Paris, with popcorn

Critic's Choice
Times' critics and columnists review the best places on Earth to pursue their passions.
• Kenneth Turan in Paris
• Christopher Hawthorne in Shanghai
• Paul Brownfield in Hawaii
• Booth Moore in Milan
• Robert Hilburn in London
• Agustin Gurza in Barcelona
• Christopher Knight in Berlin
• Tim Rutten in Dublin
• S. Irene Virbila in Sydney
• Lewis Segal in Poland
• Dan Neil in Chile
• Mark Swed in Tokyo
Share via
Times Staff Writer

Nobody writes songs about January in Paris. It’s cold and bleak, and the impenetrable rain clouds make 8 a.m. as dark as midnight. It’s perfect weather for going to the movies, which is what I do.

But I also go to the movies in Paris in April, May and June, when the weather is as seductive and beguiling as Bardot in her prime. I’ve gone right from the airport to this city’s theaters after sampling half a hundred films in 10 days at the exhausting Cannes Film Festival. A saner person would have run in the opposite direction, but Nicholas Ray’s legendary 1956 “Bigger Than Life,” a cautionary tale about the perils of cortisone, was playing in May on the big screen, and I could not resist.

Neither addicted to film nor blind to this city’s inexhaustible charms, I go to the movies in Paris in all weathers and all seasons because it is, by a wide margin, the best place in the world to watch film. Los Angeles, London, even New York pale when it comes to the sheer number and variety of choices — about 300 titles, three times the best top U.S. cities can manage, and many of them in English. Paris’ riches include a peerless selection of American films from Hollywood’s golden age, playing every week of the year. After all, this was the first city to show films publicly (a plaque at 14 Boulevard des Capucines celebrates that Dec. 28, 1895, event), and it is loath to give up its preeminence.


Only in Paris is it possible to experience this cornucopia of films and have the pleasure of seeing them in the real-world hurly-burly of commercial exhibition. Theater owners here are willing to invest in new prints of obscure works (such as the sparkling version of Jacques Tourneur’s barely known 1951 female pirate movie, “Anne of the Indies,” which I saw on my trip in early January), and audiences are willing to patronize them. If you love film, it is exciting to be in a city that walks the walk, that matches your passion stride for stride.

Paris’ zeal for cinema is such that even new films from other countries end up screening here before being shown in New York and Los Angeles. If my early January trip had been a week later, I could have seen Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” more than two months ahead of its U.S. opening. And I could have caught “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the new film by Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”), half a year before its American premiere. Instead I settled for an enchanting exhibition of Miyazaki’s delicately colored sketches and drawings held in the drop-dead Louis XV marble-and-gold-leaf splendor of the Musée de la Monnaie. Nothing in Paris is too good for the art of film.


Defined by film

Paris’ position as the preeminent moviegoing city is not an accident; it flows from France’s belief in and commitment to the art of film. This is a country that believes, more strongly and self-consciously than even America, that film is part of its heritage, its actual cultural identity.

Determined to preserve cinema’s importance in society, the government prohibits TV broadcasters from showing films on Wednesday and Saturday nights, traditional French moviegoing evenings.

If you are a French speaker or even just a subtitle reader, the variety of international film, both old and new, that is open to you here is boggling. During a recent five days I spent in Paris, some of the choices included the Bollywood epic “Devdas”; Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046”; Ingmar Bergman’s latest, “Saraband”; the animated “The Triplets of Belleville”; Federico Fellini’s “Casanova”; and Cannes favorite “Whisky,” the only Uruguayan film many people have ever seen.

That doesn’t include Paris’ various retrospective tributes to old masters Sergei Eisenstein, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Yasujiro Ozu and such moderns as Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda and Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien. And the august Cinémathèque Française, which pioneered the repertory concept as far back as 1936, was showing 50 Korean films at the Palais de Chaillot branch and a look at the final films of dozens of great directors at its Grands Boulevards theater.


Aside from the Cinémathèque’s two branches, Paris has as wide a diversity of movie theaters as it has films. Two are so unusual that I make a point of just walking by and admiring them, though they show mostly French or French-subtitled fare. One is the Panthéon at 13 Rue Victor-Cousin in the 5th arrondissement. Built in 1907, it is the oldest movie house in Paris, the first to show films in English, and it still has a remarkable stylized facade that features the outline of a venerable projector.

Then there is La Pagode. Looming forbiddingly over 57 Rue de Babylone in the 7th arrondissement like a Japanese Addams Family house, La Pagode, with its brooding side garden and stone lions, may be the most atmospheric movie theater in the world. It was built by a French architect but with many decorative elements that came from Japan. It started life in 1895 as a ballroom for one of the wealthy owners of the nearby Bon Marché department store and became a cinema in 1931. Now, even with a leaky tile roof covered with a huge tarpaulin, it still commands our respect.

Parisians enjoy watching a foreign film in its original language with French subtitles. That means you can see major first-run Hollywood films (choices my week included “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Lemony Snicket”) in English, which can be a more intensely and exclusively French experience than eating in a trendy restaurant, where your neighbors may well be fellow American tourists. You can observe cultural differences that play themselves out in ways large and small: different types of candy, the complete lack of chatter and those small wonders, French commercials.

Commercials at movies are such an established tradition that the time they begin (séance) is noted separately in film listings. They are often elegant mini-films, and part of the fun for non-French speakers is guessing what’s being advertised.

When I went to the MK2 Bibliothèque, Paris’ hottest new theater complex, to see Pixar’s “The Incredibles” (wonderfully retitled “Les Indestructibles”), I saw a superb spot with Asian actors and a soi-disant Wong Kar-Wai feel that inexplicably turned out to be an ad for Lacoste shirts.

This $30-million branch of the 44-theater MK2 chain, in a long, sleek glass-and-steel building in the shadow of France’s controversial François Mitterrand National Library, is not only one of the best places to see new films, but it’s also a cultural mini-city.

Starting with trademark passion-red two-person love seats as standard issue, the MK2 and its 14 auditoriums are as comfortable and current as theaters get. It even has electronic billboards that tell you how much time remains until a film ends and starts again and how many seats remain unsold in a given theater. Seeing a film here makes you feel as though you’re not just going to a movie but participating in an elegant, sophisticated event.


The Bibliothèque has several eating spaces — cafes, Chez Jules et Jim restaurant — and, more impressive, three first-class cultural emporiums. The bookstore is well stocked with a strong cinema section, a classical-music boutique features CDs from the French label Harmonia Mundi and a 5,000-title DVD store that boasts, for example, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” action figures and 16 John Ford titles, including “Mary of Scotland.” Any of these shops would be worth a visit; to have them all together in the lobby of a classy theater is a dream come true.


Theater supreme

The other great theater where Hollywood films, especially if they’re Disney, may be playing is Le Grand Rex. This impressive 2,800-seat movie palace (one of the largest in Europe and possibly the largest in the world still showing movies every day) is the highest-grossing theater in all of France in a week when something like “Les Indestructibles” hits the screen, with an opening day that will out-gross the rest of Paris combined.

Le Grand Rex, on Boulevard Poissonnière in the 10th, is a national historical monument, so its three levels of seats, original wall murals and Art Deco decorations are kept in impeccable condition. It was built in 1932 with an interior meant to recall the Tunisian childhood of entrepreneur Jacques Haik. It had kennels and a hairdresser and was used late at night by Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck as his private screening room.

Such luminaries as Ray Charles and Bob Dylan have taken the stage, which is larger than the old Paris Opéra. The month before Christmas, it presents its dancing waters stage show, and it also has a kid-friendly “inside movies” interactive tour, “Les Étoiles du Rex,” kind of a mini-version of the Universal Studios tour.

For the die-hard English-speaking cinephile, however, Paris’ attraction is not its first-run films but its superlative choice of vintage features. Even if English is your only language, you will have more to choose from than any English-speaking city can provide. On offer, among many others, during my visit were such silent classics as “Sunrise” and “The Cameraman” and the bleak trilogy of “Brown Bunny,” “Bad Santa” and “Deep Throat.” You could see “King Kong” (1933 version) and “Moby Dick,” “Lust for Life” and “Lost in Translation,” “A Hard Day’s Night” and Clint Eastwood’s “The Beguiled.” When you throw in retrospectives on Billy Wilder, John Cassavetes, Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Tim Burton and Jim Jarmusch, not to mention a tribute to Russ Meyer (“L’Amérique Rudimentaire”) at the Cinémathèque, that makes for a heady week indeed.

Most of my moviegoing time in Paris was spent on a block of streets around the Odéon Métro stop in the Latin Quarter, a kind of celluloid triangle that’s home to numerous small repertory houses. I’ve seen so many films in this neighborhood that when I glimpse the nearby statue of French Revolutionary leader Georges Danton, his arm thrust forward leading the sans-culottes to victory, I instinctively think he’s screaming, “This way to the movies!”


Here is the venerable Le Champo, since 1939 at Rues Champollion and Des Ecoles. On this trip I saw the 1952 “Scaramouche,” the exemplary swashbuckler, as well as the more unusual “Keeper of the Flame,” a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle concerned with the dangers of fascism, typical of the rarely seen, often darkly political American films French theaters like to revive.

Next door to Le Champo is the Reflet Médicis, where I saw Stanley Donen’s 1966 “Arabesque” in a new print. Down the street are two branches of the splendid Action chain of repertory cinemas, the Grand Action and the Action Ecoles. And a few blocks away is the Action Christine, comfortably housed behind an 18th century facade, where I experienced yet another florid, marvelously entertaining Nick Ray film, the 1958 “Party Girl,” with Robert Taylor as an unscrupulous lawyer and Cyd Charisse as a dancer who’s been around. One French critic recently called it “a sumptuous gangster melodrama,” and that about says it all.

These repertory cinemas tend to be homey places with their own rules and customs, such as refusing to sell tickets to a show until a minute or two before it begins. They’re the kind of places that offer a seat cushion to a young boy taken by his father to experience “Scaramouche” for the first time, and they are so widely accepted that when I asked the cabdriver who drove me in from the airport where he liked to go to the movies, he unhesitatingly chose the Action chain.

It’s not only critics and cabdrivers who appreciate Paris. In his essay “The City of Light in the Dark,” humorist David Sedaris is equally enthusiastic and unapologetic about the pleasures of this city’s cinemania. “I’m often told that it’s wasteful to live in Paris and spend all my time watching American movies, that it’s like going to Cairo to eat cheeseburgers,” he writes. “ ‘You could do that back home,’ people say. But they’re wrong.” Very, very wrong.


Consult the Pariscope

How to make sense of all this? How to deal with the French repertory custom of changing programs every day of the week and sometimes showing several different films a day? The answer is Pariscope, an inexpensive pocket-sized weekly guide to the city’s events that devotes nearly 100 of its pages to a fiendishly comprehensive look at film in Paris. It sells at almost every newsstand in Paris for 0.40 euro, which at current exchange rates works out to about 52 cents.

It is poetically fitting, somehow, that this extraordinary range of cinematic largess should be in Paris. Paris, with its stylishly dressed citizens and deeply romantic physical setting. Paris, where every rainy street looks like a shadowy film-noir locale and the distinctive sound of police sirens unavoidably brings Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Gabin to mind. Paris, the movie set of our dreams.




Cinema capital


From LAX, nonstop service to Paris is offered on Air France and Air Tahiti Nui; direct service is offered on United (stop, no change of planes) and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United, Continental, Northwest, American, Lufthansa, Delta and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $513.


To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 33 (country code for France), 1 (city code for Paris) and the local number.


To stay: Hôtel Le Sainte-Beuve, 9 Rue Sainte-Beuve; 45-48-20-07, fax 45-48-67-52, . My favorite hotel in Paris. This 22-room hotel is small and not far from Luxembourg Gardens. Doubles begin at $172.

To eat: Brasserie Balzar, 49 Rue des Ecoles; 43-54-13 -67, . Specialties include lamb with beans and skate in butter. Dinners from about $45 per person.

Bouillon Racine, 3 Rue Racine; 44-32-15-60, . Entrees include suckling pig, lamb shank, sea bass, scallops and salmon. Fixed-price menu from about $34.

To browse: L’Art du Papier, 48 Rue Vavin in the 6th arrondissement, 43-26-10-12, . Elaborate stationery stores are a French specialty, and this is a charming example.


To snack: Jean-Paul Hévin Chocolatier, 3 Rue Vavin; 43-54-09-85, . Chocolates are an art form here.


Pariscope magazine, , lists 300 weekly film offerings in a cross-referenced system that enables you to find out where the film you want to see is playing and what’s playing in a theater near you. Goes on sale at newsstands midweek. The magazine has addresses, Métro stops, admission prices and the all-important show times, plus the notation about whether the film will be in its original language (v.o.) or dubbed into French (v.f.).

French Government Tourist Office, (410) 286-8310 (for brochures) or (310) 271-6665, .

— Kenneth Turan