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May 2002 - A Film Lover's Paradise

The French are in the midst of a love affair with the cinema that has endured over a century and shows no signs of abatement. And pourquoi pas? It is because of their ingenuity that people the world over enjoy going to the movies.

The Lumière Brothers (Auguste and Louis) of Lyon, France invented the cinematograph, a device inspired by the kinetoscope that was created by Thomas Edison. It was with this invention that, on March 19, 1895, they filmed workers passing through the gate of their factory. The recording of this event on film represents the birth of cinema. The brothers gave private showings of their moving images in Paris on March 22 and April 17, and yet another in Lyon on June 10. Then, on December 28, 1895, they staged the first public movie showing at the Grand Café on 14, boulevard des Capucines in Paris. They projected 11 film clips of one minute each; thirty-five people each paid one franc to watch. Two plaques on the facade of this building commemorate the historic event.

Entrepreneurs in other countries quickly followed suit. In 1896, cinemas were established in London, Brussels and New York and Berlin. But for the next several years, the French continued to lead the newly-born industry. The Frenchman Charles Pathé created the first newsreel in 1896. And in October 1897, the first building devoted entirely to cinema, called the Cinéma Lumière, was opened in Paris.

One French pioneer who is relatively unknown is Georges Méliès, the first person to depict natural disaster, science fiction and fantasy adventure on film. Originally a magician, then owner of a theater that specialized in shows featuring illusion, he fully utilized his performing and production talents when he created his film company La Star-Film. He was the first director to use the techniques of surimpression (the superimposition of images) and fondu (the gradual appearance or disappearance of an image), and captured illusions, such as the disappearing woman, on film. He wrote his own scripts, served as make-up man, created his own scenery, and directed and often acted in his films. Today's makers of fantasy films, such as Spielberg and Lucas, owe a great deal to the work of Méliès.

Numerous film festivals throughout France feed and stimulate the seemingly insatiable appetite that the French have for cinema. Perhaps the best known and most prestigious film festival in the world takes place at Cannes. Operating every year since 1946, this international festival has promoted films that advance the appreciation of cinematography as an art. In Normandy, the Deauville festival honors independent American filmmakers and previews U.S. films that are destined for big box office. Over 100 events in France celebrate films of all genres - animated films, thrillers and even cyberfilms boast their own festivals.

The most popular festival in France is the Fête du Cinéma, which takes place over a three-day period every June. Movie-goers pay full price for entry to one film and receive a "passport" that allows entry to any additional film seen during the festival for the price of only 1,50 € (approximately $1.35). The passport is valid in any of the 5000 cinemas in France. The year 2002 marks the 18th anniversary of this festival, to be held on June 23, 24 and 25.

Paris hosts several film festivals annually or biannually. The festival called Cinéma en Plein Air (Outdoor Cinema) features projections of films on an outdoor screen at the Parc de la Villette. It is part of a wider movement to support the French film industry called Un Eté au Cinéma (A Summer at the Cinema), which features price reductions for students and cinematography workshops, among other things. The Cinéma en Plein Air is reminiscent of the drive-in movies that Americans used to love so much, only without the cars! Viewers can either rent a transat (canvas lawn chair) and a blanket or supply their own blankets and pillows and sit on the ground for free. Because the film begins at nightfall (which occurs at around 10:30 PM at this time of year), attendees have plenty of time to arrive, select a favorable spot, and enjoy a picnic dinner prior to settling in for the movie.

Foreign films are feted at festivals such as Tokyozone, the Festival of Brazilian Films and the Rencontres Internationales de Cinéma de Paris (Paris International Film Encounter). This year's Paris Film Festival, held from April 1st through 9th, featured productions from Spain. Films produced, directed and/or featuring women from the world over are honored at the Festival International de Films de Femmes in the nearby town of Créteil. The Jules Verne Film Festival (science and adventure documentaries), the Paris Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, the Geode International Film Festival (omnimax movies) and the Fetish Film Festival are other examples of the diversity of events in Paris that commemorate what the French call the 7th art.

Celebrating its twelfth year of existence in Paris is a movie theater called Images d'Ailleurs (Images from Elsewhere). It specializes in films made by and/or about people of color. These films are always shown in v.o. (version originale or original language version) with French subtitles. Films produced by independent filmmakers are often shown there, although occasionally, more mainstream films from the U.S., such as Michael Mann's Ali, are also shown. Discussions and debates (often of a socio-political nature) on films, as well as retrospectives and festivals, are frequently held there.

Anglophones need not despair either - Paris has several theaters that show films in v.o. Because of the dominance of American films in France, it is always possible to view the latest releases (albeit several weeks after the U.S. debut). And there are a few theaters that specialize in showing American classics, again in v.o. There have been numerous Hitchcock retrospectives over the years, and stars like Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Ava Gardner can easily be found playing at these theaters. While such activity will deflect you from your resolution to immerse yourself in French culture during your vacation, it can be a welcome diversion on a rainy afternoon.

Though American films are ubiquitous in Paris theaters, the French film industry is holding its own. Small theater owners are beginning to band together to combat the onslaught of the mega-movie houses and cineplexes that have sprouted around the city, and they continue to show independent films. The Némo Festival was created in 1998 to support French independent cinema, to focus on the relationship between cinema and the other arts, and to promote foreign independent films. The festivals are held at a cinema complex called the Forum des Images (formerly called the Videothèque de Paris), which also houses a film library. This unique establishment allows you to view films individually or in a normal screening room, and stocks over 6500 films, French or foreign, that feature Paris and its suburbs as either the subject or the setting. There are almost 200 English language films in the collection.

Possibly the ultimate French tribute to film promises to be a cultural center that will unite the Cinémathèque Française, the Bibliothèque du Film (the Film Library) and the film archives service of the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC). The erstwhile American Center, at 51, rue de Bercy, will be the new home for these institutions. The site is undergoing extensive renovation and is scheduled to open in Autumn 2004. It will contain a museum dedicated to the history of French cinema, an exhibition space for temporary expositions, and four projection rooms, one of which will be equipped with a digital projector. In addition, there will be a bookstore, a media room containing 95 work stations, and a restaurant. Between 400,000 and 600,000 visitors per year are expected to visit the center. The name of the center will be simply "51 rue de Bercy".

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002