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At the Billeterie

Memories of Paris Cinema

Paris is a city of big cinematic payoffs, especially if you’re susceptible, as I am, to certain unabashedly hokey frissons: Imagining yourself beaming and windswept in Humphrey Bogart’s convertible à la Ingrid Bergman before the Germans came in a Casablanca flashback (Michael Curtiz, 1942). Curled up among the bridge scaffolding with Denis Lavant like Juliette Binoche in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (Léos Carax, 1991). Drunkenly hoofing it with Gene Kelly on the banks of the Seine (An American in Paris, Vincente Minelli, 1951)—or double-featuring the Caron/Minnelli action with a Gigi (1958) up-do. This visit, though, I’m more of a Shirley MacLaine-as-Irma la douce (Billy Wilder, 1963), loitering on the old Rue des Halles in louche lingerie (that Jack Lemmon sure classes up a boater hat, if you ask me). Come to think of it, this short Parisian séjour of mine has been a very Billy Wilder kind of holiday, full of slapstick, melodrama and lots of the aforementioned big payoffs.

“In Paris people eat better, and in Paris people make love, well, perhaps not better, but certainly more often,” intones Maurice Chevalier in his best French-actor-in-a-50s-American-movie voice, in the opening sequence of Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957). He may be right (Maurice Chevalier usually is), but sex and eating aside, Paris is also the best city in the world in which to go to the movies. You can make love in the cinema, bien sûr, and eat also. Here, there are no rules about “no outside food”; you can bring in a whole roast duck and five bottles of Beaujolais for consumption with your brand-new print of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967), if you wish. Though you can’t smoke in your seats anymore, you can in the bathrooms, which are in-cinema, so you don’t miss any of the movie. It just makes sense.

Here cinephilia is a mainstream extreme. Parisians, you see, are not governed by the vagaries of new releases and the dictatorial efforts of Hollywood distributors. As in Canada, Troy, The Day After Tomorrow and Harry Potter are cashola, though the biggest blockbuster of the summer, if adverts and pre-hype are any indication, will be the Coen Brothers’ Ladykillers, which opens this week overseas. (A tribute to le bon goût des francais, indeed.) But when I lined up to see Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes on a holiday Monday, the fights in the queue were for oversold screenings of the latest Emir Kusturica, La Vie est un miracle!, and South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s La Femme est l’avenir de l’homme, both of which were playing in the same complex as Kill Bill 2, but on bigger screens. And that’s just the Films en exclusivité. You can also, at any given time of any given day beginning at 10 am, see a film from any country in the world in a theatre near you.

Jules et Jim, I’m pretty sure, has been playing somewhere in Paris sans interruption since its original release in 1962. Ditto Casablanca, Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Jarmusch’s Down By Law, Bruce La Bruce’s Hustler White and most of David Cronenberg’s oeuvre. (Parisians have a very strange concept of Canada, thanks to those latter two.) A quick perusal of the Pariscope shows that the following festivals are occurring as we speak: 4 Films de Gus Van Sant, Billy Wilder en 4 films incontournables, Bollywood Day, Cinéma Contemporain: Jean-Luc Godard, Cycle Abbas Kiarostami, Documentaries On the Big Screen, Musical Documentaries: Jazz, Blues and Funk, Iranian Film, Le Decalogue, The 4 Days of Creole Cinema, Les midis de Balzac, Special Comédie, Cinema Américain des années 40, Un Certain Regard: Cannes 2004 and retrospectives of the work of Jim Jarmusch, Ken Russell, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodovar, Alfred Hitchcock, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Quentin Tarantino, Elia Kazan, Jean Rouch, Otto Mühl and Ingmar Bergman. (I don’t even know why video stores exist in this town, except so people can rent porn, though there is always some on TV, and anyway, sex is available to everyone by way of twenty-odd clubs échangistes, saunas and peep-teques, any day or night of the week.)

All of this simultaneous cinema has a strange effect, as though every movie that ever was exists outside of the time-space continuum. It’s really trippy. When I was a pre-teenager and my family lived here, my friend Agathe and I saw all the Connery 007s on the big screen (Le Festival James Bond played here for, like, two years). The process of ripping a ticket and sitting in the dark watching Goldfinger on celluloid with strangers made it seem like the sixties were now, like we could emerge into the light post-séance and the alleys of the Marais would be full of bouffant hairdos, Oddjob and, well, intrigue.

In fact, a childhood in Paris is enough to corrupt any kid. The yearly fête du cinéma (celebrating its twentieth anniversary in late June) is three days when all the theatres in Paris open their doors and you can see as many films as you want for, basically, the price of one. Everyone skips school for three days, gets detention and doesn’t care. The gluttony of the fête has residual effects: A heavy petting session in a screening of Little Shop of Horrors during the 1987 fête du cinéma has left me with a lingering erotic yen for Rick Moranis.

Aside from regrettably missing Quartier Lacan (Emil Weiss, 2001), a documentary about the post-Freudian psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan that is apparently more fun than a barrel of monkeys, my time in Paris was gleefully wasted. Seeing The Day After Tomorrow in a cinema with French people was great because the whole theatre laughed in all the right places—when Mexico opened its borders to American refugees, whenever the American government tried to do the right thing and when there were survivors of global warming. I attended an afternoon screening of Harry Potter (or Zee Airy Pottaire, as it is correctly pronounced) on a Saturday afternoon with five hundred screaming French children, all hopped up on sugar after the vendors came down the aisles selling ice cream, popcorn and beer (!)—just like at a baseball game.

On my second to last evening in Paris, I went to one of the best cinemas in the world, the Grand Action 5ième on the left bank. In Salle Panoramique Henri Langlois, they were showing “Festival résistance et libération” (in honour of the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day last Sunday), which included To Be or Not To Be (1942), Ernst Lubitsch’s farce comedy set in occupied Poland, Lewis Seiler’s Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and, of course, Casablanca. In the Billy Wilder mood I was in, though, I opted for Salle Club Henri Ginet and Love In the Afternoon (despite my friend Agathe’s admonition that “Audrey Hepburn est tellement chiente”—she still prefers Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore). But me, I can’t get enough payoff: The climactic moment at the train station when Gary Cooper is leaving Ariane (Hepburn) on the quai, and at the last moment before the train speeds up, he sweeps her up in his arms, tells her to shut up and kisses her as the train pulls away. What a great way to quitte Paris. 

Next time: Saved!, Mean Girls and the new golden age of teen movies.