Paris is busy building new cinemas for old films. In November last year the major French film company Gaumont-Pathé opened a 5-screen cinema called Les Fauvettes in the thirteenth arrondissement. Not only is the name Les Fauvettes a throwback to the cinema’s previous existence as a Music-Hall called La Fauvette (1895 – 1930s), but the cinema’s mission is to screen newly restored “classic” films, that is, everything from Quentin Tarantino’s back catalogue to Japanese animation, and more predictably the auteurist offerings of directors like Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard. Across the street from Les Fauvettes is the sparkling new Fondation Jerôme Seydoux-Pathé, which has a screening room exclusively for silent films. Next month I’ll be attending the fourth annual Cinémathèque Française film festival Toute la Mémoire du Monde, which showcases recent restorations and new archival discoveries.
The Grand-Cinéma-Plaisir in the eleventh arrondissement. Autochrome by Auguste Léon (14 May 1918), Musée Albert Kahn
Despite this growing hubbub of excitement in the French capital surrounding the rediscovery of silent film and more recent film classics, the tone is resolutely conservative. At Les Fauvettes you can watch Alien or a James Bond film, yet you can’t eat popcorn. It’s banned! In Paris cinephilia is more than a hobby; it’s a religion. Cinemas are seen by serious film-goers as a sacred place of worship, and many cinephiles have their own little rituals, such as always sitting in the same seat, drawing up continually revised rankings of film favourites, or staying until the very end of the credits. A certain kind of cinema-going has been quite conservative, elitist and masculine ever since intellectual theatre critics converted to cinema in the mid- to late-1910s and created an intellectual film culture called cinephilia. With its own institutions such as cinematheques and art house cinemas, this serious kind of film culture has completely overshadowed the myriad ways in which ordinary Parisians experienced cinema in the years during and following the Great War. At the same time that intellectual critics were meeting in plush cinemas on the Champs-Élysées, a spirit of revolutionary protest rang from cinemas in the working-class neighbourhoods, which sheltered trade unions, local cells of the Social and Communist Party, consumer leagues, tenants’ unions and local feminist groups.
Politics mixed with pleasure at the Maison Commune in the third arrondissement. In the early 1920s it housed the Cinéma Béranger and was home to the third arrondissement cell of the Communist Party
My postdoctoral project at UCL is to recuperate the voices of these long lost cinema audiences, from the rowdy whistlers, the booers and hissers of military and avant-garde films to the secret dreams and ambitions whispered from fan letters that have lain dormant in French archives for almost a century. My project aims to re-imbue these spectators with the historical agency they deserve by placing their passions and cinema-going practices in the political, cultural and economic climate of interwar Paris. Because their voices are very much anchored to the space of their local cinema, I investigate their individual stories as well as the social histories of the cinemas.
Researching these interwar Parisian cinema-goers isn’t easy. Unlike the first cinephile film critics, ordinary film-goers left few written traces of their everyday experiences with cinema. Consequently, the materials I look at may seem unconventional for a film historian. They include police files in the French National Archives, fan letters to popular movie stars, correspondence between spectators and cinema managers at the French National Library, microfilms in the French Communist Party archive and notifications from leftist groups in the back pages of Paris daily newspapers. Once I have dug these materials out of their various archives, my job is to place them in conversation with each other to draw a clearer picture of the social experience of cinema-going in 1920s Paris. In the meantime, I also hope to find the time to see a film or two in the heart of cinephile Paris. Perhaps I’ll even smuggle in some popcorn!
Dr Annie Fee is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL History (2015-2018).