Paris - St. Germain des Pres

Aside from the distinction of being the loci of the holy trinity of literary cafes (the Café Flore, the Deux Magots and the Brasserie Lipp), I don’t have much good to say about the latest incantation of the Boulevard St. Germain.  It is not unlike any heavily retail-dominated street in any major urban center in the world.  If Hugo Boss is your thing, then Blvd. St. Germain is for you.  If micro-theaters, fish mongers and fromageries are, forget about.  However, do not pass through the 6th Arrondissement after a superficial look at its main Boulevard.  UGC, the mega-chain, has a dominating cinematic presence on the Boulevard itself.  But there are some wonderful theaters here, on little distinct alley/rues like Christine and St. Andre Des Artes, showing that the Independent cinema is very much alive here.

Le Trois Luxembourg  67 Rue Monsieur le Prince  Metro:  Cluny/La Sorbonne (10)

Created in the early 60s, the theatre Les Trois Luxembourg was the first multiplex in Paris.  Le Trois was critical in playing the role of the development of art house cinema in Paris, with its focus on the great works of the world cinema while the big movie houses of Paris like the Max Linder and Grand Rex were featuring Sound of Music and its ilk. 

Le Trois went through rocky times, as many cinemas of its ilk did, in the 70s and 80s, and now seems to have settled into its true vocation, emphasizing Auteur cinema of the world, with a strong emphasis on documentaries.

I can’t say Les Trois is fancy.  I saw I’m Not There here, and, like many cinemas of its size, the Toilettes is right inside the cinema.  It is not difficult to hear the sound of the toilets flushing during quieter moments in the film, and I have to admit I was extremely self-conscious of my the rather explosive pee I needed in the middle of Todd Haynes’ long, entertaining biopic.

Nearby…the Cine Reflet Bookstore  14 rue Monsieur La Prince

Every film geek everywhere has sort of their idea of the ultimate store.  This is mine.  It specializes in vintage film magazines (huge amounts of Cahiers du Cinema dating back to the 50’s, Sight and Sound, which I have been collecting for 20 years, dating back to the 40’s, Positifs and much more obscure stuff too numerous to mention) and books, and I can guarantee that 75% of the books I perused while there were not available in the states.  I told the at-first standoffish proprietor that it was the sort of place I could spend all day and a lot of money, and he said, with a wry grin, “please do.”  I am not sure if this is the legendary “Mr. Cinema,” an ex-boxer who refuses to give his real name, who has been written about in the past, or not, but I choose to believe so.

Mr. Cinema?
I was able to contain myself and walked away with three vintage Cahiers, one from 1953 with Tati on the cover with articles by Bazin, one from 1956 with a Hitchcock cover and interview (with Truffaut!) and articles by Godard, Rohmer, Bazin and Moullet, and 1957 with an Orson Welles cover, an extensive interview with Kubrick at about the time of the release of Paths of Glory and contributions from all of the above plus Rivette and Herman G. Weinberg’s “Letter from New York,”  a 1969 Sight and Sound with Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point on the front, and a Positif with Angie Dickinson, yucking it up with Don Siegel on the set of The Killers, on the cover. 
If you are a film geek in Paris, and the weather is nice and you are in love with and trying to impress some girl, and you just can’t see attending a bunch of movies when you could stroll along the Canal St. Martin, at the very least leave two hours for yourself at the Cine Reflet.

2 MK2 Hautefeuille  7 Rue Hautefeuille  Metro:  St. Michel/Notre Dame (4)

It is a magic moment when you spot this charming MK2 theater, seemingly lit by a sole street lamp, down one of those Parisian alleyways amongst all the retail in the St. Germain.  The cinema inside is nothing to write home about, but it is another one of those places where you feel like you are in someone’s rather nice basement sharing the experience of film.
This is part of the MK2 chain and while a chain, it is a good one, specializing in offbeat programming.  While I would encourage you to avoid some of the other large chain cinemas in town (UGC, Pathe, etc., though some of those are housed in some of the cities most historic cinemas), this is one that deserves your patronage due to their commitment to indendent cinema exhibition.

3  St. Andre DES ARTES  30 Rue Saint-André des Arts
Metro:  St. Michel/Notre Dame (4)

Adorable duplex in the heart of the St. Germain de Pres, with one theater generally dedicated to a retrospective or either a contemporary or classic film director, and the other generally showing something equally interesting.  And the Rue Saint Andre des Arts is one of the most beautiful in Paris, adorned year-round with Christmas lights, outdoor book kiosks and affordable bistros and bars.

The Action Christine  4 Rue Christine   Metro:  St. Michel/Notre Dame (4)

One of my favorites, it may just be the template for what is considered the typical Parisian cinema.  

First day in town in 2007, I was delighted to discover that the Action Christine, the delightful 2-cinema micro-theater in the formidable Action Chain, was doing a complete Nicholas Ray retrospective, including many films, like Born to Be Bad, that are not available anywhere on video.  Ray was, in many way, the penultimate auteur in that while he toiled away in the Hollywood system, made idiosyncratic, personal films that were embraced by the visionary critics of the Cahiers du Cinema.

Ray was one of those polarizing figures whom some considered a hack with a couple of decent prestige pictures under his belt (Rebel Without a Cause, King of Kings), but was seen on these shores as an unsullied, tortured genius.  The truth is somewhere in the mix, but one does have the sense when watching a Nicholas Ray that it was a film that doesn’t quite resemble anything else being made at the time (I defy you to find a film that reminds you of Johnny Guitar, for instance).

One of the challenges I am finding with this book is describing just how flippin’ cool it is to find yourself watching Nicholas Ray at a theater like the Action Christine.  On my first evening in Paris I found myself walking down the lovely Rue Christine, one of those classic Paris alleys adjoining the Rue Dauphine with the Boulevard St. Michel in the heart of the happening St. Germain De Pres.  I saw a long line queuing up under a humble Cinemas sign, and wondered what latest Hollywood blockbuster or prestigious new French romantic comedy might be playing there. But sure enough the line was for the Ray festival (his 1956 Rodeo Opus, The Lusty Men, or its French title The Indominatables, was showing), and I had found the Christine, and, with it, the Soul of the Cineaste I had been seeking in Paris. 

The queue was comprised of a wildly divergent crowd of thinly-bearded students, nerds, typical elegant St. Germain couples taking a break from shopping, and a single loon engaged in a lively dialogue with himself.  I became concerned with the long line and the ability of what surely must be a tiny cinema to hold us all.  This was 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon (Sundays in Paris are, generally, fairly quiet), and it looked as if I might not be able to get into a screening of a black and white film of no particular distinction (at least to Americans) made in 1956!   This was the movie-mad Paris I had dreamed of.   How long it had been since I had felt the electricity of the love of cinema in the air?  Where had this kinship I now felt with this collection of oddballs gone?

And I needed this.  I don’t generally sleep on planes, particularly ones as restricted as the Air Bus I had taken from Seattle, and the logistics of travel, in general, had killed the movie buzz that had overtaken me like a fever as I prepared for this trip.  After a large lunch in the Latin Quarter at the Pizza Roma across the street from my apartment, I found myself simply wanting to crawl into a ball and sleep away what was becoming a lovely January Sunday afternoon in Paris.  Fortunately, the Christine (and my guilt) saved me.

As the line slowly moved (of course the Christine was staffed with the bare minimum and did not feature, shall we say, state-of-the-art cashiering), I began to wonder if the 4:30 screening was eligible for the discount fare of 6 Euros (the Tariffe Reduit) or the Tariffe Regular (8 Euros), as if there is anything I am more dedicated to than the cinema it is discounts, and, of course, didn’t really know how to ask the ticket taker this and was a little hesitant to endanger the good will I felt with the crowd by attempting horrible French.  So I was prepared to simply hand over my 10 Euro bill and hope for the best.

The ticket taker, however, immediately threw me for a loop.  I had tried to keep it simple (generally a good idea when in a foreign country and terrified of your language skills), asking for “Une Billet,” but either she didn’t hear me or chose not to hear me, and asked (or I thought she asked) “Seat Cease?”  I thought maybe that was some sort of discount fare given to dedicated film lovers or something, so, eyes widening in a panic, shook my head gratuitously and asked for Une Billet again.  It was then that she said to me those dreaded words:  “Je Ne Comprend Pas.”  She was one of those French people who, rather than seeing your clear struggle with the language, threw her hands up and put the onus of communicating back to you, the hapless tourist.

Meanwhile, the mob behind me, with whom I had felt such kinship five minutes before, began to turn on me, grumbling no doubt French profanities barely under breath, including the loon, whom I feared might turn violent.

Fortunately, the diminutive cinephile behind me, an aged gentleman with a bemused look, took pity on me and essentially completed my translation with the miffed ticket taker (dammit, no reduced fare, or at least not for me!), and I believe everyone in line got into the show, including the loon, was quiet and respectful throughout.   I found out from the diminutive gentleman the ticket taker was asking me if I wanted six seats.  I have no idea what gave her the impression I had five friends in the world, much less five with me I could convince into a screening of a Nick Ray film, but my embarrassment eventually wore off, the neon tourist sign hanging round my neck finally dimmed.

The film began.  The first sequence of the Lusty Men is some rather generic expository rodeo footage, and the first stock shots of men lassooing steer and riding broncos resulted in a whoosh of excitement in the crowd I didn’t initially understand.  Then I realized there was probably nothing more foreign to a French populace than Rodeo (I, of course, having grown up in the Wild West of Washington State, had seen my share).  It was to them, I thought, as wild and exotic a thing to see for the first time as, say, Kabuki.

Within in the first five minutes of The Lusty Men I began to doze off, the effects of sleep deprivation kicking in like a mule.  Great.   I had invested all this energy in having the essential Cinephile experience, and I couldn’t keep my eyes peeled. But I owed it to this crowd, my comrades, to not disturb the film with my snores, so I fought it off, drifting in and out of consciousness (not a bad way to experience a Nick Ray picture, actually with their odd, off-kilter rhythms and jagged compositions) and getting my second wind by the third act.  

Then, at the film’s conclusion, the privileged moment, as Truffaut called it, the essence which distinguishes an artist like Ray from the run-of-the-mill Hollywood hack:  as the hero, played by Robert Mitchum (whose first appearance riding a bronco which Ray shoots to gratuitously overemphasize his scrotum resulted in the same whoosh of excitement in the crowd) lies dying of injuries suffered by an all-too-foolish return to bronco busting, Ray cuts away to Rusty, the daughter of the Mitchum’s sidekick in the movie, a character largely ignored throughout the scenario, and she mouths to words, just for the audience, “I love you.”  It is at this moment, where Ray allows a minor character to steal the big moment away from the movie star at the climax, that you realize you are witness to genius.

I had seen The Lusty Men in bits and pieces from time to time on television over the years, and never really thought much of it (much preferring Bigger Than Life and In a Lonely Place, Ray’s far more personal projects).  But it is never just about the movie, it is about the place one experiences the movie is it, and seeing it here, in the Action Christine in Paris at 4:30 on a quiet Sunday, and noticing the sublimity of this almost throwaway moment at the end with Rusty, I had experienced the perfect confluence of art, community and, yes, sleep deprivation, and was at last ready for my journey to begin.

MK2 Odeon  113 Blvd. St. Germain
Metro:  Odeon  (4) or (10)

Five theaters with a decent mix of big budget art films and first run, smaller movies.  Again, nothing to write home about architecturally, but part of the indy-friendly MK2 chain, so wait for a title here you are not likely to find anywhere else in town and give them your support.

Nearby…Literary Cafes of St. Germain

One cannot spend a day or an hour in the St. Germain des Pres without popping in for at least an appertif or cafe creme at one of the three legendary literary cafes in the district.

Café de Flore  172 Blvd. St. Germain

The Café de Flore was founded in 1865 and with its red banquettes and mahogany finishes retains its original charm.   This is the place where Simone de Beauvoir occasionally waited tables in the late 1940s.  Her lover Jean-Paul Sartre gravitated towards this place and away from the Montparnasse cafes in the late 30s because, according to him, too many Nazis were hanging out in Montparnasse.   This essentially became Sartre and de Beuvoir’s home away from home and writing studio at that time.  This was also a favorite stop of the surrealists (chiefly Andre Breton) and of Picasso, who had a studio within a short walk on Rue des Grands-Augustin.  

Jacques Prevert, perhaps the most famous of all of France’s screenwriters, is said to have penned most of Les Enfants du Paradis here. 

The Café de Flore is also distinguished by its breakfasts (and the fact that it is a place that actually caters to a breakfast crowd, unlike most int he 5th and 6th).  Francis Ford Coppolla once famously stated his dream was the move to the St. Germain des Pres so he could eat breakfast the Flore every day.

Brasserie Lipp  151 Blvd. St. Germain

The Lipp seems to be going through a phase, at current, where it is no longer a hip point of destination.  The Flore, across the street, remains packed all day and night, the Lipp supports a more humble crowd.  The Lipp wears its proletariat ethos and past still on its sleeve, serving Alsatian tap beer and sausage and sauerkraut.  Its interior, too, has remained largely unchanged since its opening in 1870, with its metal chandeliers, painted ceilings, dark wood furniture, leather banquettes and its famous yellow-green-blue tiles depicting parrots, cranes and flowers.

The Lipp may not be hip, but it is steeped in historical encounters.  Hemingway has a long passage in Moveable Feast detailing his first meal at the Lipp, having been sent there by Sylvia Beach (of Shakespeare and Company) when she say Hem’s sad condition and sensed he needed a hearty meal. 

This was also a favorite spot of Anotine de Saint-Exupery, author of Le Petit Prince, probably the first French book you ever read.  And Thornton Wilder allegedly drank the Alsatian beer by the truckloads when he went through his expatriate period

Café Les Deux Magots  6 Place St. Germain des Pres

Benefiting from its locale on the bustling intersection of the Blvd. St. Germain and Rue de Rennes, it is hard to believe there is a place in the universe that has more foot traffic than this.    Founded in 1875, the Deux-Magots also offers a perfect view of the Abbaye St. Germain, the oldest church in all of Paris.

There is no small degree of mystery regarding the ambiguous name of this café.  One rumor has it taking its name from a nearby hat shop at the time (which doesn’t explain the hat shop’s name!), another that before it became a café it was a shop dealing with oriental merchandise whose trademark was two grotesque Chinese figures (magots, apparently), which are engraved on center posts inside the café.

At any rate, there are many famous stories about literary encounters and movements being born at the Magots.   This was the local haunt of Oscar Wilde, who lived a few blocks away, who drank absinthe here nightly in his last year (his 46th) on earth and Henry Miller when he hung his hat at the nearby Hotel St.-Germain-des-Pres.  

7  Cinema St. Germain de pres  22 Rue Guillaume Apollinaire  
Metro:   St. Germain des Pres (4)

A breath of independent air amongst all the big chains in the neighborhood, this small, intimate theater specializes in art films from around the world.

Nearby…Le Meditarranee Restaurant  2 place de l’Odeon

The oldest café-restaurant in Paris, around since 1686, is a visually sumptuous, gastronomically satisfying, if wildly pricey place.  

For Cinephiles, it has the distinction of being where Orson Welles holds court in F for Fake and regales his guests with his stories.  There is a hilarious moment where the man, having just consumed a giant lobster which is only just being taken away, brazenly orders a Steak au Poivre while the rest of the guests, clearly sated beyond the breaking point, look on in amazement.  Sort of contradicts the currently fashionable notion older Orson's enormous girth was mainly the result of some mysterious thyroid ailment.

8  L'Arlequin  76 Rue de Rennes  Metro:  St. Sulpice (4)

A bit of a stroll from the heart of St. Germain.  I have to say I was a little disappointed in L’Arlequin, which I had heard good things about.  The picture above captures the rather generic essence of the place pretty well, and, unlike most of the independent theaters in Paris, it is located in the middle of the wide and rather indifferent thoroughfare Rue des Rennes, and lacks any sort of charm or ambience, inside or out.

L’Arlequin’s reputation, at least as far as my internet research was concerned, is as an Art Deco masterpiece, but I just didn’t see it.  It is possible they were undergoing some sort of renovation (it appeared as if there may have once been a café/bar downstairs), it is also possible that the renovation that turned L’Arlequin into a tri-plex in 2001 rather typically and tragically robbed the place of its J’en a sais quoi.  And this is, unfortunately, not an atypical story here in Paris.

I will say the projection and sound in tiny theater #3 where I saw Atonement on Day Three was very fine if the seats weren’t.  But at 9 Euros (for a 4:30 screening, far more than I had paid anywhere else in Paris up to this point) I would have expected more.  And, admittedly, I have heard the main theater is quite nice.  Seems like they should have sort of price plan that accounts for the smaller, non-descript theaters. 

However, the elegant ladies of Paris (I was the only male in the crowd!) with whom I shared the bracing experience of Joe Wright’s brilliant realization of Ian McEwen’s book were highly moved by the movie, if not the venue.   McEwen has been notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen (though I have a soft spot for Paul Schrader’s bizarre Comfort of Strangers), but Wright and his screenwriter Christopher Hampton knock this out of the park. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  Well, except mine, of course, being male.

1  Le Lucenaire  53 Rue Notre Dame des Champs  Metro:  Vivan (10)

I Love Le Lucenaire.  It is on the cusp between the southern part of St. Germain and the entrance to Montparnasse, but is worth the Metro hop from Rennes (near L'Arlequin) to Vivan to visit.  It’s in an old building and shows its age (the floors are made of stone), but it pulls off the multi-purpose thing (Le Lucenaire hosts theatrical and other artsy events as well as running continuous cinema) with an aplomb. 

Bar at Lucenaire
And, man, is it happening.  One of the great myths about cinemas in Paris is they all have bars inside.  Not true.  But Le Lucenaire pulls of the multi-purpose thing (in addition to the cinema there is a quite ample cafe and bar and place for Live events such as theater and music) with aplomb, making it truly a destination stop for a night on the town of cinema, food, drinks, perhaps a play or Live Music.  

The Alice in the Looking Glass nature of the interior (while each of the three theaters here is completely generic and threadbare, the circuitous route one must take, including a sinewy staircase up to “Theater Rouge”, makes finding your screening as much fun as seeing the film), the carefully concealed, frightening toillettes, the friendly but not altogether helpful staff, everything pretty much coalesces to make the Lucenaire the perfect Parissienne filmgoing experience.
Nearby…the Rue Notre Dame des Champs is one of the liveliest in all of Paris for its size, and is also the street where Hemingway hung his hat for an eight month period while he wrote his novel The Sun Also Rises.  You can still feel in this bustling community what may have led him and kept him here.