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.

I laughed more than I thought I would at the gags. Or was I just laughing with the audience? The French were guffawing. One delicate lady even seemed to snort as suave Mr. Love began morphing back into squeaky Dr. Jerry.

Ten blocks from there, I went to see Funny Face (1957) one stifling Sunday morning. In the air-conditioned dark, I watched Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire tour all the great Parisian sights, glad I wasn’t in the heat doing it myself. Down the street was the theater I had sprinted to for a screening of Clint Eastwood’s Coogan’s Bluff (1968) with friends after a dinner of soufflé—followed by a dessert of soufflé. Sedated by flour and cheese, I slept through half the film, waking to the sound of Eastwood’s mighty struggles during a chase scene in the Cloisters.

At Paris revival theaters, movies start late and with no preamble. The lights go down, the screen flickers, and if anyone talks, an older French lady may rap her on the head. (It can hurt.) Then you are immersed in the images, the sound of warm voices, the print crackling in the reel. As Hemingway once noted, Paris is an old city—and so even a 1946 film looks au courant: part of the aesthetic air. But the prints often don’t. The American film-preservation fetish evidently hasn’t reached the City of Light; even many prints touted as “restored” are discolored and scratched.

What a shame, you might think, to spend your time in Paris watching old American movies! When you travel, you seek, as Elizabeth Bishop put it, “to see the sun the other way around.” The world comes to you in vivid pictures—it feels at times as focused as art. The supermoon low over the Seine. The Pont Neuf’s ironwork covered in locks symbolizing true love. The butchers roasting their chickens.

But movies invite us to watch the world through new eyes, too. We see more vividly in a dark theater. The price we pay for travel is homesickness mixed with anxiety that we won’t have time to see everything. Going to the movies is my way, briefly, of having it all. I’m away and also at home, in a familiar world made ever so slightly strange by the printed yellow words running across the bottom of the screen, spooling onward to the last one: FIN.