Blaze scorches film archive

PARIS — The objects that comprise the world’s foremost collection of cinemabilia are only slightly harmed, but the setting that made the Cinematheque Francaise and the Musee du Cinema Henri Langlois enchanting suffered water damage in the wake of a fire July 22.

At about 9:45 p.m., the recently restored roof of the left wing of the Palais de Chaillot erupted in flames. The colossal structure, which brackets the scenic terrace from which visitors traditionally admire the Eiffel Tower directly across the Seine, is home to the French Museum of Monuments and the Cinematheque’s movie theater as well as the Museum of Cinema designed by and named for the Cinematheque’s founder.

Henri Langlois, who received an honorary Academy Award in 1974, built a site-specific marvel with a layout inspired the world’s major film museums, including London’s Museum of the Moving Image.

Although the fire was contained in the building’s upper reaches, some 250 firefighters and 40 trucks labored for seven hours to extinguish the blaze. Firefighters and hastily summoned museum staffers worked through the night to cover or evacuate artifacts. An investigation is under way, but the blaze is assumed to have been accidental.

Initial estimates posited irreversible damage at 10%-20% of the building’s combined collections, but within 36 hours the Ministry of Culture and the Cinematheque Francaise confirmed that although it won’t be easy or cheap, everything can be salvaged and restored. One estimate put damage at 50 million francs ($8.3 million).

The Cinematheque’s 400-seat subterranean movie theater will be out of commission for the forseeable future. According to the Cinematheque’s publicist, the premises are flooded and the plaster ceiling is crumbling under the weight of water seepage.

The archive’s collection of about 30,000 films was never in jeopardy, as these are stored in vaults beyond the city. The several dozen film cans on hand at Chaillot for the week’s screenings were rescued without incident.

In addition to the two to three films programmed daily at Chaillot five days a week, the Cinematheque rents a second screen at a commercial cinema in the Republique quarter. That theater was recently purchased by film producer Paolo Branco, who rescinded the Cinematheque’s lease as of this fall. If matters go according to plan, the Cinematheque will refurbish a former porno theater, to be operative in October.

Had a fire of this magnitude broken out a few weeks ago, the losses would have been considerable. The substantial “reserve” holdings — posters, costumes, set designs, optical devices and assorted cinemabilia that were not part of the museum — had been transferred earlier this summer. In addition, the Cinematheque’s administrative offices were moved to a nearby building in mid-June.

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