Report: France

Pathé opens new cinema history centre in Paris

The library in the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé
The library in the Renzo Piano-designed Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Michel Denancé

A new hub of cinema history opens this month in Paris, housed in a building designed by world-famous architect, Renzo Piano. Silent films will top the bill at the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, which aims to show the development of cinema through the history of the Pathé film company.


If you are standing on the Avenue des Gobelins, the 2,200 square-metre building, situated on the site of a disused cinema and theatre, gives the impression that a gigantic glass slug is going to burst through the façade, which was decorated by the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin in the 19th century.

“It wasn’t designed as an animal but, as work on developing the form progressed, some kind of an organic shape emerged which is better matched to the site than a square building,” explains Torsten Sahlmann, who steered the architectural project for the Renzo Piano practice. “The dimensions are good for this kind of intimate building.”

Businessman Jérôme Seydoux bought Pathé in 1990.

The firm, now Gaumont-Pathé, is the only film industry pioneer in the world still operating and owns a treasure of archival material, useful for researchers at all levels.

The foundation, which opens on 10 September, will trace cinema history through the history of Pathé, which was established in 1896 by Emile and Charles Pathé and was the biggest film company in the world until World War I.

Its distinctive logo, a crowing cockerel, is still visible over the entrance to the old Pathé studios - since converted into the renowned film school, Fémis, in Montmartre - where newsreels and feature films were made.

Sophie Seydoux, wife of Jérôme, chairs the Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé and is the force behind the foundation.

“We are lucky to have fantastic archives,” she says. “We kept them from day one. The accounting and board meeting papers, every single paper from day one.”
One floor of the building is devoted to a collection of machines, including the first phonographs sold by Pathé and the first cameras and film projectors that helped build the company's reputation the world over.

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The earliest private films, made by middle-class French holiday-makers at the turn of the 20th century, flicker on the walls projected by 21st-century equipment.

Children’s groups, chaperoned by elders, can handle a very old camera and film reels.

And that's not all, with the help of a tablet, they can see how the camera works inside.

“Pathé was the first to make cinema into an international industry,” says cinema historian Anne Gourdet-Marès, who is in charge of the equipment section. “Pathé was a visionary, surrounding himself with engineers who could turn his ideas into equipment, like the Pathéscope or the Pathé Baby which dates from 1922. The initial studies for this camera were developed secretly with English engineers. ”

One of the draws of the Foundation, designed by the same architect who designed The Shard in London or the New York Times newspaper building, is its cosy 68-seater screening hall, equipped two 35mm projectors and a digital one - because of course the Foundation is involved in restoring and digitalising film.

A black piano at the foot of the screen is not just for show.

The silent film programme is accompanied, as it was in the days before the talkies, by pianists who improvise accompaniment to the films.

From 10 September 2014 the Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation hopes to be as big an attraction for film-buffs as the best-known home of France's cinema heritage, the publicly-funded Cinémathèque Française.

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