Every so often last year I would take the Metro line 9 out to its terminus in Montreuil – a suburb just east of the confines of Paris – to teach, at the town hall, one of the mayoral staff, a rather reluctant student, who needed to brush up on his English for the many trips he takes every year to the various cities that have connections with the town, in countries as diverse as Brazil, Portugal, Israel, Mali, Kenya, China and Vietnam.
Montreuil is one of the last remaining banlieues rouges, those suburban towns that ring the capital, which, for much of the past eighty years have been – or were – strongholds of the Parti Communiste Français. It is also one of the most celebrated, having been home to a number of Communist luminaries in exile, such as Hô Chi Minh, who lived there in his youth, and who is commemorated in the town’s Hô Chi Minh museum. Portuguese Communist leader Álvaro Cunhal spent many of the Salazar years living under an assumed name in Montreuil, his true identity known only to one or two apparatchiks in the PCF. After his return to Portugal following the Carnation Revolution in 1974, Cunhal’s former neighbours were shocked to see his face beamed across their television screens, as he tried, unsuccessfully, to effect his country’s passage from Fascism to Stalinism.
The town’s population has traditionally been working class, with a large immigrant contingent that dates back to before France’s post-war wave of African and Maghrebin immigration. The most militant of French trade unions, the Confédération Générale du Travail (affiliated to the PCF), has its headquarters just on the border between Montreuil and the capital, and ‘Porte de Montreuil’ has become a synonym for the voice of the far-left in times of industrial unrest. But, like many other working-class towns and neighbourhoods the world over, Montreuil is currently experiencing a gentrification of sorts, as middle-class people squeezed out of the increasingly-expensive Parisian property market, have moved in. The town is particularly popular with artists, attracted as much by affordable studio space as by cheaper housing. A measure of the new demographics is the fact that Dominique Voynet, the Green Party’s candidate in the last Presidential election, is tilting at Mayor Jean-Pierre Brard’s seemingly impregnable regime, in next month’s municipal elections. Were Voynet to take the Town Hall, she would be the first non-communist mayor since 1935.
All very well, you might ask, but what does this have to do with film? Not much with the movies themselves, though Georges Méliès, one of the founding fathers of cinema, had his first studio in the town and filmed his first short here too. Montreuil’s only cinema, established in 1961, now bears his name and it is the subject of a David-versus-Goliath fight that has managed to pit two pillars of the French left against one another.
The Cinéma Méliès programmes almost exclusively arthouse films, many of which are rarely screened elsewhere in France, let alone in working-class suburbs of the capital. Films showing at the moment include Hana Makhmalbaf’s Iranian-Afghan drama Buddha Collapsed out of Shame and the German Oscar-nominated holocaust drama The Counterfeiters. In 2002, the municipality took over the running of the cinema and it has since subsidised it to the tune of 200,000 per year. The cinema’s plans to extend the premises, adding three new screens – which will also receive public funding – has been challenged in court by two of the behemoths of French film exhibition, UGC and MK2. The two claim that the funding, without any contingent condition of profitability, is providing unfair competition to their own cinemas, UGC’s multiplex in Rosny-sous-Bois, just east of Montreuil and MK2’s cinemas at Place de Nation and Place de Gambetta in the east of Paris. The cinema’s management have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of MK2, considering that the latter is currently in receipt of funding from the city of Paris for four of its cinemas and it also received 1.25 million for its flagship multiplex beside the Bibliothèque Nationale François Mitterand. As for UGC their concerns of their takings being affected are absurd to say the least, given that their Rosny-sous-Bois multiplex, which welcomes two million cinemagoers per year compared to the Méliès’ 200,000, shows only mainstream films dubbed into French, hardly the same target audience as its smaller ‘rival’.
The opinion of many is that the real target of the suit is not the Méliès but municipal funding for non-commercial cinemas throughout France. Certainly the bullying attitude of the two bigger cinemas is unseemly and has been condemned on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, and the Méliès was supported, in an open letter in Libération last September, by seventy illustrious filmmakers, from France and abroad, among them David Lynch, the Dardenne brothers, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Abbas Kiarostami. UGC will be familiar to many people in Ireland as they have a large multiplex in the Parnell Centre in Dublin, though MK2’s involvement is more enigmatic, not least because they too are beneficiaries of public funding.
MK2 was founded in the early 1970s, by Marin Karmitz, a Romanian-born director and producer, who at the time, like many of his ilk, was an avowed Maoist. He opened his first cinema in Bastille in 1974 and has since had an astute eye for opening cinemas in unfashionable parts of Paris, ahead of imminent gentifrication. The company is also heavily involved in production and distribution, having produced films by Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Kieslowski, Kiarostami and, more recently Gus Van Sant. Karmitz, given his leftist credentials – which he has not completely renounced – has been the main target of the protests, led by the firebrand Mayor Brard. A protest was staged outside the MK2 Bibliothèque on the 26th of January during which Brard was arrested for, bizarrely, biting a security guard. Karmitz has since stepped into the ring, condemning Brard’s public disorder, saying that ‘attacking a place of culture in the name of culture, putting in danger the security of employees and spectators, shows a complete contempt for the conventions of democracy’. He also bridled at being compared (along with UGC) to a shark attacking a goldfish (representing the Méliès, of course) in a newspaper ad, allegedly funded by the city of Montreuil. ‘After thirty years of supporting films that nobody else would go near, I’m not going to sit back and let myself be compared to a shark,’ he fumed.
Karmitz is entitled to such indignation as he has been a tireless promoter of excellent cinema throughout his career, though his once-small company is now a major player in the world of French cinema, and, even if he doesn’t desire it, smaller, sometimes more diverse, cinemas are suffering as a result. The key to MK2’s involvement in the suit against the Méliès may be the commercial alliance entered into with UGC last summer. MK2 were previously involved in a subscription scheme with the number one and number two cinema chains Pathé and Gaumont, which collapsed after a very public dispute. The only recourse for MK2 was to join the rival UGC Carte Illimitée scheme, which provides unlimited movies for a fee of 19 per month. Such subscription schemes have themselves been criticised by smaller cinema operators as unfair competition and a parliamentary bill four years ago forced the big players to open them up to a number of independent cinemas. One imagines that MK2 approached UGC cap-in-hand and the payback is Karmitz’s involvement in the rather ugly bullying of a small independent cinema.
Except, when Jean-Pierre Brard is in the picture, there is a formidable counterweight. Brard is a French communist very much of the old school – intransigent and authoritarian – and he has been in office since 1984; though returned at every election, his tenure does have a ring of a Third World presidency about it. He has been denounced by Clémentine Autain, a rising star of the PCF (possibly the only one) and former aide to Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë, as ‘autocratic’ following his blocking her candidature for the Montreuil municipal elections. Voynet, who enters the mayoral election with the Greens at 29% of the vote, and with large support from the Socialists, has compared Montreuil today to Ceausescu’s Romania, saying that everything, down to a housing demand, must pass through Brard. Voynet, for her part, also opposes the legal action taken by UGC and MK2 but she says that she would prefer the three screens to be established instead in the less privileged area of Upper Montreuil, and for there to be a diversity of mainstream and arthouse programming. The Third Way arrives in Montreuil.
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