Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967), Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Michalengelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), and Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). Those were the first four films, listed alphabetically in the weekly Pariscope, of all the movies playing in their first run, en exclusivité, in Paris for the week of September 6, 1967. Other films among the 27 on that list included Bergman’s Persona and Rivette’s La Religieuse. A grouping of new films like this is unthinkable today, and gives a good indication of the depth of the film culture in Paris at the time. That film culture was also incredibly wide; the film listed just after La Chinoise was Les Détraqués (The Happening ), directed by Elliot Silverstein, hardly an auteur, then or now, and with a cast that hints at some of the confusion of films from the period, so dependent on traditional stars on the one hand, and younger performers to attract a more youthful audience on the other. The film featured old-timers Anthony Quinn and Martha Hyer, and also George Maharis, whose breakthrough had come in the early-sixties television series Route 66, and Michael Parks, who enjoyed a brief vogue as a sort of James Dean-style anti-hero.
French cinema from this period has always been of great interest to film scholars, in large part because of its connection to the uprisings in France in May 1968, with an epicenter in Paris. We know that French culture minister André Malraux’ attempts to fire Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque française, in the spring of 1968 mobilized the students and intellectuals who began the protests a few months later (for some notes on the Cinémathèque in the late-sixties, see my post from June 5, 2020, at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/2742750875). The links between cinema and the uprisings have been chronicled, most fully, by Sylvia Harvey in her 1979 book, May ’68 and Film Culture. Harvey noted that Marxist and semiotic approaches to film theory in France during the period established practices that could be brought to analyses of power in general, and she also thoroughly examined the impact of the “Langlois Affair.” The book is extraordinarily important, but perhaps because of its emphasis on using theory for the production of historiographic approaches to cinema, it may have been seen as something of an outlier when it first appeared. Now we understand it as an early example of the move towards historiography in film studies.
What was it like, though, to go to the movies in Paris around the time of the May revolt, to be a filmgoer who may or may not have been more broadly involved in the political issues of the period? Information can be hard to come by. In fact, it’s easier to do research on the films playing in Paris in the 1930’s than the 1960’s, and the closest I can come to May ’68 is that Pariscope from the late-summer of ’67.
At the time, there were 286 cinemas in the city, a number that had held fairly steady for many years. In 1955, there were 290 exhibition locations, and there were 277 in 1961. The geographic distribution of cinemas also remained relatively constant. In 1967, the first arrondissement, in the center of the city and spatially dominated by the Louvre, had three sites, for instance, while the eighteenth arrondissement, on the northern periphery, had eighteen, and those numbers would have made sense to Parisian filmgoers even forty years earlier. The prestigious cinemas were still primarily along the Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement and the boulevard des Italiens, which borders the second and ninth. They tended to show the most important new films, with the Biarritz, as just one example among many, at 22 avenue des Champs-Élysées, screening Blow-up that week in September. But these cinemas would also feature reprises, and some old ones at that. The Cinéma des Champs-Élysées, just a few blocks away from the Biarritz, showed a film that always seemed to find an audience in Paris, Frank Capra’s Arsenic et vielles dentelles (Arsenic and Old Lace ).
In fact, there were reprises all over the city. As just a few, very notable, examples, in the seventeenth arrondissement, Eisenstein’s Alexandre Nevsky (1938) showed at the Studio de L’Étoile while Howard Hawks’ Le Grand sommeil (The Big Sleep ) appeared at the MacMahon, on a rotating program with Budd Boetticher’s La Chute d’un caid (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond ) and a few other films. Citizen Kane (1941) played at the Studio Logos in the fourth, and Boulevard de crepuscule (Sunset Boulevard ) played at two cinemas, the Studio Git-le-Coeur in the sixth and the Jean Renoir in the ninth. The Studio-Action, also in the ninth, launched an hommage à John Ford for the entire week, with a new film each day, and all of them subtitled rather than dubbed: Les Raisins de la colère (The Grapes of Wrath ), Mogambo (1953), La Taverne de l’Irlandais (Donovan’s Reef ), La Prisonnière du désert (The Searchers ), L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ), Les Deux Cavaliers (Two Rode Together ), and Le Convoi des braves (Wagonmaster ). Perhaps because of the premiere of La Chinoise, or possibly because his films were always popular in the city, there were Godard movies throughout Paris: Alphaville (1965) at the Turin in the seventeenth arrondissement, Deux ou trois chose que je sais d’elle (1967) at the Casino St. Martin in the tenth, and Pierrot le fou (1965), À bout de souffle (1960), and Made in USA (1966) all at the Studio Saint-Germain in the fifth.
Pariscope devoted most of its attention, however, to new films. Of the more than two-dozen films en exclusivité, seven were opening that week, and these ranged from Otto Preminger’s Que vienne la nuit (Hurry Sundown ) to Leslie Martinson’s Batman (1966). The cover featured a photo from “the scandalous film of the week” (le film scandale de la semaine), the British movie La Nuit des alligators (The Penthouse ), about three young people who break into an apartment and terrorize the couple that lives there. Pariscope ran a long review of Les Detraqués, and also a list of new films with a dozen critics assigning them anything from a blank box (“the critic didn’t like it at all), to one star (“the critic liked it a little”) to three (“passionately”). Included here were the critics from important newspapers like Le Monde and L’Express, and also those who were already established as significant film theorists and historians: Jean-Louis Comolli from Cahiers du Cinéma (he gave Accident only two stars, while Belle de jour and Blow-up got three) and Georges Sadoul from Les Lettres Françaises (three stars for Persona). In another section of Pariscope, five other critics weighed in on Le Forum en folie (A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum ). Each of them provided a brief evaluation, and then assigned the film either a man’s smiling face or a frowning one (the film received three frowns and two smiles).
Parisians didn’t have to leave their homes to see movies; they could, of course, watch them on television. There were only two channels in France at the time, both operated by the government, and one of them, really, was hardly ever on. Programming started at 12:30 in the afternoon on weekdays and Saturdays, but began on Sundays at 9:30 in the morning with religious programming, and there were a lot of movies. For that week in September, Pariscope highlighted Alfred Hitchock’s Soupçons (Suspicion ), but others included Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) on Monday at 8:30, Kon Ichikawa’s Enjo (1958), showing Tuesday at 10:10 in the evening, and Henri Diamant-Berger’s Le Chasseur de chez Maxim’s (1953), on Wednesday at 2:30.
Movies on TV marked the shift in French film culture from the period. The widespread diffusion of the medium came relatively late to France, with another weekly listing of events in Paris, Une semaine de Paris, this one from July, 1961, not even bothering to mention television. The most apparent sign of the differences between the city’s night life of the late-1960s and earlier in the decade, though, has nothing to do with cinema.
There were hundreds of theatres, music halls, and restaurants in Paris, and that had typically been the case. In 1967, however, Pariscope listed something relatively new: eighteen discotheques. Most of these were bars as well, and some were restaurants, and one of them, the Jardin de Montmartre in the eighteenth arrondissement, had its dance floor outdoors (une piste en plein air). That was also the only one that wasn’t in the center of the city, with most of the others concentrated in the fourth and sixth arrondissements. In fact, the discotheque scene remained constant in Paris for at least a decade. A Pariscope from 1977 lists sixteen in the city, some of them in the same places as those ten years before (Jacky’s Far West Saloon, at the site of the old Studio-Parnasse cinema in the sixth arrondissement, had apparently remained thematically consistent but had changed its name to the Barbary Coast Saloon). Most of them were also still in the same neighborhoods. By 1980, however, at least according to the Pariscope listings, all of the Parisian discotheques had closed.
This was the range of Parisian cultural life in the late-1960s, from Les Detraqués to La Chinoise, from Jacky’s Saloon to the uprisings of May ’68. Many of the young people in those protests may have gone to the discotheques, and they certainly went to the movies and followed the cinema closely. It is in no way a trivialization of their discontent to say that it was informed not just by the Marxist critique provided by the film theory of the period, but also by the three-star rating system of Comolli and Sadoul, and by the frowning or smiling man so carefully assigned by the Pariscope critics.