When we first arrived in the Cévennes, the best place in town was the ancient local flea pit. According to the local grannies, it had been occupied by the Nazis during WWII, and it certainly didn't look as if it had been restored since that era.
The air was heavy with dust, the floor carpets were blotched with grease, the tip-up seats collapsing, and the heating non-existent. The projector broke down often, the sound system was scratchy and the picture really did flicker. The walls were painted a bilious shade of rust, and the fire screen was covered in antique hand-painted advertisements for shops that had closed sometime back in the Depression.
The first time I went there, I fell in love with the place. I felt like I'd walked onto the set of Cinema Paradiso, although naturally, I didn't really understand anything. My French A level had prepared me to translate Molière into formal English, but had not covered modern French as spoken by actual French people in actual French films.
So I sat in the freezing cold cavernous cinema watching a series of flickering images and rubbing my fingers together to avoid frostbite, and fell in love. There was only one employee, an improbable brunette with fuchsia lipstick and a fur coat who used to sell the tickets and then lock the front doors so she could climb into the projection room and set the film going.
I think she learned to hate me. There were two films a week, changing on Thursday and Sunday and I turned up religiously on those nights to see everything. I didn't care. I adored movies, and this was a brilliant way to learn French.
Violent black thrillers, strange Asian productions about the philosophy of turtles, Rambo slashers, sexploitation, slapstick, rom-com... I saw them all. And often, I was the only person in the cavernous auditorium.
"You sure you really want to see it?" she'd ask.
I understood and sympathised, but I'd driven a broken down Renault with bald tyres over 20kms of mountain hairpins to get there.
Even having a baby didn't stop me. I just took her with me and for 18 months she slept through two films a week until one night she woke up, slid off my lap and rampaged down the central aisle on all fours shouting "ice scweem!"
That was the end of my regular cinema-going. But at least I'd learned how to speak French by then, and of course, the combination of dvds and internet meant I could watch films at home. No driving through the rain, no baby sitters, no Rambo, no cinema. Just films.
The cinema in fact, closed. Nothing to do with me, of course. It just got too cold in there, and the roof started leaking and the fur coat lady got an offer from Nice that she couldn't refuse...
Years passed and the local cinema had been closed for so long that everyone had started to believe that it would never re-open but would probably get sold off for development. After all, it occupies a huge chunk of real estate in the centre of town. If this were England, the supermarkets would be circling like eagles over a dying fawn because everyone knows art cinema isn't really profitable.
But this is France so cinema is regarded as part of the town's cultural birthright. Fine, it makes no money. Fine, it sells no popcorn and shows weird flicks, seemingly chosen only for their ability to keep the crowds away in their millions.
As a result of which, the cinema has finally reopened with new carpets, new decor, new flashy lighting, new everything. Even the old traditional tip-up seating has been replaced with luxury armchair jobs and as for the picture and sound quality, I defy anyone to find fault. Especially at the rock bottom prices.
Once again, the cinema is the best place in town.
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