Cinémathèque Française

By Simon Cropper


Enlarged to the measurements of goliath, muscular as a navy, a man walks naked, half a step at a time, through twelve stills across the glass front of the Cinémathèque Française: Chronophotography by Etienne Jules Marey, applied as a see-through transfer.

Perhaps, when the sun’s arc lamp is in the right place, the massy limbs and trunk are screened across the foyer floor and walls and the cinephiles walking in real time from threshold to ticket desks or back again.

The virile force of film, its larger-than-lifeness. A keepsake from the medium’s infancy. The embodiment of an ideal of cinematic investigation: to lay bare humankind. (A sly nod to the pulling power of nudity in the movies?) A way to evoke movement that, elegantly, has no moving parts. Protonarrative. Portraiture. Science. Voodoo. In any case, an arresting set of images- and one it’s hard to imagine any institution could get away with in the UK: the man’s organs of reproduction, reproduced several times at several times life size, would seed a blizzard of indignant letters in London. But this is Paris, a foreign country, and they see things differently... Marey’s walker as poster boy for progress and glowing health.

The Cinémathèque Française reopened in new premises last September, bigger, more streamlined and more ambitious than ever. Frank Gehry’s cubist building in the Right Bank’s Bercy quarter was put up in 1992 for another customer, but cleverly repurposed (a monthly guided tour shows how) to give the CF its fifth home in 70 years. Four screens under one roof replace the previous two under two; there are projectors digital and traditional; a museum, guarded by the robot from Metropolis; an exhibition space for temporary shows; the Bibliothèque du Film document archive (; and a bookshop and restaurant, open soon. The feel is light, airy and inviting, and the park-side location is lovely: emerge from a screening and be greeted by grass, trees, children playing.

Though the setting is spacious, the programming barely fits into the quarterly 112-page booklet. Retrospectives of filmmakers contemporary, vintage, underprized and forgotten (currently Almodóvar, Edmond Gréville, Richard Fleischer, producer Raoul Lévy), thematic seasons (Italian comedy, disaster movies), continuing ‘Permanent History of Cinema’ and B-movie strands, screenings for families and children, and new emphasis on art and avant-garde cinema, shorts, even dance films... and a lively parallel programme of conferences, talks and classes.

According to the CF’s director Serge Toubiana, upholder of its founding aims to conserve, restore and educate, ‘a modern Cinémathèque must combine cinephilia as a private passion and cinema as a public mission’. His gospel is founder Henri Langlois’s handwritten flowchart showing the functions of the ‘ideal Cinémathèque’, framed on his office wall. ‘The Cinémathèque must conjugate cinema in the past, present and future’, he says; ‘it’s this mix that makes its programming unique’. The mix seems to be a hit: there are more visitors per month than at any time in the institution’s history. It’s an exciting, inspiring place – one could live there.

La Cinémathèque Française is at 51 rue de Bercy, 12th ( Metro Bercy.

Simon Cropper works as an editor for Time Out Guides and is the editor of 1000 Films to Change Your Life