The Paris Cinema Project

In March 1948 the Ciné-Club Universitaire, on 21 rue Yves-Toudic in the tenth arrondissement of Paris, hosted a series of speakers mostly from the French film industry. Georges Van Parys, who had composed the music for the 1934 Josephine Baker-Jean Gabin film Zouzou, addressed his audience on “La musique de film.” Nicholas Hayer, the cinematographer of Le Corbeau (1943) and many other films, discussed “Le role de l’image,” and screenwriter Denis Marrion, whose Le secret de Monte-Cristo, starring Pierre Brasseur, would open in Paris later in the year, lectured on that perennial ciné-club favorite, René Clair. More than three-quarters of a century later, however, the talk that most of us would have wanted to hear was about Jean Renoir, and delivered by a film critic and avid ciné-club enthusiast rather than a filmmaker, André Bazin.

There were any number of events like this in Paris at the time, and throughout France as well. In fact, Hayer seemed to have been on something of a junket, having just given another talk at a conference at the ciné-club in Alès in Southern France. And perhaps as much as anything else, the rapid postwar revitalization of the ciné-club movement in Paris and elsewhere signaled that French film culture had made a full recovery.

The national scope of the club movement was indicated by the formation of the Fédération Française des ciné-clubs, which began publishing its own newspaper, Ciné-Club, in October 1947. This is the source that we can use now, to chart the growth of the postwar ciné-clubs as well as their programs and speakers.

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The first issue of Ciné-Club, the newspaper of the Fédération Française des ciné-clubs

Ciné-Club always provided details of groups throughout France. At the end of 1947, for instance, filmmaker Jean Painlevé visited clubs in Annecy, St. Hilaire du Touvet, Chambéry, Tournon, Besançon, and Vesoul. Claude Autant-Lara screened two of his films, Douce (1943) and Le diable au corps (1947), at the club in La Rochelle in southwestern France. In early-1948, the Ciné-Club de Chartres hosted Renoir and the screenwriter Pierre Laroche for talks about comedy, while at around the same time the club in Dijon screened Eisenstein’s Alexandre Nevski (1938) and sponsored a talk by Georges Sadoul, while Charles Spaak screened the film he co-wrote with Julien Duvivier, La belle équipe, at the club in Versailles.

There was also much talk of the new clubs in France, of clubs in Nemours, Privas, Roubaix, and Boulogne-sur-Mer, for instance, that had their first screenings at the end of 1947. There was also discussion of the incredible success of groups even in the least populated areas of the country, with the club in Poissy claiming 1,800 members despite a population of only 15,000. In addition, affiliated clubs had been created throughout Europe, in Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Portugal, and Romania. The journal seemed to take special interest in colonial North Africa, announcing in October 1948 the formation of the Fédération Nord-Africaine des Ciné-Clubs and the opening of five clubs in Algieria–two in Algiers and others in Tiemcen, Oran and Bône, as well as one in Saïda, in France’s former colony, Lebanon.

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The site at 21 rue Yves-Toudic in the tenth arrondissement, now the Alhambra Theatre, where the Ciné-Club Universitaire met

Closer to Paris, there was a flourishing club culture in the suburbs, one that hasn’t received much attention from historians. In those “banlieues” that formed a dense ring around the city, there were clubs in Argenteuil, Asnieres, Bagnolet, Colombes, Corbeil, Gennevilliers, Neuilly, Saint-Ouen, St. Germain, St. Cloud, and elsewhere.

But mostly, of course, there were clubs in Paris. By March 1949 there were at least a dozen or so affiliated clubs there (and perhaps many others, such as Francois’ Truffaut’s Cercle Cinémanie, that were not connected to the Fédération). As I wrote in an earlier post (18 December 2015), during the 1930s the ciné-clubs were concentrated in the more affluent sections of Paris, with many of them meeting at the Marignan cinema on the Champs-Elysées. After the war, though, the clubs were scattered throughout the city. Two of them took their names from their arrondissement, the Ciné-Club du 13me on the rue Cantegrel and the Ciné-Club du 11me on the rue Basfroi. Three clubs met at the Musée de l’homme in the sixteenth arrondissement, and two others—the Ciné-Club Universitaire and also the Ciné-Club Vendredi, which dated from before the war—held screenings and talks in the same place on the rue Yves-Toudic. One club met at the elegant Sevres-Pathé cinema in the seventh arrondissement, and another on the boulevard Rochechouart in the ninth.

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17 boulevard de Rochechouart in the ninth arrondissement, where the Ciné-Club 46 screened movies

Clubs formed all the time, occasionally with very specific audiences in mind or with particular sponsorship agreements. December 1948 marked the openings of the ciné-club Volontaire, catering to foreigners who had volunteered for French military service, while the club D.W. Griffith, which met at the Cinéma de la Michodière in the second arrondissement, had been formed through an American and French consortium.

These Parisian clubs met from once a month to once a week, and, of course, typically they showed movies. A look at a random month of club showings gives some sense of the screenings. In January 1949, the Ciné-Club 46 showed Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà (1946), René Clément’s Bataille du rail (1946), and then an evening of films by G.W. Pabst. The Ciné-Club de l’A.P.A. held only one screening that month—apparently outdoors, at a playground in a boys’ school in the eighteenth arrondissement–Marcel Carné’s 1939 film Le jour se lève, and the Ciné-Club Renault showed Dreyer’s Jour de colère (Day of Wrath [1943]).

There also seems to have been some movement of the same films between the clubs, which might mean that most Parisian cinéphiles belonged to one club or another, but not to several. Two weeks before screening Jour de colère, for example, the Ciné-Club Renault staged a one-night Buster Keaton retrospective. That same retrospective played at the Ciné-Club Cinéum that month (as part of a three-week film festival that also featured nights dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), and, indeed, Jour de colère also played in January at the Ciné-Club de la Chambre Noire. René Clair’s Le Million also played at two clubs that month, the Ciné-Club du Centre Universitaire and the Ciné-Club du Vendredi. In fact, there appears to have been a well-organized distribution system between French clubs in general. Still in that same month in 1949, Frank Capra’s L’Extravagant M. Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]), showed at the club in Bourges in central France, and then quite probably the same print of the film travelled the 150 miles or so to the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret for a screening two weeks later, and then went back out again to the club in Le Havre for a screening on 26 January. Just one week later, on 3 February, Deeds played at the Rialto cinema for the club in Tourcoing in northern France, about 200 miles up the coast from Le Havre.

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La Maison pour tous, where the ciné-club in Gennevilliers, a Parisian suburb, showed movies. At the site now is the Cinéma Jean Vigo.

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We can well appreciate today these incredible opportunities to see a range of films. But some of the other events seem even more tantalizing than the movies. Jacques Prévert and Jean Painlevé were tireless participants (the latter served as Honorary President of the Fédération Française des Ciné-Clubs) and gave constant talks at clubs throughout the country. And with just the scant information provided in the periodical Ciné-Club, we can only wonder about the program for the conference on “Cinéma et Télévision” at the Ciné-Club Jean Vigo in Fontainebleau, about an hour outside Paris, in June 1948. Of course, when we think of Paris and its status as one of the film capitals of the world, we think of the most extensive and well-financed film “club” of all at this time, the Cinémathèque Francaise, which had reopened in 1944 but which seemed to have no connection to the Fédération Française. And the brilliant young men who frequented so many of the postwar clubs and received such a thorough film education there, and who then would become central to the films of the New Wave, have been duly celebrated. But while it might be more prosaic than Henri Langlois and his cinémathèque, or Truffaut and Godard watching Hitchcock films, perhaps nothing better indicates a nationwide postwar culture of cinéphilia than the vast network, from Paris to Poissy, of urban, suburban, and provincial ciné-clubs.

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