I first went to the Cinémathèque française at the Palais de Chaillot to see the Frank Capra-Harry Langdon silent film, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). This was in September 1980, and this being Paris the film sold out before I was able to get a ticket. I tried again just a short time later, for another Capra film, Riding High (1951), which at the time was very hard to see. I was able to get in on this second try, but I was still new to the film culture of the city, and I hadn’t realized that the movie would be shown “VF,” that is, version française, dubbed in French. I still have these dates and details because I kept a diary of my year as a film studies graduate student in Paris, and going to the Cinémathèque was something I had anticipated for a long time even before I got there.
When I was in Paris there were two Cinémathèque exhibition sites in the city, one in Chaillot in the sixteenth arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower, and the other on the fifth floor of the Centre Georges Pompidou in the fourth arrondissement. I lived just a few blocks away from the Pompidou Center, and I preferred the newer, fresher comforts there, but Chaillot really was the mother ship, a much bigger space and one that had been home to the Cinémathèque since 1963 (the Pompidou Centre didn’t open until 1977, and the Cinémathèque only began screenings there in 1980, just before I got to Paris). I remember the Chaillot space as a large one, very much a conventional cinema, sort of rundown and with the oddity that, about a third of the way into the seating area, there was an extraordinarily large space between one row and the next. That was where the regulars wanted to sit, because it meant they could stretch out. The screening site at the Pompidou Center was smaller, and it seems to me now that the seating area was mostly flat rather than raised, filled with perhaps 150 or so very comfortable leather directors chairs.
Each site was open six days a week, usually showing three films a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and four on weekends, with the first screening always at three in the afternoon and the last at nine in the evening. I think it cost ten francs to see a movie, around $2.00 or $2.50. The screenings would be advertised in all of the usual places, of course—in weeklies like Pariscope and L’Officiel des spectacles, as well as in daily newspapers. But the Cinémathèque also ran off xeroxed schedules that you picked up when you went to the movies there, always on colored paper, with the Chaillot listing on one side and the Pompidou Center on the other.
I’ve saved a few of those xeroxes from my year in Paris. They now seem like artifacts from a Jurassic period of cinema, and they’ve gotten crumpled and torn over the last forty years, but they attest to an astonishing film culture in the city. From just one day, January 14, 1981, the Chaillot space began with Le Voleur de Bagdad (The Thief of Bagdad ) as part of a Raoul Walsh retrospective, then, in an hommage à Oumaro Ganda, who had died just two weeks before, there was a double-bill of the Nigerian director’s Cabasca (1969) and Le Wazzou polygame (1970). The last film of the day was another tribute, to the great French star Fernand Gravey who had died in December, 1980, Le Capitaine Fracasse (from 1942, and directed by Abel Gance). That film would be presented with the actor’s partner from the last few years of his life in the audience, en présence de Madame Lucienne Legrand. At the Pompidou Center, screenings began with a dessin animé from 1976, Les Douze travaux d’Asterix, followed by Peter Sellers in Les Femmes du général (Waltz of the Toreadors ), and then, in a reprise of the Retrospective du festival des 3 continents, which had been held in Nantes the year before, the Cinémathèque presented an Egyptian film from 1978, Hicham Aboulnasr’s Al Akmar.
I only have one complete listing for the Cinémathèque from much before that, from Pariscope for the week of September 6th, 1967. But the schedule then seems consistent with the early ‘80s, with three or four screenings a day, at Chaillot and also at 29 rue d’Ulm in the fifth arrondissement, which served as the institution’s second space until the Pompidou Center opened (now an extension of the École normale supérieure is on that site on rue d’Ulm).
For all of its status as a venerable cultural institution practically since its founding in 1936, the Cinémathèque could be extraordinarily receptive to its public, and I’ve had the firsthand experience to prove it. When I was in Paris, I was beginning work on my dissertation, about voiceover narration (it was, after all, the early 1980s). I had gone to Chaillot in November 1980 to see Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), and I was immediately struck by the incredibly complex voiceover in the film. But other than that chance screening, there was really no other opportunity to see the film and take careful notes. I mentioned this to the director of the Paris Program at the time, Rick Altman, and he suggested that I call the Cinémathèque to see about arranging a screening, in fact that I contact Mary Meerson, another venerable institution who, at the time, was in charge there. Meerson, of course, had been a dancer who became an extraordinarily important member of the Parisian art scene, the partner and wife of art director Lazare Meerson and then associated for decades with Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque.
I put it off for as long as I reasonably could, but then I made the call, assuming that I wouldn’t get anywhere, and so I was stunned when Meerson answered the phone. She was formal and abrupt, and had no patience for my French, requesting that we continue our conversation in English. I explained that I was a graduate student in film studies, and asked her if it might be possible to arrange a showing of Madame Bovary. Forty years later, I still remember her response: “Yes, we can do that.” A couple of weeks later, I arrived at Chaillot in the morning, a few hours before the first scheduled film. I was shown into the regular Cinémathèque screening room and the projectionist ran a 35mm print of Madame Bovary, just for me.
There is just a single Cinémathèque space now, on the rue de Bercy in the twelfth arrondissement, a Frank Gehry-designed building that opened in 1994. There are three screening rooms in the building, and so there are more films being shown than when I was a student in Paris. I haven’t been to a movie in any of them yet, but I have used the library, and it’s terrific, and the overall space, including a café and bookstore, is extraordinarily comfortable. It’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic, though, for the seedy opulence of Chaillot, or the closely-packed directors chairs in the Pompidou Center. The Cinémathèque now also streams films and other programs from its website (https://www.cinematheque.fr/), and in fact has been doing even more of this since the coronavirus forced the closure of all of the cinemas in France. As a result, the Cinémathèque serves its public in more ways than it ever has. I’m not sure, though, that anything it can do now matches that private screening of Madame Bovary in 1980, or the feeling it gave me at the time, that the people in charge of the Cinémathèque thought it was absolutely necessary to provide all the help they could to an American graduate student, an audience of one, in his dissertation research.