La Clef: The Occupied Cinema of Paris

La Clef cinema in Paris

Eric Smoodin

Expulsion imminente!” That was the alarm on the daily film schedule for La Clef cinema in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. In fact, that expulsion had been imminent for almost three years, ever since a collective of filmmakers, cinephiles, and activists decided to occupy the La Clef cinema back in September 2019.  They had been able to keep it running as a community based, politically engaged exhibition site, resisting the sale of the building and the end of the cultural identity of this last cinéma associatif in Paris. That ended when the police arrived a couple of weeks ago, in early March.

The fifth arrondissement is in the center of Paris, on the Left Bank, near the Latin Quarter, a mythic space for student activism and radical political activity, an area that is full of cinemas, a dozen or so, some with multiple screens. There are several within just a few blocks of La Clef, but none that provide similar programming. On the rue Daubenton (near the rue de la Clef), La Clef opened circa 1970. That’s fairly recent by the standards of Parisian cinemas, many of which date to the 1920s and ‘30s.

In its first years of operation, La Clef functioned as what the French government labels an art et essai cinema, not unlike an American arthouse, showing films by major auteurs, often several years after their initial runs in the city. I still have a few schedules for the films playing in Paris from that time, and they give some sense of the centrality of La Clef to the city’s astonishing film culture in that period. At the end of July 1977, for instance, on its four screens (the number of which would change over the years), La Clef played a rotation of Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah (1972), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), Mike Nichols’s Catch 22 (1970), and Jacques Tati’s Jour de fête (1949).

La Clef was nothing if not eclectic, and embraced all kinds of cinema. In early August 1980, for instance, along with Luis Buñuel’s Le Fantôme de la liberté (1974), La Clef ran two movies with The Three Stooges: The Three Stooges Meet Hercules (Edward Bernds, 1962) and The Outlaws is Coming (Norman Maurer, 1965).

Around ten years after that Stooges double feature, La Clef turned into a much more specialized cinema: one of the few locations in Paris that screened African and Arab films. There were always some cinemas in Paris at this time that specialized in films from the region, largely directed at the many North and West African immigrants living in and around the city. But African and Arab movies were always a tough sell, even in movie-mad Paris. La Clef made a go of it for over fifteen years, which was remarkable enough, but then closed in 2009.  

The French government understood the importance of small cinemas like La Clef, spaces that provided a special service to the community. In 1992, in fact, the government had passed la loi SUEUR, which allowed community collectives to invest in cinemas, particularly if the programming of existing exhibition sites in the neighborhood emphasized Hollywood or major French studio films, thus working to the detriment of “cultural diversity.” In 2010, La Clef reopened as a cinéma associatif (another legal category), organized and operated by the community to present films that other locations in the fifth arrondissement, and, indeed, throughout Paris, tended to avoid.

This was both something new and old in Paris at the same time, established by that earlier law but also bringing to mind a longstanding tradition in the city’s film culture. In the working-class twentieth arrondissement, for instance, a space called La Bellevilloise had opened in 1877 as a workers’ cooperative, operated for many years as an educational space as well as a cultural one, and functioned as a part-time cinema throughout the 1920s and 1930s. France has long understood the cinema as a mass entertainment, as an important part of the country’s cultural patrimony as well as a social good. For the last dozen years, La Clef fulfilled that latter function, along with the Cinéma Jeanne d’Arc in Senlis, the Videodrome in Marseille, the Dietrich in Poitiers, and a number of other exhibition sites in the country.

As a cinéma associatif, La Clef ran as a combination cinematheque and ciné-club, the first notable for the sheer volume of films that might be shown, the latter for discussions and a general interest in film education. As one example among many, a schedule from mid-July 2015 gives a sense of the range of movies and activities in the two screening rooms there, packed into a very tight space (only about 180 seats combined).

Most of the roughly fifteen films showing at La Clef were contemporary ones, from a number of countries. There was the new French documentary Cavanna, jusqu’à l’ultime seconde, j’écrirai (Nina Robert & Denis Robert, 2015), about the life of French writer François Cavanna; the German film Le labyrinth du silence (Giulio Ricciareli, 2014), about postwar coverups of Nazi atrocities; the US/Colombia co-production Manos sucias (Josef Kubota Wladyka, 2014); the Iranian film Taxi Téheran (Jafar Panahi, 2015); the Indian movie Titli-Une chronique indienne (Kanu Behl, 2014); and certainly the most broadly popular film of the week, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

Reprises were also screening, from Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians (Clyde Geronimi, Hamilton  Luske, Wolfgang Reitherman,1961) to Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). There were also a few films that are difficult to identify now but that appear to be from Mongolia. And in the best ciné-club tradition, all these screenings would be followed by a discussion with the director—as the program noted, suivi d’un débat en presence du réalisateur.

The building that houses La Clef has been sold several times over the years. The current owner, the banking group Caisse d’épargne, had been trying to sell it since 2015, with no assurances that a new buyer would maintain the space as an exhibition site. They shut the cinema down five years ago, the closure that motivated both the occupation and the ongoing eviction efforts. The activists who took over La Clef in September 2019 kept showing movies there. Rather than selling tickets, they asked viewers only to pay what they could afford. In fact, La Clef remained the only operational cinema in the city once the Covid lockdown took effect in March 2020. Night after night, audiences gathered on the roof of the cinema, to watch films projected on an outdoor screen.

This has been La Clef revival, the ongoing effort to keep the only cinéma associatif in Paris up and running. Some of the most important filmmakers in France have rallied to the cause, including Leos Carax, Claire Denis, and Agnès Jaoui. At the televised César awards ceremony in February, many of the nominees showed their support by wearing an embroidered key as a lapel pin or brooch, the clef that the occupying collective had distributed. There were demonstrations for La Clef throughout Paris, and some hoped that the city might buy the site, as it had a decade before with La Flèche d’or, a concert hall in the twentieth arrondissement that had gone bankrupt.

Nevertheless, the status of La Clef remained the same: expulsion imminente. On March 1, 2022, the Paris police, which had stayed on the fringes of the action without intervening, expelled the collective. As the newspaper Libération explained, the police “began their operation at daylight, around six in the morning,” first knocking on the door but then forcing their way in, getting rid of the “militant cinephiles” who had taken over the space, and for good measure removing all of the mattresses that the occupant activists had slept on at night.

One of the expelled occupants told Libération in tears, “It’s over now.” Another activist said, “It’s sad, but the fight had already been lost,” an acknowledgment that there was no way, really, to fight against Caisse d’épargne. Crowds gathered outside the cinema throughout the day, staging an impromptu show of support for La Clef.

The building will certainly be sold. One potential buyer has just withdrawn, and the recently-evicted collective has begun efforts to raise enough funding to purchase the building from Caisse d’épargne. For now, La Clef remains empty, although with the words of Jean-Luc Godard still painted on a wall there, excerpted from a letter he once wrote to another icon of French cinema, the archivist and curator Henri Langlois, which forms a tribute to this cinéma associatif that screened films virtually around the clock. “It gives me comfort to know,” Godard wrote, “that somewhere in the world, no matter the time of day…there is that little monotonous noise of a projector…in the process of showing a film. Our job is to make sure that noise never stops.” 

Thanks to Daniella Shreir for her help.

Eric Smoodin is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis. He is the author, most recently, of Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light (Duke University Press, 2020). 

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