A new cinema is bringing together Montreal's great divide: French and English movie fans
Like most great things in the city, Cinéma Moderne feels decadently European and like it could only exist here
If you're a cineaste (cinephile) living in Montreal, it helps to have a sense of adventure. In the city, the latest art house titles, acclaimed documentaries and American indies tend to screen in some of the strangest locations — such as the basement of a mall (Cinema Du Parc), the tippy top of a former hockey stadium for the Montreal Canadiens (The Forum) and the aptly-named Dollar Cinema where owner Bernie Gurberg sticks a popcorn bag in the microwave where you order at the snack bar.
Montreal may be a paradise for those who love to indulge in fine dining, indie rock and iconic carbohydrates, but a cineaste is rarely satiated. When you compare the city's lack of accessible, diverse and well-curated film programming to the city of Toronto — which is currently in the midst of a cinematic renaissance thanks to unique and often 35mm programming at TIFF Bell Lightbox and several revival movie houses (including the soon-to-be-opened Paradise Cinema) — one can long for a truly romantic night out at the movies.
This is in large part due to the cultural and language barriers that divide French and English audiences. While the two populations may mix at local festivals, such as the yearly Festival du nouveau cinéma, the genre-specific Fantasia International Film Festival and the documentary-centric RIDM, it is rare for an anglophone in Montreal to step inside a movie theatre reserved for francophones. It's not always an easy state of affairs, considering how many brilliant filmmakers continue to make their work and lives in Montreal while remaining totally alienated from the communities surrounding them.
"I hang out with some members of the anglo film community and they don't care at all about Quebec cinema," says Montreal filmmaker and cineaste Denis Côté, whose films like Curling, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear and Boris Sans Beatrice have had a handful of English-subtitled screenings in Quebec over his long career. "They can't name any directors; they can't name any recent good Quebecois films. At the same time, we're not interested in English Canadian cinema either. It's sad but there's a true cultural divide...some sort of gangrene thing going on."
In late September, a new theatre called Cinéma Moderne emerged in the Anglo enclave of Mile End. It's a 54-seat venue located at the intersection of St. Laurent and Laurier below the post production house Post-Moderne. (Renowned Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan spent two years at the facility cutting his latest film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.) Outside, it looks like just another cafe or bistro. But just past the small, sleek bar serving weekend brunch and list of customized cocktails, there's an intimate black box theatre with comfy seats and Dolby Atmos sound. Like most great things in the city, it feels decadently European — and like it could only exist in Montreal. When I caught a screening of Whit Stillman's 1998 dramedy The Last Days of Disco there, I watched Lizzy Goodman (author of the excellent NYC indie rock oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom) engage in a convivial Q&A with Pop Montreal's film programmer Adam Abouaccar. The enthusiasm and anticipation in the room felt just like it did at the opening of hot new restaurant or an after-hours loft. This must be the place.
"You didn't have to be a genius to see that Montreal needed a new cinema," says Roxanne Sayegh, who serves as Cinéma Moderne's co-owner and lead programmer. The process of building the theatre was several years in the making as she partnered with Alexandre Domingue, the owner of the upstairs facility Post Moderne. "When I started this project [four years ago], Cinema Excentris [a former venue located in the Plateau that screened art house movies in English] was dying and audiences were ready for something new. I think the city was ready for a new formula to get people out of their houses to go watch films on a big screen."
Since its opening in late September, Cinéma Moderne has hosted screenings with Paul Schrader, Gael García Bernal and Denis Villeneuve (who presented Blade Runner 2049 to highlight the venue's new Dolby Atmos setup). 40 special guests appeared in Moderne's first month alone, and reports show attendance of 60 per cent or more every night. Côté calls it "the most hyped place in Montreal."
Perhaps it's due to Moderne's curated programming, which runs the gamut between acclaimed art house titles (24 Frames, the last from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, will play on December 13), a cult cinema series titled M: Le Maudits about "cursed" and underrated genre movies curated by Ariel Esteban Cayer and Charlotte Selb, and special events featuring Q&As with independent Canadian filmmakers. (Recent screenings have included Zacharias Kunuk's Maliglutit, Jacquelyn Mills' personal documentary In the Waves and the launch of Montreal filmmaker Maxime Giroux's new feature The Great Darkened Days, which premiered at TIFF 18.)
For Côté, who is currently finishing his latest movie Wilcox upstairs at Post Moderne, Cinéma Moderne is a breath of fresh air. "Roxanne understood what a new theatre should be," says Côté. "She's curating film programming seven nights a week and she's not a slave to all the distributors' requests around town. If she doesn't want your film, she doesn't want it. If she only wants to play it once or twice, that's it."
The dynamic, diversified programming of Cinéma Moderne may seem a little bit odd for those who expect to be able to catch a new movie in a movie theatre for a week or two before it disappears and is eventually resurrected online. The theatre launched with Lover for a Day, a black-and-white romantic drama by the French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, where it continued to play 10 times over the next two months at random, sporadic showtimes. By contrast, Alfonso Cuarón's heartrending neorealist film ROMA will play every day in December with half the screenings avec French subtitles, a little less than half in English at different times each day. As cinema culture devolves into "Netflix and chill" complacency, this technique provides some urgency to see a desired title on the big screen. Sayegh says if a film does well, they would extend a title for months after an expected release window. This is the benefit of being a truly independent cinema — with a customized cocktail list you can take with you to a screening.
"You would think that the ecosystem of all the theatres in Montreal should be dynamic enough we would not hype up such a place," says Côté. "But as a filmmaker, my films are never available for the Anglo community in Montreal...If you look at who is running cinema in Quebec, it's the French community. You have small groups of Anglos doing their thing, but they never complain about the lack of anything and that's a political, old-as-hell problem."
Cinema has long been called a machine for inciting empathy. While it may only boast 54 seats, there's hope that Cinéma Moderne can heal the divide between French and English cineastes, programming for a greater audience than other theatres in Montreal are usually allowed to conceive of.
Adds Sayegh: "What I wanted was a vibrant and community-based cinema where special meetings could happen — magical moments where people who usually wouldn't run into each other can connect and filmmakers can experience each other's work. It's been an emotional rollercoaster...I feel like I'm in the middle of RIDM but it never stops."
Visit Cinéma Moderne's website for showtimes and events.