Screen Dreams

I pressed my nose up to the small, round window and peered into the darkened room beyond. Something peculiar seemed to be happening. The jaded kiosk attendant standing by my side managed only a thin smile. She had seen it all before.

Looking closer I realised that an animated version of a Jules Verne story was playing on a screen. Naive, black and white images danced across it, painting the meagre audience with a flickering, silvery sheen.

Leaning on Montmartre’s southern slope, Studio 28 is one of hundreds of cinemas that will throw open its doors as part of France’s three-day cinema festival a week from now. Known mainly to locals and dedicated cinema buffs, its strange, plant-like decor is, in fact, the whimsical work of Jean Cocteau, artist and film-maker. He designed the wild and colourful lamps in 1948, and today they still wrap around its columns and sprout from its walls.

Studio 28 has always been a showcase for the avant-garde. Jean-Pierre Mauclaire bought its previous incarnation, cabaret club La Petaudiere, early in the last century and, in 1928 opened it as a cinema. Keeping to an innovative programme, the cinema showed films such as Abel Gance’s three-hour epic, Napoleon, to great success. Luis Bunuel’s surrealist, anticlerical and antibourgeois L’Age d’Or didn’t go down so well. Outraged Catholics destroyed the screen along with paintings by Dali, Ernst, and Miro that had been on display.

By that time Paris’ cinematic settings had come a long way from the minimal surroundings in which the Lumiÿre brothers’ showed their first projections; the wooden benches of the Salon Indien at the Grand Cafe on boulevard des Capucines.

In contrast, many of today’s cinemas are disturbingly similar to bland shopping centres and jaded leisure complexes. The truth is that giant multiplexes and US budgets draw big crowds. Although more enlightening works might be chewed over as intellectual fare, the French public, like us it seems, still fall for Hollywood blockbusters. Especially if those films include the homegrown stars, such as Gerard Depardieu, Sophie Marceau and Juliette Binoche.

The architect Kenzo Tange has given Paris its biggest (240 square metres) permanent flat screen, the Gaumont Grand Ecran. Bordering the enormous roundabout at Place d’Italie, south of the river, Tange’s post-modern offices, shopping centre, restaurant and hotel surround an atrium which is capped by a glass, sawtooth roof.

What most people miss by descending directly to the cinema is the arrangement of triangles, rectangles, squares and cubes that form an architectural extravaganza of interlocking steps and terraces up above. The overall impression is of displacement, of the elements having slipped past each other.

Back inside, despite its size, the Grand Ecran manages to invoke intimate cinematic memories. The shiny metal strip in the floor design, the enormous, inflatable Jupiter above and saucer-shaped porch at the rear work together to produce a vivid cinematic flashback to Star Wars.

Fast forward to the real-life search for curious Parisian cinemas and you’ll probably come to a stop by the three-metre high letters which announce the Rex on boulevard Poissonniere. Otherwise known as Le Grand Rex, because of its large screen, this building, with its art deco tower, represents one of Paris’ few remaining “atmospheric” cinemas.

Beyond the plush foyer, filled with deep red furnishings and Romanesque statues, is the auditorium. In 1932, when the complex was constructed, cinema owners scoured the globe for arresting architecture, many turning to South America and the Mediterranean for inspiration. This explains why the Grand Rex of today is a heady mix of Spanish haciendas, minarets and colonnades, complete with a fake night sky.

Foreign films shown here are dubbed, however, so if you don’t want to practise your French, continue on to Les Coulisses du Rex next door. The Coulisses presents guided “Stars of the Rex” tours in English, a happy ending to a flick through Paris’ cinemas.

The French version of the article, entitled, En balade dans les salles obscures, appeared in the Courrier international: