In an age of endless sequels and superhero movies dominating the box office, a select few repertory theatres remain in Montreal, working to persevere the rich history of film and expose audiences to a broader selection of films, from new indies to classics. Repertory cinemas, otherwise known as revival houses, primarily screen classics, but many also showcase arthouse films on their first runs.
Montreal staples Cinema du Parc and Cinémathèque Québécoise do just that, running classic Canadian, French, and international films while also offering a platform to films from established arthouse directors and up-and-coming auteurs.
Where chain movie theatres, like Cineplex, screen any new release from a large studio, regardless of its quality, repertory theatres pay careful attention to curating an experience that both educates and enriches the moviegoer. They act as counter-programming to the indistinguishable heaps of mass-market entertainment churning through multiplexes every six weeks or so, offering a way to not only engage with cultures you may not be exposed to in your day-to-day life but also film cultures that Hollywood does not place a premium on. Doing so allows viewers to see films on the big screen released long before your time and far from your surroundings. The McGill Tribune asked staff at repertory cinemas about their programming philosophies and what their theatres have in store this summer.
Jean-François Lamarche, assistant general manager of films at Cinema du Parc, explained how the theatre screens films and manages distribution in Quebec and Canada. The theatre owns and operates three separate cinemas, each catering to a different neighbourhood. Cinéma Museé, located near the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, primarily screens English documentaries, while Cinema du Parc screens new arthouse releases and older films featured in collections such as Parc at Midnight. Movies shown at Cinema du Parc are primarily in English but cater to a bilingual clientele by offering films subtitled in French. The third theatre, Cinéma Beaubien, may be most unique in its approach to programming. Serving a primarily francophone neighbourhood, Beaubien screens almost exclusively French films from all over the globe. Lamarche, who has been working with Parc since 2006, is not only involved in program selection at all three theatres, but plays a major role in the distribution of several films that screen at Cinéma Beaubien. Annually, he visits international film festivals in the hopes of finding some hidden gems.
“So when we go to these festivals, most of the time these films are not [acquired] yet for Quebec, Canada or North American [distribution],” Lamarche told the Tribune. “We help them scatter.”
Back at Cinema du Parc, Lamarche is in constant search of the newest arthouse sensation, be it from an established auteur like Wes Anderson—a favourite of the theatre’s patrons—or a surprise hit like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), which holds the record for the longest-playing film at the theatre at 26 consecutive weeks. This year, he has his eye on acclaimed horror director Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid (2023) as the theatre’s next big sensation. Apart from Beau is Afraid, Lamarche is excited for audiences to get a chance to see Brother (2023), a new film set in Toronto that started its run at Cinema du Parc on March 17.
“We don’t see many films from elsewhere in Canada,” Lamarche noted. “Most of the productions [are from] Quebec.”
Guillaume Lafleur, programming head at Cinémathèque Québecoise, shared a different philosophy about Canadian cinema, choosing to focus more on its preservation than distribution. In an interview with the Tribune, Lafleur explained how Cinémathèque Québecoise not only operates as a theatre and showroom for the public, but also as an extensive archive, particularly for Canadian projects. Founded in 1963, the Cinema now possesses Canada’s second-largest film archive, just behind the National Archives. Today the collection boasts nearly 40,000 films, mostly of Quebecois and Canadian origin. Although films from the archives are frequently screened, Lafleur works with many international distributors and consulates to curate featured collections or retrospectives unique to the Cinémathèque. The process of curation, he says, is inherently political and reciprocal as the process involves collaborators from across the globe.
“For instance, we could go to the Italian Cultural Institute to talk to them about a retrospective that we want to do, for instance, we could do one on [Mario] Monicelli,” Lafleur said. “We have like 10 films of Monicelli. If Italian diplomacy could help us, we will be able to show 20 films.”
In June, Cinémathèque Québecoise will screen a retrospective of the films of Mauritanian director Med Hondo, which Lafleur believes will be a highlight of their spring schedule. Harvard University is home to an extensive collection of Hondo’s work and will collaborate with Cinémathèque Québecoise to curate the exhibition. The retrospective will also feature work from French and Canadian film historians. This isn’t the first time that his work will be displayed at the theatre—the filmmaker came to Montreal in the 70s to attend the conference on independent filmmaking in South America and Africa held by Cinémathèque Québécoise.
“I’m just discovering his work, and I was clearly amazed,” Lafleur said. “We’re just discovering all this tremendous work from filmmakers from Africa. So it’s just wonderful that we will have the chance to share it very soon.”
From beloved classics to long-forgotten gems, there’s a palpable sense when you enter both Cinema du Parc and Cinémathèque Québécoise that you’re in good hands: Someone has picked the best of the best for your viewing pleasure. Repertory theatres are vital for keeping the culture and history of film, both domestic and international, intact. By preserving and rescreening films, these theatres ensure a brighter future for independent filmmakers looking to connect with audiences buzzing for cinematic experiences.
Repertory theatres also provide a low cost and low barrier to entry for exploring new films. With student prices often available and tickets hovering around $10 for a student ticket, these theatres are much more affordable alternatives to going to Cineplex, where ticket prices are currently on the rise. They also offer a mode of discovering a variety of filmmakers and styles that may have been lost within the algorithm of a streaming service. Unlike algorithms, curators make selections based on quality and historical significance rather than simply what most resembles another piece of content you enjoyed. They open the doors for anyone to access film history and experience it as it was originally intended, with other people and on the big screen. The medium of film was created to provide an escape from reality while reflecting and providing insight into the world around us, not just as vessels to view more CGI. The movies shown at these repertory theatres place value on craft and creativity rather than just content.
Montreal is home to a rich and diverse scene of independent repertory theatres, giving Montrealers a glimpse of modern and historical, independent and international films. Cinema du Parc and Cinémathèque Québécoise are two shining examples of theatres that care deeply about the movies they show, curating collections for their audiences and celebrating independent filmmaking, both new and old.