Ode to La Pagode


Arts & Culture

La Pagode.

I should have known that La Pagode, maybe the most distinctive cinema in all of Paris, was on its last legs when I was turned away at the ticket counter last month. The heat wasn’t working in the grand Japanese room, and although there were a few blankets available for patrons, the woman at the ticket counter really didn’t recommend I stay. I caught a glimpse of the cashmere throws in Chanel red, piled behind the counter—this was, after all, the Seventh arrondissement of Paris, the same Faubourg Saint-Germain where Balzac’s Eugène Rastignac went sheepishly to his first soiree.

La Pagode looks like a Japanese temple, or at least a kitschy world’s-fair version of a Japanese temple, replete with gold lacquer, intricately carved birds and flowers, and elaborate ceiling murals. It was built in 1896, a few blocks from the Bon Marché department store as a trinket for the owner’s wife, but apparently it wasn’t novel enough: soon after its construction she left him for his partner. Abandonment, you might conclude, is its destiny. 

La Pagode has been a movie house since 1931. In the seventies, when it faced demolition, Louis Malle and his brother, Vincent, invested in the cinema, making it a haven for films too controversial to be advertised. Under their aegis, the theater gained a Japanese rock garden and a café. After a three year hiatus, the Pagode reopened in 2000 as an official “cinéma d’art et d’essai,” part of a federation of independent art houses that gives an annual prize for the best short story about going to the movies.

I’ve always loved walking down the narrow rue de Babylone, past the antique movie-poster shop and the barracks of the Republican Garde and the chic Coutume Café, seeing from afar a hint of the bamboo and thick trees that surround the Temple, and then walking into its leafy embrace. On October 23, when I last visited, I had no idea I might be leaving La Pagode for the last time. I got to one of the multiplexes on the Place de l’Odeon just in time to see Marguerite, a film about a deranged aristocrat who thinks she’s a diva. The theater smelled of the stale popcorn that has only recently reached French movie houses, and I mourned the absence of La Pagode’s opulent decor: there was no fresco on the ceiling, no gold columns or ornate panels on the walls, nothing to prepare me for the transition from reality to filmscape.

But today’s Pagode is not the cinephilic temple it once was; both the building and its patrons have aged. Barring some deus ex machina, yesterday, November 10, was its last day in business. Its management lost a tense three-year legal battle with their landlords; they claim the theater will be renovated and reopened, but no dates have been set. Not that the struggle between art and commerce is anything new for the neighborhood. The swimming pool of the Lutetia Hotel is now an Hermès boutique; Le Divan bookstore is YellowKorner, one of a chain of art-photo galleries; and the old Pax Cinema on the rue de Sèvres is a Carrefour supermarket. A clip from 1990 shows Patrick Modiano, that bard of Parisian nostalgia, wandering in circles from the canned goods to the milk cartons, trying to figure out which end of the store once housed the screen and where the original aisles were. 

La Pagode’s future is dim. In Paris, people who love old movie houses can still go up to the Luxour in the Tenth, or Le Grand Rex in the Second. Meanwhile, we wait for new owners who can keep the lights on, and the projector running, at this beautiful, bizarre movie house.

Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic will be published next fall.

Cinemas of Paris, edited by Jean-Michel Frodon and Dina Iordanova, is out this month.