Silverscreen Entertainment in Paris

Photo from Five Hundred Buildings of Paris, text by Kathy Borrus, photos by Jorg Brockmann and James Driscoll.

Blogathon June 30

Since the Middle Ages, theatrical entertainment in Paris was more spectator sport than high culture. Whistling, shouting, stomping, or hooting audiences—often drunk and rowdy—routinely disrupted performers in opera and theater. Even in the seventeenth century, playwrights such as Moliere wrote and presented satirical pieces that mocked religion, the aristocracy, and the bourgeoisie to jeers and cheers.

By the late nineteenth century, an evening out at the theater became a fashionable event—as much (if not more) about who was wearing what as it was about the dramatic events on stage. But by the 1920s, the emerging film industry captured the public’s imagination, and The Rex shined brightly as a temple to cinematic wonders.

There are theaters older than the Rex and a few are worth visiting to gaze up at the stars on screen (or overhead, in the case of the Rex). Please note: If your French is only restaurant ordering level, look for the letters, VO, “original voice,” under the film title, which means you can listen to the film in its original language often English. If VO is not there, then voices are dubbed in French.

2nd Arrondissement
Le Grand Rex
5 Boulevard Poissonnière

On December 8, 1931, 3,500 lights pierced the night sky from the Rex’s Art Deco tower. The blazing illumination announced this new cinematic landmark, possibly the largest in Europe at the time. Its monumental screen stretches almost 60 feet high and more than 40 feet wide. The baroque interior is outsized with seating for about 2,700 on three different levels. Even if you don’t watch a film here, it’s worth a visit to view the ceiling where stars rotate above the gigantic screen—a bit of cinematic magic intended to give the illusion of watching a film under the night sky. The Rex specializes in Hollywood films but dubs them in French.

Besides movies, the Rex offers other events and concerts in its Grand Salon. You can also stargaze at an interactive, behind-the-scenes, audio tour called “Etoiles du Rex” (Stars of the Rex) to discover more about French cinema and, specifically, about the projection screen and special effects. Consult the Rex’s website for event or film times and prices, or to reserve online.

Independent Film Venues

The ones below often show Hollywood films in VO, but they are considerably smaller theaters than the Rex. As independent cinemas, they attract art house aficionados and they project a bit of old-time celluloid history and culture in Paris.

5th Arrondissement
Le Campo
51, rue des Ecoles at rue Saint-Jacques

If you’ve wandered the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne, then you’ve probably seen the Campo’s marquee on the corner. This two-screen, art house cinema opened in 1939 and achieved historic landmark status in 2000. Most films are shown normal hours, but check their website for the midnight trio—“Nuits du Champo”—a three film showing that begins at midnight and lasts till breakfast.

Cinéma du Panthéon
13 Rue Victor Cousin

Another recognizable landmark for its Art Deco, metal-outlined fixed camera image on the facade, this 1907 movie house was the first one in Paris to show original English language films. It’s also the oldest extant cinema in the city. Catherine Deneuve and Christian Sapet decorated the upstairs salon and café.

Les Studio des Ursulines
10 rue des Ursulines

Behind its ordinary façade is a history of avant-garde film projection since opening in 1925, including movies by May Ray and Andre Breton. Truffaut shot a scene here for Jules et Jim, and it’s supposedly the first theater to screen Charlie Chaplin films. Its plush red seating is a retro and cozy venue for viewing in any era.

6th arrondissement
Le Lucernaire
53 Rue Notre Dame des Champs

This one is a relative newcomer compared with the others above. It opened in 1968 as a cultural forum and received official recognition for its creativity in 1984. More than a film venue, it’s a bar, a restaurant, an art and cultural bookstore, a theater, and an intimate concert space with Sunday music programming. All this makes it sound enormous, but actually it’s a unique space for hanging out and viewing a film especially if you want to nibble on something more substantial than popcorn.