Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema

When I first began to fall in love with the movies, I watched French New Wave double-bills at my local arthouse cinema. I saw the kids in Quatre Cents Coups and Bande à Part dashing across Paris and thought nothing could be more cinematic, more evocative of youth and passion and adventures in the city of light. Nearly two decades later and I, too, am sprinting down Parisian streets, and all in the name of le septième art.

At Toute la Mémoire du Monde, a sprawling festival of restored cinema hosted by the Cinémathèque Française, there are always far more films playing than you could hope to see, at screens across the city. So occasionally you have to forgo that customary pause and sigh of happiness at a film’s heartbreaking conclusion, grab your bag and leg it like Léaud to catch the Métro.

The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)
The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)

On my first day at the festival, as Marlene Dietrich ditched her heels and trudged across the desert to prove her devotion to Gary Cooper in the plush new Les Fauvettes rep cinema, I set out on my own speed-march back to the Cinémathèque to catch Fred Astaire getting his shoes shined. Then, of course, as I wandered back to my hotel across the Seine with ‘That’s Entertainment’ ringing in my ears, I had all the more to reflect upon.

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1896 Cinématographe-type Lumière

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I’m trying to explain why this festival offers a rush of blood through the veins, and that I felt ever so slightly light-headed all weekend. Doubtless, the effort of translating French intertitles in my head also gave my brain as much of a workout as my poor old feet. This is a French-language festival – all the sound films are “version originale” with French subs, and for silents, the only intertitles you can guarantee will be French ones. But the good news is that even though I am far from fluent in French, I understood about 80% of  the captions just fine. So if you are wondering whether the language barrier would come between you and this festival, well bonne chance!

The Band Wagon (1953)

It’s difficult not to feel close to the cinema in Paris, the city where the projection of moving images first began. The Cinémathèque, and the other screens I visited, are a long way from the upscale Boulevard des Capucines where the Lumières first unspooled their magic. But catching a programme of French shorts from the 1900s and teens gave me a little historical thrill. Not least when Oscar (Oscar au Bain, Léonce Perret 1913) whisked his ladylove around the capital in a taxi. And even the later films I saw, from The River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) to Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), all owe their existence to those first flickers, it’s true.

Herr Arnes Pengar (1919)
Herr Arnes Penningar, 1919

It’s in the nature of an archive festival to be eclectic, but had I been strictly silent all weekend, it’s a fair bet that I would have seen mostly Swedish films from the teens and early twenties by Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, courtesy of the L’école suédoise strand. I stretched my wings a little further than that, but still made time to see haunting, brilliant films by both directors: Stiller’s Herr Arnes Penningar (1919) as well as Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage, (1921). All three heart-wrenching experiences of the best kind – pitching the viewer into a world that is physically tough and spiritually fraught.

Körkarlen or The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Körkarlen or The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen was the film chosen to close the festival, in a “ciné-concert” with stirring accompaniment from Jean-François Zygel. If I understood his introduction correctly, he said that the way Sjöström used double exposures in the film to make the invisible visible was the essence of cinema. It’s a beautiful way to read this mightily powerful film – one that lures in the audience with the prospect of supernatural thrills and offers a very spiritual chill instead. It’s a long dark night of the soul for anti-hero David Holm (played by Sjöström) and nearly two hours of anguish for the audience. But it’s cinema all right.

Elsewhere in the silent vein I also revelled in René Clair’s deceptively charming Les Deux Timides (1928), and enjoyed seeing Harry Houdini wriggling out of danger in the crime caper The Grim Game (1919). The former was a veritable highlight of the festival, a sublimely intelligent comedy, revealed in a fresh new 4K restoration courtesy of the Cinémathèque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival – also blessed with superb accompaniment by Neil Brand, matching Clair’s symphonic timing note for note.

Les Deux Timides (1928)
Les Deux Timides (1928)

I missed a few attractive silents, either through opportunity cost or my late arrival – the most tempting of which was La Danseuse Orchidée (Léonce Perret, 1924). Reports of this screening are causing me serious festivalgoer’s remorse – another time!

I was also delighted not just to see films in the reverent halls of the Cinémathèque Française, but in two newer Paris cinemas a few Métro stops away on the Avenue des Gobelins – Les Fauvettes, a repertory house built on the site of a music hall of the same name, and the light-filled Fondation Jerôme Seydoux-Pathé, which has a screen devoted to silents and an exhibition of vintage cameras. You can read more about these venues, and other new cinemas in the French capital, in Annie Fee’s post on the UCL History blog.

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My weekend on paper. Sense a theme?

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On the sound side of the fence, I couldn’t resist seeing vintage Technicolor prints of The Band Wagon (1953) and The River of No Return (1954). Sometimes, with such sumptuous photography captured at its most vivid, even silly films make for sublime screenings.

As Paul Verhoeven was the guest of honour at this year’s festival, it was only polite to catch Robocop (1987) at the outset, but I am afraid that Saturday night’s screening of  The Outlaw and His Wife left me too emotionally shattered to contemplate the Verhoeven all-nighter triple-bill of Total Recall, Showgirls and Starship Troopers. Sorry, it’s just the way I was made.

The River of No Return (1954)
The River of No Return (1954)

The greatest sound film I saw? Well you do know that the sound era is rich and diverse and impossible to generalise about, don’t you? The first contender would be Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930), which no doubt betrays my silent bias, but the charisma of Marlene Dietrich, and the chemistry between her and Gary Cooper, not to mention the divine sun-dappled black-and-white photography, blew me away. Dietrich’s androgynous first routine in Morocco is what makes the movie famous, but it’s the full-blooded, almost violent passion between her and Cooper that will pin you to your seat.

A much later film pushes Von Sternberg to a tiebreak in this arbitrary contest, though. Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground (1982) is a bona fide lost feminist classic. Made on a very small budget and never given a theatrical release, Losing Ground might just have passed you by, but it has now been restored by Milestone and has had a few screenings in the US before making its way to Paris. Collins was an African American activist, playwright and professor coaxed into film directing by a student. Losing Ground is her second (and last) film, an intellectually rich, visually lyrical study of a philosophy professor (Seret Scott) facing a crisis in her marriage to a painter. Throughout, Losing Ground is cinematic, thoughtful, female-led and a thoroughly soul-refreshing experience. The campaign to get this wonderful film shown in London starts today.

I have a train to catch, and a channel to cross, so it’s au revoir to Paris for now. If you want to visit Toute la Mémoire du Monde next year, look out for details on the Cinémathèque Française website, and I will say to you what the introductions for each film said to us this weekend: “Je vous souhaite une bonne projection!

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