The Cinémathèque Française


In movie-mad Paris, the Cinémathèque Française and its founder, Henri Langlois, have been cultural icons since the 1930s. And ever since the legendary institution was installed in a wonderfully wacky Frank Gehry building on the edge of the Parc de Bercy, it has not only been showing off its renowned film collection in several state-of-the-art screening rooms, but also has space for a magical, multilevel movie museum.

Founded in 1936 and the first institution of its kind, the Cinémathèque is dedicated to rediscovering, restoring and conserving old movies and making them available to the public. Realizing that films, considered disposable commodities, were fast disappearing, Henri Langlois became the first film preservationist, starting with silent movies and begging, borrowing and literally stealing films to create his collection. During the Nazi Occupation, when many films were banned and slated for destruction, Langlois and his helpers found ways to save them, smuggling some into France’s unoccupied zone while it lasted, and burying others to await happier times. After the war, his collection became a de facto film school for novices like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who famously went on to form the Nouvelle Vague.

Always a controversial figure, in February 1968 Langlois was fired as head of the Cinémathèque by Culture Minister André Malraux—an event that sparked protests in Paris and worldwide shows of solidarity (and not incidentally presaged the later student demonstrations and riots of May ’68). A hastily created committee in his defense included such star directors as Truffaut, Godard, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and many others, some of whom threatened to pull their films from the collection if Langlois was not reinstated. He was, two months later, and continued to bring the Cinémathèque international renown, earning both an honorary Oscar and a César in 1974, three years before his death.

But that was not the only time the Cinémathèque’s survival has been threatened, and over the years its collections have been shunted all over Paris, finally ending up at the Palais de Chaillot in 1963. After a fire damaged its Musée du Cinéma in 1997, two screening rooms in different parts of town were the only evidence of its presence.

In September 2005 the Cinémathèque finally came to rest in architect Frank Gehry’s delightfully skewed structure, originally built in 1994 for the American Center. The privately funded Center, with its living, working, exhibition and performance spaces for artists, closed just two years after it opened and the building, abandoned, remained empty for years. Today the honey-colored stone exterior glows anew after a €34 million restoration and the redesigned interior houses four screening rooms, several floors of museum space, a multimedia library and a bookstore.

On the building’s second floor, the museum’s permanent collection is a dreamy and enchanting place. Brilliantly conceived by Italian designer Massimo Quendolo, its dramatically dark interior is lit by the flickering glow of magic lanterns and film clips. Tracing the history of motion pictures from the earliest shadow puppets and stereoscopic viewers to the props, costumes and clips of contemporary films, it’s a fascinating cabinet de curiosités. Many of the earliest items were amassed by an English film enthusiast, Will Day, who died in 1936 and whose collection was acquired for the Cinémathèque by Culture Minister Malraux in 1959. Among its most valuable items are a 1778 camera obscura named the “Royal Delineator”, bearing the arms of King George III, and a “megaletoscopio” for projecting tinted photographs, made in Venice in 1862.

Early engravings of cityscapes twinkle with tiny pinholes of light and hands-on exhibits abound: turn a wheel and a seagull flies, spin a dial and a ballerina twirls, rotate a handle and dancer Loïe Fuller flutters her shimmering multicolored scarves like silken butterfly wings. Film posters from all over the world adorn the walls and costume displays sparkle with a serpent-topped sequin headdress worn by Mae West and Louise Brooks’s spangled silver flapper dress.

Intriguing sounds are everywhere: here a tinkling music box playing amid the “automats” and mechanical dolls, there a train whistle accompanying an early animated cartoon. Film clips play on small overhead projectors—Bette Davis and Anne Baxter spar verbally in the 1950 All About Eve, next to the sparkling gown and cape Baxter wears in the scene; farther along, Charlie Chaplin is whisked bodily through the cogs and gears of assembly-line hell in the 1936 Modern Times. One of the most thrilling sights is the female robot (of gold-painted wood) from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, poised near the eerie 1927 film clip that shows her start to move.

There’s also an in-depth look at the work of pioneering filmmaker and special-effects wizard Georges Méliès. Unlike other early moviemakers, with their train-coming-into-the-station or running-horse realism, Méliès created a cinematic world of dreams, fantastic voyages and visions of the supernatural. Starting out as a real magician, Méliès acquired the theater of illusionist Robert Houdini and began his career as a showman with the aid of the master’s complicated gadgets, several of which are on display including a wooden cabinet in which a decapitated head appears to continue talking. By 1896 Méliès had bought his first camera in London and was shooting films, short clips that were both shown at his theater and sold to play at fairgrounds.

Encouraged by his initial success, Méliès turned to large-scale production the following year, building a large glass studio in Montreuil, the first one purpose-built for shooting films. A scale model and several interactive exhibits allow visitors to virtually tour the building, which the director used until 1912. Here he created films in varying lengths, including one-minute marvels like Un homme de têtes (1898) in which Méliès (who usually starred in his own films) removes his head, places it on a table next to him, magically grows a new one, repeats this several times, and finally sings a chorus with himself. His most elaborate production, the 29-minute North Pole adventure A la Conquête du Pôle Nord (1912), comes complete with a man-eating snow giant.

Perhaps his most famous film, though, is Voyage dans la Lune, a 14-minute enchantment shot in 1902 in which scientists (assisted by a bevy of leggy assistants in skin-tight costumes) oversee construction of a rocket in which they are shot to the moon. Captured by devilish moon-men and hauled before their ruler, the travelers make a daring escape, regain their craft and return home to be covered with medals and praise.

But the Cinémathèque is not just a museum—it fulfills its mission by making the films from its collection of 40,000 available to the public. In its main screening room, a very comfortable 415-seat auditorium, and two smaller rooms it runs international classics as well as retrospectives devoted to various artists; a fourth room is for teaching activities and lectures (in French). In the library, called the Bibliothèque du Film, anyone who pays the €3.50 daily fee can check out one of the library’s 6,000 films to view at one of the video desks.

With all that’s on offer, it’s easy to make a day of it. For those who do, the café/restaurant Le 51 offers sustenance—lunches and dinner, snacks and takeout items for picnics. In addition to regular seating, it has an amazingly long picnic table that winds around through the restaurant and out onto the spacious, year-round terrace facing the greenery of the Parc de Bercy.

Through August 5, 2012: an exhibit on filmmaker Tim Burton, with clips of his fims in addition to his paintings, drawings and sculptures. In the viewing rooms, a retrospective of his films.

51 rue de Bercy, 12th,, Métro: Bercy. Museum: €5; temporary exhibits, €11; films €6.50. website

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of France Today; updated in March 2012.

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