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A Cinephile Winter and Spring (2004) on rue des Ecoles

1.Rue des Ecoles

Rue des Ecoles is in Paris’s 5th arrondissement and runs east from the Boulevard St Michel. It runs parallel, more or less, to the Boulevard St Germain for a kilometre or so. It ends at a junction with rue du Cardinal Lemoine, rue de Fosses St Bernard and rue Jussieu. At that end, the down at heel metal and glass buildings of the Faculte des Sciences of the University of Paris loom into plain and unlovely sight. We reached it by taking an 87 or 63 bus which dropped us at the Carrefour de l’Odeon or the next stop along the Boulevard st Germain, the Musee Cluny.

As its name implies, the street borders some of France’s great academic institutions – the Sorbonne, the College de France, the Ecole Polytechnique among them as well as a Government department. Only a part of the street attracts tourists. Those who come to visit the Musee Cluny, known as the Musee de la Moyenne Age, to see one of the oldest buildings in Paris and the fabulous tapestries it contains, have to walk along from Boulevard St Michel and enter off the Square Paul Painleve. Otherwise only Brasserie Balzar, on the block between rue Champollion and rue Sorbonne, makes the tourist guides

The building frontages onto the street are relieved only at the angle where rue des Ecoles intersects diagonally with Rue Monge. There sits a small square named after Paul Langevin. It contains some garden benches that could seat a dozen people. Langevin was professor of physics at College de France in 1909, director of the École de Physique et Chimie in 1926, and was elected to the Académie des sciences in 1934. According to Michel Barran, Langevin studied paramagnetism and deduced a formula correlating paramagnetism with absolute temperature and predicting the occurrence of paramagnetic saturation. He also studied the properties of ionized gases and Brownian motion in gases. During World War I, he worked on the application of ultrasonic vibrations to detect of submarines (which culminated in the development of sonar in World War II). Langevin was also very active in spreading relativity theory in France.

The square is situated virtually half way between two cinemas, the Grand Action at 5 rue des Ecoles and the Action Ecoles at number 23. Each of these cinemas has two screens and all four screens are devoted almost entirely to re-screening the classics of the American cinema.

At the other end of the street, near the Boulevard St. Michel, there are three more art cinemas which also screen revivals, more often French, Each mixes these with first release films and screenings of the earlier work of directors who have a new film on show. These three cinemas, the Champo, the Reflet Medicis and the Quartier Latin have seven screens between them and they run in a line from rue des Ecoles, south along rue Champollion with only a small hotel between them.


From January to April, the two Action cinemas screened somewhere between 250 and 300 films. More than a dozen were screened in freshly minted new prints and much was made of the release of a ‘copie neuve’. Often such films would be reviewed or noted in the cinema pages of the main quality dailies. Among them were King Hu’s masterpiece Come Drink with Me, I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949) One Hour With You, (Ernst Lubitsch/George Cukor, 1932), Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958), The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli, 1947), The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet, 1959), Lonely are the Brave (David Miller, 1962) and Kiss of Death (Henry Hathaway, 1947). (Across the Boulevard St Germain in the 6th arrondissment another Action cinema in rue Christine devoted itself from January to April to a cycle of fifty westerns and revivals of films by Jacques Tourneur and Edgar G. Ulmer.)

The Action cinemas in rue des Ecoles went through seasons of Ernst Lubitsch, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock, Blake Edwards, John Huston, Nicholas Ray and the amorphously designated ‘Gangs et gangsters’ ‘Enfance et Adolescence du Cinema’ and ‘Femmes je vous aimes’, the last a category which allowed the programmers to scoop up films featuring a bevy of major actresses and which extended to Claudia Cardinale in Sandra (Luchino Visconti, 1966), Kinuyo Tanaka in The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952), and Anna Magnani in Le Carrosse D’Or (Jean Renoir, 1952).

Entering the Action cinemas was not always fraught with goodwill. No matter how inclement the weather, the audience lined up in two queues outside on the pavement. They would stand, sometimes shivering, until the advertised time of the session when between them the cashier and the usher would announce one film would have its tickets sold and when that was completed the other queue would be admitted. On the days of severe cold, the decision as to which would enter first often brought mutterings which the cashier would imperiously ignore.

The procedure was designed to give the usher the maximum opportunity to supervise people going through the doors of each auditorium in the hope of extracting a tip. This practice, only ever known in France, has long been eliminated when entering the mainstream cinema chains but it lingers on in places like the Actions. The staff has placed notices in front of the cashier asking people to remember the service they provide. Not many did.

As the weather got warmer the square filled with blossom and the flower beds lit up with pink and white. Eating lunch, a sandwich bought at the nearby bakery in rue Monge, in a space never used by more than a few people at a time provides a moment of sublime quiet. I found that a read of Louis Skorecki’s column in Liberation was the perfect preparation to face the giant bouffant hairdos, thick make up and extra red lips of the cashiers. Their routine was always to ask the customer for additional money in order to only give notes as change.

The auditoriums had seen better days. The paint on the doors at the point where one pushed to make entry was worn down to the undercoat in a circle about one foot in diameter. The seats were old and occasionally had lost an armrest. The biggest and best of them was the Salle Henri Langlois, named after the founder of the Cinematheque Francaise. Beautifully raked, featuring a very large screen that accommodated cinemascope movies superbly, it featured on its back wall a lifesize portrait of Langlois himself benignly peering at the audience over a balcony.

The Action cinemas keep alive the classics of the American cinema. Their new prints, indeed even the used prints that make up the bulk of the program, remind you that there is nothing to compare with the pleasure of seeing films screened on 35mm in their proper ratios. No DVD or hi definition TV screen can ever replicate the effect of sitting in the dark, with perhaps only a tiny whirr coming from the 35mm projectors at the rear, otherwise only crystal clear light piercing the gloom. The patrons generally sit in complete silence and, there being no candy bar, no one is rustling paper or plastic. Here the masterpieces of the past can be appreciated to the utmost.

Of the nearly fifty films I saw in the three Action cinemas here is a top ten that gave me the pleasure of first (or renewed after decades) acquaintance: One Hour With You, Party Girl (Nicholas Ray, 1958), Sandra, The Man From Laramie, (Anthony Mann, 1955), The Golden Coach (Jean Renoir, 1952), I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1953), The Fugitive Kind (Sidney Lumet, 1959), Hot Blood (Nicholas Ray, 1956), The Naked Dawn (Edgar G Ulmer, 1954) and Come Drink With Me (King Hu, ?)

3. Brasserie Balzar

One of the simple pleasures of Paris, Balzar is hardly the place for cinephiles intent on scurrying between screens and screenings. Its food is commonplace and its clientele rather well off. Tourists frequent it. On the day that England came over for the final match in the Five Nations the place was full of rowdy Englishmen and women. The phlegmatic waiters stand everything. They even speak some English and instantly know that in their circumstances their English is likely better than the mangled French coming out of the mouths of rugger followers, seemingly limited entirely to “Un autre, s’il vous plait”. The calves liver, with spinach substituted for frites, followed by the millefeuille and washed down with a Brouilly is splendid, even if it does set you back 50 euros for the pleasure.

4. Rue Champollion

Rue Champollion runs south off the rue des Ecoles between Brasserie Balzar and the Boulevard St Michel. It contains three cinemas, seven screens in all, which, as much as the Action cinemas at the other end of the street, are devoted to the purest cinephilia. The Champo, on the corner has two underground cinemas. They are small and dingy and one uses a mirror to project its image onto a tiny screen from behind that screen. The mirror distracts viewing in the rows towards the rear. The posters outside advertised the new film by Alain Resnais Pas Sur Le Bouche and, over a lovely caricature of the director, announced that it was showing ‘Alain Resnais integrale’. The new film, an adaptation of a twenties operetta has been a deserved success.

At age 81 the director has made a film that is modest in its ambitions, funny, constantly surprising. Resnais’s now stock company, including his current partner Sabine Azema, Pierre Arditi and Lambert Wilson among them, sing and ham exuberantly. It is simplicity itself, a few brilliantly decorated sets, a story that holds attention without showing its age. For much of the last two decades, when Resnais has had the opportunity to work he has mostly adapted pieces whether from the theatre (Melo, 1986), Smoking and No Smoking (both 1993) or, in the case of On Connait la Chanson (1997) chosen a mode of complete artifice. (I Want to go Home (1989) is the one film outside this narrow focus.) His ambitions are now modest but at 82 he can reflect on a career, like Godard, Rivette and Rohmer, which trod its own unique path and always displayed untrammeled preparedness to make his own unique way. Remarkably his later films have found a favour at the box office that the earlier films, at least those following Hiroshima and Marienbad, never did. Pas sur le bouche had more than 500,000 admissions during its first run.

The opportunity provided by the ‘integrale’ to see films that have disappeared for decades was not to be missed. Most particularly, the opportunity to see the most elusive of all his feature films, Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968) for only a second time, more than thirty years after it first screened, was irresistible. It is overshadowed by the films that came before it and after. My memory told me that this was a somewhat academic and listless film, a story which set out to illustrate some theory or other about behavior from some scientist in whom Resnais had become interested. My memory only recalled Claude Rich being put into some sort of cell with a mouse from which he traveled back and forward in time. Richard Roud in his Cinema: A Critical Dictionary seemed to sum up the prevailing view and pulled no punches: “Je t’aime, je t’aime was the low water mark of Resnais’ career: a failure both critically and commercially, it was indeed difficult to defend. The reason for its failure can in part be attributed to Jacques Sternberg’s script, which was too Resnaisian. What I mean is that the subject – a scientific experiment to attempt to make a man actually relive a moment of his life- was almost a parody of a Resnais theme.

And yet…the theories of the Professor, whose name eludes me and who is not mentioned in any review of the film I’ve seen, provide a stepping stone into a tale that goes beyond mere science fiction, which is how the film is generally characterized. Reviewers seem to concentrate entirely on the drama of a would-be suicide who is asked to join an experiment that goes wrong leaving the patient in a netherworld of exploding memory. (Mon Oncle D’Amerique (1980) uses the same technique of philosophical and scientific investigation wherein Professor Henri Laborit explains his theories of social behaviour and survival and Resnais develops his drama around them.)

The impact of memory, a theme that Resnais examined in his early features is again in plain sight here but the drama is neither dull nor flat. The slow piecing together of Claude Ridder’s memory of the fateful day, shown almost as home movies endlessly rotating through his mind is suspenseful. The experiment that Ridder, the failed suicide agrees to undertake, is nowadays less science fiction than merely speculation as to what might occur now that the drugs are available to turn the mind inside out. It’s a theme that has been taken up by mainstream film-makers in Hollywood. No one however gets near Resnais’ speculations of how the past inevitably, without drugs, comes to refract into the present, revising it, rewriting it, crowding it out. Je t’aime, je t’aime is a superb film, barely known and little seen today and deserves renewed attention.

The ‘integrale Alain Resnais’ included a weekly session which screened three of the director’s short documentaries, all made before his feature film career was launched with Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959). (By chance six of Resnais’ shorts, are also included as second disks with the French DVDs of Hiroshima and Muriel (1963) issued this year.) Toute La Memoire du Monde (1956) about the Bibliotheque nationale contains a moment when, among the many authors referred to or quoted, there is an image of a Chester Gould comic book, perhaps the first reference he made to the bande dessinees so beloved by him and indeed the French. This fascination never ceases to amaze. A local couple, well into middle age who invited us into their home on Avenue Rapp quickly produced the original bande dessinee when I asked over dinner whether they had seen Blueberry (Jan Kounen, 2004), a new film based on a famous French graphic novel by Moebius which had recently received huge promotion and failed dismally at the box-office.

4. Le Reflet Medicis

Fifty metres further south on rue Champollion, the Reflet Medicis may well be the most adventurous art cinema on the Left Bank. It is a functional building, well maintained with a large cinema, the salle Louis Jouvet underground and two smaller salles off to the right of the ticket box. An usher prowled the entrances and after a ticket had been purchased, she or he would direct you to the cinema that the cashier had told you to enter. Often the usher was a large, very friendly lady whose appearance was dominated by long greasy hair and from whom an astonishingly pungent body odour wafted up from around a couple of metres of her. It’s waft carried as she walked the small distances from one entrance to another. She also hoped for a tip.

The Reflet Medicis mixed first release films with revivals and repertory seasons. It also ran a fortnightly cine-club which alternated with screenings of silent films accompanied on piano. Its first releases included French art films (Inquietudes, Gilles Bourdos, 2004), European art films (The Return, Andre Zviaguintsev, 2003) and several films from the Middle East. Its revivals of new prints included They Live by Night, (Nicholas Ray, 1948), Un Roi Sans Divertisssement (Francois Leterrier, 1963) and Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954). The repertory season was devoted, just at the end of our stay, to the launch of a traveling show featuring five of France’s great actresses but, before then, for our entire time in the city, it screened films starring Jean Gabin.

5. Gabin

When I frst became interested in the cinema, in the 1970s, Jean Gabin represented everything I hated – the antithesis of the modern ‘intellectual’ cinema of the time. I was baffled by the popularity of this ageing actor and of his films, which I despised. When I discovered the French cinema of the 1930s, and then of the 1940s and 1950s, I began to understand his extraordinary importance. I became a fan. If, like many people I prefer Le jour se leve and Touchez-pas au grisbi to Le Tatoue and L’Annee sainte, I eventually came to appreciate all Gabin’s performances. Even though I have to concede that he starred in a few bad films – not a bad record for someone who made ninety-five – I would maintain there are no bad Gabin performances” (Ginette Vincendeau, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema)

The Reflet Medicis gave over its splendid Salle Louis Jouvet to the Gabin retrospective Gabin worked with major directors, especially Jean Renoir and Marcel Carne from the 30s through to the 50s. He also worked with Jacques Becker in Grisbi but he had no truck, indeed was dismissive of, the Nouvelle Vague directors of the late 50s and 60s. Until the end, and he made his last film in 1974 only two years before his death, he resolutely continued to work. David Thomson’s characterizes the later Gabin work as being with “with dull directors and with decreasing zest”. Not entirely.

Certainly, in his last two decades, he chose to work with largely unimaginative commercial directors with whom he felt most comfortable. Jean Delannoy, Gilles Grangier and Henri Verneuil directed his films on several occasions each from the mid 50s to the late 60s. But the decreasing zest Thomson thinks he identifies was something else. If Gabin were going through the motions then it seems he would hardly have sought to make the effort to, in Vincendeau’s words “achieve authorship of his films in an industrial sense, creating tight and long-lasting partnerships, cutting deals with producers, founding his own production company, discussing would be roles with scriptwriters and directors and retaining a select group of key personnel. Vincendeau concedes that Gabin “goes through his thrillers of the 1950s and 1960s hardly moving a finger except to deliver magisterial slaps across the face of his opponents, his preferred form of ‘violence’.”

Gabin’s (ninety-five) films traveled only infrequently to English speaking territories. From the time he re-established himself as a star in post-war France with Jacques Becker’s superb Touchez-Pas au Grisbi (1954) until his death, he made 47 films. No more than a handful reached Australia. Those were French Can Can (Jean Renoir, 1955), En Cas de Malheur (Claude Autant-Lara, 1958), Archimede the Tramp (Gilles Grangier, 1959), Un Singe en Hiver (Henri Verneuil, 1962), Melodie en Sous-Sol (Verneuil, 1963) and Le Clan des Siciliens (again Verneuil, 1969).

Among the many missing were his three appearances as Maigret and a brilliant Simenon adaptation in which he co-starred with Simone Signoret, Le Chat (Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1971). It is perhaps the best of the ten adaptations he made from Simenon stories, a chamber piece about a couple whose wrecked lives are symbolized, rather obviously, by the terrain vague that surrounds their home. Gabin communicates with his wife only by curt handwritten notes that he flicks at her. Many of them simply remind her that she killed his beloved pet cat, the event that erected the wall between them. Still they go on sharing the same house, sinking ever deeper into loathing and despair until the wife, played with absolute lack of varnish by Simone Signoret, suddenly dies. During its course, the film ventures down the street to a sleazy hotel into which the husband moves for awhile. But he is drawn back. It is a fascinating study of two people who once loved each other and the ties and knots that bind them into a hell on earth.

The retrospective inevitably weighted itself towards Gabin’s more readily available post-World War II films. The exigencies of distribution and print availability made that so. The opportunity thus presented to study Gabin in film after film as he moved from late middle to old age was irresistible. First there was the Gabin walk. Vincendeau characterizes it as a “rolling gait” but can there be any other actor who seems to move with so little motion. His body seems to remain near to completely still and simply float close to the ground.

In French Can Can Gabin plays an entrepreneur who builds a Pigalle night club to cater for the Parisian smart set. His floor show is the “French Can Can” a blazingly energetic dance led by the glorious Francoise Arnoul whom Gabin coldly seduces away from her somewhat earnest boyfriend and then, in the end, dumps. She is heartbroken and refuses to go on until she learns that her art is more important than mere love and the final triumphant spectacle can take place. There can hardly be a better film so redolent with romantic love, so infused with the sheer joy of living, with exuberant physical expression and containing so many characters dedicated to hedonist fun and pleasure. And that says nothing about its colour, its light its dancing. Every character, from the street pickpockets to Gabin’s determined business is set to seek personal satisfaction from the satisfaction of the senses.

Yet French Can Can is almost the last film in which Gabin plays the romantic. Age catches up with him and he settles into roles where his age starts to show. The Simenon adaptations provided him with a steady diet of meat, whether as Maigret, the fake gentleman in Le Baron d’Ecluse (Jean Delannoy, 1959), the lawyer seduced into running off the rails by Brigitte Bardot in En cas de Malheur (Claude Autant Lara, 1958) or, his last great performance the aforementioned Le Chat.

Except, that is, for one of his finest films Voici le temps des assassins (Julien Duvivier, 1956). Gabin plays Andre Chatelin, a restaurateur and cook with a thriving business in the old Les Halles. His ordered life, welcoming everyone from a film producer with a different starlet on his arm at each visit to the French President, is turned ever more askew when Catherine, the daughter of his former wife Gabrielle, turns up and ingratiates herself into his company, his business and his bed. They marry and only then do we know, for sure at least, that she is a scheming gold digger who has hatched a plan with her drunken wreck of a mother to fleece Andre of his wealth. The spiral downwards into despair amidst a meticulously drawn background of daily life and routine in a successful restaurant is brilliantly drawn. The program booklet, Jean Gabin plus qu’un acteur…un mythe, a splendid publication describes the film exactly as “C’est le le plus naturaliste, le plus noir, le plus pessimiste de Duvivier. Ici nous sommes plonges dans un monde infernale ou Catherine et Gabrielle sont les deux faces d’une meme nature humaine gangrenee.” One wonders whether all those like Thomson who passed easy judgement on Gabin’s later career have even seen what seems to be an astonishingly neglected masterwork.

6. Cinephilia

Every second Monday evening at the Reflet Medicis there is a screening of a film chosen by Claude-Jean Phillipe, a longtime critic now an ageing and somewhat disheveled man who introduces the film and leads a discussion afterwards. The selection is random. In our time he screened Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985), Angel Face (Otto Preminger, 1952), Executive Suite (Robert Wise, 1954), Two For the Road (Stanley Donen, 1967), The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953), What Have I Done to Deserve This (Pedro Almodovar, 1985) and, in a hastily arranged tribute to the late Jean Rouch, Chronicle of a Summer (Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch, 1961).

Claude-Jean Phillipe has clearly seen a lot of films but better days. There were occasions when he seemed to have a senior’s moment standing before the usual crowd of fifty or sixty people. That number filled the small cinema. He did another similar gig at the nearby Arlequin cinema on Sunday mornings. He used a format that was common to a lot of special screenings around town. At the Grand Action, the editor of Cahiers du Cinema Emmanuel Burdeau introduced Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind. At the Pantheon cinema, a short walk from rue des Ecoles, Burdeau and Jean Douchet presented the full length Italian language print of The good, the bad and the ugly (Sergio Leone,1966). The biggest crowd was drawn by Agnes Varda who spoke (only) after a screening of A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974) (at the fabulous La Pagode on rue Babylone, within walking distance of our flat). Agnes recounted the influence that Cassavetes methods, his opposition to formal narrative, his anti-Hollywood stance had influenced her. The overflow crowd kept the discussion going for more than an hour though Varda was caused to remark that the discussion was somewhat low-key and, “in her days at cine-clubs” it had always been much more animated and lively. Almost all of those attending had never seen the film and many expressed their admiration in quite awed tones.

7. An unseen Jeanne Moreau

The Reflet Medicis was also the launching place for the annual national tour of a season of classic French cinema sponsored by the Fondation Gan. The foundation has previously paid for the restoration of a number of French masterpieces including Le Carrose D’Or, Casanova (Alexandre Volkoff, ?) and Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967). This year its season was named 5 Femmes, 5 grandes actrices du cinema francais dans 5 grands films. They were Danielle Darrieux in Madame De… (Max Ophuls, 1953), Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour (Luis Bunuel, 1967), Annie Girardot in La Vieille Fille (Jean-Pierre Blanc, 1967), Isabelle Huppert in Une Affaire des femmes (Claude Chabrol, 1988) and Jeanne Moreau in Moderato Cantabile (Peter Brook, 1960).

Forty-one years ago in his monograph Nouvelle Vague: The First Decade the late Raymond Durgnat wrote about Moderato Cantabile in a way which has caused it to remain vividly in my memory even without ever having seen it. In fact I’ve never met anyone who has seen it, at least that I’m aware of. Durgnat was quick to make the connection between this film, adapted by Marguerite Duras from her own novel, and the script she wrote for Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959). Durgnat noted that “like (Emmanuele) Riva in Hiroshima Mon Amour Anne Desbaredes (Jeanne Moreau) here is fascinated by a ‘crime’ she never quite saw, discusses it with her wise, passive and faithful lover and at last renounces him.” Durgnat noted that Marguerite Duras seeks in the minutiae of triviality and boredom the slow movements of the soul”. Hmmm…well

Brook’s film is slow and spends much time setting up moody and apparently expressive shots designed to tell us something about the inner sentiments of a woman whose boring and restrained life is disturbed by an event she does not witness and which barely touches her. Yet she uses the event to embark on a relationship with an enigmatic young man she meets in the café where the murder took place. The relationship develops to the point where it appears she is begging to be murdered herself. But nothing happens. Peter Brook’s film, loosely associated with the French New Wave via its writer, photographer (Henri Decae) and two stars (Moreau and Jean-Paul Belmondo) plays too hard for enigma and mystery. There is a certain bloodless quality to the drama as if Brook thinks the spectator will be enthralled to fill in the gaps, make the connections, divine the mysterious purpose behind Anne’s increasingly public and painful self-humiliations as she returns again and again seeking the young man in the café.

Its interesting that the film, unlike most of Brook’s work, is elegantly filmed, beautifully lit and photographed to convey the grey dullness of a wintry provincial France. Maybe that can be attributed to Decae and to the need to respond to what is contained in the Duras text which is what Durgnat calls the “long sequence of ‘temps-morts’ i.e. moments taken off from the ‘drama’ to show the characters doing nothing very much”. It is a film which seeks to be melancholy, mysterious, enigmatic, looking at characters who are dissatisfied, whose desire is sublimated and whose lives are repressed by social rules.

There might just be some point in the opportunity being presented to look at all the work that has attacked Duras’s text, whether it be her scripts or her novels. The film-makers who have tried include Brook but also Rene Clement, Alain Resnais, Tony Richardson, Jean-Jacques Annaud, Jules Dassin and many others. Dozens of films have been made including seventeen she wrote and directed herself. Many are unsuccessful and a couple almost seem like parodies of her own work….but curiosity makes me at least want to see them all.

8. Mamad Haghighat and the Quartier Latin

One evening over dinner with Pierre Rissient, Karen and Alyssa at an African restaurant called ’Salammbo’, we were joined by a quiet middle-aged Iranian man. He was introduced to us as George and was said to be a friend of Abbas Kiarostami. After a while we discovered that ‘George’ was Mamad Haghighat, an Iranian film-maker. Mamad had come to Paris more than twenty years ago to pursue a life of cinephilia and, he hoped, film-making. He now worked at the Quartier Latin cinema on rue Champollion, next door to the Reflet Medicis. The Quartier Latin is a tiny two screen cinema dedicated to the highest quality world cinema. In winter and spring it featured Wim Wenders films in repertory, occasional screenings of Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s box-office flop Bon Voyage (2003), some of the films in the Blues series produced by Martin Scorsese and, once a week, Two Angels, made in Iran, directed by Mamad. The film had first screened at Cannes in 2003 and had then opened across France with more than thirty prints being supplied to cinemas across the country. It had been a modest commercial success. Once a week, usually on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon a screening of Two Angels took place introduced by Mamad. At its conclusion the audience was invited to remain for a Q&A usually lasting about half an hour.

Two Angels tells a story of a fundamentalist father who attempts to stop his son developing his musical talent. After one very violent dispute, the son flees into the nearby desert where he learns from a wise shepherd the virtue of music. (the religious man and the father are both played by the same actor.) The son, with his mother’s connivance, continues to take lessons and heads for Tehran to pursue his study. At the school he attends he meets a young girl student whose liberal attitudes are foreign and quite disturbing to him. Then the father tracks him down and kills him.The father seeks forgiveness but the audience is most unwilling to offer it. The film ends openly on the father’s somewhat extravagant remorse and his request to God for forgiveness.

The film poses the explicit question about the place of music in a society which considers its playing to be a sin. Following the revolution which overthrew the Shah, the new rulers closed down all music schools. Little by little they have re-appeared, largely Mamad says, in response to the renewed interest by young people, particularly young women, in traditional Iranian music. This music is, says Mamad, pre-Islamic. That leads the film into a story of generations in today’s Iran, the control that is sought to be exerted by the ‘old’ over the young and the place of art in a time when some wish to physically destroy it. Mamad mentions an ancient Persian text in which God, when he wished to penetrate the spirit of Adam’s body, called upon the angels to make music.

According to Mamad, the title symbolizes both the good and the exterminating angels which exist in every human being. This is some explanation for his choice of one actor to play the parts of both father and the shepherd. The key to the film is its use of music. He uses one of Iran’s greatest musicians Me Nahid to emphasize its musical beauty. He thinks the offer of Nahid to participate was in itself the act of an angel. After the screening, Mamad answers the questions quietly. He explains the politics of film-making and film distribution in Iran, tells us a little of his own life in Paris (which includes contributing to Le Monde on matters to do with the new Iranian cinema). He is a friend to and promoter of many new Iranian directors. The following week his cinema will open another Iranian film, The Examination (Nasser Refaie, 2003). This is a prize-winning film about the discrimination suffered by young women seeking entry into university whose method is near to complete documentary, simply focusing on the group of girls, dozens of them, who assemble to await entry into the examination which will allow a handful of them to win the few places available.

Mamad’s introduction and his gentle response to the ensuing questions are now integral to the experience of the film. In the confines of a screening room between twenty and thirty people attend each week to hear of the film’s political implications, the religious sensibility and, most explicitly the rights the father asserts in his efforts to control his son. Amidst the drapes and antique statuary, the red and blue lighting and the velvet seats, it is an exquisite cinema experience.

9. Home

From the Quartier Latin cinema, you can walk further south towards the Pantheon and rue Soufflot, a centre of the second hand DVD market in Paris. Walk north and the bus 87 or bus 63 will take you back though the 5th and 6th arrondissements to near rue St Dominique in the 7th.

Winter and spring 2004. Bus rides, cinemas, bouffant hairdos, Maurice Chevalier, Mamad Haghighat, Claude-Jean Phillipe, Louis Skorecki, Paul Langevin and, once or twice, snow as we walked from the bus stop to the 7th floor apartment.