A cinephile’s dream in the South of France

A visit to the big-screen legend, the Eden Cinema in La Ciotat, is a rite of passage for true cinema obsessives

A historic postcard view of the Cinéma Eden-Théâtre on the seafront in La Ciotat
A historic postcard view of the Cinéma Eden-Théâtre on the seafront in La Ciotat

As a passionate cinephile and ardent admirer of most things French, I'm especially fond of the stretch of Mediterranean coastline between Marseille and Bandol. For as well as the glorious Calanques and all those excellent Bandol wines, it's home to the Cinéma Eden-Théâtre in La Ciotat.

The 208-seat cinema auditorium post-restoration
The 208-seat cinema auditorium post-restoration

Located on the seafront, not far from the town centre, the Eden – which I first laid eyes on 30 years ago – has a distinctive yellow ochre, mosaic-tiled façade. Built in 1889, it was originally intended as a theatre and music hall, and France’s most revered chanteurs, from Edith Piaf to Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour, performed there.

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But what makes the Eden truly special – in fact, something of a legend – is that it’s also the oldest public cinema anywhere in the world, and inextricably linked with Auguste and Louis Lumière, the medium's pioneers. 

The premises, which has a permanent exhibition devoted to the Lumière Brothers, is a piece of cinematic history - the oldest public cinema in the world
The premises, which has a permanent exhibition devoted to the Lumière Brothers, is a piece of cinematic history - the oldest public cinema in the world

The brothers had a summerhouse in La Ciotat, and the showing of their first short film, A Train Arriving at La Ciotat Station took place at the Eden – the accounts of which have come to epitomise the magic, immediacy and transportative power of the cinematic experience. Reactions varied from disbelief to alarm, and the story goes that some members of the audience ran in panic from the theatre, convinced that the train hurtling towards them was about to burst out of the screen. But once the public got used to the new phenomenon, the Eden quickly became the social focus of the town and the place where everyone met to watch the latest films.  

Programmes range from old French and American classics to the latest independent releases
Programmes range from old French and American classics to the latest independent releases

The first one I saw there, three decades ago, was Louis Malle’s classic black-and-white thriller Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows), featuring Jeanne Moreau and a haunting soundtrack by Miles Davis. They regularly showed all the great nouvelle vague films with stars such as Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, but by the early 1990s the building was suffering from neglect and in 1995 looked set to close permanently.

The cinema and theatre was the social focus of La Ciotat in the early 19th century
The cinema and theatre was the social focus of La Ciotat in the early 19th century

Salvation arrived following Marseille’s elevation to European Capital of Culture in 2013, when £7m was provided to restore this icon to its former glory. On my most recent visit, the 208-seat interior felt gorgeously intimate again, with red velvet upholstery and polished oak and marble floors – but the best seats remain up on the first-floor balcony, which has retained something of the romantic aura of the Saturday nights of a bygone age.

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Programmes range from old French and American classics to the latest independent releases, and this autumn sees a season of Ingmar Bergman films. They show up to 16 different films a week, but some of them pop up just the once, so I find myself monitoring the website for tickets (€7.50; €50 for a 10-film book) to plan my visits well in advance. If you just want to just take in some of the charm of the restored theatre and see the permanent exhibition on the Lumière Brothers, there are tours beginning at 3pm every Wednesday and Saturday. 

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