Paris is a cinephile’s paradise, and this week I got the keys to the city. With my Illimité card, I can see as many films as I like for 22€ a month. Just swipe the magic blue morsel of plastic in the machine at the entrance and, voilà, the world is at my feet.
It’s taken me a while – about four years – to sign up for this scheme but careful tracking of my movie-going this year has proved its worth beyond a shadow of a doubt. Casual cinema visits are expensive – up to 11€ a pop, although a multi-movie card brings the per-film cost down considerably – and I average four films a month, a habit that creeps up in times of stress, boredom or loneliness or during post-Cannes/pre-Oscar release peaks.
Now, my days of rationing and guilt at over-indulgence are over. The card is branded UGC, which is the second largest cinema operator in Europe, but it’s also accepted by the slightly less mainstream MK2 and many of the independents, including the art deco Rex and the mignon La Clef in the Latin Quarter. (Gaumont Pathé and other institutions offer similar subscription plans.) Therein, releases from around the world – from micro-budget festival favourites to franchised blockbusters, documentaries, experimental, opera direct, queer, silent, classics and animation – give an intense feeling of connection to a wider cultural world. I signed up online and celebrated my card’s arrival in the post three days later with a late session of La Fille Inconnue, the latest piece of social realism from the Belgian Dardenne brothers. (Maybe not the most uplifting choice.)
I’ve always loved movies. On the big screen I’ve found inspiration, comfort, information and joy since my parents first took me and my brother to see Lady and the Tramp at the drive-in in Perth in the late 1970s. Fairly soon after that, I had my first intimation of the transporting, transgressive power of cinema when a friend’s older sister, who was supposed to be babysitting, took us to see Eliza Fraser, a risqué Australian farce involving extramarital sex, bare bottoms and hiding people in wardrobes. I was hooked.
Living here, however, has taken my movie obsession to another level. Simple opportunity accounts for some of it – there are 376 cinema screens in Paris – but language learning has given me added motivation to lock myself in a darkened room once or twice a week. I worked out quickly that a subtitled film from, say, Kurdistan, such as the gorgeous My Sweet Pepper Land, was easier to understand than a French police drama with its lightning-fast dialogue and argot. But even at the outset, when my French comprehension level was A2 basic, I went anyway, settling in regularly for 90 minutes of dappled bewilderment, trying to understand this new society I had joined.
Thanks to the cinema, I’ve learnt that the Anglo and French senses humour are vastly different (I will never get Dany Boon), that Pierre Niney is inescapable and coincidence is everything when it comes to finding love. France also seems to provide more opportunities for female writers and directors, and thus more chances to see women-led stories. I love, too, that you don’t have to wait for festivals to see films from countries without a well-recognized cinema culture, such as Ethiopia (Lamb) or Anatolia (Winter Sleep), although such events exist. Regular cycles celebrate the work of individual filmmakers (for instance, the recent Gus Van Sant or “American elections” retrospectives at the Cinématèque Française) and preview screenings offer the chance to see directors and actors in the flesh.
About a thousand films are shot here each year, so life can often feel a bit meta, even without factoring in Amélie Poulain’s influence on the tourists flocking to Montmartre and Canal Saint Martin. On Saturday, for example, it was super cool to emerge from the François Ozon feature Frantz, which is partly set in 1919 Paris, into the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. It felt like walking onto a soundstage, and drew out the usual back-to-real-life adjustment. I get a kick out of recognizing specific neighbourhoods, landmarks and streets, and matching up real-life shoots with their celluloid result – like when I walked down rue de Rivoli while Luc Besson was filming the car chase for Lucy or stroll past Hotel du Nord – although I haven’t yet signed up for the guided tour of famous movie sites.
It might seem counterintuitive, when there is so much beauty outside, to spend hours inside, but cinema-going is a very French activity. According to the Centre National du Cinéma, in the first five months of 2016, French cinemas recorded almost 95 million admissions, up six per cent from last year. Even during office hours midweek, it’s rare to find a deserted theatre. And unlike, say, surfing YouTube on the couch, seeing a film is a community experience. Being a regular makes me a local, handing over my card to the familiar ticket seller helps me feel I belong. Even in Paris, a big city like so many others, the cinema, along with the market, the métro, the café terrace, feels like a shared space. I’m beginning to understand that, one movie at a time.