Why Paris Is Still the Best Place in the World to Go to the Movies
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I learned firsthand about the French passion for auteur cinema during a junior year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, in southern France. Between classes I'd spend afternoons surrounded by cinephiles at the art-house theater near my student apartment, discovering the films of Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders. I crashed the Cannes Film Festival that spring, hopping the train to the Côte d'Azur and talking my way into screenings at the small theaters hidden in the alleys behind the Promenade de la Croisette.
This was back in the 1990s, long before online streaming put small, independent theaters on life support across the U.S. and beyond. On return visits to Paris, though, I've been thrilled to discover the cinema-going experience still thriving, with more than a dozen art-house spaces showing a remarkably eclectic mix of indie imports and retro revivals alongside the usual Hollywood blockbusters.
Many of these theaters have struggled, certainly, and some have closed, but film lovers—even amid the pandemic—are keeping many landmarks going. After all, even with pressure building from Netflix and Amazon, all films are required to have a French theatrical run to compete at Cannes.
Before it shut down five years ago, La Pagode, which sits in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, was among the city's most iconic repertory film destinations. Beyond its Japanese-temple-inspired façade was a cinephile's opulent fantasia with plush red seats, sconces shaped like snakes, and a bamboo-shaded Zen garden out back. The building, conceived as a bauble for a rich man's wife in the late 19th century, had been a movie house since 1931 and a haven for auteur cinema from the late 1950s until its closing. Jean Cocteau's Testament of Orpheus premiered there in 1959. In the 1970s, director Louis Malle, along with his brother, Vincent, oversaw programming, screening some of the most controversial films of the time there.
Two years after its closure, a savior emerged for the theater: Charles Cohen, a New York–based real estate mogul and film fanatic who bought the building, promising to restore it. The largest distributor of French films in the U.S., he is obsessive about preserving the moviegoing tradition.
"I'm a big believer in the idea of sitting in the theater with other people," he says. "I think you lose a lot when you watch a movie by yourself, or on the run, or on your phone." His refurbished La Pagode is due to launch in two years, with four screens and a wine bar.
While Paris awaits the reopening of La Pagode, there are plenty of equally evocative theaters to explore. And most have adopted COVID-19-related safety measures such as social distancing, limited seating, and the mandatory use of face masks in the concession areas.
The Latin Quarter is home to the city's largest concentration of historic art-house theaters. Film majors from La Sorbonne fill the diminutive screening rooms at Le Champo–Espace Jacques Tati, which opened in 1938, and at its Baroque neighbor, La Filmothèque du Quartier Latin, which replaced a cabaret when it launched in 1956. Le Champo, which was a hotbed of the French New Wave frequented by François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (who called it his "second university"), is today known for screening films from the golden age of avant-garde European cinema.
Long before the rise of the modern multiplex, the Grands Boulevards of Paris were lined with ornate movie palaces, which would host glamorous premieres of the latest films. Le Max Linder Panorama, which dates from 1912, remains the largest single-screen theater in Paris, showing mostly Hollywood blockbusters, with two balconies and seating for 579.
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Le Grand Rex, which opened just up the street in 1932, hosts both live performances and film screenings in its ornate Great Hall, which, at a capacity of 2,702, is the largest movie-theater auditorium in Europe. Though the programming is mostly commercial these days, the building has become such a landmark that visitors can now book an interactive behind-the-scenes tour.
The films are much quirkier at Le Louxor Palais du Cinéma, which opened in 1921 at the base of Montmartre. Following years of neglect, the theater was rescued by local residents—with help from the mayor of Paris—and reopened in 2013 after a three-year restoration of its Egyptian-themed façade and interior.
Today you can grab a glass of biodynamic wine at its Bar du Louxor while waiting for your documentary or Charlie Chaplin revival to start.
For one of the city's most intimate auteur experiences, head up the hill toward Sacré-Coeur, to the 92-year-old Studio 28, one of the first art-house theaters in France and a cinephile pilgrimage site. The single-screen theater, known for its early support of surrealist cinema, features light fixtures by Jean Cocteau and interiors refurbished by production designer Alexandre Trauner in the 1980s. It also has an exhibition space dedicated to film history and a bar and café that spills into an intimate courtyard garden.
The experience of watching a movie in a historic cinema like Studio 28 remains as integral to French culture as dining in an old-fashioned bistro—another favorite pastime from my study-abroad days. More than 25 years later, a meal and a movie are still my definition of a perfect night out in Paris.
Where to Catch a Flick in Paris
Le Champo–Espace Jacques Tati: A two-screen cinema with an Art Deco façade in the Latin Quarter.
La Filmothèque du Quartier Latin: This intimate space is known for its eclectic programming and its red-velvet clad screening rooms
Le Max Linder Panorama: A three-tiered cinema situated on the Grands Boulevards and named after its former owner, silent-film star Max Linder.
Le Grand Rex: Guided tours of this theater—home to the largest auditorium inEurope—include a walk-through of the venue's eight screening rooms, plus a visit backstage.
Le Louxor Palais du Cinéma: The 1917 silent film Cleopatra inspired the design of this theater, located near the Gare du Nord.
Studio 28: This atmospheric cinema in Montmartre doubles as a space for art exhibitions.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline When the Lights Go Down.