The Mac Mahon: Thought and Cinema Converge in the Heart of Paris

© Paolo Gamba

Originally Published in Boxoffice Pro France. Translated by Vassiliki Malouchou.

Built on the site of an ancient theater, Paris’ Mac Mahon opened its doors in 1938. During the Nazi occupation, the cinema and its director, Emile Villion, defied the Nazis by showing American films that were banned by the regime. This decision marked the beginning of a long history of subversion that defined the theater and continued well into the second half of the twentieth century. 

In the 1950s, a handful of young cinephiles formed a group: the Mac-Mahoniens. It all started in 1951, when a few French intellectuals, cinephiles, and filmmakers like Bertrand Tavernier, Jacques Serguine, Bernard Martinan, Alfred Eibel, and Patrick Brion—led by director, writer, and producer Pierre Rissient—took control of the theater’s programming. 

The Mac-Mahoniens became champions of marginalized art house films that obeyed precise aesthetic rules: The mise-en-scène had to take precedence over the script. They promoted little-known directors instead of showing films with famous names. They became well known for their “magic square” composed of their four favorite directors: Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Raoul Walsh, and Joseph Losey, relegating Alfred Hitchcock—in the apex of his career—to the background. 

(l-r) Pierre Rissient, Jacqueline Ury, and Michel Mourlet during a historic lunch in honor of filmmaker Vittorio Cottafavi on 17/12/1961. © F.U. Association

But for the Mac-Mahoniens, promoting directors they deemed interesting was not enough. The group flew all over the world, from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, scouting for new talent. Among their findings were John Boorman, Jerry Schatzberg, Jane Campion, Abbas Kiarostami, John Ford, and many more.

The famous French film magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma owes a lot to the Mac Mahon. Many of the Mac-Mahoniens wrote critiques and sharp analyses that enriched the publication.

After a successful period that made the theater and the Mac-Mahoniens shine all over the world, the cinema entered a much bleaker period of its history. A victim of the competition brought about by new multiplexes in the Champs-Elysées, the Mac Mahon was on the verge of shutting down.

But in 1987, the theater was bought by Génériques and given a second life by, an agency specializing in cinema advertising. The theater was refurbished and its seating capacity reduced to 196 seats, while its original style was still maintained.

At this time, however, the Mac Mahon started showing fewer and fewer feature films. After the acquisition, public screenings only took place from Friday to Monday, while the rest of the days were dedicated to private screenings and seminars. 

The interior of the 150-seat Mac Mahon today. © LoisPettini

The theater changed ownership again in 2010, when it was acquired by the Bolloré Group, one of the largest corporate conglomerates in Europe. Since then, the Mac Mahon has specialized in reissues of classics and old box office successes. The newly refurbished theater recently showed the first versions of A Star is Born. Moreover, numerous movie retrospectives as well as exclusive previews, talent meet-and-greets, and debates are frequently organized.

But the Mac Mahon is above all a cinema with a unique aesthetic and architecture. Its façade and box office are deliciously antiquated. Today, the Mac Mahon boasts 150 seats and remains a cinephile favorite, allowing the (re)discovery of  classics in the heart of a theater steeped in history. 

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