Paris - The Latin Quarter


In the Latin Quarter the heartbeat of independent cinema is still beating.  The influence of the proximity of the Sorbonne and other institutions of higher learning is pretty plain.  The Latin Quarter wears its independent spirit on its sleeve, and the patrons of the theaters seem to take it as a personal point of pride to keep them open and operating, despite the usual pressures from the creeping Mega plex behemoth.

It was in this quarter, in the 1950s, that the Cineaste movement that spawned the Nouvelle Vague and the Auteur Theory was born.  It is a place where shoebox theaters, carved out of the side of apartment buildings and adjoined by Kebab houses and used book stores in the middle of otherwise nondescript back alleys, and ridiculously random but inspired programming still thrives and is lustily supported.  It is the dream Quarter for film nerds, the headquarters for your trip to Paris. 

Le Cinema de Grand Action  5 Rue Des Ecoles  Metro:  Maubert Mutualite (10)

This is the place.  Maybe the template for the micro cinemas of the past and the future.  The Grand Action, part of the small (but mighty) Action Theater chain.

Don’t let the humble (70s) exterior fool you.  The Henri Langlois Salle, with a large mural of the beaming King of Film Nerds gazing at you approvingly, in the Grand Action is really quite nice, with state of the art projection and Dolby sound.  It is easily the nicest of the three Action cinemas in Paris.

Like many of its brethren in the Latin Quarter, the Grand Action shows one major release in one of its theaters  and does whatever the hell it wants in the other.  While I recommend the Langlois theater for certain, this is the one most likely to be showing something blockbusterish.  In the second theater, wow.    Here is a list of the films that played in the bastard brother of the main room my first week in Paris in January:  Kusturica’s Underground, Coppolla’s The Conversation, the Coen’s Barton Fink, Wenders’ Paris, Texas, 50’s relic Marty), Lynch’s Wild at Heart (known as Sailor & Luna, a much better title, here), Visconti’s Leopard and, Tim Burtons best film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.   Independence is a beautiful thing when you know what to do with it.
Nearby …the Galactic Stories

Pardon the assumption.  You are reading this book, chances are you might like Star Wars and/or Star Trek.  If so, you might want to pop into the Galactic Stories shop across the street from the Grand Action, which has nothing inside but memorabilia from both.  Note the head of Data beckoning you.   Enjoy, nerd, this store is for you.

2   Action Ecoles  23  Rue Des Ecoles  Metro:  Maubert Mutualite (10)

The Action Ecoles is like the scrappier sister of the Grand Action just a few blocks down on the Rue Des Ecoles.  The bold programming coups like getting the new print of McCarey’s masterpiece  makes up for the cave-like interior and rather indifferent interior.    The Action Ecoles makes you feel like you could start a cinema up in your neighborhood and make it work.  It differs from the Grand Action in that it sticks pretty staunchly to its programming for a at least a week at a time, so less choices here, and there is no theater quite as nice as the Langlois at the Grand Action.

Nearby…Shakespeare and Company Bookstore  37 Rue Boucherie

One of two very famous “English” bookstores in Paris, on the cusp of the Ile de Cite, Shakespeare and Company (it’s the bookstore where Ethan Hawke gives his talk in After Sunrise where he runs into Julie Delpy again) certainly earns the praise given to it by Henry Miller as a “wonderland of books.”  It has a great film section, too, including, of course, many books on film you may not find at home.

The store opened in 1951 (and it feels its age as only a musty independent bookstore can) and is probably the primary spot in Paris for hosted readings, so if you have an equal passion for books as cinema, this is your place. 

Studio Galande  42 Rue Galande  Metro:  Maubert Mutualite (10)

The Studio Galande has been playing the Rocky Horror Picture show every Friday night at Midnight since 1980 (it actually known as the Rocky Horror Theater).  Its non-Rocky programming scales strongly towards art-film fare (Persepolis and Paranoid Park were amongst the offerings when I was there), and, of course, everything is in Version Originale.   Wednesdays are discount days at the Galande, something like 5.50 Euro for all screenings!

Nearby…Caveau de la Huchette jazz club  5 Rue de la Huchette
Metro:  Cite (4)

The jazz clubs in Paris are, if they are the real deal, generally located in deep cavernous cave-like buildings which add to the general allure of the places (remember Francois Cluzet sneaking a listen to Dexter Gordon through a cave window in Travernier’s Round Midnight?).  The Huchette is probably the most typical, and famous of these joints.

Like the cinemas in the Quarter, the Huchette seems to be carved out of the side of an apartment building, you blink and you miss it.    There is an upstairs which is the Pub, and the downstairs, the Cave of the title, which is the dance floor.   Despite the daunting 13 Euro cover charge, the place nevertheless feels unpretentious, and dancing is highly encouraged. 

I am far from a Jazz freak, and did not really recognize the names of the people on the marquee, but apparently they get the cream of the crop at the Caveau du Huchette.  This is really an experience one should have at least once in Paris.

Espace St. Michel  7 Place St. Michel  Metro:  St. Michel (4)

Talk about your innocuous facades.   At first it is pretty easy to miss that the Espace Saint Michel is a Cinema at all, as it has much more of the appearance of a Photo Lab.

The programming here is pretty staunchly French and very much art-film oriented (Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwall’s disturbing doc about the environment, was on the bill when I was there).  Once again, one shouldn’t be swayed by the nondescript exterior.  The St. Michel has a whopping 8 screens inside, and a nice club and restaurant inside as well as decent projection and sound.

This theater has been around since 1912, and enjoyed a major renaissance in the early 1990’s, taking advantage of its extremely well-traveled location just off the Boulevard St. Germain.  It apparently has survived a couple of terrorist bombings.  But don’t let that scare you off.

Nearby...the Hotel St. Jacques  35, Rue des Ecoles

Remember that scene in Donen's CHARADE, where Cary Grant takes a shower in his suit?  This is the hotel that served as the set.  Still not worth it to stay here as opposed to an apartment while in the Latin Quarter, however.

Le Champo  51 Rue Des Ecoles   Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

Le Champo is the first stop on the most remarkable football field-length stretch of cinemas in the free world.  On the corner of Rue Champollion (It takes its name from the street), Le Champo is a local favorite with a zesty, always rotating program emphasizing independent foreign (non-
English) language film consistently peppered with American classics (the poster on the marquee, above, is for Pat and Mike, whose hilarious French title is Miss Wins-All).

Generations of students, cinema lovers and eventually directors (think Nouvelle Vague) cut their teeth on the cinema at Le Champo.   Opened in 1938, replacing a book store, le Champo had one screen and 150 seats.   Its location in the midst of several universities, including, of course, the Sorbonne, leant itself well to its demographic.  In 1955, a small nightclub downstairs was converted to cinema showing 16mm prints, which operated for some time with its own box office.   A major refurbishing in the Eighties modernized the Champo, giving it a single cash box and lobby and two very comfortable auditoriums.

In 2000, the lease on Le Champo came up, and the owners, perhaps casting an eye on the unfortunate gentrification of the nearby St. Germain de Pres, threatened to sell out to, of all things, a bank.  Public outcry stopped this from happening, and judging from the marquee lookie-loos ever present in front of the theater, the locals of the Quarter seem to be dedicated to keeping it around.  However, rumor has it, the threat is never really gone for Le Champo and theaters like it in the quarter, so if you are looking for a place to drop your Euros while in Paris, make Le Champo one of your first stops.

Nearby….The Brasserie Balzar  49, Rue Des Ecoles

Subject of an entire chapter in Adam Gopnik’s well-loved book about Paris, Paris to the Moon, the Balzar still stands and is vastly popular (reservations are required for dinner) despite being taken over in the early 2000s by the much-hated Flo Ownership Group.  Born in 1898 and staunchly uninterested in updating their fare or decor to any sort of modern considerations (it is Art Deco all the way), the Balzar is perhaps

most famous for their formally clad and insouciant wait staff.  This is a popular spot for administrators from the nearby Sorbonne, and the restaurant was a haunt of Camus and Sartre.

6  Reflect Medicis  3 Rue Champollion   Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

This theater, whose English translation is the rather baffling Reflecting Medicis, with its distinctive art deco marquee is tucked between the Le Champo and the Filmotheque du Quartier Latin on Rue Champollion, another one of those streets in Paris that feels like an alley, but an alley teaming with its own unique life  (there is a good restaurant, Le Reflect, named for the theater just across from it).

It is a 3-theater complex that rotates its bold programming all day and all week so there is never really the same film playing consecutively any one day.

I think it is pretty critical to understand the impact of the proximity of the Sorbonne and other institutions of learning in this neighborhood.    I know my college years were the most formative in terms of me getting my filmic education.  Films just seemed so much more essential to me then, and I couldn’t get enough.  It is heartening to know this still exists in the hearts of  20-somethings, and this passion for more keeps cinemas like the  Reflect and its two twin sisters on the Champo alive.

I saw the compendium film To Each His Own Film here my second day in Paris, a weird experience in that I had come to Paris to kick off a book on movie going and was immediately presented with a film about movie going (the film was commissioned by the Cannes Film Festival to commemorate its 50th anniversary).  It features 33 3-minute short films by a highly impressive roster of directors (Croenenberg, Lynch, Campion, Takeshi, Huo-Hsien, Zimou, Dardenne, Oliveira, on and on), the films all having to do with the impact of movies and, specifically, movie going. 

The best of the lot is the short by the Dardennes, an homage to Bresson which begins, Bresson-like, with a pair of disembodied hands grasping through the air, and ends with a thief being redeemed by a screening of Au Hasard, Balthazar.  Beautiful, those Dardennes.

Oddly enough, this film was never released to any sort of wide distribution, so I feel privileged to have had this experience while in Paris.

The overriding theme of the compendium, I am afraid, is the death of movie going, so I am afraid my trip didn’t get off to the most optimistic start.  The penultimate short, directed by Ken Loach, in fact, finds its protagonist and young son eschewing the ridiculous-sounding choices at their local megaplex and choosing instead a day outside to play football.   So, as if caught in some Meta-Cinematic web, I found myself wrapped up in the melancholy of these masters while experiencing the identical melancholy, simultaneously myself, for the same reasons.

Nearby…Crocodisc record store  40 Rue Des Ecoles

Many, many soundtracks
Ignore the cheesy crocodile logo and don’t hesitate to visit this voluminously inventoried record store.  I have never seen a greater quantity of movie soundtracks in a brick and mortar store, and it isn't  like the place is the size of an Virgin Mega Store.  They will happily play anything for you in the store if you at least make an attempt at translating, say, I’m Not There to French, and you can linger and listen for as long as you want.  Vinyl is king here.

The Filmotheque du Latin Quarter  9 Rue Champollion
Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

Quite possibly the most important street for cinemas in Paris (and, by definition, likely the whole world?) is the Rue Champollion, which is nothing more than an alley adjoining the Rue Des Ecoles to the Rue de Vaugirard.  On quiet nights one can stand on the Champollion and hear the click-clack of sprockets running through the various projectors from one of the three theaters (Le Champo, on the corner of Rue Des Ecoles, the Reflect Medicis, the Filmotheque), a sweet music that sings that movie going is still alive and well in Paris.

The Filmotheque may not have the funding or following of its sister, the Cinematheque on Rue de Bercy, but they are nevertheless bold and wide-ranging in their programming. Generally speaking, they will feature a new release of international renown and some sort of tribute to some sort of important director an American one.  

8  Cinema Accattone  20 Rue Cujas  Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

A slice of pure cinephile pie, the Cinema Accattone is named after Pier Paolo Pasonlini’s first film, and constantly runs a Pasolini festival in its weekly programming.

And whatever the hell else the want the show, presumably, though they tend towards retrospectives of directors, particularly the Italian masers (De Sica, Antonioni, Fellini and Rosellini all were on the weekly program when I was there) mixed with more idiosyncratic titles such as
Bruce LaBruce’s Hustler White and the Robert Wilson Doc Absolute Wilson.

At the Accattone, a good deal of faith is placed in its clientele.  My first visit there I stumbled and found the ticket booth abandoned, with a film (Bicycle Thief) in progress.  I guess at the Accattone they figure no self-respecting cinephile would ever walk into a movie like Bicycle Thief late. 

Later in the day, I returned to the Accattone for a screening of Ken Russell’s notorious Music Lovers, which I had never seen, and there was a goateed boy taking tickets.  Inside, the Accattone turned out to be every bit as grouty as its exterior would suggest, with the shortest seat backs in all of Paris.  If you are a tall person (I am 6 foot 2) you will find seat backs to be a bit of a problem in Paris.  Clearly, the design of the theaters took into account the average height of its constituency, and 6’-2” is large for a Parisian, and one’s head looms over the seat backs, forcing one to crouch into an almost supine position in order to find a landing place for one’s melon.   

Uncomfortable with both the seating and the general hysteria and awfulness of Music Lovers (even the great Glenda Jackson is awful  in it), I decided to take a stroll around the place.  Once again, the lobby was empty, the goateed boy gone.  I figured he was outside sawing through one of 50 Gitanes for the day. 

Coffee Bar at Accattone
The Accattone sports Paris’ most, shall we say, unpretentious coffee bar, literally three stools in front of the ticket booth, which has an espresso maker behind it.  There was no price list, but earlier in the day I had seen a patron sipping from a cup, so I assume if you want a coffee you just ask for it.  Of course, there was no one there to ask.

I decided to give Music Lovers one last try.  As I walked in I glanced at the tiny projection booth, dominated by an old 35mm war horse, and noticed that it was manned by the same goateed boy from the lobby.  Aha, this is how the Accattone controls freeloading late arrivers!  If someone walks in late, the Projectionist, who is also the ticket taker, will almost certainly notice.  Now that is using low overhead to the heights of it advantage!

9 Europa Pantheon  13 Rue Victor Cousin  Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

This is the oldest movie theatre still operating in Paris. In the narrow building of a former gym the Omnia Pathe chain opened a cinema in 1907. After a long period showing silent movies a young French producer took over the management of the theatre in 1930 starting with a Lubitsch’s Love Parade.

Patrons were mostly American and British because as for the first time in Paris the program policy was English speaking movies, and at that time there were no subtitles (this may have been to kowtow to the large expatriate population living in Paris at the time).

The Pantheon was run by the same owner for sixty years. This man was a major producer of the French "nouvelle vague" and discovered a lot of talent. His office was in a huge flat full of old projectors. He died in 1990. The auditorium was in poor condition by this time and the original sound system was still there, unused.  A major renovation that years returned the theatre to its original design. The Jean Jacques Beiniex movie "Diva" ran more than a year at the Pantheon to full houses every evening.   This old fashioned movie theatre presents art and avant-garde movies with its audience mainly comprised of students from the nearby Sorbonne university. The original so-called "couples armchairs" in the theatre's balcony from the 50s are still in place. The Tuchinski in Amsterdam also has this kind of seating in its balcony.

Perhaps the thing to recommend the Pantheon more than anything is the opening of a bar/restaurant upstairs, the Café Nouvelle Vague.  This is a movie centric, mid-century modern beauty whose interior design was collaborated on by no less than Catherine Denueve (mostly the furniture choices from what I can gather).

The restaurant has funky hours.  On two occasions my wife and I arrived ready to cool out with the 5th Quarter film elite, only to find the place closed.  From what I can gather they have visualized it more as a late afternoon Happy Hour before the movie joint, which is a little odd since the Pantheon has only one screen (bless them) and it would seem the pre-movie crowd would be somewhat more sparse than for, say, the UGC Cine Cite Bercy. 

Nevertheless, it is a striking place, and one can feel a little less daunted by it if it isn’t actually inhabited by the film elite, so pop in and take a look.

10  Studio Des Ursulines  10 Rue Des Ursulines  Metro:  Censier Dauberton (7)

On the lovely Rue Des Ursulines sits this micro cinema that looks a little like a country cottage and specializes in family fare..  The remarkable 1926 animated-paper-cut-out oddity The Adventures of Prince Ahmed was showing here, definitely one of those films for kids that is just weird enough for adults as well.  The Ursuline also has a steady diet of art films in their second theater.

The Ursulines was built on the site of an old convent in 1926, and specialized in Charlie Chaplin screenings.  It survived a closing in the late 1970s (brought about by the theater explosion in the Latin Quarter) , but was bought up in 1996 by a film distribution company which gave it a new sound system.  It was subsequently purchased by the ARP group (comprised of film producers and directors) and appears to have both the private financial support and support of the film going public to keep it going into the future.

11  Epee de Bois  100 Rue Mouffetard  Metro:  Censier Dauberton (7)

The “Wooden Sword” is part of the Epee de Bois theatrical complex that also includes a renowned live theater just off the Rue Mouffetard.

The location in the highly-charged (and somewhat touristy) Mouffetard guarantees plenty of foot traffic, and the art-film-oriented programming keeps it real, though they also tend to have one blockbuster on the bill as well.    Its location seems to have benefited the feisty cinema greatly, along with the pricing, probably the most reasonably priced cinema in the quarter.   There are a total of 9 screens, two of which have Dolby sound.

Nearby….Bowling Mouffetard  73 Rue Mouffetard

The Soul of a City is found in its cinemas, its beauty parlors, its kebab shacks.  And its bowling alleys.  Yep, just off the Rue Mouffetard there is a bowling alley in a French Cave.  If you want to have a truly local experience, pop down (and down and down and down into the ground) for this small but packed bowling alley/arcade.  It is just what you expect from a bowling alley, complete with as close to as bad a food as the French can conjure up. 

12   Images D’Alleurs  21 Rue de la Clef   Metro:  Censier Dauberton (7)

Blink and you will miss it (I did, twice), but the Images from Elsewhere (what a marvelous name for a movie theater), once known as Cinema La Clef due to is location of Rue de la Clef,  is definitely worth a visit.   

True to its name, the theater specializes in films about and made by people of color.     The Images D’Allieurs is stubborn about maintaining a unique program, so they deserve your support.