to Love and it’s a real hoot, ending with something along the lines of, “You don’t know beauty ‘til you’ve seen it.” Well, I’d never seen it… And if I ever meet Godard, now I’ll at least have something to talk about while politely avoiding the topic of the migraine that Weekend gave me.
The Print: A gorgeous 35mm version, recopied from the original negative, with French subtitles.
My Highlight: A platinum blonde chanteuse keeping calm and carrying on signing in a swanky wine cave turned bomb shelter while perched on an enormous wooden keg.
Bottom Line: No, I’m not crying. I just got some irony in my eye…
All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)
The Venue: La Filmothèque again. Shorter lines, no crazy lady barking at me—such a disappointment.
The Movie: A society lady falls for her gardener and his proto-hippie ethos of self-reliance à la Walden, and almost everyone she knows tries to crush her happiness.
Why I Went to See It: The world seems tragically drab after watching a Sirk film. I needed my next fix.
The Print: Another 35mm version in Technicolor with French subtitles. Some days I really like my life…
My Highlight: Jane Wyman standing in blue light, wearing a red dress, gazing at a yellow tree branch in a vase—the primary color triangle, almost phantasmagorically saturated—left me agape.
Bottom Line: I love happy endings, especially when they come with an alarmingly friendly stag that serves as the auteur’s eye-roll to his audience.
L’Arlésienne (André Antoine, 1922)
The Venue: The Cinémathèque Française—and I should warn you that the establishment screens its silents without music. This tradition stems from the days when Henri Langlois couldn’t afford an accompanist and thus decided to argue that truly silent silents offer the viewer greater advantages. It’s so quiet you can hear the metallic whine of the projector behind the wall.
Look, I’m up for the occasional surreal film event kind of thing, but I do believe that silent movies, to be properly enjoyed, appreciated, and, yes, even studied, require music. When those films first hit theaters, they had live music and they still cry out for that treatment.
I have this nightmare where someone who’s never seen a silent film walks into the Cinémathèque and emerges with the impression that silent movies are austere, remote relics—when nothing could be further from the truth. So, you’re hearing it from me: if silent movies are as yet undiscovered territory for you, please seek out a screening with live music or at least some music.
The Movie: Frédéri, a farm heir obsessed with a vampy townswoman from Arles, agrees to marry a peasant girl who loves him. Brace yourself for tragedy.
Why I Went to See It: I’d never even heard of this film and, chances are, I’ll never get to see it again.
The Print: This 35mm version, restored in 1990 with support from the Musée d’Orsay, sparkled with sunlight and shadows. The original intertitles—written in that soothing, graceful Art Nouveau font that one often sees on early 20th century French posters—offered an unforeseen treat to the eyes.
My Highlight: An ominous silhouette shot of the woman from Arles watching Frédéri hover in front of her lace-curtained window, like a shadow puppet. But there were so many stunning countryside shots of sheep ambling and villagers dancing that I lost track of my favorites.
Bottom Line: A fascinating and sensual document of rural France in the 1920s weighed down by a waffling, melodramatic plot. Maybe music would’ve helped.
Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)
The Venue: Le Champo opened its doors in 1938 and has been delighting cinephiles ever since. The movie theater now specializes in retrospectives—as I write, there are series showcasing Ford, Renoir, and Varda. The screening room where I saw Cléo featured a charming canopy of tiny lights, sparkling from the ceiling like distant stars.
Why I Went to See It: A few days before, I got my taste of Paris, Paramount-style with Love in the Afternoon. Just as one craves salty after sweet, I wanted a taste of the real Paris, in all its 1960s chaos and glory, as it appeared to the street-roving cameras of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.
The Print: Actually it was a 2K digital projection; the restoration and digitization was overseen by Varda herself. I tend to be a skeptic where digital is concerned, but the eloquent crispness of the images proved quite persuasive.
My Highlight: Cléo’s grey kitten swatting at the train of her angelic negligee. Although the switch from color to black-and-white in the opening scene also took my breath away.
The Bottom Line: This movie is heaven for the eyes, but hell on mascara.
Spite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1929)
The Venue: Forum des Images again. This time, before my screening, I tried out the stylish, yet comfy café on the second floor, which I totally recommend. A pot of green tea before a movie does so much to focus one’s powers of concentration, n’est-ce pas?
Why I Went to See It: Buster and his biceps on a big screen. Well, that’s a big part of it, but I also wanted to observe how a French audience would react to a Keaton movie. In his memoir, Buster wrote with pride that the French referred to him as “Malec,” a word that has no direct translation, but which means roughly “the hole in the doughnut” or “a blank piece of paper.” Um… does that mean he represents some kind of cosmic emptiness? And can you laugh at a cosmic emptiness?
The Print: A surprisingly unblemished 35mm version, on loan from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. I only realized afterwards that this marked the first time I ever saw Buster on 35mm.
My Highlight: Tough to pin down, but I think the prize goes to Buster’s fierce frowny face, hissing the villain from the play in which his lady love plays the lead.
Bottom Line: A doughnut hole-in-one. You could probably hear the laughter for blocks. Apparently happiness can be joyful…