Unlike Le Barbizon, on which I wrote last week, Le Balzac is one of the Pairsian cinemas that is truly thriving, and apparently it has been in this great shape for a number of years now. My visit here happened on a chilly Sunday morning, 25 May 2008, when I crossed the wide sidewalks of Champs Elysees, two blocks down from the l’Arc de Triomphe where, turning into this quiet side street, I attended the matinee screening of Ted Wilde’s The Kid Brother (1927), a classical burlesque with Harold Lloyd, which came with live piano accompaniment by young and highly proficient Japanese female pianist, Eri Koazki. Precisely as I had heard would be likely, the theatre owner and chief programmer, Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky was already up, present in the foyer to welcome viewers and chat to members of the audience that he evidently knew from previous visits. The whole ambiance — the deep red carpets, the comfortable seats, the clean curves of the room, the glimmer from the modern art-deco light fixtures — created a special atmosphere of cozy sumptuousness. The guests who had brought their children (or grandchildren) to see the film were dressed in a way that would make me categorize them as inhabitants of 1st or 16th arrondissements, or as what the popular imagination would probably describe as ‘true Parisians’. Even thought the cinema was just steps off the beaten tourist track with the MacDonalds and other fast food restaurants that litter the vicinity, there was nothing of the commercial atmosphere that reigns over most of otherwise beautiful Champs Elysees. It was a space truly dedicated to the Seventh art.
Le Balzac, which has been owned by the Schpoliansky family throughout its existence, first opened in 1935 with a screening of King Vidor’s film The Wedding Night, starring Gray Cooper. Soon the venue became an established site for pre-war Hollywood films screened in original English-language version (foreign-language films are still traditionally dubbed in France). In a patriotic move after WWII, it re-focused its programming mostly on French cinema, and hosted, over the years, the a great variety of galas and events take place here; its web-site features photographs of memorable visitors, from Bourvil and Brigitte Bardot to Fanny Ardant and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, or from the opening of the decadent La piscine (1969), with stars Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in attendance. The cinema’s architecture is a modern art deco style, with soft curvy lines and a rounded main screening room; a naval theme is present in the foyer and the main hall. Two smaller screening rooms were added in 1975, which allowed for a more diversified programming, for the inclusion of a diverse selection of international cinema, and for a longer run of the various titles (many cinemas in Paris still change the programming every two or three days). Further renovations took place in 1993, introducing new lights, seats, carpet, wall coverings in leather in the corridors — all still impeccably maintained and giving the secure feeling of high quality and relaxing luxury, a feature that is not present in cinema halls as often.
Every week there at least two events take place: special screenings with live music or guests. Partnered with two nearby theatres, L’Athenee and Rond-Point, Le Balzac often turns into a theatre and concert venue as well. In most cases, the music comes as musicians provide accompaniment to screenings of older films, featuring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin or Buster Keaton. Another initiative are the music-accompanied screenings of short films, usually presented by Benoît Basirico, founder of the film music web-site cinezik.fr. A forthcoming matinee with musical accompaniment will feature a screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s depression-era melodrama An Inn in Tokyo (1935), yet another event organised under the leadership of Jean-François Zygel, a long-standing collaborator. There is a lot more going on here given the limitations of space: photographic exhibitions in the foyer next to the bar which also features DVDs for sale, screenings of shorts and special seances for the members of the cinema’s club, screenings for children on the weekends. Le Balzac also has a remarkable web-site, packed with information on current films and events, a Blog, an e-mail newsletter, and a database of past screenings which allows to search through historical information on what played here in the past.
Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky, pictured distributing publicity leaflets on the street in front of the cinema, has spent most of his adult life around the cinema. Born toward the end of WWII, in 1944, he first worked for the mainstream chain UGC in the 1960s, and took his first forays into programming in 1968 at specialised University cinemas in Rouen, Lille et Grenoble. He also worked as an assisant director for René Clément and for Luis Bunuel (on his Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie, 1972). His life became intricately connected to Le Balzac after his father’s death, in 1973, when he took over the family business started by his grandfather nearly 40 years earlier. And he has been at it for more than 35 years now. His first ambitious project was to add two smaller screening spaces alongside the main 400-place hall, thus turning the cinema into a small multiplex more suited for the modern age. After completing all these extensive renovation and moderinsation works, his attention since 1986 has mostly been on developing and maintaining a top scale programme of screenings and events, on cultivating a dedicated audience, and on bulding bridges between cinema and other forms of artistic expression like music or photography.
Since the 1980s, the cinemas around Champs-Elysées have been closing one after another, usually for reasons of rising rental costs in the area where rents are now affordable only for the likes of Louis Vuitton (flagship store on the avenue pictured here). Writing on the Blog in 2007, Schpoliansky laments the recent closure of UGC Champs-Elysées (In the 1990s I saw here Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, screening here long before the works of Studio Ghibli had become known in the English speaking world). He writes:
” J’en suis bien triste. Et pas seulement parce que c’est mon grand-père qui a ouvert ce cinéma en 1939 (le Triomphe est resté dans ma famille jusqu’en 1971). Je suis triste parce qu’un cinéma qui ferme, c’est toujours une mauvaise (et irréversible) nouvelle, en particulier sur les Champs-Elysées où il devient si difficile de vendre autre chose que des chaussures de sport et des hamburgers. Certes, il reste encore 36 écrans sur l’avenue, ce qui continue d’assurer au public une certaine variété dans les films programmés et confère malgré tout au quartier une place de choix dans la vie cinématographique parisienne. Les choses cependant ne vont pas dans le bon sens et il est temps de tirer la sonnette d’alarme pour que cesse l’hémorragie !’
It is indeed troublesome to hear that the number of screens in the vicinity of this lively part of Paris is down about 50%, to 36. (But I recently read that the number of cinemas for the whole of Romania nowadays is down to 38, an issue I will address in another post.) The most troublesome, however, is this overwhelming feeling that one looks at a disappearing world, that one encounters people who belong to a kind that will soon no longer be around. The web-site of the cinema, for example, describes Jean-Jacques Schpoliansky as one of the last surviving independent theatre owners on the right bank, a man who proves on a daily basis that it is possible to keep the curiosity of viewers alive and well. I admit to be troubled by this tone of lament and passing, as would like to hope that the survival of cinematic art is not a matter of a bunch of dedicated mavericks that feel they are likely to be extinct soon. I hope to see this defeatist attitude to be proven wrong by history. But who knows, really?
1 rue Balzac
01 45 61 10 60
Metro: Georges V
© Dina Iordanova
28 October 2008