Category: Film culture

The Rebirth of Neighbourhood Cinemas

Car tail-lights stream past Newlyn Filmhouse in the Coombe at Newlyn. Pic Phil Monckton.

The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) here in the UK organised a fascinating Zoom presentation by one of the UK’s leading cinema architects Stefanie Fischer on Saturday 6th November. It was a privilege to listen to Stefanie and to learn about her recent work and her ideas about a mini-revolution which could eventually transform the cinema experience for some previously neglected audiences as well as helping to re-generate high streets.

What is a ‘neighbourhood cinema’? It’s actually quite difficult to be definitive but these are generally small cinemas located in small towns or districts of larger cities. They are cinemas attempting to offer film screenings to the widest possible demographic, i.e. across age groups, gender, ethnicity etc. They are also attempting to be cultural hubs and social centres so they try to offer meeting spaces, food and drink and sometimes film education and other forms of social activity. As Fischer pointed out there has been a long history of cinemas serving as a form of ‘civic presence’ on the high street. The term isn’t meant to cover commercial multiplexes or the latest round of new ‘bijou’ or ’boutique’ cinemas such as those of the Everyman and Curzon chains and their smaller competitors. Such cinemas may fulfil some of the criteria but they are likely to target wealthier middle-class patrons and to charge more for admission and for up-market food and drink. There are also various forms of specialised cinemas, often accessing public funding, which might meet all the criteria but which are mostly located in the centre of large cities. ‘Community cinemas’ are similar in some respects but also different in significant ways.

Fischer began her talk with a case study which exemplified several of the features she wanted to emphasise. Newlyn Filmhouse is a new cinema in Cornwall opened in 2016. Newlyn is a small seaside town and important fishing port with a population of 4-5,000. It is only 2 miles from the larger town of Penzance (21,000 pop) which still has a traditional cinema with 4 screens as part of the Merlin chain. The Newlyn Filmhouse has been designed to ‘re-purpose’ an existing building, a fish warehouse which had several features as a light industrial building that could be utilised as part of a cinema design. Stefanie pointed out that Newlyn had an original cinema, the Gaiety which opened in 1905 and closed in the 1964 but has been re-purposed as a restaurant and is visible from the Filmhouse, further down the road. The Filmhouse has only two screens with a total of 135 seats. It shows a variety of commercial films, specialised films, live theatre transmissions and special events and has a food and drink offer in a café-bar, but food is not allowed in the auditorium. The small number of seats means that the cinema must aim for greater occupancy targets and returning audiences. The flexible programme and lower running costs have only been possible because of digital distribution and projection.

The Regal in Wadebridge

The history of the Gaiety led Stefanie to argue that in the early 1900s many re-purposed buildings were being used for cinema screenings before the main period of purpose-built cinemas began around 1911-12. Many such cinemas later closed for a range of reasons, including competition from bigger, more modern screens in the 1920s/30s and the general decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s/60s. But the re-purposed buildings are often in good positions and some early cinemas have survived. Fischer offered us a comparison with an inner city area, utilising Jeremy Buck’s work on Haringey cinemas in North London. She also referred to a second neighbourhood cinema, also in Cornwall, The Regal in Wadebridge. This cinema first opened in 1931 but by 1967 was in danger of closure when it was acquired by a local construction business, W. T. Williams which already had two other Cornwall cinemas in St Austell and Padstow. The ‘WTW’ chain invested in renovating the Regal and in 1986 converting to a two screen cinema. Since then WTW have continued to upgrade the screens in terms of seating and also switched to digital projection and new audio systems as ‘early adopters’. Fischer argued convincingly that this cinema demonstrates two key factors in the survival of neighbourhood cinemas over the past 100 years or more – local ownership and constant attention to the need to upgrade facilities. The current Regal has 204 seats in Screen 1 and 98 in Screen 2. Photos of the auditoria can be found on the cinema’s website. Wadebridge has a population of around 8,000 and offers a range of films comparable to those at the Newlyn Filmhouse.

The restored Campbeltown Picture House

Most of the examples of neighbourhood cinemas and detailed case studies that Stefanie Fischer worked through with us were projects on which she had worked either with her original partnership of Burrell Foley Fischer or more recently as a Cinema Consultant. Apart from the very wonderful Campbeltown Picture Palace in Argyll and Bute, these cinemas are all in Southern/South West England, East Anglia or the East Midlands. I don’t think that the points she makes are inapplicable in the North of England, the region I know best, or in the other Home Nations, but I suspect that there might be some economic differences and possibly other factors. Nevertheless I found the whole presentation very useful. The other discourse was about regeneration of high streets and town centres and, looking into the very near future, the need for ‘eco cinemas’ with a net zero carbon footprint. No longer is the small neighbourhood cinema at a disadvantage with the large cinema chain which initially invested in out of town multiplexes in the peak building period of the late 1980s and into the 1990s. In stark contrast, Fischer referred to new research that suggests that in many small towns, cinema patrons would prefer not to use a car and instead walk or cycle (strangely no mention of buses or trains) to get to their local screen. This is related to the concept of the ’15 minute city’ in which all the necessary facilities for a healthy lifestyle are within the same accessible locality. Re-purposing buildings in the town centre is more ecologically friendly than an out of town facility requiring a car for most audiences. Re-purposing saves on building costs and often has the support of older townspeople, reviving memories. Fischer gave an example of the benefits of digital technologies when she made the point that a new generation of smaller digital projectors can be ceiling-mounted without the need for separate projection rooms. But also important is the transformation of some existing cinemas with their lack of enough space in foyer areas. She showed how this had been solved at the Rio Cinema in Dalston.

The Everyman, Crystal Palace in South London is a ’boutique cinema’ with 4 screens opening in 2018. It is housed in the former Rialto/Granada Cinema that closed as a cinema in 1968 but continued with bingo until 2009 when it was acquired by a church which subsequently sold the property to Everyman.

There was much more in the presentation that I haven’t been able to cover but Stefanie Fischer ended with a rallying cry, saying “There is a hunger – people have to be able to see films” – and neighbourhood cinemas can satisfy that hunger at minimal cost to the environment and maximum benefits to communities. There was plenty of time for questions and comments. The one I recognised immediately was about the upmarket ’boutique’ cinemas. Some of these from the Everyman and Curzon chains do meet some of Fischer’s criteria, including the repurposing of ex-traditional circuit cinemas like the Muswell Hill Odeon, the Curzon Sheffield in a bank building or the Curzon Ripon in shops. There is nothing new in this. The major specialised cinema in Sheffield, The Showroom, was housed in an ex-car showroom and Cornerhouse in Manchester was partly in a furniture store. More worrying is the high seat price and the focus on food. One audience member referred to “restaurants with cinemas attached”. That is certainly the reputation of the Leeds Everyman. I have no intention of visiting a cinema in which somebody is eating pizza while I am watching a film. The other downside to these cinemas is the very high seat prices and the equally highly-priced food and drink. Boutique cinemas in London are charging £15 or more and I have come across prices of £20 for weekend screenings (see the new Tivoli Cinema in Cheltenham). The neighbourhood cinemas discussed by Stephanie Fischer are generally sticking to £8 to £8.50, which I think is fairly standard for most of England.

Fischer did use the Broadway in Nottingham as one of her examples and I would class that as an important specialised cinema, one of a few around the country likely to play most foreign language film releases as well as re-releases and archive films, travelling festival seasons etc. ‘Community cinemas’ are usually run by volunteers, often in ‘non-traditional venues’ and screenings on a part-time basis. They have always been an important part of film distribution in the UK, in the form of film societies and public cinemas, especially in rural areas. It would be good if the CTA paid more attention to the sector, even if they do not often use recognisable cinema buildings. After all, “What is Cinema?” as André Bazin asked? It doesn’t mean only the building.

This was a well attended Zoom Event. At one point I counted 78 ‘participants’, including at least one person from North America and I think one from elsewhere in Europe. I’m pleased to see these CTA Events as a member and I look forward to similar events. There have been others that I have not attended because they seemed too specialised for me, but this one was too important to miss. Thank you Stefanie Fischer and the CTA organisers for a valuable insight into the wave of new and ‘returning’ cinemas in our high streets.

Whither Sight & Sound?

I have subscribed to Sight & Sound since the demise of The Monthly Film Bulletin in April 1991. I actually preferred the latter but the new monthly former magazine did offer reviews all the theatrical releases in  Britain. There were limitation; Indian films not released into the specialised audience  circuit were usually missed. And whilst the added video reviews were useful most of the space went on critical comment and not enough on the technical aspects of the release. Even in recent years we had reviews that used the anachronistic ‘4×3′ or ’16:9’ to describe titles. I also found other items like the annual obituary articles helpful.

Unfortunately as digital files overtook film as the major release format the coverage of the technical aspect of theatrical releases were reduced. For the last few years we had information on certification, running time, aspect ratio and sound  system; but for some odd reason formats [film versus digital] were not included. I also think the standard of reviewing has reduced. Quite often I wondered if the reviewer had seen the title in a theatrical setting or was relying on some video or streamed version.

Now things have taken a definite turn for the worse with the September and October issues this year with a complete change in form, style and technical aspects. One oddity of the magazine these days is that the September issue appeared in early August and the latest October issue has arrived in early September. When I saw the former issue my heart sank into my boots and the more recent issue confirmed my worst fears.

There had been some earlier worrying developments. One year the obituaries were only presented online; they have returned in printed form but in a shorter version from that online. In the review section the distinction between theatrical venues, streaming and television started to break down; now it has practically disappeared altogether.

I am not enamoured with the new format, style or organisation. The paper used has changed and is presumably of a cheaper quality. Certainly the stills have less definition than in the past. Some pages are coloured rather than white and there has been a wholesale change in fonts; I had difficulty reading some of the text. On these pages any illustrations have an odd hue.

What seem to be the worse changes are in the review section. Both the synopsis and technical data are drastically reduced. Here the changes in fonts make the technical information difficult to read. All we get, and this not uniformly, is the origin, certificate and running time. This matters since titles can appear in a variety of digital formats and not all of these serve the productions well. I have seen screening where the ratio is wrong or cropped: where the colour looks odd: where there is digital breakup: and where occasionally the title seems not quite complete. So information on formats is [for me] important in selecting screenings. And exhibitors mostly fail on this point.

This may well be part of a long term process at the British Film Institute; a friend reckons it will go solely digital at some point. Either to pursue this or accelerating this was the appointment of Mike Williams as Editor; he previously oversaw at the New Musical Express [now NME]as it went digital. And the changes in Sight & Sound go hand-in-hand with a stronger emphasis on digital.

Williams notes in his editorial for the October issue that there have been both positive and negative responses to the changes. But this is not reflected on the Readers’ Letter Page’ where w e find a positive letter accorded twenty six lines whilst a complaint gets only six lines. I suspect that in the latter case the shortest possible letter was selected.  And the space for readers has been cunningly manipulated so that half goes on a subject chosen by the editor as ‘Talking Point’.

A friend, David Howell, has kindly supplied the following::

I’ve just done a content analysis of the 116 pages:

Advertising – 17 pages (admittedly quite a bit is for BFI products & services)

Material repeated from the archive (which subscribers have free access to anyway) – 7 pages

Television – 6 pages

Stills photography (you can make out a case for TV, as being moving images, but stills ???) – 6 pages

Full page photos with no text – 3 pages

That leaves just two-thirds of the mag allocated to writing about film (and many of those pages have unnecessarily large stills).

I have never looked at the online digital version. It may be that these changes look better there. Is this a covert move to discourage print readers so they go online, [to S&S]? It fails in my case.

Remaking The Mosquito Coast

Peter Weir and Harrison Ford on set for The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.

The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.

I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.

I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?

Bertrand Tavernier (1941-2021)

The French director Bertrand Tavernier died last week at the age of 79. He was, by all accounts, not only a great filmmaker but also a decent human being, a wonderful colleague and an extremely knowledgeable historian of the cinema. This is a rare combination for any artist. He should be celebrated on this blog for all those reasons and I’m only sorry that we haven’t featured his work as much as we should have done. The three films I have written about do, however, give an indication of the range of his interests and achievements. ‘Round Midnight (France-US 1986) is one of Tavernier’s best-known films internationally. It’s a fiction film made largely in English but set in Paris where an African-American jazz saxophonist down on his luck has a period playing in a club in the 1950s. Tavernier worked with Warner Bros. but defied the studio by casting well-known contemporary jazz players to support Gordon who had himself played in Paris in the 1960s. Tavernier had a close affinity with aspects of American culture – he also made a documentary about Mississippi Blues (1980) with Robert Parrish. But he also was one of the few French directors of his generation to recognise British cinema and in particular to champion Michael Powell and The Red Shoes (1948), which is name-checked in ‘Round Midnight. Powell’s other international champion Martin Scorsese also has a small role in ‘Round Midnight. Tavernier’s British connection also included Deathwatch (France-West Germany 1980), a well-regarded speculative fiction film with an international cast and made in Glasgow and Argyll.

Bertrand Tavernier with Tommy Lee Jones on the set of In the Electric Mist

Like many French cinéastes of his generation Tavernier had a strong interest in American crime fiction, the kind of literature which was often adapted for Hollywood film noir as well as French noir or polars. This interest would also have been strengthened by his early work in the film industry which included time as a publicist for both Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Melville. For Melville he worked on promoting Le doulos (France 1963), a polar with Jean-Paul Belmondo. When he began to make his own films his filmography included Coup de Torchon (France 1981), an adaptation of pop.128, a crime novel by the hardest of hard-boiled writers, Jim Thompson – but relocated from the American South to French West Africa in the 1930s. On this blog I have written about a later film based on a crime novel by James Lee Bourke, In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009), again made in English, this time in the US and returning to the same region as Mississippi Blues. Once again, Tavernier struggled with American producers but I was pleased with the adaptation of a book I knew.

Bertrand Tavernier on set with Mélanie Thierry for La princesse de Montpensier

The third Tavernier film discussed on this blog is La princesse de Montpensier (France-Germany 2010), an example of the French historical drama, in this case a 16th century swashbuckler/thriller/melodrama. Tavernier proved himself capable of making very different kinds of films as well as having the ability to work in at least two languages and across different international production contexts. This was a film I enjoyed as a festival screening but which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, much like the majority of foreign language releases over the last ten years or so.

The last Tavernier film I watched was the last film the director completed, his magisterial documentary on French cinema, A Journey Through French Cinema (France 2016). This is an autobiographical journey through the director’s own love affair with cinema – it also became a French TV series. It is very personal but because Tavernier is so closely engaged with cinema it is also a guide, a revelation and an inspirational text. My DVD of the film runs over 190 mins and it is crammed full of Tavernier’s memories of the films he watched, the film people he engaged with and the films he made. He re-visits locations and he observes how the industry changed and why. It isn’t a dry history of French cinema with equal time devoted to each decade and to each ‘important film’. Instead it focuses on what he himself discovered and what inspired him. The result is that much of the film focuses on the period from the late 1940s through to the 1970s or between the films the director saw while he was growing up to the films he came to know during their production when he was an assistant. Of course, in discussing these films he refers to many more but his selections provide an entry into what I have always found to be a mysterious void since my own film (self) education was via the polemics of Truffaut and Godard. Truffaut in particular decried ‘le cinéma de papa‘ and the screenwriters of the ‘quality cinema’ of this period. Tavernier’s choices of detailed case studies include Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet as directors and Jean Gabin as star. I was pleased to recognise some of the films that Tavernier discusses and thrilled to be exposed to others I didn’t know. One of the first films I sought out and enjoyed after watching the documentary was Becker’s Edward and Caroline (France 1951). Since then I’ve collected more films from the period and blogged on several with more to come. Much as I loved Truffaut in the 1960s and 1970s, he was wrong to take his polemic so far. I can’t recommend the documentary too highly and it does, of course, present its great variety of clips in the correct ratio.

This last few days has seen many tributes to Tavernier. It was good to see tweets from people who knew Tavernier and who spoke of his kindness and encouragement. In yesterday’s Guardian Ryan Gilbey’s obituary included a couple of stories that I hadn’t seen before but which tie in to what I have written above:

To help him adapt [his first fiction feature] the movie [L’Horloger de Saint-Paul, France 1974] from Georges Simenon’s novel The Watchmaker of Everton, Tavernier hired two screenwriters, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, who had been eviscerated by François Truffaut 20 years earlier in the infamous broadside against ‘le cinéma de papa‘ that had paved the way for the French New Wave.

And this acute observation about one of the filmmakers he worked with:

Only the demands of Stanley Kubrick proved too much. In a cable notifying that director of his resignation from press duties on A Clockwork Orange (1971), he wrote: “As a film-maker you are a genius, but as an employer you are an imbecile.

Only last week I showed a short clip during a Zoom event. It was from Éric Rohmer’s early short film La boulangère de Monceau (France 1963). The clip had a narrator introducing the actions of the characters and it was only when I began to write this post that I discovered that the narration was delivered by Bertrand Tavernier. I certainly won’t forget his contribution to cinema and I look forward to watching more of his films and to looking again at his final documentary when I have caught up with the films he discusses.

Review of film watching in 2018

Things will get better when my train journey to Manchester improves as HOME offers the best choice of films on most days.

The number of film screenings in cinemas fell for me this year. I think that was mainly due to the lack of diversity in the local screenings available and the unfortunate timings of some of the festivals I usually try to attend. It’s true that I did spend more time on the streaming site MUBI (although recently I’ve been very disappointed at the range of films on offer) and also on YouTube catching up with classic Hollywood. I’ve also spent time watching Talking Pictures TV, perhaps the best thing that has happened to UK Freeview television in the last few years.

The rise of Netflix and Amazon as general film and TV streaming sites is increasingly problematic for me, though I recognise that my friends are getting to see a wider range of films, especially if their local cinema scene is even worse than mine. However, the recent furore over the (very) limited cinema screenings of Roma and other Netflix productions is very disturbing. The BBC offered us both Mark Kermode and Neil Brand on BBC4 in 2018, focusing on questions of genre and music in film/film musicals. Both series were intelligently produced and presented by an experienced film journalist and practitioner respectively, both whom are passionate and enthusiastic. That must be a plus. BBC1 have just announced that its Film programme (which usually just took the year as the second part of its title) has been axed. Film 2018  coughed its last some time ago in that dishonourable way that schedulers employ – pushing a programme later and later in the schedule until what’s left of its audience have no idea where it is. We are promised something new on both broadcast and online BBC platforms in 2019. Is it too much to hope that BBC executives will learn from Kermode and Brand?

Here is a list of some of the films that I found most interesting and enjoyable this year. If there are titles missing that you expect to be there, it probably means that I haven’t seen them (e.g. those by Ceylan and McQueen). I’ve listed the films in alphabetical order so there are no preferences displayed. The only title we haven’t blogged about on this site is The Hate U Give which I hope to revisit when the DVD appears in 2019. I saw it with Nick and we were both stunned by its impact and therefore in a year when African-American cinema saw a resurgence, it deserves a mention. Happy as Lazzaro should get a UK release in the Spring but I’m not hopeful for Winter Flies – East European films seem to be very hard to sell to UK cinemas.

I saw six of the films here at festivals, but four of them were subsequently released in the UK. All the films in the list were screened at least once in a UK cinema in 2018.

In 2018 I was pleased to be prompted to explore the career of Ida Lupino as actor/writer/producer and director – thanks Glasgow Film Festival. I was also pleased to celebrate Agnès Varda’s career watching Le bonheur (France 1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (France 1977) on DVD as well as Faces Places. On the negative side I didn’t see any standout British or Chinese language films this year. Many British independent films are increasingly difficult to see and Chinese independent films are similarly hard to find. Six out of fifteen the films here are directed by women.

Cold War (Poland-France-UK 2018)

Faces Places (France 2017)

A Fantastic Woman (Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)

Happy as Lazzaro (Italy-Germany-Switz-France 2018)

The Hate U Give (US 2018)

Leave No Trace (US 2018)

Lucky (US 2017)

Mukkabaaz (India 2017)

The Rider (US 2017)

Roma (Mexico-US 2018)

Shoplifters (Japan 2018)

Sweet Country (Australia 2017)

Wajib (Palestine-France-UAE-Columbia-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)

Winter Flies (Czech Republic-Slovakia-Slovenia-France-Poland 2018)

Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)

I fear for the diversity of films on offer in 2019. I hope I’m wrong but I think finding foreign-language films may become more difficult.

Utopia in Bordeaux

When I venture out of the beleaguered land of Brexit I always look on the Europa Cinemas website to check out the most interesting cinemas in the cities I hope to visit. On a recent trip to Bordeaux I discovered the aptly named ‘Utopia’. The Utopia is situated in Bordeaux’s UNESCO World Heritage district – the entire early 18th century city centre with more listed buildings than any other French city outside Paris. ‘Utopia St. Simeon’ is housed in a former church and offers 5 salles distributed around the building. There are 555 seats distributed across the 5 screens. The cinema opened in 1999. There is also a large and friendly bar-restaurant and tables outside in the square. It’s a great place to visit and just enjoy the atmosphere but it’s the programme which provides the real joy.

The entrance to the Utopia in place Camille Jullian

Scanning through the programme for September 2018 is a real eye-opener for a UK cinephile. There are films that have been big prizewinners but are yet to open in the UK such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey 2018) and new films from France and Germany that I doubt will appear in the UK. There are documentaries and programmes of short films and animations and there are re-releases. In France re-releases seem to get much better distribution than in the UK and the programmes seem to be more ambitious. Utopia showed Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan 1991) in the uncut 236 minute version, Joseph von Sternberg’s Japanese film Anatahan (1953), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (US 1950) and a day of polars with three Jean-Pierre Melville films and a Tikano Takeshi. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and other independent American releases are joined by new films from Kurosawa Kiyoshi and one of several events remembering May 1968. I was most surprised to see details of a 2012 Belgian documentary about the great Lancashire classical singer Kathleen Ferrier (1912-1953) with a Q&A with the film’s producer.

The foyer

Thinking about it carefully, the programme is not that dissimilar to HOME in Manchester, a much bigger enterprise with the same 5 screens (but also theatre spaces and galleries). But I would argue that there are more foreign language films and a greater diversity of films in general. The one difference is that in the UK, without as much funding support, independent cinemas are forced to show the more commercial US and British pictures, the so-called ‘Hollywood art’ or ‘awards films’ to cross-subsidise foreign language films. In France it would seem that ‘cultural cinema’ still survives and the commercial releases are in the multiplexes, three of which are relatively close to Utopia in the centre of Bordeaux with around 38 screens between them. There is a second Europa Network Cinema, Cinéma Jean Eustache in Pessac outside Central Bordeaux. This also has five screens.

The ceiling above the ‘box office’

At the time of our visit, I decided to see Leave No Trace for the second time (my partner was seeing it for the first time). The film was in its opening week at the Utopia, one of the few films on the programme that got a UK release before France. The film shows up very well on a second viewing and confirms its position as one of my films of the year. The screening followed the French pattern – a single trailer for a new French film starring Romain Duris (Nos batailles, France 2018, which looked interesting) and then straight into the feature with no ads or exhortations to join a membership scheme. The standard ticket price is €7 and the morning matinée is just €4.

The screen in Salle 2

If you visit Bordeaux, do look up the Utopia, it’s only a 100 metres from the main shopping street. If there isn’t a film you want to see it’s still worth soaking up the atmosphere and having a beer or a coffee. If you are travelling to Europe, the Europa Cinemas Network is a great resource, listing 1121 cinema in 677 cities in 44 countries. As the number of countries suggests, the network extends beyond Europe into Asia and there are three Europa cinemas in Quebec. The aim of the network is to promote the exhibition of European films and to encourage understanding by audiences, especially younger audiences. The network model offers member cinemas support and funding via the Creative/MEDIA and Eurimages programmes in exchange for programming with a significant amount of European film screenings.