PRINT September 2005

International News

the Cinémathèque Française

AFTER TWO DECADES OF GRANDS TRAVAUX, PETTY quarrels, bureaucratic power plays and a latter-day Battle of the Ancients versus the Moderns fed by conflicts of ideas and personal interests, the Cinémathèque Française has seemingly surmounted the difficulties of being a living legend. On September 28, the venerable institution––founded in 1936 by Henri Langlois and three friends who wanted to rescue silent films from the onslaught of the talkies—will reopen in the whimsically postmodern Frank Gehry building originally designed in 1994 for the ill-fated American Center in the Bercy section of Paris. With its move from the nether regions of the incongruously neoclassical Palais de Chaillot, where it had been housed since 1963, the cinematheque is not simply trading its cinephilic aura for the topsy-turvy marquee over the entrance to its new home. The newly refurbished building—with its four screening rooms, permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, multimedia library and workshop areas, plus a bookstore and restaurant—will finally allow the cinematheque to consolidate its activities and make the most of its remarkable holdings, which not only include some four thousand films but also a treasure trove of vintage equipment, costumes, props, screenplays, and other movie memorabilia. For Serge Toubiana, the cinematheque’s director since April 2003 (after many years as editor and publisher of Cahiers du Cinéma), “It’s an opportunity for the cinematheque to evolve, to modernize itself, and at the same time to keep doing what it’s supposed to do: preserve, restore, expand the collections.” When we spoke in June, he added, “For me, it’s the possibility of finally getting out of the crisis of the past twenty years, when the cinematheque didn’t have real prospects or specific goals.”

As unbelievable as it may seem, since the mid-’80s the world-famous film archive and pioneering museum has been more or less in transit, operating its “historic” screening rooms and Musée du Cinéma at the Chaillot and temporary annexes throughout Paris. Government-sponsored modernization projects became battlegrounds for competing camps laying claim to the heritage of Langlois: the purists, who opposed any kind of transformation of the historic quarters (which were in fact the third since the cinematheque’s founding); the independents, who rejected what they perceived as the domination of state technocrats; and the reformers, who sought to expand activities, attract new viewers, and put some order in the equally historic administrative chaos.

The first initiative to enter the line of fire was a grandiose scheme announced in 1984 by then–Culture Minister Jack Lang for a “Palais de l’Image” in the nearby Palais de Tokyo. Successively scaled down, suspended, and reinstated, this project was abandoned altogether in 1998 in favor of Bercy, which was to become home to three friendly rivals—the cinematheque, the Bibliothèque du Film (the multimedia library known as BiFi), and the National Film Archives. Five years, two ministers, three directors, and innumerable controversies later, the current plan for the installation of the Cinémathèque-BiFi tandem was finally put into action.

A most exceptional illustration of France’s famous “cultural exception,” the cinematheque is a private nonprofit association which, notwithstanding its fiercely independent stance, receives three quarters of its funding from the state. The passions it arouses to this day are inseparable from its role in French film culture. As Toubiana puts it, “The cinematheque is a historical landmark, the place where film history was written, the breeding ground where generations of cinephiles—the Nouvelle Vague among others—received their education, where a certain French taste was shaped and transmitted, along with a completely universal relationship to the world: You saw films from every country; you accepted all languages, all styles, wherever they came from. That’s what the cinematheque was.”

For its Bercy debut, today’s cinematheque is offering a complete Jean Renoir retrospective coupled with “Renoir/Renoir,” an ambitious exhibition exploring the links between the painter Pierre-Auguste and his son Jean, the filmmaker. An homage to Michael Caine, a new look at Louis Malle’s documentaries, and a complete Douglas Sirk retrospective round out the inaugural film series, which are accompanied by talks, debates, and workshops. In addition, a ten-DVD edition of Renoir’s films will launch the cinematheque’s new multimedia collection.“My one desire,” says Toubiana, “is precisely to give the cinematheque another dynamic relative to its history by taking into account the changes that have occurred in the cinema, in technology, in the ways of seeing films.”

Some devotees may miss the sacrosanct Musée du Cinéma, Langlois’s historic 1972 permanent installation of film memorabilia, which was one of the major stumbling blocks in every attempt to revamp the cinematheque. This has given way to “Passion Cinéma,” a permanent exhibition of films and objects that neither reconstitutes nor updates the Chaillot museum, focusing instead on the way the collections themselves have evolved. “It’s a postmodern space,” insists Toubiana, “and there’s no way to go back to antiquities. You can’t reduce the cinema to objects and costumes, because it’s an adventure—a magnificent virtual journey.” Old-school cinephiles may not be convinced, but there’s a good chance Langlois would have agreed. “The real museum,” he maintained, “is the screening room.”

Miriam Rosen is a writer living in Paris.