Rendezvous with French cinema

Serge Toubiana, head of Paris’s Cinémathèque picks his favorite films in honor of TA Cinematheque’s anniversary.

Serge Toubiana 370 (photo credit: Salomé Peillon / Institut français d’Israël 2013)
Serge Toubiana 370
(photo credit: Salomé Peillon / Institut français d’Israël 2013)
‘I’m very optimistic about the future of cinema,” says Serge Toubiana, the director of the Cinematheque Francaise, sitting in the library at the Jerusalem Cinematheque.
Toubiana was in Israel last week, a guest of the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.
While Toubiana’s formal title certainly sounds impressive enough to the casual observer, the fact is that Toubiana could be called the King of Cinema.
The Cinematheque Francaise is the mecca for film lovers worldwide.
It is the ultimate art theater, archive, library, museum and conference center, where cinephiles devour the greatest movies of all time, as well as the best of contemporary film.
Lia van Leer, the founder of the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa cinematheques, was inspired by the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris to create hers.
And during his visit to Israel, Toubiana, a longtime friend of van Leer’s, was able to pay tribute to her as he attended the presentation by the French ambassador to Israel, Patrick Maisonnave, of the Legion d’Honneur to Lia Van Leer, often called the Queen of Israeli Cinema.
“It was a wonderful moment,” he says.
Toubiana is bringing the legendary power of the Cinematheque Francaise to Israel throughout the month of November, as a special series of films he has programmed are shown at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa Cinematheques.
He has selected “some very good movies that are perhaps not as well known today as others,” among them Marcel Carne’s Port of Shadows (1938), Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) and Mia Hansen-Love’s All is Forgiven (2007).
Toubiana has an unusual background for a French cineaste. He was born in Tunisia but moved to France while he was still a child. “I remember, when I was just five, being taken by my parents to see Fellini’s La Strada, and I was just terrified by it,” he says.
But even though his first exposure to film was not entirely positive, he always loved movies, and as a student, he fell in love with Jean- Luc Godard’s 1965 Pierrot Le Fou, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina.
The film, which is one of the most appealing of Godard’s anarchistic and playful early period, “was so exciting for me. The colors, the mood, the energy, the beauty of Anna Karina – I was so drawn to it.”
It was a good time to be a movie lover in France, when the Nouvelle Vague cinema group, that included Francois Truffaut (about whom Toubiana has written a fascinating book), Godard, and Claude Chabrol, were at the height of their creative powers.
Toubiana gravitated to the Cinematheque Francaise, which was founded by Henri Langlois in the Thirties. Langlois was such a revered figure to young movie lovers that when he was dismissed as the cinematheque’s director in a political struggle in 1968, the students rioted and brought that year’s Cannes Film Festival to a close.
Toubiana became an editor of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine associated with the Nouvelle Vague, in the Seventies.
After editing Cahiers for many years, Toubiana left and oversaw the transfer of the works of many respected Nouvelle Vague directors to video and DVD, and then was asked to take over as director of the Cinematheque in 2003.
Over the past decade, he moved the Cinematheque into its new headquarters on the Rue de Bercy, in a building designed by Frank Gehry.
“I thought if the cinematheque was in this building, it will be easy to seduce a large audience,” he says, smiling.
While so many commercial movie theaters have closed or are struggling, the Cinematheque Francaise is thriving. Toubiana lists some current programs with pride, including retrospectives of the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Jean Cocteau.
And when he sees young audiences thronging to these classics, he can’t help but be thrilled.
“There are two approaches today, one is to watch movies on computer, where the image is so small that you can’t really see anything, the other is to see films on the big screen. We recently had a showing of films by Fellini and young people came, they had never seen La Dolce Vita and 8 ½ before, and they just loved them.
“When we had the Coen brothers, when we had Spielberg, two years ago, we showed War Horse, the three theaters were totally full and Spielberg presented it in all three auditoriums. He got a standing ovation in each one. He was very moved, he felt that the young people love him.... We had a master class with him, and he told me and Costa Gavras [the movie director and president of the Cinematheque Francaise] afterwards, ‘It’s the best moment of my career since I presented E.T. at Cannes in 1982.’” After meeting students at the Sam Spiegel School for Film and Television, Jerusalem, Toubiana was impressed, and recognized in them the kind of enthusiasm he felt at their age – and still feels.
“I love cinema. For me it was always a way to understand the world.”