Travel November 2013

Watching American Movies in Paris

The illuminations of familiar culture in a foreign setting
Clay Rodery

One of my favorite things to do in Paris—I spend four weeks there every summer, teaching a writing seminar—is go to the movies. I go alone, usually. On nights when no one is joining me for dinner, I stroll down the cinematic streets in the late light to find company in the theater.

It’s ironic, I realize. Like most Americans, I got to know the city through films—The Red Balloon, An American in Paris, Casablanca, Breathless. But it’s in Paris that I have gotten an education in American movies. And what makes me feel most at home there—most like a Parisian—is the walk from my apartment in the Marais over to the little revival houses on the Left Bank. After all, Paris isn’t just the most cinematic city in the world (it appears in more than 800 Hollywood films, according to an exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville). It’s also the most cinephilic city—the birthplace of Cahiers du Cinema and the French New Wave, the site of the famous Cinémathèque Française, a mecca of theaters devoted to screening classics and art films. This summer, there was a film-noir series, a John Cassavetes retrospective, and a Jerry Lewis festival.

The theaters I like best—a dozen or so—are tucked away on small streets winding up from the Seine, where a sudden hushed quiet lets you feel the old city that was once here. They don’t look promising. Think small storefront with a plexiglass booth and a nondescript, sometimes grimy hall leading back to the tiny theater. Inside, though, they’re outfitted with plush red chairs and gilded Art Deco flowers that double as light fixtures. Proper screens, larger than you’d expect. Heavy, old-fashioned curtains that open and close.

One of the first movies I saw was a 1946 film noir, The Locket, starring Robert Mitchum and Laraine Day, in which a man on the brink of marriage hears, as IMDb puts it, “a complex tale painting his lovely bride as devilish and unbalanced.” I set off for the Action Christine theater wrapped in the light melancholy of travel—and yet wouldn’t have traded that feeling for anything else; it makes reality more heightened. I stopped for an ice cream and ate it staring down at the fire jugglers entertaining crowds along the river. Then I ducked into the narrow street that led to the theater.

In the air-conditioned dark, I watched Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire tour all the great Parisian sights.

Action Christine may be the most famous of these old Left Bank movie houses. It’s just off the Rue des Grands Augustins, where Picasso lived and worked during and after the Second World War. This summer the schedule featured Jerry Lewis films. I’d never seen one, and so on a blistering afternoon, I went to The Nutty Professor (1963), which the French call Docteur Jerry et Mister Love (it’s loosely based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). As bemused as any American by the French obsession with Jerry Lewis, I joined the queue forming in the July sun, hoping to learn more.

Presented by

Meghan O'Rourke

Meghan O’Rourke is the author of The Long Goodbye: A Memoir.

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