How I became a film buff
August 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
Film has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. From the yearly ritual of watching the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol and being scared senseless by the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (which I think started when I was about six and continued until I went to university), to avidly drinking in my parents’ descriptions of the foreign films I wasn’t quite old enough to see, to the time in high school that my friend D (whose taste and knowledge made me look like a rank amateur, and indeed still do) introduced me to Wim Wenders by way of Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! to the evening when she and I and a few other friends decided to watch Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy in its entirety (we cheated as none of us could stand White and gave up halfway through), by my early twenties I was, I think it’s fair to say, a passionate amateur. A passion sometimes mistaken for snobbery: one of my college roommates once sneered, ‘You’d like anything if it had subtitles’, which must rank as one of the most nonsensical insults I’ve ever received.
All that said, though, I don’t think I actually became a film buff until a few years after that unfortunate remark. My education took place in France, the birthplace of film, and my school was an extraordinary cinema called Les Cinémas Studio (Le Studio for short).
Le Studio makes its home in Tours, which is where I landed eleven years ago next month as a young and scared assistante d’anglais. I had a freshly minted MA in art history in my pocket and was sorely in need of a break from study before continuing with a PhD. I also badly needed to improve my French, so a year living in France and teaching English seemed like a good way to kill two birds with one stone. The implications of moving to a city I’d never set foot in, in a country in whose language I wasn’t quite fluent, however, didn’t hit me until the morning I arrived. I found myself, with all my bags, sitting in the kitchen of one of the English teachers who’d agreed to help me get settled, feeling a bit shell-shocked by all the new information washing over me, when his teenaged daughter barged in with a booklet in hand.
‘Dad, you forgot to tell her to get a membership to Le Studio!’
With that I-know-better-than-my-parents attitude universal to teenagers, she shouldered him aside and flipped open the booklet (one of Le Studio’s monthly newsletters) to the subscription page and explained how it worked. You paid €9 for a year’s membership, which you quickly earned back as it entitled you to buy tickets at the discounted rate of… €3. (It has since gone up to €3.90 for under-26s and €4.80 for everyone else, but still, living in London, the thought is enough to make me want to cry.) It was, without a doubt, the best €9 I’ve ever spent.
Le Studio is tucked into the curve of rue des Ursulines, the street that runs from the cathedral along the course of the ancient Roman city wall. It looks small and unassuming from the outside, but, like the TARDIS, it’s a lot bigger inside – it contains seven screens. Among them, they show about 30 films per month. The arrival of the newsletter at the beginning of the month became red-letter occasions: I’d study the schedule carefully, making a note of every film I wanted to see – often I’d only have one chance, two or three if I was lucky.
And what films! A town the size of Tours usually can’t boast much more than a multiplex or two, showing only the latest commercial releases, all inevitably dubbed. Le Studio proudly wore its art house credentials on its sleeve. They didn’t even bother putting those sought-after initials ‘V.O.’ (version originale, i.e. un-dubbed) in the programme descriptions because it was just taken as read that anyone who’d go there didn’t have a problem with subtitles. I saw my first Claude Chabrol there (La Fleur du mal), my first Ken Loach (Sweet Sixteen – and there I was actually glad of the French subtitles to help me decipher the thick Scots dialect). I saw The Two Towers twice, with two different friends, with French subtitles. (That was weird.) I was introduced to Aki Kaurismaki and saw an unforgettable Korean film about a hard-living nineteenth-century painter who changed the course of Korean art (Painted Fire).
But in many cases it’s the French films that stick in my mind, some of which I’m not sure have ever been released abroad. A slow-moving, dreamlike glimpse into the lives of the denizens of a drab beach resort on the Baie de Somme (Bord de mer). The bittersweet story of a group of Jewish tailors and seamstresses trying to rebuild their lives in the Marais in the aftermath of the Second World War (Almost Peaceful). A warm and affecting portrait of a gay teenager coming to grips with his sexuality (Ma vraie vie à Rouen). Just to name a few.
It was an unusual week that I didn’t go to Le Studio at least twice, and it was the saviour of my Sundays. If either part of that statement sounds extreme, you’ve never experienced a Sunday in provincial France. Sunday in the provinces is family day, and woe unto you if you happen to have the temerity to have moved to a part of the country where your family is not. If you don’t have a Sunday lunch to go to, your options are few, particularly if you live in a shoe-box-sized, cold chambre de bonne and you want to escape for at least a few hours. All the shops are closed. My favourite café, Le Vieux Mûrier, was only open from noon to two (and that was generous by Tourangeau standards). The library was shut. The Musée des Beaux-arts was open, but it isn’t one of the better provincial museums – the collection’s highlights were two predella panels from Mantegna’s San Zeno altarpiece that Napoleon borrowed and forgot to return (admittedly, they are beautiful), a minuscule Rembrandt kept behind bullet-proof glass, a lot of thoroughly indifferent 18th– and 19th-century academic painting, and a stuffed elephant. (Granted, that had novelty value but not enough to justify a weekly visit.)
So it was more than fortunate that ever Sunday I could count on a walk along the old Roman wall that ended with two hours of something interesting, thought-provoking, moving, funny or simply escapist. And over the course of the year I spent in Tours, I came to appreciate what an important part it played in the lives of many. Several of my colleagues contributed to Le Studio’s newsletter. ‘What have you seen lately at Le Studio?’ was a common question in the staff room. It was, more than any cinema I’ve encountered before or since, a huge and vital centre of the city’s cultural life.
So why is Le Studio so much on my mind now? Perhaps because it’s now ten years since, the academic year over, I stepped onto a TGV bound for Paris… and I haven’t been back to Tours since. I’ve spent plenty of time in France, true, but nearly all of it has been in Paris (whose cinemas I’ve gotten to know quite well, thank you very much). I don’t know if, or when, I’ll ever make it back. But I know that if I do, the first place I head won’t be the museum, or the cathedral, or even Le Vieux Mûrier. It will be Le Studio. And I won’t even bother to look at the schedule ahead of time. They’re bound to have something worth watching.
There’s another reason – 2013 also marks Le Studio’s fiftieth year of existence.