Home Away from Home

Nov 29, 2006

Paris. We landed here yesterday at midday, and after a quick stop at our hotel, executive producer Fumiko Takagi and I headed straight to the offices of TF1 and Canal+ in Issy-les-Moulineaux for meetings. Issy is not what you think of when you think of Paris. For starters, it's not old. The part of Issy-les-Moulineaux we were visiting is essentially a newly refurbished commercial district on the southwestern outskirts of the city—big buildings of glass and chrome and marble with vaulting lobbies and impressive security arrangements. At one stop we received plastic identity cards with bar codes on them just to pass through the turnstiles in the lobby; we returned them, one hopes for recycling, on the way out. These companies are modern media powerhouses, and lest one forget it, the architecture is there to remind you.

We are here to meet with our licensors, the people who ultimately make our work possible by granting us the rights to work on their films. The mostly black-and-white classic films we're here to discuss are hardly the core of their business plans, but they are a critical part of what the French refer to as their patrimoine, their heritage, and especially with these big companies, handling these films is not just a matter of profit and loss, it's also a matter of honor and identity. We have brought with us a copy of the Essential Art House box set, our own patrimoine box set, our own patrimoine, along with a selection of the press we've been receiving for it, and I think it makes a difference to know that our association with these films is a matter of such pride to us as well. As we talk about emerging marketplaces, downloading, the HD disc format war, and the state of retail in America, it becomes increasingly clear that in the end, what we're really talking about is something much more personal to all of us: how to keep the classics alive for a new generation.

Today, the setting was quite different. We spent the day in the eighth arrondissement, well-known to tourists for the Arc de Triomphe and the Jardin des Tuileries and of course the famous Champs Elysées, which runs right through its heart. The architecture is pure Parisian, classic nineteenth-century facades with balconies and shutters running along the wide diagonal boulevards for which the city is so well-known. The area is known for its fine hotels and haute couture, but it is also a mecca for a tourist of a different kind, because this was home base for François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, for Eric Rohmer and Barbet Schroeder, for Claude Berri and Roman Polanski, to name a few. To this day, countless producers, both large and small, maintain their offices here. Outside the big wooden doors of the buildings are discreet brass plaques, sometimes two and three together, bearing the names of companies that were responsible for so many films that have stood the test of time, films that are now a part of the Criterion Collection.

We visited our friend Christine Hayet at Pathé, then joined Florence Dauman, daughter of the legendary French producer Anatole Dauman (Hiroshima mon amour; Masculin féminin), and Roissy Films' Raphael Berdugo for lunch. We ended the day with a visit to Alain Vannier, a great French producer (founder of Roissy Films), a dear friend of Janus’s, and effectively part of its founding team, starting when he brought Jules and Jim to the company in 1962. He sat flipping through the Essential Art House book, stopping every now and then to remember how the audience had walked out on L'avventura when it premiered at Cannes, or to tell of the day that filmmaker and producer Pierre Braunberger asked Alain to go see a Polish film and help decide if it was worth releasing—the film was Knife in the Water.

Visiting these offices is humbling in a much different way from the much more outwardly imposing buildings of Issy-les-Moulineaux. While the buildings are impressive with their gracious inner courtyards, sometimes lined with knobbed chestnut trees, and their ancient, tiny elevators running in cages up through even more ancient staircases, what is inescapable here is that this was the capitol of the golden age of international art-house cinema. These offices have the homey feel of apartments, ramblings suites of rooms with old plaster walls and windows all around. At Criterion we talk about trying to make a good home for films, but this is where so many of the films we love were actually born or brought when they were first discovered, and in that sense this is their true home.

PS: We recently moved from a small building, where for the last year we were the only tenant, to a much bigger building where they have security in the lobby and we have to show our ID and our guests have to sign in and put on name tags. It drives us all nuts. Maybe that's one reason I'm fixating so much about the idea of home. Can it really be home if you have to show ID to get in?