François Truffaut once said that the most beautiful image he’d ever seen in a movie theater was the light of the screen reflected on the faces of the audience. Standing in the state-of-the-art, 415-seat Henri Langlois Theater in Paris’s new Cinémathèque Française, such a sight here would certainly have pleased the late Mr. Truffaut, who enthusiastically supported Paris’s national film center throughout his career.
September 28 will see the grand reopening of the Cinémathèque, seven months after its previous incarnation closed its two branches, the Palais de Chaillot and Grands Boulevards. Everything is being consolidated under the lyrical roof that tops the former American Center, a stunning silver-gray building designed by famed American architect Frank Gehry. Located at 51 rue de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement, the 150,000-square-foot structure will house four theaters and the Bibliothèque du Film (BiFi) as well as space for both permanent and temporary exhibitions. There will also be research facilities, a bookstore and a restaurant on the premises—in short, one-stop shopping for all things cinematic.
The Cinémathèque Française has long been an illustrious part of French cultural—and even political—history. Launched in 1936 by Henri Langlois, Georges Franju, Paul-Auguste Harlé and Jean Mitry, its original mission was to preserve, show and restore French and international films. The center also collected and displayed artifacts, scripts, costumes, sets, posters and other elements that contributed to the Seventh Art.
The nonprofit organization thrived with little money, and Langlois became known the world over for his passion and devotion to cinema. In the early 1960s, culture minister André Malraux gave the Cinémathèque the theater in the Palais de Chaillot; during the next few years, such luminaries as Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Renoir and others came to present their films. The Cinémathèque became a veritable beacon for cinephiles around the globe.
But tumult came in the spring of 1968. In what became known as L’Affaire Langlois, Malraux removed the beloved director, who had run the Cinémathèque since its inception. Cinémathèque devotees decried this as a breach of faith, accusing the state of trying to impose itself on art for political reasons. This in turn incited a series of demonstrations protesting Langlois’s firing, and messages of support poured in from many of the notable figures of world cinema. At one point, the protests even became violent, pitting Langlois’s supporters against the police. Langlois was eventually reinstated. The demonstrations are now considered the harbinger of the student and worker revolts that brought Paris to a standstill and almost led to the dissolution of the government later that May.
The Cinémathèque has since grown to include some 40,000 films, with more than a thousand new ones donated each year. Its collection also boasts thousands of rare and iconic objects, from a 17th-century camera obscura to vintage movie posters and costumes designed by the likes of Dior, Vionnet, Chanel and Poiret and worn by such film sirens as Brigitte Bardot, Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor. The Cinémathèque even has its own art collection, with works by Léger, Calder, Chagall, Vasarely and others.
Since 1990, the center has been fully engaged in perhaps its most important mission: restoring thousands of nitrate films, thus preventing them from being forever lost to posterity. It has been a race against time, but this part of its mission is nearly completed.
Yet while this behind-the-scenes work has continued apace, the Cinémathèque’s role as a vibrant forum for film enthusiasts has diminished over the years. Competition for spectators has increased dramatically, with large theater chains such as MK2 and UGC building giant multiplexes that offer convenience, selection and stadium seating. They have also taken a page from the Cinémathèque’s playbook, showing lesser-known independent films and inviting directors and actors to attend public screenings and discuss their work with the audience. And in recent years, they have begun selling monthly passes that allow patrons to see an unlimited number of films—a strategy that has successfully cultivated consumer loyalty.
It won’t be easy, but the Cinémathèque is now determined to stage a comeback, and its new postmodern home is an integral part of the plan. Built in 1994, the American Center was a striking arts and culture venue, but debts and unmanageable operating costs led to its closure not two years later. In 1998, the French government bought it from its American owners for some €23.5 million and soon after decided to rent the space to the Cinémathèque, which is still privately run.
Adapting the space has required large-scale remodeling, and work has continued right up to the opening. Upon entering, visitors are struck by the sheer size of the lobby, with its lofty ceilings and wide-open spaces flooded with natural light. The look and feel is reminiscent of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Tate Modern in London. “The idea was to create a 21st-century Cinémathèque,” says director Serge Toubiana. “We began almost 70 years ago in the era of silent movies. We want to respect that past, but we also want to be contemporary.”
Toubiana came to the Cinémathèque in 2003, under the leadership of president Claude Berri, the renowned filmmaker and producer. Toubiana, who was friends with François Truffaut, is former editor-in-chief of the esteemed film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. He has also made documentaries about French cinema and has produced a DVD series of special-edition works by Truffaut, Charlie Chaplin, Krzysztof Kieslowski and others. For the past two years, he’s been preparing Bercy for its grand opening.
“Our mission is very different from that of the multiplexes,” he says. “In addition to showing popular films, we also want to show silent movies, old and rare films, even if they draw only small audiences. But what really sets us apart is that here, you can experience the world of cinema in many different ways—by attending a colloquium, seeing an exhibition, perusing the archives or even taking a workshop in cinema studies. In other words, you can navigate the entire history of film here. The Cinémathèque is not merely about seeing a movie; it’s about context, about revisiting the oeuvre of a filmmaker.”
The elephant in the screening room, as it were, is the location. The Cinémathèque’s new neighborhood, on Paris’s eastern flank between the Gare de Lyon and the beltway that delineates the border of the city, is not residential nor has it traditionally had any appeal for either Parisians or tourists. But that is beginning to change, thanks to such high-profile additions as the François Mitterrand Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) and Bercy Village. This charming complex, built in a former wine depot, includes chic shops as well as UGC Bercy. The second-largest cinema complex in Paris, it attracts 2.7 million moviegoers each year. MK2, meanwhile, opened a mega-complex near the BnF, just across the river from the Cinémathèque. The entire area is now coming alive with new cultural and culinary attractions, businesses and nightlife.
Much of this development has been facilitated by the newest métro line, the purple number 14, which began operations in 1998. Dubbed Méteor, it whisks passengers from the center of Paris eastward to the Cinémathèque’s neighborhood and onward to the BnF in less than 10 minutes. When the American Center closed its doors 11 years ago, few would have imagined how the area around it would change. “Being in this neighborhood and in this building is important symbolically,” says Toubiana. “It corresponds to our own evolution: We are preserving the history of cinema, but we are also catering to a new generation of spectators.”
Those spectators have much to look forward to from the day the Cinémathèque opens its doors. Toubiana and his staff have put together a varied and evocative program, beginning with “Renoir / Renoir” (September 28 to January 9). Conceived in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, this intriguing show will feature paintings by the father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and films by the son, Jean. “We want to show the connections between the two,” explains Matthieu Orléan, responsible for the Cinémathèque’s temporary exhibitions. Orléan points to Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, filmed in 1959, and “Torse au soleil,” painted 83 years earlier. “Both have throughline that certainly jumps out at you,” says Orléan. “In both, you see nude women standing in ponds and a similar emphasis on light and color.” The exhibit will also feature appearances and discussions by critics, artists and other filmmakers.
Such world-class exhibitions are part of the Cinémathèque’s long-term strategy, and it has been forging relationships with art museums around the globe, including Madrid’s Reina Sofía and New York’s MoMA. With its rich collection, it has much to lend in return; recently, some of its most sumptuous costumes were part of a popular traveling exhibition that ended its run at the AXA Gallery in New York.
The fall film schedule includes tributes to Michael Caine and David Cronenberg, both of whom are expected to attend, a selection of documentaries by Louis Malle and films by Douglas Sirk, whose 1950s melodramas have been celebrated of late as astute, subtle explorations of conflicts that couldn’t be treated explicitly in Hays Code-era Hollywood.
Visitors may also attend regular daily screenings of all genres—family films, shorts, digital films—or wander through Passion Cinéma, a luminous 12,000-square-foot space displaying the artifacts of a century of film. “We have the female robot from Metropolis, the one and only!” says Marianne de Fleury, curator of the Cinémathèque’s collections. “And we have one of Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses from Gone with the Wind, as well as the first cameras used by Méliès and the Lumière brothers. We even have the head of Norman Bates’s mother—the skull—from the end of Psycho.”
Critic Thomas Sotinel, who edits the film section of Le Monde, thinks that in spite of the competition from other theaters in the French capital, the Cinémathèque just may reclaim the prestige of its glory days. “It has always served a unique purpose, namely the preservation of cinema’s historical legacy. Now that it has this new building, it’s definitely taking on a new role in French cultural life.”
La Cinémathèque Française, 51 rue de Bercy, 12th; Tel. 33/1-71-19-33-33.