Paris, with popcorn

You must not be addicted to film or blind to the city’s inexhaustible charms, to go to the movies in Paris in all weathers and all seasons because it is, by a wide margin, the best place in the world to watch film. Paris offers a variety of choices that pales many big cities. Paris’ riches include a peerless selection of American films from Hollywood’s golden age, playing every week of the year. After all, this was the first city to show films publicly ( a plaque at 14 Boulevard des Capucine celebrates that De. 28, 1895, event) , and it is loath to give up its preeminence.

Paris’ position as the preeminent moviegoing city is not an accident; it flows from France’s belief in and commitment to the art of film. This is a country that believes, more strongly and self-consciously than even America, that film is part of its heritage, its actual cultural identity.

Paris has a wide diversity of movie theaters as it has films. Two are so unusual that you have to visist them, though they show mostly French or French-subtitled fare. One is the Panthéon, 13 Rue Victor-Cousin in the 5th Arr.. Built in 1907 it is the oldest movie house in Paris, the first to show films in English, and it still has a remarkable stylized facade that features the outline of a venerable projector. The café has been refurbished by Cathérine Deneuve with the help of a Parisian antiquair in 2007.

Then there is La Pagode. Looming forbiddingly over 57, Rue de Babylone in the 7th Arr. like a Japanese Addams Family house, La Pagode, with its brooding side garden and stone lions, may be the most atmospheric movie theater in the world. It was built by a French architect but with many decorative elements that came from Japan. It started life in 1895 as a ballroom for one of the wealthy owners of the nearby Bon Marché department store and became a cinema in 1931. It got a huge restauration some years ago.

The other great theater where Hollywood films, especially if they’re Disney, may be playing in Le Grand Rex. This impressive 2800 seat movie palace ( one of the largest in Europe and possibly the largest in the world still showing movies every day ) is the highest-grossing theater in all of France. Le Grand Rex, on Boulevard Poissonière in the 10th Arr. is a national historical monument, so its three levels of seats, original wall murals and Art Déco decorations are kept in impeccable condition. It was built in 1932 with an interior meant to recall the Tunisian childhood of entrepreneur Jacques Haik. It had kennels and a hairdresser and was used late at night by Hollywood mogul Darryl F.Zanuck as his private screening room. Such luminaries as Ray Charles and Bob Dylan have taken the stage, which is larger than the old Paris Opéra. If you like they do a one hour interactive tour behind the scenes ” Les étoiles du Rex ” by reservation only.

And of course you can also go to the new MK2 chain in the shadow of France’s controversial François Mitterand National Library. It has also a bookstore well stocked with a strong cinema section, a classical-musica boutique features CDs from the French label Harmonia Mundi and a 5000 title DVD store. Any of these shops would be worth a visit, to have them all together in the lobby theater is a dream come true.

How to make sense of all this ? How to deal with the French repertory custom of changing programs every day of the week and sometimes showing several different films a day ? The answer is Pariscope, an inexpensive pocket-sized weekly guide to the city’s events that devotes nearly 100 of its pages to a comprehensive look at film in Paris. It sells at almost every newsstand in Paris, goes on sale midweek. The magazine has addresses, métro stops, admission prices and the all-important show times, plus the notation about whether the film will be in its original language (v.o.) or dubbed into French (v.f.).

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