An historic Parisian institution's striking tribute to the seventh art
Now in its ninth decade as a bastion of cinematic history, Paris's La Cinémathèque Française saw many homes before settling in the stark, Frank Gehry-designed stronghold at the northeastern fork of the Parc de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement.
An outgrowth of the personal collection of France's foremost cinephile, Henri Langlois, the institution opened its doors in the mid-'30s, only to suffer near-obliteration in the maelstrom of the Third Reich. Only years earlier, as winds gathered in Germany, the inimitable Langlois had already amassed one of the world's strongest collections of early films, artifiacts, and cinema technology; by the end of the decade, Hitler's occupation (and subsequent campaign of cultural eradication) forced the Cinémathèque out of the city to unoccupied corners of the country, where Henri and his fellow film lovers guarded these crucial objects until the end of the war.
In the years since, the more-than-500,000-piece collection has ping-ponged around the city, residing everywhere from French government offices, north to the Avenue de Messine, and back down to the Palais de Chaillot, where it resided (across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower) until a fire threatened the premises in 1997. Now comfortably installed at 51 ru de Bercy -- the radiant center of a hypermodern slice of the Bercy neighborhood -- the Cinémathèque boasts state-of-the-art exhibition space, a bookshop, a café, and four screening rooms.
Located on the building's second floor, the Musée du Cinéma houses the Cinémathèque's permanent collection. Visitors will find the dark, flickering interior of the narrow yet inviting halls as dazzling as the exhibits themselves. The inspired work Massimo Quendolo – whose resume includes work in The Louvre and Parc de la Villette – the space evokes the dark intimacy of a projectionist's booth; each corner and nook boasts an antique poster, costume, or early piece of equipment of some kind, while classic films (from early Edison experiments to Fritz Lang's Metropolis) quietly wink on and off the surrounding walls.
An elaborate maze of history, the Musée situates some of its most enthralling demonstrations at the very beginning: Primitive film technologies like stereoscopic viewers, the revolutionary fare of 19th century, demonstrate the pure basics of the "moving picture." Real, working examples of Thomas Edison's kinetoscopes invite patrons to squint through a binocular scope fixed in a podium-like device, where films barely a minute long reel endlessly at the click of a button, each frame colorfully melting into the next in bright little fantasias of costume and dance.
As one winds further through the age of cinema, colorful advertisements, costumes, and props for some of history's oldest films (both famous and forgotten) intermix with focused looks at landmark filmmakers, like Lang, Charlie Chaplin, and Georges Méliès, the sensational pioneer behind the world's earliest (and most fantastic) sets and special effects. Fans of Lang's 1927 touchstone Metropolis will find possibly the most official replica of the golden Maschinenmensch robot proudly displayed beneath a detailed expose of the film's creation.
A short flight above the main space reveals the Musée's more transitory exhibits. A wildly popular 2012 takeover of the floor by Tim Burton offered props and artifacts from the cult icon's vibrant oeuvre, and, until August of 2014, the space plays host to an comprehensive, multimedia tribute to the legendary Jean Cocteau, auteur behind Les Enfants Terribles and La Belle et la Bête (Beauty and the Beast).
While exhibitions are presented in French only, free audio guides in English, Spanish, German, and Italian open the museum's treasures to a wide range of tourists. The price of admission to the permanent collection is a scant €5 (or free on Sundays between 10:00 - 13:00), a bargain given how easily one could while away hours in the cozy, air-conditioned space. For a third the cost of a ticket to the movies, a cinema-lover in Paris would be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend an afternoon.